There’s an interesting review in the London Review of Books (14 April) of After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver by Norman Cantor. Here are just a few snapshots from the review by Steven Shapin. It’s not available online unless you hand over a wad at the subscription roadblock.
In the modern secular idiom the dead human body is just rapidly decaying meat, gristle, bone, fat and fluid. It has no consciousness of its circumstances … and can have no interest in its fate … The only value to be assigned to the corpse is its break-up value.
But those who affect this hard-headedness are rarely consistent in maintaining it. In one version of soft-headedness we seem to set a zero or even negative value on the corpse, since few of us try to realise its cash potential and most of us set aside significant sums just to dispose of it.
Secular modernists many of us may be, but we inhabit a culture whose institutionalised practices of death and the disposal of dead bodies have been shaped by beliefs that are neither modern nor secular.
[Rights of the corpse] proceed from the incoherence of our cultural attitudes to the corpse. We don’t think of it as a living agent, and we don’t think of it simply as a sack of chemicals, but as something which still has a measure of agency associated with it … Culturally we recognise the recently dead body of a friend or relative as some version of them: death does not immediately detach their personhood from their remains.
Cantor invites secularists who affect indifference as to what is done with their corpse to imagine how they’d feel if told their dead bodies would be dragged naked through the streets with a sign bearing their name and then fed to the pigs.
It’s a good point. But I find it very easy to get my head around the idea of direct cremation – sans violation, flames not pigs – followed by a corpse-free commemorative event, and so do an increasing number of other people, especially in the US. I’m very surprised that a modern secular country like Britain hasn’t taken to it far more readily.