Death and Dead Bodies

Deep questions about life and death and dead bodies

Fresno Bee, June 12, 2015

  • Medal of Honor ceremony, Fresno Public Administrator’s Office case are examples
  • We are appalled by corpse abuse, yet philosophers argue that dead people can’t really be harmed
  • The dead would want us to love life and stop worrying about them
medal of honorIn Bakersfield, the cops are being sued because an officer “tickled” the feet of a corpse, saying he “loved playing with dead bodies.” In Oklahoma, a woman slashed and dismembered her enemy’s body while it lay in a casket in a funeral home. And in Fresno, employees of the Public Administrator’s Office allegedly stole property from dead people’s estates.

Some believe that the dead haunt us when disrespected. Ghosts may speak from the grave to condemn such actions. However, if there is an afterlife, I hope that the dead have more elevated concerns. I doubt that the dead really worry about their mortal remains.

Those who mock or mar dead bodies do have a malicious intent. Such deeds are wrong because they harm grieving loved ones left behind. But these are also oddly “victimless” crimes, since the dead cannot be harmed.

Similar puzzles arise when we praise or honor the dead. PresidentObama recently awarded posthumous Medals of Honor to two long dead soldiers who fought in World War I. Obama explained, “It is never too late to say thank you.” How nice. But also — how weird. Can soldiers from previous centuries receive our gratitude?

I discussed these issues with James Stacey Taylor, a professor at the College of New Jersey who is an expert on the philosophy of death. Taylor maintains that a corpse is merely an object. It can’t really be harmed.


Taylor understands that grieving is often focused on the dead body. The living gain closure from knowing that a loved one’s body is safely disposed. The living can also take comfort in honors given to the dead. But Taylor doesn’t believe that any of this can make any difference to the dead person.

Taylor agrees with the ancient Epicureans, who argued that your dead body is no longer “you.” It’s a mistake, for example, to imagine that when your body is buried, you will be aware of the clay pressing down upon you. It won’t matter to you whether your body is torn apart by wild beasts, or burnt on a pyre. You won’t know the difference.

Understanding this can liberate you from fears about death. It can also make it easier to see the value of signing up for organ donation. When I’m done with my body I won’t need it anymore. Let someone else benefit from it, if they can.

We are often confused about the value of the body. Some want to claim that all we are is our bodies. But a person is more than a body. Persons are characters. They have stories, plans, values and ideas. My personality extends into the projects and ideas that make up my life. My personality is constituted by those I love: they are part of me and I am the result of them.

When I die, I hope that some of my projects will be completed and that my loved ones will flourish. My least concern is what will become of my corpse.

Our treatment of the dead is symbolic of our other values. When we award posthumous medals and treat dead bodies with care, this symbolizes how deeply we value human persons. That’s why crimes against the dead are so disturbing. We suspect a character flaw in the hearts of those who steal from the dead or desecrate corpses. Those who abuse the dead are cruel, callous and cold-hearted. But to think that the dead can actually be harmed by actions done to their mortal remains is to be too attached to the idea that we are ever simply a body.

We honor the dead by completing their projects and cherishing the grieving people they love. These values, ideas and persons are much more important than the corpse that is left behind.

I imagine that if we could ask them, the dead would tell us to celebrate life and stop worrying about death. They would want us to focus our moral concern on the living, not the dead. After all, the dead can no longer be harmed or benefited. If the dead could speak, I imagine they would say that death arrives too early, and that we should love life and nurture the living, before it is too late.
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