Friday, October 4, 2013

"All those people, all those lives Where are they now?": The moral quandary of morbidity

Should dead bodies/relics be displayed, how, and by whom?

The article that inspired this series of questions:
  Dead Bodies and Archaeological Corpses: Aesthetics and Body Worlds

Ok, so anyone who knows me knows I like morbid things.  There is eternally fascinating beauty in the dead, decaying, and strange.  I'm generally not squeamish about bodies and relics.  They can be beautiful or meaningful.  As I don't believe in an afterlife, I don't find them significant in the spiritual sense, but I maintain a secularized respect for the dead.

But the question comes to mind: whose dead?  Should it matter how they're displayed?  Is this humane?  I'm not so freewheeling in my ethics that I see any corpse or relic as simple materials to be exploited.  However, should there not be some limits to how well they're protected, lest we end up being defacto religious?

And then that raises another quandary...I am atheist, but I am (as the kids say) totes down with your religion as long as you don't use it as a weapon.  I actually do respect the good that is possible with religious communities and the individuals that I find and get to know on a personal basis.  I don't respect it because it's "the thing to do and shut up and don't ask questions".  But I do pride myself on not being an obnoxious nonbeliever.  So I'll tip my hat to traditions - I keep a few pieces of papist idolatry around the house, I say hi to the local deity on a friend's altar, and so on.  More to the point, I also don't walk on graves if I can help it.  I criticize the excesses of the American funeral industry, but I see its necessity.  I consider the dead still with us in some sense.  Ancestor reverence is a big part of my worldview.  Not being an ass is another large part of my worldview.  So where does this leave me with dead bodies and pieces of them?  

Every corpse you see in a museum, that was someone's parent, spouse, lover, friend, or child.  Every bone was once housed in flesh and muscle, and once moved through this world as the mind within that body thought, opined, suffered, and rejoiced.  This was once part of a human being and for that it should be respected.  "Respect" differs widely between cultures.  There are cultures that can't bring themselves to say the word "dead"  (people don't die, they "pass").  Then there are cultures that haul the corpse right back out of the ground and change its clothes.  Many people in this world fall somewhere in between.

Is it ever right to display the dead without consent of the body owners themselves?  We've gained so much knowledge from the study of corpses, especially from vanished cultures, but I don't know how well the idea of display sits with me.  The most intimate connection any human being has is her own body.  Even when the consciousness that animated a body has ended, there is still something to respect.  Unless a researcher has explicit permission, or at least tries to seek it out from whoever is now the custodians of a body, she should tread very carefully before objectifying and displaying the most intimate thing.  Even if there is noone left to guard the memory of the former occupant of that corpse.  There is much the living can learn from the dead, but no one can ignore the longstanding entitlement in western sciences - entitlement to bodies, objects, and memories not belonging to the scientists' own culture.  It is one thing to approach representatives of a particular culture and, engaging them as fellow humans, asking if they'd share any personal details or customs OR cataloging their intimate lives for your own desire.

What is ok in terms of display if this corpse or relic is not from your culture?  Or from any extant culture?  

I suppose now I fall into the "document, photograph, and repatriate" camp.  Now, especially, we have the technology to record so much more detail of bodies and artifacts.  We don't have to have them right there in front of us to learn.  We no longer have to imagine - we can scan, rotate, and do all sorts of things to reveal details about bodies that our predecessors never considered.  We don't have to keep someone's ancestor in a glass case anymore.

Say an American archaeologist in the southwest US finds that local builders have uncovered an infant corpse in Zuni land.  She dates the remains, and they're quite old.  Say there's something remarkable about them, something that can make acadmic careers, and can make museums line up with giant checks.  Should this archaeologist hand over the corpse, especially knowing the history of Native Americans and the US government?  If the local tribe's reps aren't interested in the corpse, well there's noone claiming the body, so it may as well go "to science".

But what if the local tribe wants to bury what is clearly one of their ancestors?  Once our archaeologist has learned all she can, and documented it, that corpse should go back to the Zuni community to re-inter as they see fit.  Science has its piece, tradition has its piece, and everyone knows a bit more about the distant past.

Let me revisit that first option - noone claiming the corpse.  A body is pulled out of a bog in Ireland, a body dating back so far that noone alive feels any connection.  What to do?  Re-inter?  If it's all the same, why not put it in a glass case.  It could still serve science, and most certainly would be a local attraction.  Should this be troubling, or is this overthinking?


This all may well be overthinking, but I am something of a Victorian at heart, so I have a lot invested in morbidity and collecting.  I like specimens, insect collections, bones, possessions of ancestors who died years before I was born.  I also like museum exhibits, books, and documentaries about death, burial customs, mourning customs, and so on.  Should I feel qualms about propping up Big Mummy?

As a student of history, I know all the dirty secrets that the science and progress hold.  These are the very concepts that suppory both my personal fascinations as well as my daily life - concepts I live by as an atheist and humanist. I know how scientific inquiry was (and still is) abused to exploit, appropriate, and violate the bodies of many, many people.  But I refuse to wholly reject science.  Instead, I insist on guiding principles of humanism and empathy.  But my ass is still gonna go to the Mutter Museum and stare.  Should I feel bad about that?  Or, as Hobbes says, "simply acknowledging the issue is a moral victory"?

Deeper than thou: Pop-morbidity and real curiosity
Quirk’s breathing anatomical specimens and Body Worlds’ aestheticized corpses reinforce archaeologists’ understanding that few artifacts are more compelling than the human body.  Yet Body Worlds brings death into the open without actually speaking its name.  Instead, it invokes a narrow notion of education, a detached scientific rationality, and a candid curiosity about bodies and mortality.  Body Worlds is partly a shallow health public and anatomical lesson and partly an artistic exhibit in which the elements of the works are plasticized flesh and organs. (Paul Mullins  emphasis mine)
I've never been to Body Worlds, and I'm not inclined to, especially after Paul Mullins' take on it.  Also, I find the painted models too close to the silliness of "booth babes" to take it seriously (click the cite link for a photo).  But I am familiar with the "narrow notion of education" he talks about here.  It's a phrase I can finally apply to a feeling I've had before.  Years ago, I went to England with an ex, and toured the requisite castle.  Our whole party went to the dungeon, making the normal jokes about "devices" and the har-har elbows.

 But I wondered at the cheekiness of the presentation.  The instruments that inspired the replicas on display were used to wreak horrors on real human beings.  These things were invented with the sole purpose of breaking bodies and minds.  And they often worked.  Should this be funny, especially since we still use torture today?  The sadistic impulse has never dimmed, only the tools have changed.  So, should the racks, pears, and oubliettes be funny, even if the last person to expire from them did so centuries ago?  Shouldn't there be more decorum?

To take this back to the point of the post, should a dead body be a prop?  How absurd can you be before you are wrong to manipulate the remains of an individual (barring their will, of course)?  Or is the very idea of "wrong" a superstitious holdover from Catholicism?

Curiosity and the desire to lock eyes'n'sockets with poor Horatio - these will never go away.  Humans delight in the things that disgust them.  This is the perverse, and it's valuable. I don't find curiosity wrong.  But what are you employing that curiosity for?  Are you really educating anyone or are you providing the cheapest of thrills?  And shouldn't we expect more gravitas from our visits to the underworld?

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