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May 07 2013

The rights of the dead

The discussion in the comments following my post about the difficulty of finding a place to bury Tamarlan Tsarnaev raised some interesting issues. In that case, cremation was not considered an option since the family wanted to have a Muslim burial for him and the question was raised as to why they should have the final say.

A dead person’s body is usually released to the next of kin who get to decide what to do with it. But what freedom has that person in disposing of it? Legally a dead person has some rights, at least when it comes to disposing of that person’s property as can be seen from the way that wills are legally binding. But what right does or should someone have about how their body should be disposed of?

I am not so much interested in the law as much as the appropriate balance between the wishes of the dead person, those of the survivors, and of society at large. This is particularly important in those cases where the religious or philosophical views of the deceased and the survivors differ considerably. Such differences can cause considerable friction among family members both before and after death.

Suppose you have an atheist married to a religious person. Suppose also that the atheist made it clear that he/she wanted a completely secular funeral. Should the religious survivor respect that? But funerals are meant for the living and so shouldn’t what works best for them be taken into consideration? From the atheist point of view, once you are dead, you’re dead so why should you care what is done with your body? Before you die, why not leave instructions for survivors to do what they like?

But on the other hand, funerals can also be viewed as the final statement made by the dead person and it seems somehow wrong to have a religious funeral for an atheist or vice versa, as wrong as those attempts by religious people to falsify stories of deathbed conversions of atheists to religion.

My own feeling is that any stated desire of the dead person should be accommodated as much as possible and that survivors should swallow any discomfort and deal with it. It is hard to think of a rational reason for this feeling, except a sense that a person’s death is an integral part that person’s life and the end should be consistent with the life.

It is similar to a promise made to a dying person to either keep a secret or carry out some other wish. Once the person dies, is the promise still binding? After all, how can it matter to the dead person if one keeps the promise or not? And yet I suspect that almost all of us would feel a sense of obligation to do so, even in the absence of any legal requirement. There are some things that we feel obliged to do that do not have rational reasons.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    I’ve made mine clear: total physical donation for medical science or organs, as deemed more useful at the time, and cremation of the leftovers for composting; a party to be held with black clothing only permitted for people who always wear it, and the admission requirement of at least one funny moment they remember that I gave them, to be offered to the group on arrival in whatever manner suits them (written or recited by someone else if they’re shy, whatever). Only consensual prayer to be permitted (no forcing anyone else to be quiet for it, or that kind of thing – find a quiet room if you want to).

    I live my life trying to be good to people and to the planet that made me, and to bring a few laughs, I’m hoping the last big memory of me they keep is the same.

    I hope they can find a solution for the young man and his family.

  2. 2
    MNb

    “Should the religious survivor respect that?”
    I was an atheist married to a moslima; ten years ago we divorced and now I have a relationship with another. So this is an important question to me. The answer is definitely yes, but in the interest of the (religious) survivor.
    If my female counterpart gives me a funeral with religious rites she makes clear that she didn’t love me for who I am. I have made a testament, so my wishes are clear; but frankly I don’t really bother if my loved ones deviate on a few points. If they want to commemorate me for who I was they will have to give me a secular cremation. Everybody should feel free to pray for me if they feel the need, but some pastor or imam producing a lot of meaningless woo would be completely out of place and a legitimate victim of sarcastic mockery by my equally atheist son. Th├ít’s who I am in such cases.
    At the other hand, if my female counterpart happens to die first I’ll see to it that she will have a first class muslim funeral. The reason is the same – her belief is part of her and I love her wholly.

    “It is hard to think of a rational reason.”
    Some years ago I have concluded that ethical problems – and this is a matter of ethics – need an emotional component as well. I have tried to describe it above.
    Same for promises made to a dying person. It’s the commemoration that matters. Breaking the promise is saying you didn’t really think the passed away person that important.

  3. 3
    voidhawk

    If you promise to do something you should try to do it, regardless of whether the other party ever finds out about it, so if you promise someone a particular funeral you should do your best to see it done.

    If you know the person wanted a particular funeral and you cared for them, why would you give them anything else? If a funeral is supposed to be a celebration of the individual, then surely the wishes of that individal should be taken into account? I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong about throwing a few comforting religious lines out to help the living but you should, first and foremost respect the individual or else what is a funeral for apart from an expensive way of disposing of human remains?

  4. 4
    invivoMark

    If a person wants to make a statement posthumously, then presumably (hopefully?) that statement’s intent is for the benefit of the survivors.

