Dead Body Ethics: Why Is “Mind Your Own Damn Business!” Such A Difficult Principle To Grasp?

This post was almost titled “Stop Making Me Defend Governor Hochul!” Conservative pundits, bloggers and busybodies are freaking out over Governor Kathy Hochul (D-NY) signing into law legislation that makes New York the sixth state to legalize the composting human remains. The law adds “natural organic reduction” to cremation and entombment as legal ways to dispose of bodies. The new law defines the practice as the “contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil” in a “structure, room, or other space” in which decomposition can occur.

To all of which I say, “Fine.” Any time government increases individual autonomy and the liberty to do as citizens please as long as it doesn’t harm society or other individuals, or infringe on their rights, that’s an ethics win. It is especially encouraging to see a Democratic governor move in this direction, since her party has lately embraced a philosophy of seeking more restrictions on core American rights—like, say, freedom of speech— rather than fewer.

Never mind, though: some on the right are eager to bash Hochul anyway.

Here’s “Not the Bee”s” John Knox:

Needless to say, this is an anti-human, anti-Christian affront to humanity…This is a pagan practice and is in contradiction with biblical principles. It treats the human being as mere matter. I know, a lot of people, even Christians, are of the opinion that “I’m dead, what do I care what happens to my body?” But this is a modern thought that has never been embraced by any historic Christian or Jewish teaching. Treatment of the body in life or death has been trivial until the modern materialist age…This is just the latest example of how our world is abandoning the Christian principles that have formed civilization in exchange for animistic paganism that worships the creation over the Creator.

What hypocrisy. These people insist on “freedom of religion” as a core human right enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but simultaneously condemn those who don’t adhere to their religious practices and beliefs. The world isn’t “abandoning Christian principles”: the world was never Christian. Dead bodies are the objects of myth, superstition, reverence, tradition, ritual and lore of all sorts, much of which is weird and disgusting. Why is composting worse than cremation, in which a body is broiled into ash, and then scooped into a container assuming you believe that the ashes aren’t really a mixture of whoever else was fried that day? Why is it more “anti-human” than what morticians do to corpses in the embalming process?

“Ick” isn’t ethics, as we have discussed here many times. Your “Ick!” may be my revered tradition. Back off.

A lot more bodies are chopped up and distributed far and wide as organ transplants, just like spare auto parts, than are composted. I’m pretty sure that practice isn’t “embraced by any historic Christian or Jewish teaching.” Both of my in-laws directed that their bodies be handed over to medical schools for research. There they hung on hooks and were subjected to dissection until they started falling to pieces. If they didn’t mind, why should I? Why should John Knox?

I don’t care if the loved one of my neighbor is stuffed like Trigger and mounted in his living room. I don’t care if his brother is reduced to a mummified head and carried in a bag like Michael Caine carries Sean Connery’s head in “The Man Who Would Be King.” Thomas More’s daughter kept his severed head by her bed: would Sir Thomas,  a stickler for Christian practices, have approved? It’s none of my business if my neighbor has his dead wife preserved and hanging on the wall, like Han Solo in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Autonomy is a crucial ethics value: it means we let others live as they please, worship as they please, do as they please as long as nobody is harmed. If conservatives are going to claim grievous wounds because someone they don’t know disposes of the body of someone they don’t know in a manner they don’t like, how can they object when the Left tries to ban words and ideas?

I think I want my body, after I’m through with it, to have a Boston Red Sox cap nailed to its head, hen be encased in acrylic and erected as a bird bath in my back yard. John Knox doesn’t have to visit.

11 thoughts on “Dead Body Ethics: Why Is “Mind Your Own Damn Business!” Such A Difficult Principle To Grasp?

  1. There are very good reasons we have had the kind of procedures in place for handling and disposing of dead human bodies for many years and one of the primary reasons is diseases, sometimes really bad diseases, can easily grow in dead bodies that are allowed to sit around and decompose naturally in a “structure, room, or other space”. As far as I know this has been scientifically proven throughout history.

