Corpses and Ghosts

We begin this entry with four general observations:  the body of the dead has been generally recognized in human history as of special significance in terms of values and respect; it is widely recognized that a living human being is a subject (a self or person), whereas his corpse is an object; the history of cannibalism raises interesting questions about the universality of values as well as it helps us measure the adequacy of our own values vs. those of “barbarians”; and, fourth, the topic of ghosts is not of interest only to those concerned with the paranormal, but can be important for an ethic for the living and for religious ethics.  After these general points, we turn to the topic of corpses and ghosts in Shakespeare and early English literature.

First, the idea that the bodies of the dead are of special significance is made evident in the earliest Western sources –  in the Iliad, the body of Hector is defiled, and there is also a horrific case of defilement (in which a father eats, without knowing it, the boy of his son) in Herodotus’ Histories.  Mutilating the bodies of one’s enemies has a long history from our earliest sources to today.  Honoring the dead by honoring the bodies of the dead has a similarly long history (e.g. Ancient Egypt, or the Christians’ concern for dead bodies) and presumably is antecedent to recognizing the defilement of corpses.  (Presumably, one would not have the concept that a dead body could be defiled unless one believed that a dead body should be treated with some respect).  Some of the ethical debates today on the permissible treatment of corpses reflect notions of respecting the dead.  When people donate their bodies to science or medicine or their bodily parts for transplants, what are the constraints or proper uses of the body?  In much of the west, it is thought that a dead person has no rights (legally or morally).  So, a person’s grave is not owned by the person who is dead, but it is owned and or held in trust and managed by a private institution or the state or a church or other house of prayer or religion.  After death, you no longer own your estate, etc.  So, in a case of when a body is treated with disgusting, profane acts (a body is exhumed and subject to necrophilic action), this is not legally classified as a form of rape and a violation of the moral and legal rights of the deceased.  It is illegal (and morally reprehensible) on the grounds of theft (grave robbing) and desecration as well as a matter of a serious breach of social order (in the form of a charge of obscene action).

Second, living human beings are embodied subjects (and who may also be treated as one would treat an object – weighing it, for example), while at death the body is no longer an embodied subject but an object.  So, after death, whatever one’s body does (fertilize crops) is not something that (normally) one can be said to be “doing.”  On this point, there seems to be a division among many moderns.  In English, some speak of burying people (e.g. we buried Aunt Mag last year) or burying their remains or a corpse.  This difference may reflect a religious or philosophical conviction about the afterlife or the existence of the soul.  Of special ethical significance is determining when persons are dead.  What appears to be a living human being can be kept alive indefinitely through advanced medical technology.  And yet, if there is what appears to be irreversible loss of consciousness, should we conclude that the “living human being” has actually died?  Karen Gervais’s first book addressed the criterion of death.

A third matter involving corpses involves cannibalism, or what is formally referred to as anthropophagy (from the Greek “human being” and “to eat”).  In his famous essay on cannibals, Montaigne describes (perhaps with some relish?) the practice of cannibalism:

“They have continual war with the nations that live further within the mainland, beyond their mountains, to which they go naked, and without other arms than their bows and wooden swords, fashioned at one end like the heads of our javelins. The obstinacy of their battles is wonderful, and they never end without great effusion of blood: for as to running away, they know not what it is. Every one for a trophy brings home the head of an enemy he has killed, which he fixes over the door of his house. After having a long time treated their prisoners very well, and given them all the regales they can think of, he to whom the prisoner belongs, invites a great assembly of his friends. They being come, he ties a rope to one of the arms of the prisoner, of which, at a distance, out of his reach, he holds the one end himself, and gives to the friend he loves best the other arm to hold after the same manner; which being done, they two, in the presence of all the assembly, dispatch him with their swords. After that they roast him, eat him among them, and send some chops to their absent friends. They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices among their neighbors, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this. I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not among inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbors and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under color of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.”

Montaigne’s essay raises at least two concerns.  First, how might we explain the different values humans have developed (for some, cannibalism is abhorrent, for others it seems natural?  This is a topic too deep for this entry.  For those interested in defending some forms of cannibalism, see this essay.  Here is an abstract:

“Recently, a man in Germany was put on trial for killing and consuming another German man. Disgust at this incident was exacerbated when the accused explained that he had placed an advertisement on the internet for someone to be slaughtered and eaten—and that his ‘victim’ had answered this advertisement. In this paper, I will argue that this disturbing case should not be seen as morally problematic. I will defend this view by arguing that (1) the so- called ‘victim’ of this cannibalization is not in fact a victim of murder, and that (2) there is nothing wrong with cannibalism.”

