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Treating the Dead Well

Written by Stephen Rainey

What happens after we die? This might be taken as an eschatological question, seeking some explanation or reassurance around the destiny of an immortal soul or some such vital element of our very being. But there is another sense that has at least as much importance. What should we do with dead bodies?

According to a Yougov survey from 2016, a majority of UK residents prefer cremation over burial, with their ashes scattered in some meaningful place. This could be good news, given the apparent dwindling of burial space globally. In the face of this sort of constraint, the re-use of graves becomes necessary, which can cause distress to the families of even the long dead.

Less commonly, dead bodies can be donated to medical science and put to use for purposes of research and medical training. Research suggests the rate is low owing to ‘non-cognitive factors’ such as ‘the desire to maintain bodily integrity, worries that signing a donor card might ‘jinx’ a person, and medical mistrust.’

Maybe we should think again about how we treat dead bodies. There could come a time when cremation and burial might be considered a waste of resources, given the uses to which cadavers can be put. One body can be used to train many surgeons in complex procedures by being pared into relevant sections – individual limbs, organ systems, brains. Nevertheless, whilst a corpse is indeed a valuable object, it was also previously a subject. The nature of bodies as post-persons does seem to deserve some special consideration. If we can account for this, we might be in a position to recommend very generally why we ought to respect the bodies of the dead.

Reuters recently ran a series of articles exposing troubling practices in the body trade. These reports contain some shocking details, amounting to mistreatment of dead bodies. Reuters reports that “Some brokers have saved money by using chainsaws to carve up the dead instead of more expensive surgical saws.” They also report under-investment in essential items such as proper freezers for storage, and improper handling of cadavers, “Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun.” The Guardian recently printed a story of dentistry students posing for selfies with severed heads. Stories like these seem shocking on some gut level.

Why, given the benefits to medical science, ought we to allow this gut feeling to affect how we think of treating cadavers? I think it’s because dead bodies are also dead persons, and persons demand respectful treatment. It’s pretty obvious that dying has a fairly major effect on the continuity of a person. Death represents a rupture in psychological continuity, and bodily integrity. These two factors, together or apart, are often cited as markers of personal identity. So how would I maintain that the bodies of dead persons ought to attract similarly respectful treatment as living persons?

Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit (1942-2017) can provide some material at this point. He pretty much rejects the very idea of personal identity as what’s important about persons. In place of this, he points out that psychological continuity is what we really care about when we think about people. Through an interesting teleporter thought experiment,[1] he goes as far as saying that it isn’t really important if person x is ‘the same’ as person y following transmission through a teleporter. What counts is that y is someone who is psychologically continuous with x. The idea of a ‘me’ to be preserved or accounted for throughout change becomes a red herring, with the idea of psychological continuity taking over. That continuity is what’s really valuable about persons. I want to extend this idea to how the dead might be considered to enjoy ‘psychological continuity’ despite their demise.

Psychological continuity as a concept not wedded to an essential ‘me’ allows for a networked sort of idea of the self. My, your, and anyone else’s psychological continuity relies on others and their ideas as much as it does on self-perception. Whilst the individual person can certainly be seen as the centre of their own psychological continuity, the possibility for that continuity is tied up with relations among others. ‘The self’ resides to this extent in the experiences of others as much as one’s own. This isn’t to say ‘we’ are some kind of collective consciousness, but that we each partake in collected consciousness. This collection draws upon the experiences of the living, and the dead.

This gives us some grounds for thinking of the dead as still continuing in some psychological sense. Their psychological continuity is present in the accounts that can be made of them by others. ‘In memoriam’ takes on a pretty major sense here – the dead really do persist in memoriam. There’s nothing supernatural in this. The absence of spookiness in this kind of explanation for the significance of the dead is a strength of the account. This is because it connects meaningfulness to persons directly, and locates it among persons. “My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations”[2], Parfit writes. It’s these ‘various other relations’ that remain unbroken by death that I suggest give reason to respect cadavers. These are the parallels of psychological continuity, networked out among others.

Even though cadavers are valuable objects, they ought not to be treated as merely valuable objects. They ought to attract respectful treatment – no paring with chainsaws, no gratuitous selfies – just because they are as much located in meaningful networks as are living persons. The dead body is as significantly bound to personhood as the living body is to persons. The dead body deserves respectful consideration just as much as any living person.

[1] In ‘Reasons and Persons’, p261ff

[2] Reasons and Persons, p.281

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Alberto Giubilini

    Very interesting. But wouldn’t this imply that the cadaver of someone who didn’t have any meaningful connections in life – I suppose some such people exist – deserves less respect than other cadavers. Or even further: that the cadaver of someone who was hated by many persons – and again I suppose that some such people exist – deserves to be treated disrespectfully?

    1. Good points! Certainly, I’m assuming the (hopefully) standard case of relatively nice people, with relatively good connections and recommending an account for them.

      In the case of the disconnected person, the account might be a way of understanding the tragedy of their circumstances, rather than a guide for acting ill toward their corpse. That they had few or no connections may be a sad truth of their existence. Their dead body might, to those who were not connected to them, symbolise that. Sounds a bit instrumentalising, though, to use a person’s body as a kind of lesson.

      The post-life, networked psychological continuity possible, through lack of information, might be weak. Does this make it worth less, just by perhaps meaning less? There might be parallels with artworks worth exploring here: a secret masterpiece retains its value though seen by only one person, perhaps?

      As for a hated person, that’s interesting. People have felt entitled to disrespect the bodies of the hated through history in order to dishonour them for a life lived badly. I guess it could be argued that that impulse is the psychological continuity of such a person influencing the actions of the still living.

      Rather than mistreating their corpse, using the bodies of terrible people for good (research, organs) might be seen as a way to compensate for their dreadfulness. I don’t think the politics of that would be insignificant.

      It would seem to me, on a gut level, that it would be better to chastise the living for their bad life, rather than to take it out on their corpse.

  2. I’d see a better outcome as shifting to see donating one’s body (for organs, for medical study) as a respected thing to do. All the older people in my family have donated their bodies to medical study, which seems to work out nicely for everyone. Some medical schools have a ceremony at which the medical students who will be learning from the cadavers meet with the deceased’s families and honor the lives of the donors. (This might also reduce disrespectful behavior by students.) Later the family receives the ashes, can bury or scatter them as they wish, and pays nothing.

    1. Thanks for this, Julia. That sounds like a pretty good setup, practical, and geared for fostering respect all round.

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