The Case of the Casket

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Who Owns Lee Harvey Oswald’s Coffin? 

On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy. Two days later, Oswald was shot and killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Immediately following Oswald’s death, his brother, Robert Oswald, began making funeral arrangements. Robert purchased flowers, a dark suit and a pine coffin for his brother. Three days after killing the president, Lee Harvey Oswald was laid to rest in a Forth Worth cemetery in a service so poorly attended that reporters were asked to be pallbearers. 

The decades following JFK’s death were filled with conspiracy theories. In 1981, to dispel one of these rumors — that the occupant of Oswald’s coffin was a Soviet spy – Lee’s family consented to have his body exhumed. Dental records proved that the occupant was, in fact, Oswald. His body was once again laid to rest, this time in a new coffin because the old one was so badly water damaged. 

More than five decades later, the original, damaged, pine coffin lies at the center of an unusual legal battle. In 2010, after learning that the cemetery owner, the Baumgardner Funeral Home, sold the coffin through an auction house for $87,468, Robert Oswald filed a suit to block the sale. Robert claimed that the coffin belonged to him, since he purchased it back in 1963. 

The funeral home fought back, defending its ownership right to the coffin. They claimed that Oswald had made a “gift” to his brother, because no one purchases a coffin with the intention of getting it back. Therefore, he no longer had ownership. On the other hand, they had been in possession of the coffin since it was exhumed in 1981. Because they stored it for almost 30 years and no one had claimed it, the funeral home believed the coffin was theirs. 

Not being able to reach an agreement as to ownership, the two parties went to trial on December 8, 2014. During the trial, the funeral home admitted that it never notified Oswald’s family that the coffin had not been destroyed after it was exhumed and that they never offered to return the coffin to them. In January, 2015, the judge ruled in favor of Robert Oswald and called the funeral home’s conduct “wrongful, wanton and malicious.” The funeral home was ordered to return the casket to Robert, pay him $87,468 in damages, and pay the auction house that attempted to sell the coffin more than $10,000 in storage fees. 

Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow and children chose not to participate in the lawsuit. Their participation would have further complicated the question of whether the estate or Robert truly owned the coffin.


About the Authors

Laura Hoexter

As chair of the firm’s estate planning and probate group, Laura Hoexter’s practice focuses on wills, trusts and estates. She works with individuals to help them establish foundational documents, such as tax-saving wills and living trusts, financial and health care powers of attorney, and health care directives. She addresses complex issues that may arise, including non-citizen status, retirement benefit planning and life insurance arrangements. Laura has significant experience helping clients meet their more advanced estate planning goals, including the formation of charitable trusts and private foundations, as well as all types of irrevocable trusts such as life insurance trusts, special needs trusts, and qualified personal residence trusts.

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