We are inclined to think that the problem with cannibalism is that (except under very unusual conditions like the case of the downed airplane in the Andes) it is a case of violating the sacredness of being human.  This is assuming what most of us believe about  human bodies and their properties; that is, we do not think that eating someone’s body is a way of appropriating their virtues or personage, and we do not believe that we have been commanded by a god or God or by ancestral spirits to eat human corpses.  None of the world religions allow for anthropophagy.  One way to bring to light why we would today (those of us who are religious or secular) find anthropophagy repellant comes to light if we consider the way it would impact our perception of one another.  Imagine a culture in which anthropophagy was a daily, ordinary practice.  In such a setting, when you see someone walk into a room, what would be wrong with perceiving the person as a piece of meat?

In fact, we can imagine the following:  someone looks at you (or your body) and starts salivating when he observes out loud: “You know that the average human body contains 71 pounds of edible meat?  And while you may want to eat it with pepper you may not need salt because the average human body contains 4 ounces of salt.”  Moreove –and this would be part of a slippery slope argument—why wait for people to die to start enjoying meals made up of their body parts?  If someone consents to you eating his fingers, wouldn’t that be the ultimate “finger food”?  Admittedly, this “argument” is appealing to your emotional response, but we think that such an emotive response of revulsion is revealing–it brings to light the idea that we hold the body to be precious and that we should be revolted by mutilation of human beings for the purpose of food.

To further the above case against anthropophagy, note our (natural?) revulsion of using other people’s bodies or bodily parts as a matter of commerce or state interest.  So, as this text is being written, the USA is facing a difficult problem of immigration.  Consider the following way of addressing this problem:  persons are allowed to immigrate to the USA if they are willing to have their red blood cells extracted for medical use every eight weeks for five years or, in a case of platelet apheresis, candidates for citizenship must give blood donations every 7 days for up to 24 times per year for 5 years.  I think most persons would find such a practice morally offensive, degrading, and repugnant.  We suggest this is because of our explicit or implicit view that the human body is sacred and should be treated with respect.

A second concern arising from Montaigne’s essay may provide further reasons for supporting our last point.  Montaigne appears to be arguing that while the cannibalism he describes is something Montaigne himself believes to be abhorrent, and something he thinks we should find abhorrent (Montaigne is especially well known for his condemnation of human cruelty), he is using it to condemn the way “educated”, “pious”, (perhaps even)
Christian” Europeans treat the living.  This second concern is based on our knowing that some things are right and wrong, and calling us to wake up to and renounce our own wrongs.

Finally, by way of general observations, consider ghosts.  The belief in the reality of individual persons surviving the death of their bodies is widespread culturally and historically.  This is not the same thing as believing in ghosts, however.  For example, in Christianity one’s life after death is modeled on the resurrection of Christ, and we Jesus claim not to be a ghost in Matthew 24:39:  “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

There is no universal understanding of what a ghost might be (if there were ghosts), but it seems fairly widely believed that a ghost would be a person who dies and survives death as an incorporeal spirit and (for whatever reason) is allowed to have some temporary role and capabilities in certain places.  We will not take up further here investigating the possibility of ghosts or matters of evidence, but we note that from a metaphorical point of view it is natural to think of the lingering effects or ongoing impact a person or thing may have after death.  On a battlefield, one may have a sense of the presence of those who were killed.  Some ethicists would have us focus primarily on the future and only take into account promises made to those who have died and past action as morally relevant insofar as this involves the present and future.  But for those who think the past matters and holds important resources and sources of obligation, to think of past persons as being real today can be important.  On this point, it is probably better (or less misleading) to refer to the spirit of some past figures or events, rather than ghosts.  Even so, whether one speaks of ghosts or spirits, this can be a way of referring to what is more about a person’s life than the career of his or her body.

And now on to literature:  the role of corpses and ghosts is a fascinating theme that some literary scholars have highlighted, specifically in the early modern era from Shakespeare to Goethe.  At that time in Europe there is an extraordinary mix of elements from Christianity in its medieval form (including devotion to relics), the rediscovery of classical work (the Renaissance recovery of Greek and Latin sources), the emergence of naturalistic themes in the visual arts and modern medicine.  In the later two cases, in the 14th century onward, artists and scientists were among those who were most active in acquiring corpses (legally or illegally, as in grave robbing).  Dead bodies and especially skeletons or, more specifically, skulls appear in early modern Europe as reminders of the devastation of the Black Death and the mortality that weighs on us all.  For Shakespeare, the corpse can sometimes play a role that is (as it were) in between life and death.  There is, of course, the sheer carnage in Titus Andromicus, but there are numerous cases of apparent deaths and hints of (at least the semblance of) resurrection as in The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Much Ado About NothingMeasure for Measure, Cymbeline, among others.  There are also hints of the idea that a person sometimes needs to die (or appear to) to be saved or for there to be reconciliation.  One of the figures redeemed by Imogen in Cymbeline is even named Posthumus.

On ghosts in literature, we suggest that the reasons why thinking about ghosts or spirits can be important in life itself can also be a reasons for entertaining ghosts in literature.  For more work on ghosts, see these books on parapsychology.