Do Dead People Have Rights?

Yes it’s a Friday and I should be having fun but there’s something more morbid on my mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about death and dead bodies recently and want to share my musings. The thoughts were sparked a couple of weeks back when I went to the Museum of London’s newest gallery– an exhibition on 19th Century human dissection complete with Real Dead Bodies. Most of the bodies were those of criminals sentenced to death and dissection,but one had a more unusual, and disturbing, fate. Prominently displayed in the middle of the gallery was the body of an elderly man who had been executed for murder. He too was to be sent to a medical school for dissection but ended up instead at an art college. The problem facing art students at the time was creating realistic depictions of the crucified Christ and the body of this poor man was to serve as their model. Chemically preserved and nailed to a cross, the body hung in the art school for over a century and was displayed in this same form in the museum gallery.

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Like many visitors, I found the display of this man’s body disturbing but I wasn’t sure why. After all, the logic behind dissection as a punishment was partly a Christian one- that without a complete body the deceased would not resurrect at the Second Coming. As an atheist, this was hardly of concern to me, not to mention that a complete lack of belief in any afterlife should make the idea of disrespecting the dead a ridiculous one- how can you offend someone who no longer exists? But this did little to rid me of the suspicion that there was something wrong in using a corpse like this. Thinking about this for a while after, I came to the conclusion that bodies, dead bodies, do in fact have rights.

I swear I’m not crazy.

The term “dead people”, you might say, is misleading because just as “fake Gucci shoes” aren’t Gucci shoes, “dead people” aren’t actually people and how can we do harm to something that is no longer a person? Well it’s certainly true that the original person could’t have been aware of the damage that was due to be done to their body, but that doesn’t make damaging that body ok. It is perfectly possible to harm a living person without their being aware of the harm but that hardly makes discreetly poisoning someone’s cornflakes ok just because they haven’t realised what you’re doing. And is it not true that we can impact on someone even after they’re dead? If his popularity was a feature of Jimmy Saville during his life, the fact that he is now reviled is surely just as much a feature. What is meant and known by “Saville” has been changed, even after his death.

So if a victim being unaware of their harm doesn’t excuse that harm and we can affect someone even after they are dead, it doesn’t seem entirely bonkers to suggest that we can harm someone after they are dead. This isn’t to say that we should treat the dead just as the living; depriving a dead person of oxygen doesn’t inflict quite as much damage as depriving a living person of it. But it does make the opposite extreme, that the dead are non-people, sacks of meat, less reasonable.

Now back to the Museum of London display. If we are to accept that the bodies of the dead being mistreated is harm to the person themselves then it seems clear than disfiguring that body is harm and that we therefore shouldn’t accept the continued crucifixion of the elderly convict. This isn’t to say that dead bodies are sacred, rather that they remain, within reason, subjects to the wishes of their owners. Jeremy Bentham wished his body to be put on display in University College London and it rightly is, but to allow this man to have his humiliation extended by centuries seems wrong to me. He should be allowed to rest in peace.

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