    I view this as a disastrous pandemic waiting to happen.

    • There are very good reasons we have had the kind of procedures in place for handling and disposing of dead human bodies for many years and one of the primary reasons is diseases, sometimes really bad diseases, can easily grow in dead bodies that are allowed to sit around and decompose naturally in a “structure, room, or other space”…

      And that is why, when the Parsees do it, they do it in a Tower of Silence that is physically removed from all but the vultures who assist in that dissolution. (Lately, though, the vultures have been getting sick themselves, from the man made toxins that have recently been accumulating at the top of the food chain.)

      To readers in general: the Church became more permissive about the disposal of remains after various fees accruing to vicars were bought out, including burial fees that were a nice little earner while the vicars had a burial monopoly.

      • P.M.,

        Do you have some documentation to defend your assertion about fees accruing to vicars leading to the Church changing its ways on cremation?

        It intrigued me enough to do a little more digging myself, and I was surprised to discover that the Catholic Church did not officially ban cremation until the 19th century, with the rise of Freemasonry and the return of cremating the dead as a deliberately anti-Catholic gesture. Christians from the start did not cremate, in part because the Jews did not (and keep in mind, Christianity sees itself as the fulfillment of Judaism, and initially was a messianic movement within Judaism until the break between Christians and Jews after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70). But Christians also did not cremate out of reverence of the Resurrection of Jesus, and thus the expectation of the resurrection of all the decease when Jesus returns again.

        The practice of cremation then organically vanished as Christian ideals asserted themselves, first in the West as paganism retreated and Christianity waxed, and then even in the East, wherever Christian evangelists made inroads. Supposedly Charlemagne made cremation a capital crime in the 8th century, but in general people avoided cremation unless there were public health issues, such as too many dead to bury effectively, or the spread of disease. Even when the Church officially banned cremation in 1886, there were still clauses for handling bodies during a plague or a war.

        The Church relaxed the prohibition in 1963, clarifying that cremation would be prohibited for anyone who desired cremation as a testimony against the faith. Finally in 1983, the new Code of Canon Law stipulated that the Church “does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching”.

        As regards fees paid to priests for Christian burials, that had been a practice and still is a practice today, and there was nothing hidden about it. It has always been considered appropriate to make a contribution to the Church and the priest for special ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, because as St. Paul writes, “the laborer is worth his wages.” So the practice certainly did not end when cremation was permitted again. Moreover, cremation was not formally prohibited by the Church until the 19th century, long after the Church had lost any monopoly over burial it allegedly had.

        • Do you have some documentation to defend your assertion [emphasis added] about fees accruing to vicars leading to [emphasis added] the Church changing its ways on cremation?

          I was very careful not to assert that. It would have been a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. But that is the chronological sequence of events, which is all I was bringing out based on what can be shown readily, and it is indeed the case that perpetual cemetery companies, like the one running Highgate Cemetery where Karl Marx was buried, only became possible after those reforms. As for documentation, you can look up those reforms as I once did for another purpose, but I do not have any to hand at the moment.

          As regards fees paid to priests [emphasis added] for Christian burials, that had been a practice and still is a practice today, and there was nothing hidden about it. It has always been considered appropriate to make a contribution to the Church and the priest for special ceremonies …

          That wasn’t the issue, and indeed such fees may still be given. Rather, the reforms ended the monopoly of burials (with associated fees) that had been in place. And I did not allude to priests in general, but to vicars, which I thought was enough to point readers to a Church of England context. The Church of England did not exercise that monopoly or have it to lose, but rather vicars had it (as “corporations sole”, thy were distinct from the Church of England and had rights and privileges of their own). And the 19th century was not long after they lost their monopoly, it was when it happened.

          Moreover, cremation was not formally prohibited by the Church until the 19th century …

          The law prohibited it until then, based on religious custom and on support of ancient privileges. That same material I mentioned also brought out the civil disobedience of a would-be body burner that helped to change the law; you can probably find references to that more easily than I can, this late at night. I do not recall whether that was statute law or common law, but law it was.