    Conversely, respecting the wishes of the dead is often better for the survivors, since it may bring closure. It’s a better option than being wracked with guilt for “betraying” them after their death.

    Having said that, funerals are for the living. You are not giving respect to the dead for the dead’s benefit – they’re dead! They can’t benefit! You should do for the dead whatever you think will make you and the other survivors feel best. If that means giving them a different funeral than they would have wanted, then so be it. They’re dead, so they can’t get what they wanted anyway.

    In undergrad, I took an anthropology class about death. Of all cultures in history, ours treats death with the most distance, the most fear, and the most disgust. We’re squeamish about it, and we shouldn’t be. We let fear of death drive our lives. There are a lot of memes about death that we’d do well to get rid of. The reverence for dead bodies is one of those. The funeral industry thrives on this meme, preying on the vulnerable. They push people to pay far more than they can afford for the most disgustingly ornate coffins and headstones, and try to convince us that those things will make a dead person happy.

    Incidentally, I am also in favor of mandatory organ donation after death. The discomfort of those survivors who are squeamish about that idea is insignificant next to the grief and pain of those who are waiting for a donor organ, unsure whether they will live another month. To refuse to donate organs is to refuse the gift of life to a grieving family. I have no respect for the wishes of someone who would do that.

  5. 5
    Doug Little

    I’m down for full body donation to medical science. I’m a believer in the idea that a person lives on in the memories that we had of them when they were actually alive, so for me a funeral is a nice way for a disparate group of people to get together and share their thoughts and experiences about the person that died.

  6. 6
    justsomeguy

    invivioMark, you took the words right out of my fingers. Minus that part about the anthropology class about death; I never took one of those.

    Personally, I’m on the fence between letting my organs get harvested (which is just plain common sense) and donating my carcass to one of those forensics training camps. You know, the kind where real-life dead bodies are left out in the woods or in the trunk of a car or weighted down at the bottom of a pond, so that investigators can get first-hand experience identifying the telltale signs associated with those conditions. Science!

    As for my possessions: screw having a will. I want to have a *raffle*.

  7. 7
    ibbica

    Incidentally, I am also in favor of mandatory organ donation after death. The discomfort of those survivors who are squeamish about that idea is insignificant next to the grief and pain of those who are waiting for a donor organ, unsure whether they will live another month. To refuse to donate organs is to refuse the gift of life to a grieving family. I have no respect for the wishes of someone who would do that.

    I really do wish everyone would voluntarily become an organ donor upon death, and that their families would respect that donation. (Apparently, somewhere over half the US population would be willing to donate their organs, but more than half of those will have their wishes overridden by their family for one reason or another.) In principle I don’t have a problem with mandating organ donation after death. But in practice I don’t think it’s at all appropriate unless you *also* make sure that your entire population has easy access to basic necessities (food, water, shelter…) and equal access to health care. Otherwise (to oversimplify things a touch), you’re left with dying poor people supplying sick rich people with a steady supply of replacement parts.

  8. 8
    invivoMark

    I’ve heard that argument before (well, not in such polite terms – the last guy who pulled that argument screamed at me for being a bigoted, ignorant, one-percent elitist, but the logic of the argument was along similar lines). I don’t buy that argument.

    See, both rich people and poor people will get injuries or diseases for which they require a donor organ to survive. As long as the poor person has good enough health insurance, both people will be placed on a wait list according to their need, not according to their wealth. You can’t buy a higher spot on the list (at least, not officially). Depending on their afflictions, the poor person could well be higher on the list.

    Let’s say mandatory organ donation is instated. Suddenly, the supply of donor organs rises, and now both people on the wait list get donor organs and they both get to live, regardless of their wealth. Nobody dies, everyone wins.

    Are poor people less likely to benefit from the increase in organ supply? If their health insurance doesn’t cover the costs, then yes. But that was true both before and after mandatory organ donation. The poor and underinsured are unaffected.

    Are poor people more likely to die early? Yes, because their health insurance isn’t as good as that of wealthier people, but again, that doesn’t change with mandatory donation. Their likelihood of dying is unaffected.

    Mandatory organ donation might be more likely to benefit wealthier patients, but that’s a red herring. It hurts nobody, and helps many. Opposing mandatory organ donation for this reason would be like opposing public libraries in countries where literacy is less than 100%.

