The foetus and the corpse: where does identity begin and end?

Charles Cowling

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.


4 thoughts on “The foetus and the corpse: where does identity begin and end?

  1. Charles Cowling

    If you don’t need a body present for a funeral, it seems to me to follow that you don’t need a bride and groom present for a wedding (and we’d all have had to go to work today). After all, a wedding is to a marriage what a funeral is to a cremation or burial, in a way. But it would lack a certain something if we emailed our ‘I do’ to the registrar, and received a text next week informing us we’d been married since 4.17pm on Tuesday.

    But then we all know you too well, Charles, not to understand when you’re simply being provocative… don’t we?

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Charles, possibly most of us would not want our corpses to be dragged through the streets and then fed to pigs because it would be an unpleasant spectacle, rather than because we have an idea of a post-mortem personal identity; it would be unpleasant for anyone who cared about us. It would lack the sort of post-mortem symbolism and meaning-creation we look for in a rite of passage. (Unless the piggies were given some sacred identity by a priestly caste…)

    That’s surely why we need ritual, or at least a bit of ceremony, to help us “detach their personhood from their remains.” The creation of such a detaching, of new meanings around a life not longer em-bodied, is surely what a good funeral sets out to do, or at least, to contribute to.

    Do we think a corpse still has some agency? I don’t feel we do. But I think we need to be helped through a separation from the body and an entry into a world without the person, a world in which a life is a story, a cloud of feelings and memories, not a physical being.

    But I agree that a cremation is a non-event. In our culture, it nearly always happens after we’ve all gone away. The event is the bit beforehand we call a funeral, which is why we are all, instinctively and rightly, troubled by the nature of most crem funerals. There’s another family waiting outside, the minibrant is trying not to worry about timing, the crem is a dreary anonymous place, the….you know the stuff.

    We’ve variously gone through this stuff before, I know, but sometimes it helps (me) to go through the basics and test them out.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    I think of the cremation as a non-event – a process for rendering a body portable and divisible only. The event is the commemorative event culminating in the scattering of ashes — a version of a funeral – an option. Or a commemorative event simply with ashes present. Or not.

    It’s becoming increasingly popular in this country, though not yet so popular that it is widely debated as an alternative to a funeral with a body. I think it will soon become so. It opens up options. You can take Granddad to a nice restaurant or Nan to the seaside – or a hilltop. And you can do it all yourself – no deathcare specialists, no special vehicles, no crem. It’s driving US undertakers up the wall and it’ll start doing the same to ours. It’s only a segment of the market, of course, but potentially quite a big one – I believe.

    Of course, the cost of cremation for those who do not want to hire the ceremony hall for an old school funeral is going to come under pressure. Will the US-style crematory attached to a funeral home or out in an industrial estate find a home here? I can’t see why not. If the price of translating a body into ashes + FD fees (a deathbed to urn service) came in at a little over £1,000, it begins to look attractive.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    But Charles, why separate it into two events? In the US crematoriums are largely places of industrial disposal with no access to the public, not so with us. Okay, they have their shortcomings, but..

    Charles Cowling

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