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.

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.

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.
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/religion/article23860969.html#storylink=cpy

Digital Immortality and the Promise of Eternal Life

Fresno Bee, April 3, 2015

Modern technology makes the Easter promise of eternal life look a bit old-fashioned. Businesses such as Eterni.me promise virtual immortality in the form of a “digital avatar” or “mind-clone.”IMG_3018

A mind-clone is a smart digital replica of your self, based upon a collection of your memories, thinking habits, and values. Future generations would be able to interact with your mind-clone as if they were interacting with you: hear your stories, get your advice, or ask for your blessing.

Advanced mind-clone technology would build a profile of you by tracking your preferences in music, videos, or news — just as Google and Amazon already do. The program would analyze your tastes, interests, and writing style. You could also upload value preferences and stories, training your clone to think and respond like you.

Your descendants could chat with your virtual avatar. You could program it, for example, to send birthday greetings to your grandchildren long after your death. If the technology works, it would be difficult for your grandchildren to tell the difference between you and your mind-clone in a chat-room or email exchange.

But is this really immortality? That depends. When we say that someone like Shakespeare has achieved immortality, we mean that his works and ideas endure. Maybe that’s all we mean by immortality. When viewed from the outside, the self is, after all, merely a collection of habits, actions and thoughts that are observed in the world. All we really know about the immortal bard is what he wrote down.

Shakespeare himself told us (in Sonnet 55) that what lives on against death and oblivion is “the living record of your memory.” As long as memories of you remain alive in someone’s mind, a part of you continues to exist. An interactive mind-clone would keep your memory “alive” in cyberspace.

But, most will protest, the self seems to be more than a collection of data piled high in defiance of the encroaching sands of time. From the inside, I experience my self as soulful conscious being. Death ends my consciousness, even if my mind-clone lingers in its small corner of the Internet.

Moreover, human relations are spiritual — an exchange of souls that is more than a mere transfer of data. An email from the virtual “you” would be a sad echo of genuine communication. From this perspective, digital immortality is a false promise.

As we spend more of our time in virtual reality, however, the spiritual side of things is being transformed into a digital alternative. What, after all, do you really know about the humanity of your Facebook friends besides the images they deposit online?

Leaving these existential questions behind, the ethical question remains: Should we pursue digital immortality? Answers depend upon the motivation for creating a mind-clone. Hope for immortality may be a narcissistic wish. Or it may be a celebration of love.

A narcissist may think he is so important that the future needs him, as if the loss of his point of view will make the universe worse. But it’s presumptuous to think that my great-grandchildren would care to have my mind-clone around, emailing them my opinions about the news, while they are busy leading lives I cannot imagine. On the other hand, it could be cool to have a virtual Shakespeare to consult when we need inspiration.

The best reasons to consider digital immortality are grounded in love. We, the living, may want a virtual clone of our dead loved ones, just as we want pictures and videos of them — as a way of keeping their memory alive. This technology could ease grief and mourning.

It may seem unhealthy to keep oneself focused on interactions with the dead. Chatting online with your dead spouse’s mind-clone may prevent you from moving forward. But this may not be so different from reading a poem written by the dead or whispering a word to the dead in silent prayer. What matters is the dosage and degree of our concern with the departed.

Our lives leave traces in the minds of those we love. That may be all that matters in terms of an afterlife — to be loved in the memories of those we leave behind. Beyond that, there are mysteries that the human mind and its technologies cannot fathom.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/04/03/4459250_fiala-on-ethics-digital-immortality.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

The Ethics of Death

Don’t avoid the big questions about death

Fresno Bee, February 20, 2015

Death prompts serious reflection. If death is a dreamless sleep, there is no reason to fear it, since “you” won’t know you are dead. But if death opens the door to another life, where God metes out justice, evildoers ought to fear death and good people should look forward to it.the-death-of-casagemas-1901-1.jpg!Blog

These issues are the focus of a new book, “The Ethics of Death.” The book provides an interesting dialogue between Lloyd Steffen, a scholar of religion, and Dennis Cooley, a humanist philosopher. I am on a panel with the authors this weekend at a conference in Southern California, discussing the meaning of death.

This big question has deep roots. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that death was annihilation. He thought this was a liberating idea, since it cured the anxiety created by religious stories of reward and punishment. Don’t worry about being dead, Epicurus advised, because your own death will literally be nothing to you. Epicurus and his followers ignored religion and focused on living long and living well.

The early Christians argued directly against the Epicureans and their indifference about death. Augustine argued, for example, that the Epicureans vainly pursued merely fleeting satisfactions. Augustine thought that real happiness is only found in eternal blessedness after death.

Epicurean affirmation of mortal finitude may help us savor the pleasures of life. If the Epicureans are right, ethics becomes a matter of prudence: clean living helps us prosper in this life. But Christians and others who long for eternal life will argue that the joys of this life are shallow and worthless. If we believe in an afterlife, ethical action takes on infinite weight.

A variety of concrete moral implications flow from this dispute. For example, if death means annihilation, then the death penalty is not much of a punishment, since once the criminal is dead he is no longer being punished. A harsher punishment might keep the bad guy alive in order to cause him to suffer as long as possible. On the other hand, if there is an afterlife, then execution speeds the criminal on to final judgment.

