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Post-mortem punishment and public dissection.

A television report aired in the US last week claimed that bodies used
in public anatomical exhibitions might have included executed Chinese
prisoners. There have been subsequent denials from exhibitors that any
of the bodies currently being shown in Pittsburgh came from prisoners.
Apparently one exhibition includes bodies of individuals who died from
natural causes but were ‘unclaimed’, while another exhibition includes
only individuals who have consented to their bodies being used for
education or research. But it is interesting to try to ‘dissect’ the

The history of anatomy has long been linked with execution, as well as with the murky business of obtaining bodies from dubious sources. Most of the bodies dissected by the early anatomists (contributing significantly to the evolution of medical knowledge) came from such sources.

Let us assume for a moment that exhibitions did include the bodies of executed prisoners. Presumably such individuals did not consent for their bodies to be used in such a manner after their death. On the other hand they didn’t consent to their execution either. If we consider that an individual is wronged by their body being used after their death in a manner that they had not wished, we would still think it a much lesser harm than being executed.
Given that capital punishment remains on the statutes and continues to take place in many states in the US (including Pennsylvania), the public outcry over the exhibition cannot relate specifically to the fact that prisoners were executed.

It may be that the concern relates to the lack of consent from the prisoners. This raises the question of whether it would alleviate the concern of critics had the prisoners signed a consent from before their death (I suspect not). However since another source of bodies includes those that have been ‘unclaimed’ (whose wishes are unknowable by definition), and this possibility doesn’t seem to be worrying people as much, this cannot be the main problem.

Sometimes governments or armies attempt to punish an individual in a particularly strong way, by killing them, and then maltreating their corpse. There is something slightly desperate about such attempts, insofar as they attempt to inflict additional harm on someone who has already been killed (and therefore is unable to be aware of any further punishments or harms).

One concern about the public exhibition of prisoners might be that it involves attendees in the punishment of individuals. In some way they could be seen to be cooperating or collaborating with the punishing institution. It does not seem to be the case however that in the case of Chinese prisoners however that public dissection and exhibition was intended as part of their punishment. There are apparently investigations by Chinese officials underway, as the export of bodies for ‘commercial purposes’ would be in breach of Chinese law.

To some extent the public nature of post-mortem punishments might cause additional suffering to the families of the deceased. They might also serve as a particularly graphic form of deterrence. A concern might be that such exhibitions could contribute to the distress of the friends and families of executed (including political prisoners potentially). Given the large number of political exiles from China in the US, this might be a reason for concern.

However one way of interpreting the outcry over the possible source of bodies for such exhibitions is as misdirected outrage. In a similar way to concerns about the use of organs from executed prisoners in China, it could be argued that the principal wrong that we should be concerned about relates to the Chinese justice system, and its policy of executions. What happens to the bodies of those prisoners might be of some concern, but a much lesser concern than the possibility that individuals charged with political offences (for example) might have been executed.

On the other hand such press doesn’t seem to bad for sales. By all accounts attendances are up at the current exhibition.


Bodies still draws crowds to exhibition Pittsburgh Tribune-Review 20/2/08

Where exactly are the bodies coming from? 19/2/08

NY, China investigating back market in bodies ABC 15/2/08

Willing donors gave bodies to exhibit 16/2/08

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4 Comment on this post

  1. “Sometimes governments or armies attempt to punish an individual in a particularly strong way, by killing them, and then maltreating their corpse. There is something slightly desperate about such attempts, insofar as they attempt to inflict additional harm on someone who has already been killed (and therefore is unable to be aware of any further punishments or harms).”

    It might be worth mentioning, as Nietzsche does (in section 5 of the Second Treatise of his GENEALOGY OF MORALITY), that in some cultural circumstances the threat of one’s corpse being violated was one means among others of encouraging the fulfillment of obligations. So the practice, barbarous and desperate as it now seems to us — especially as a response to transgressions — might at some time, given views about the afterlife, have been deployed as a deterrent and even have had some value in maintaining social order.

  2. Thanks for this point Rob.

    It is interesting to contemplate how notions of the afterlife might affect the idea of post-mortem punishment.
    It seems to me that if an individual did not believe in life after death, what happens to their body after they died might be of little or no concern to them.
    On the other hand theories of existence after death are generally
    (or uniformly) non-corporeal. If someone is going to live after death in either eternal salvation or damnation, the fate of their corpse might seem to be the least of their worries!

  3. I think the most troubling aspect of maltreating the dead is a reflection upon the character of the person who is doing the maltreatment. So if governments were to punish corpses, its not the person whose corpse is being harmed, clearly, but rather the families and friends of the deceased… but at the same time I think a kind of moral judgment on the character of the government can be made. I’m not sure exactly what it is, perhaps the brutality, callousness, or perhaps the lack of reason since they are punishing not the criminal but the families and friends. On the flip side, there can also be morally praiseworthy treatments of corpses after death. Beyond respectful burial, the utilization of the corpse in ways to extend human knowledge like stem-cell research or extend others lives through organ donation.

  4. The punishment of the corps could also cause severe hurt on the part of the surviving relatives, especially if the treatment of the corps causes anxiety with respect to the decedent’s after-death existence.

    US Law recognizes interests of relatives in the decedent’s body. State law has given the surviving spouse and surviving next-of-kin a claim for emotional harm against one who mistreats the decedent’s body. Indeed, relatives have fought (in court) over the place and nature of the decedent’s body’s disposal.

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