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Persons, not Compost: How to Think About Dead Bodies

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Familiar words to many, a reminder of the shortness of life and the need to use our time well. While some may find the sentiment morbid, it is actually a statement of human dignity, for while noting our mortal animality it reminds us of our freedom and responsibility. Animals, yes, but human and rational animals.

For many in our wisdom-starved age, however, death offers no reminder of dignity. Some are terrified of finitude, anxiously seeking escape, no matter how bizarre or grisly—such as human-computer interface [1], or cryogenics [2], or blood transfusions from the young. Others, perhaps more realistic but no less forgetful of human dignity, consider the human body as just so much garbage, another problem for waste management.

According to some environmentalists, disposal of the deceased poses a challenge; after all, cremation contributes to global warming and air pollution, burial takes up valuable land, and options [3] to allow fish, dogs, and birds to consume bodies remain illegal, expensive, or difficult to access. Still, some enterprising types have determined ways to quickly and efficiently compost [4] human corpses, sometimes with the use of liquid nitrogen or in mass composting facilities, a “three-story decomposing core” that will have “grandma … ready for planting” in a mere six weeks.

If one wishes to live “green,” it makes sense that one might wish to die “green,” yet the language used is remarkably inhuman. The body is to be “recycled,” “discarded,” “used,” “sliced and diced,” “disposed,” or “sold for profit,” but apparently not honored, esteemed, or reverenced.

Now, beneath the apparent difference between those who will go to any lengths not to die and those ready to discard and recycle their bodies is a shared assumption, namely, that the human body is not fundamentally dignified and worthy of respect. For the transhumanists, say, those hoping to upload consciousness onto a mainframe and escape the mortal coil, the body is just baggage, an inconvenience, a vehicle transporting their “real selves,” that is, their minds. For those looking to compost or recycle, the body is waste, trash, or, at best, a resource to use, a source of fertilizer or replacement parts. For neither group is the human body quite human, personal, and valuable insofar as personal.

Both groups view the body as sub-personal, as the conveyance of an organic or “wet” robot, but not identical to the person. This is an incorrect view, not because it violates religious or traditional values but because it’s unreasonable—it’s just bad philosophy.

The human person is not two beings—not a body plus a soul/mind where the mind is the “real” person and the body just a possession or impediment. Neither is the human person simply matter. Instead, the human person is an ensouled body. Each of us has a material principle and an intelligible or spiritual principle; like other animals, we have bodies but also freedom, responsibility, personhood. This “spiritual” principle is not something mystical or weird, it’s simply a recognition that the person we each are is free, responsible, rational. That is, not a chunk of impersonal matter. Persons are not chunks, not resources, not garbage, not tools, but selves, a “who” rather than a “what.”

Now, because we are persons, and because we are intrinsically embodied, our bodies and all our bodily functions are caught up in the drama of being a person. This is why human sexuality is not just rutting and reproducing but also a communion; this is why the embryo is not a non-person but already an embodied person in an early stage of his or her development; this is why a disabled or infirm body has not lost its personhood but is rather a person who is disabled or infirm. Our body—my body, your body—is us, is the place where the drama of personal responsibility is lived and enacted.

Death is the end of that drama, or at least the end of that drama as we know it in this mode of existence, but our awareness of death is a gift, a reminder that our actions have an end, the curtains of this drama will come down. Remembering death is a call to play our parts well.

We don’t get to recycle or discard or compost our humanity, and the reverence with which we treat the deceased body tells us much about the reverence we have—or don’t have—for persons.