Or consider suicide and euthanasia. If death is nonexistence, then death could provide relief in the face of terrible suffering. But those who believe in an afterlife tend to think that suicide is immoral because our lives are not entirely our own to dispose of.

Despite the import of these issues, we often ignore them. Perhaps they are too difficult to think about. But the fact of the matter is that you can’t grow younger and you can’t avoid death.

Phillip Levine, Fresno’s beloved and recently departed poet laureate, once lamented the fact that it takes a very long time to believe the simplest facts of life: “that certain losses are final, death is one, childhood another.”

In another poem Levine said, “no one believes that to die is beautiful.” Levine suggested that in death we might join the waters of the world, flowing into every crack and crevice. Perhaps something beautiful happens when we give up the ghost and join the flow of nature. A poet’s ear may be needed to hear this.

Reflection on death naturally gives way to poetry. In his last days, Socrates wrote poetry and composed hymns. But he also philosophized until his final moments, talking with his friends and speculating about the afterlife.

Music, poetry, religion, and philosophy are expressions of the depth of the human spirit. Consciousness transforms brute experience into meaning. Awareness of death gives urgency to the soul’s need to express itself. We sing and talk and write because we want to leave a fluttering trace of ourselves in the void. If we never died, would we bother to think or talk at all?

To be conscious is to be surrounded by darkness. We do not recall the nothingness before life. Nor can we see beyond the shadows of death. The great religious and philosophical dialogue is an attempt to shed some light on this surrounding gloom.

Death gives meaning to life. Unfortunately, we each have but one lifetime to pray, argue, and sing, while the light still shines. At stake in this discussion is simply everything.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/02/20/4387659/ethics-dont-avoid-the-big-questions.html#storylink=cpy

It’s time to stop privatizing our grief

Fresno Bee

January 10, 2014

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/01/10/3707618/its-time-to-stop-privatizing-our.html

In December, Jahi McMath, an Oakland 13-year-old, was declared brain-dead. Her family refused to pull the plug. After court intervention, Jahi was moved into a care facility. Her prognosis is grim.

It is easy to sympathize with Jahi’s family. It is always difficult to believe someone we love is dead. It must be more difficult when your child’s body is warm and her heart is beating.

There are deep questions here about death, dying and grieving. These perennial issues are made tougher in a culture like ours that is often in denial about death.

I spoke about this with Nate Hinerman, a professor at Golden Gate University. Hinerman is an expert on dying and grieving and the editor of a book about the presence of the dead in our lives.

Hinerman suggests that pop culture makes dying appear as something unnatural — it happens by accident, at the hands of criminals or as a result of medical malfeasance. We no longer see dying as something natural or normal.

Dying happens in institutional settings, instead of in our homes. We don’t see it happening. As a result, we don’t know how to think about it or fit it into our worldview.

Hinerman is also critical of our tendency to pathologize and privatize grief. Instead of viewing grieving as a normal process, we view it as a disease that should be quickly gotten over. When it lingers too long, it can be diagnosed as depression and cured with a pill. But Hinerman suggests there is no right way to grieve.

We also think it is polite to leave the grieving alone. We avoid talking about death and loss because of our own discomfort. We use euphemisms like “passed away” to speak around the issue. And so death and dying recede from ordinary experience, leaving us speechless and clumsy around the bereaved.

Dying and grieving are thus devalued. The whole process is seen as shameful and bad — to be staved off and hidden away. The solution, Hinerman suggests, is to take these things out of the closet. We need more education about dying and grieving. We need to see the process and think about it before it happens to us. And when it does happen, we need quality care both for the patient and for those left behind.

I suspect we also need to simply admit that there is no way out of this life except through the door of death and grief. The world’s philosophical traditions have always made this clear. The path to wisdom is to admit our own mortality and to recognize that everyone we love will someday perish.

But this admission is made harder by the promise of medical science. In December, as Jahi’s case was unfolding, scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging announced that they had extended the lifespan of a nematode — a small worm — by five times. A similar increase for humans would mean a life of 400-500 years.

With the elixir of immortality near at hand, death appears unfair and irrelevant. We don’t expect people to die anymore or want to think about it. It seems fatalistic and pessimistic to accept dying and grieving. Maybe modern science will fulfill the dream of the ancient alchemists and finally cure us of our mortality.

I’m not convinced that longevity would be all we imagine it to be. Life without death might leave us unable to experience the depth of care and love. Love is unique to mortal beings who are aware of our need for care and the potential for loss.

One risk of love is grief. To love someone is to be indelibly affected by their presence. We will be damaged when our loved ones die. But they will also remain present with us. Grief resonates in the empty places in our hearts where those we love uncannily dwell.

Scientific miracles and the alienating institutions of death and dying can confuse us about this. Death is not a good thing. But accepting our mortality may increase the intensity of love and life. Our lover’s beauty, our parents’ twinkling eyes and our children’s joyful laughter are accentuated by the bittersweet awareness that for all its wonders, life is usually far too short.

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/01/10/3707618/its-time-to-stop-privatizing-our.html#storylink=cpy