The form of the soul: human dignity and our duty to the dead

In the final hours of 2022, New York became the sixth US state to legalise the “natural organic reduction” of human remains when the Democrat Governor Kathy Hochal signed into law a Bill authorising the practice better known as “human composting”. This process, also referred to as “terramation”, involves placing a body into a sealed box, along with sawdust and vegetable matter, and leaving it to break down. After 30 days, about halfway through the process, the bones are removed, fragmented and returned to the box. When the process is complete, around 36 bags of “nutrient-dense soil amendment” are presented to the deceased’s family. This can be used “to plant trees or enrich conservation land, forests, or gardens”.1 “Human composting” is reportedly gaining popularity as a supposedly environmentally-friendly alternative to burial. One US firm, quoted by the BBC, claims it can save a tonne of carbon compared with cremation or traditional burial.2

Dennis Poust, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference regretted the introduction of the practice which fails to treat the dead with appropriate respect. In a statement issued after the Bill was signed, he said:

“Throughout human history, and in every culture, the disposition of human remains has followed a variety of rituals, but always involving interment or cremation. The process of composting is associated with the sustainable disposition of organic household or agricultural waste to be repurposed as fertiliser for gardens or crops. But human bodies are not household waste; they are vessels of the soul. Therefore, the Bishops of New York State do not believe the process meets the standard of reverent treatment of earthly remains.3

A society’s treatment of its dead is perhaps the truest reflection of the value it places upon the living. Human dignity is the basis for human rights but it also implies fundamental duties towards the dead.4 In The End of Life, Euthanasia and Morality, James Rachels relates a story told by Herodotus which contrasts the funeral practices of the ancient Greeks with the Callatians.5 Rachels uses it to advance the case of moral relativism. Yet despite differences in customs, the story indicates a common recognition of the dignity of the dead and the understanding that those who abrogate their duty to the deceased bring dishonour on themselves.

Article 17 of the Geneva Convention reflects the value placed on the remains of fallen soldiers when it states: 

“Parties to the conflict … shall further ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged, that their graves are respected, grouped if possible according to the nationality of the deceased, properly maintained and marked so that they may always be found.”6

By contrast, the dissection of the dead in nineteenth-century Britain was considered to be the final indignity reserved for the bodies of executed criminals. Dissection denied the deceased a Christian burial, a taboo so powerful that even the suspicion that the remains of ordinary people had been acquired by medical schools led to riots and civil unrest across Britain.7

In one incident in early January 1832, a dog uncovered human remains on the grounds of a newly constructed anatomy school in Aberdeen. When nearby residents became aware of this, a crowd forced their way into the building and found three more bodies naked, ready and waiting for dissection. The crowd took the bodies outside, covered them with pieces of clothing and carried them through the city gathering support. A mob of thousands then descended on the anatomy school. Those inside set it alight while the rest of the mob began to break down its walls. Attempts by the fire brigade to fight the blaze were blocked by the rioters. Wisely, the city officials recognised the specific cause of the unrest and allowed it to run its course. By nightfall, the building had collapsed and the rioters had returned to their homes.8

Later the same year, similar events were narrowly avoided in Manchester when a man became suspicious that the body of his three-year-old grandson, who had died in the city’s cholera hospital in Swan Street, had been interfered with. After the funeral, he opened the coffin and discovered that the boy’s head had been replaced with a brick. Soon, a mob had broken down the gates of the hospital, lit a bonfire outside its doors, started smashing windows, and threatened violence against the doctor. Only the intervention of a local Catholic priest calmed the situation. The priest informed the mob that the doctor, a Dr Lynch, was not involved, and that an apothecary, who had since fled, was solely responsible for the crime.

Believing the priest’s testimony, and learning that the army had been sent for, the crowd gradually dispersed. The boy’s head was subsequently found in the apothecary’s lodgings. It was returned to the coffin and he was reinterred the following day. A warrant was issued for the apothecary’s arrest but his whereabouts remained unknown.9

Despite the unrest associated with dissection, 1832 was the year in which Parliament passed the Anatomy Act. This legislation was intended to remedy the shortage of cadavers in British medical schools by authorising the dissection of inmates of the workhouse system whose families could not pay for their burial. Effectively, the Act turned the mortal remains of the destitute into state property. What had been a punishment for convicted murderers became the final penalty imposed on the poorest of the poor. Unsurprisingly, the Anatomy Act brought an even greater horror to the prospect of the workhouse but did nothing to end the anger and violence directed at the medical establishment. 

The utilitarian ideals which motivated the supporters of the Anatomy Act can be seen in the treatment of the dead in our own time. In principle, laws which presume consent for organ donation treat the bodies of the dead as if they were the property of the state. The current option of withdrawing from the register of donors, and the reassurance that the next of kin will be consulted, are concessions that could be revoked if future circumstances make it necessary. 

