Legal question about corpse ownership (inspired by Six Feet Under)

I never got a chance to watch Six Feet Under when it was originally on the air, so I’ve been watching the seasons on DVD. I just finished the second season, and there was a minor plot point that really got me wondering (it was a small point, but I’ll leave some space in case someone doesn’t want to be spoiled):

For those who don’t know, the show is about a family that owns a funeral home, and it goes relatively in depth into the business side. On one episode, a man dies by falling over the side of a yacht, and I believe he also hits a propeller. Either way, by the time he is located and fished out of the water, he’s in pretty bad shape. The wife says not to worry about it, she doesn’t want an open casket so it doesn’t matter what he looks like. She asks to see him a couple of times, but is told that it would be a bad idea and she really doesn’t want to put herself through that. She reveals that her husband used to beat her, and she’s glad he’s dead. Later in the show, on the day of the funeral, she begs/ commands one of the brothers to open the lid and let her see her husband, and he does so.

Now, for my question: in a subsequent episode, the woman sues the funeral home for $500,000 for emotional damages or something similar, and when they go to their own lawyer, he tells them they’re screwed and a jury will totally give it to her. How is this possible? There are several things here which are confusing me:

*Who actually “owns” the body at this point? Could a funeral home legally *prevent *her from looking at it? I would think that, being next of kin, she should be in charge of what goes on with it, right?

*Can you sue someone for doing something you asked them to do? I believe in the show her lawyer argued that she was under duress (which actually also threw me off because I understood duress as being when an outside force compels you to do something, rather than just emotional stress, but I digress), but she asked a funeral director to let her look at her husband’s body - hardly an outlandish request.

I realize that all this may fall under the heading of “artistic liberty”, but the show is usually fairly good about such real-world issues so any light that could be shed would be great. Ever since I read The American Way of Death (excellent book, by the way), I’ve been fascinated by the death care industry.

With respect to the first question, the answer at common law was that there was no property in a dead human body - that is, that no-one owns it. Next-of-kin, executors or administrators of the estate had the responsibility for the proper disposal of the body. That was under the common law, though, so it could have been changed by statute - the answer would depend on the law of the place where the event occurred.

I guess the thing I don’t get is how you could sue someone for allowing you to look at your husband’s body. I’m just trying to figure out, in the real world, what the argument would be.