illegal to steal human remains

Most people don’t think about what may happen when a loved one’s ashes are stolen, but one Arizona woman did. So, is it illegal to steal remains, and how would such a case be prosecuted?

Chandler, Arizona

Glenda Cota of Chandler, AZ, never thought her storage unit would be ransacked during home repairs. She definitely didn’t expect one of the stolen items to be the remains of her late husband.

Corta’s apartment was under repair when thieves broke into her storage unit in the carport and stole her late husband’s remains, two dirt bikes, and almost all of her clear storage bins containing keepsakes and photos. The ashes and momentoes were some of the only remaining keepsakes Corta saved to remember her husband, who passed away nearly 20 years ago.

Her closet was being repaired, so Corta transferred the items to the outdoor storage area. Other than the dirt bikes, the clear bins contained family photos – things with no value to anyone outside the family. Not only are Corta and her family confused by the theft, but they are shocked that the thieves would steal things with little to no monetary value.

The question is, what legal options are there for such a crime? Can a person go to jail for stealing human remains?

Rules for Remains in Arizona

There are rules regarding how and where bodies and ashes may be buried/scattered. In general, ashes may not be scattered on public or federal land without permission. Some states, Arizona included, have informal guidelines (not laws) for how ashes may be scattered after cremation. There are also rules for tribal burials that are enforced.


However, there are no specific laws that make disrupting human remains illegal. Instead, normal theft laws apply, meaning anyone found guilty of burglary may be charged with a crime. Burglary falls into the theft category, but it involves criminal trespassing and intent to steal or damage private property.

Burglary can occur in or on nonresidential or residential structures. Corta’s storage area is a nonresidential structure. The other key element to burglary cases is intent; did the individual enter the structure with the intent to steal or commit a felony of any kind. Clearly, in Corta’s case, the individual(s) who stole her husband had every intention of stealing from the storage area.

In these cases, it does not matter what the individual intends to steal – it only matters that they entered the building planning to steal something.


Glenda Cota’s case is a heartbreaking, albeit unusual, case. Stealing remains doesn’t seem like a serious crime compared to theft, murder, or kidnapping, but for families who have lost their loved ones, ashes are all that remains of the person they shared life with.

Cota’s husband died in a tragic car accident when she was seven months pregnant, and for her, the mementos and remains were tangible things she could share with her son, who never got to meet his father. Not only could the thieves be charged with burglary, but they are responsible for the emotional anguish Cota and her family are experiencing because of the theft.

When it comes to human remains, stealing them or stealing from them (graverobbing) isn’t just a crime but a moral failing. In most cultures, death and burial are sacred, and disturbing the dead is unthinkable.

Compassionate Defenders

In Glenda Cota’s case, the thieves stole something precious from her, but in many criminal cases, the accused has something precious taken from them – their freedom snatched from them. If you have been accused of a crime, contact Territorial Law, LLC. Our firm can help only if you are being charged with this crime.