  9. 9
    Radi

    If I had a terminal diagnosis (death within 9 months or so), I’d throw a farewell-to-me party at least once a month,going to once a week as my body gives in to nature. All those parties would be the funeral for me. Once I’m dead my family can arrange a funeral to their liking if they wanted (after all useful tissue has been harvested), and the remains donated to a body farm. That way I get the funeral I like and want – and the extended nature of it allows for everyone who wants to, to say goodbye to me – and my family gets their preferred funeral and “closure”.

    Of course that wouldn’t work if I died suddenly. In which case I can only hope my family follows my wishes re. tissue donation and throwing the carcass to a body farm…

  10. 10
    Doug Little

    I think that it should be the other way around. The default position should be organ donation which you could decline if you so wish.

  11. 11
    BecomingJulie

    Incidentally, I am also in favor of mandatory organ donation after death. The discomfort of those survivors who are squeamish about that idea is insignificant next to the grief and pain of those who are waiting for a donor organ, unsure whether they will live another month. To refuse to donate organs is to refuse the gift of life to a grieving family. I have no respect for the wishes of someone who would do that.

    Oh, I think that the surviving relations should be asked if they want to donate the deceased’s organs …..

    Right in front of someone who is dying for want of a transplant. Let them tell someone who actually needs an organ, that they can’t have it.

    And obviously, registration with the organ donor scheme would be understood to be reciprocal. If you are not a member, you won’t be asked to donate — but neither will you be offered a transplant should you need one.

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    In those countries that have the ‘opt out’ option as default, a huge number of people are organ donors. In those countries where you have to ‘opt in’ (like in the US) the number of people who do so is low.

    The problem seems to be inertia, not rejection of the idea of donation.

  13. 13
    Mano Singham

    As I understand it, currently in the US relatives are asked if they would like the organs to be donated.

  14. 14
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Indeed, and here in Canada. I think this is a bad approach because of the LCD approach we take to these things.

    That is, if I the atheist have a group of relatives, any one of whom has a religious belief that I shouldn’t donate my corpse or its parts, then the LCD approach means that that one relative’s religious beliefs will be privileged, and I won’t be donated, which would make me sad, if I weren’t dead. Also, society presumptively loses in this case, due to the superstitious feelings of one person. This is obviously societally suboptimal.

    Default donation helps avoid some of this, by its impact on those who may face religious objection being able to specify in advance what to do about it: if they have an objection, they can say so when the positive decision to opt out is declared. This way, people who want to respect those beliefs can do so, and those who are content to let the state do the recycling approach can just let it happen.

  15. 15
    ibbica

    The difference between the inequality now and with mandatory donation is that it mandatory donation an additional disincentive to help the poor afford proper health care. If they’ve got proper health care, then not as many of them will die (yay! But wait… that obviously isn’t enough incentive – certain countries aren’t providing health care to everyone *now*)… but fewer people dying mean fewer organs coming available.

    Now sure, given the current numbers I’d expect that difference to be offset by the increase by donation. But that doesn’t change the fact that it seems to me like it would just make it more difficult for people to interest themselves in improving health care for everyone. It might not change the likelihood of poor people dying, but I’d see it as changing the likelihood of a country doing anything about that.

  16. 16
    invivoMark

    Damn straight!

  17. 17
    Thorne

    I was surprised that we didn’t receive more flak from relatives when we did NOT have funerals for our parents. That was my parents’ wishes, and coincided with my own feelings, too. Mom died first, and Dad wanted her cremated. He said that when he died he wanted to also be cremated and their ashes blended in the same urn, then buried. That’s what they got, with nothing more than small service at the National Cemetery at the time of the burial.

    For my part, I’ve always stated that I wanted my wife (or whoever survives me) to let the doctors take what they can, burn the rest, and drop the ashes in the first dumpster they pass on the way home. It won’t matter to me. If they want a funeral, that’s their problem, but please don’t stick my body in a casket and let all those people stand around saying how natural I look. I don’t think I could stand the embarrassment!

  18. 18
    bad Jim

    Perhaps I’ve seen too many episodes of “Six Feet Under”, but I like the idea of having my corpse fitted with a set of motors under remote control, so that at my viewing I could sit up, look around, and wave at the crowd, especially if no one was expecting it.

  19. 19
    Thorne

    Might make for a good fantasy to while away your last hours, but what’s the point? You aren’t going to be there to appreciate the reactions.

    But it reminds me of my mother-in-law’s funeral. The whole nine yards, two nights of viewing at the funeral parlor, the service at the grave. All I could think of was that the old bat was going to sit up and yell at us for burying her too soon. Or not soon enough. It wouldn’t have mattered to her WHAT she was yelling about.

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