          • P.M.,

            And I did not allude to priests in general, but to vicars, which I thought was enough to point readers to a Church of England context.

            My apologies, I did not catch that at all! Thank you for the clarification. My context was from the perspective of the Catholic Church, so that explains the mismatch of details.

  2. The world has never been Christian, but the West was built on Christian principles. That being said, the only reason for Christians to restrict what happens with dead bodies is to make the faithful mindful of Christian principles. In other words, the restrictions, when applied, would only be applicable to other Christians.

    In the pagan world in which Christianity emerged, some people would utilize certain methods as arguments against Christian teaching. One of the key Christian teachings is the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Here’s the doctrine: when creation has reached the end of its course, God will create a new heavens and new earth, and all the dead will be resurrected. The elect will receive glorified bodies, which are immortal, incapable of injury or pain, as fully intelligent as that individual can be, able to move at the speed of thought, and host of other qualities. The damned will receive bodies that are immortal and will never diminish, but are not glorified as the elect will receive. All will then exist in eternity as full human persons, i.e. body/soul composites.

    Some pagans began to wield cremation as a means to deny the resurrection of the body. If the body can be reduced to ashes and scatter, how could God bring it back together? The Christian answer is that God can do anything, and that’s not a problem. But some faithful were scandalized, and so the Church proclaimed for a time that the faithful could not cremate the dead, both as a means to reduce scandal and a sign to bolster the reality that the dead will be resurrected at the end of time. Once the practice of cremation was no longer wielded as a method to deny the resurrection of the dead, the Church (eventually) allowed the dead to be cremated.

    In other words, the Church has never had the authority to tell non-Christians what to do with their dead, only the faithful, and even so, it doesn’t matter what anyone does with the dead, as God will not be hindered in resurrecting their bodies. There certainly is value, when issues like these arise, to remind the faithful of the doctrine of the resurrection. And there is certainly value to debate those who are wanting to compost human remains on the topic, especially if they are thinking of some nature-religion in which the dead is returned to become one with mother earth, but that is still no reason to prohibit the action.

  3. Soylent Green, anyone?

    Seriously though, Jack, I agree with your conclusion completely. Jesus, in my view, could not care less how we dispose of our remains. They are, after all, ashes and dust, and how we return them to the earth is surely as valid a personal choice as any.

    And like you, if somebody wants to send their body to the taxidermist for stuffing and mounting, yuck, but fine. Just don’t have me over to look at it…

    • Beat me to the Soylent Green reference.
      As for the mummified head one can look to Jeremy Bentham whose head is just that. Why is this such an issue when that exhibition of corpses that were preserved with some kind of acrylic was the talk of the town some years back. I believe the exhibit was also in the movie Casino Royals with Danial Craig.
      The notion that cremation, composting or some other method that facilitates the decomposition process is unchristian like is one I am unfamiliar with given that the clergy at graveside services might say ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Old Testament claims God formed Adam out of the earth and that is where above sentiment is derived.
      As for containment of disease any soils produced can be sterilized by either irradiation or in an autoclave.

  4. I think this issue is actually an excellent discriminator between Conservative ideals and Libertarian ideals.

    Classic Conservatism is generally on the side of Liberty and against Authoritarianism, but still wholly embraces the desire to influence and mold the culture into its own version of “ideal” for society. Libertarianism is, of course, also on the side of Liberty and against Authoritarianism, but takes a hands-off approach to cultural matters, and letting the chips fall where they may.

    . . . or at least, that’s my perception of the difference.

    This is why I describe myself as a Conservative with a strong Libertarian streak. I often think Conservatives try to go too far on cultural issues (and I’d offer this one up as an excellent example), yet I can’t fully embrace some of the Libertarian mores like drug legalization.

    Oh, . . . and I’m just as puzzled as you at why a Democrat Governor of New York is the one to support this other than to cynically assume that its for the express purpose of poking religious people in the eye.

    –Dwayne

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