There are also influential voices calling for the state to take on even greater powers. Professor John Harris, the bioethicist and patron of Humanists UK, believes that the retrieval of organs from the dead should be made mandatory. The state, he argues, has not only the right but the moral responsibility to do so in order to save lives.10 Harris also advocates for what he calls an ethical trade in human organs. Even if it could be guaranteed that such a trade would avoid the obvious potential abuse, this would turn the human body into a commodity — an idea that has been almost universally repudiated since the abolition of slavery.

The forensic pathologist, H E Emson, correctly asserts that there can be no concept of ownership of a human body, but he bases this conclusion on the view that our bodies are simply biological material. He writes:

“…our bodies are part of a total pool of elements and molecules which is the biomass of our planet, and which interacts with its inorganic mass to some extent. We acquire our bodies by anabolic synthesis from this pool, during their growth, and during their lives, we exchange their components, their elements and molecules, with the pool. The individual body has the character of a stream, having the same continuing gross appearance but whose constituent parts are continually changing. After death, when whatever it is that makes the individual has departed, the body which he or she has used must inevitably return to the pool, to come up again as wheat or roses.”11

Emson sees respect for the bodies of the dead as merely a race memory left behind by evolution. “In a strictly utilitarian ethic,” he suggests, “the rights of the potential recipient [of the commandeered organs] would be pre-eminent…”

The acceptance of materialist and utilitarian ethics have already resulted in the legalisation of the use, exploitation and destruction of human embryos on a global scale, as well as the commercial harvesting of tissue from aborted children. Yet these ideas find their origin in one of the most fundamental philosophical errors of the modern era; that is, the dualism espoused by René Descartes. It would be impossible to exaggerate the influence of this hypothesis. Even among Christians, human identity is widely regarded as a “ghost in the machine”.12

Descartes’ dualism is also incompatible with a modern understanding of how the brain and body are interconnected chemically by substances such as hormones and peptides, released in one and going to the other via the bloodstream. In DescartesError, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sets out how the relationship between cognition is directly linked to the design and physical processes of the human body in a much more sophisticated way than previously understood.

“The apparatus of rationality, traditionally presumed to be neocortical, does not seem to work without that of biological regulation, traditionally presumed to be subcortical. Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it. The mechanisms for behaviour beyond drives, and instincts use, I believe, both the upstairs [cortex] and the downstairs [subcortex]: the neocortex becomes engaged along with the older brain core, and rationality results from their concerted activity.”13

Contrary to the statement issued by the New York State Catholic Conference, the body is not the vessel of the soul. In Catholic philosophy, the body is the form of the soul and the two make a single entity with inherent human dignity. This is true even when injury, disease or disability leaves the body so impaired that consciousness appears to have been irretrievably lost. Because human dignity exists as a relationship of rights and corresponding duties between individuals and human beings collectively, it even persists after death. As the Italian Thomist philosopher Antonio Rosmini explains:

“There is certainly no duty where there is no knowledge of having a duty. But this is not true for right. Right must be respected in itself; the possessor does not have to know the respect due to it. It is sufficient that the duty of respect is known by those who must practise it — that is other human beings — not the subject themselves of [the] right.”14 (Original emphasis)

Human dignity carries implications for the moral status of human beings collectively. Certain rights are inalienable and certain duties, including our duty to the dead, cannot be abrogated regardless of environmental concerns or utilitarian ethics. Policies that undermine human dignity, even after death, not only offend the individuals affected by them, but also degrade the perpetrator and, in a very real sense, humanity as a whole.

  1. Dean Balsamini, “Hochul legalizes ‘human composting’ for eco-friendly burials in New York” (New York Post, New York) 31 December 2022. https://nypost.com/2022/12/31/hochul-legalizes-human-composting-for-eco-friendly-burials-in-new-york/
  2. James FitzGerald, “New York approves composting of human bodies” BBC, 1 January 2023.
  3. Statement on Gov Hochul signing legislation permitting human composting, 2 January 2023.
  4. Göran Lantz, “Dignity and the Dead” in Lennart Nordenfelt (ed) Dignity in Care for Older People (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) p 187.
  5. James Rachels, The End of Life, Euthanasia and Morality (OUP, 1990) p 1.
  6. Geneva Convention (1949) (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 12 August 1949. Prescriptions Regarding the Dead. Graves Registration Service.
  7. Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, (University of Chicago Press, 2000).
  8. Ibid., pp 90–91.
  9. Ibid., pp 228–229.
  10. See Alastair V Campbell, “Why the body matters: reflections on John Harris’s account of organ procurement” in John Coggon et al (ed) From Reason to Practice in Bioethics: An Anthology Dedicated to the Works of John Harris. (Manchester University Press, 2015)
  11. H E Emson, “It is immoral to require consent for cadaver organ donation” (2003) J Med Ethics, 29, 3, 125.
  12. The term “ghost in the machine” was coined by Gilbert Ryle to describe Descartes belief that the human mind exists independently of the body’s physical existence. See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1949).
  13. Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (Avon, 1995) p 128.
  14. Antonio Rosmini, The Philosophy of Right: Rights of the Individual, Denis Cleary and Terence Watson (trans) (Rosmini House, 1971) p 18.