Memento Mori, An Excerpt from Corpse Care: Ethics for Tending the Dead

Mar 27, 2023 12:10:00 PM / by Mikeal C. Parsons and Cody J. Sanders

Memento Mori An Excerpt from Corpse Care: ethics for Tending the Dead

One day we will all become dead bodies.

When the Spanish waged imperialist war against the people of Mexico in the early sixteenth century, in addition to death by the sword, the colonizers also brought death by disease. Smallpox ravaged the people of Mexico such that it disrupted the funerary rituals of cremation and ritual burial of the ashes because there were simply too many corpses to care for in the customary way. In some instances, houses had to be simply brought down atop the corpses contained within.1

Additionally, many violent encounters between the European colonizers and the Indigenous peoples of North America included a disruption of deathways2 as a means of violence. For example, the Mexica at times engaged in cutting open and offering body parts of the Spaniards as sacrifices, which aggrieved and offended the Spanish notion of the sanctity of the corpse informed by their Catholicism.3 Similarly, the English colonizers demolished Powhatan temples in which the bones of their ancestors were buried as a method of uprooting them from land that held a deep significance for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it was where the remains of their dead were interred.4

In the aftermath of Civil War battles, when thousands of corpses lay across the battlefield, the task of deathcare was overwhelming and nearly impossible. Drew Faust notes that survivors would often “shovel corpses into pits as they would dispose of animals . . . dehumanizing both the living and the dead through their disregard.”5 The Civil War disrupted the deathways of nineteenth-century America and stretched the government, the military, and nearly every community in the United States beyond its funerary capacity, indelibly changing the shape of deathcare in the ensuing century.

War is always attended by the necessity of caring for the dead whose corpses rest beyond the parameters of the time period’s “good death.” The United States spends $100 million every year trying to find and identify the eighty-eight thousand missing in action from every war since World War I.6 We might remember in our own recent history the lengths to which government agencies went in order to recover and identify the remains of the dead buried under the rubble of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers when they fell on September 11, 2001. While we recover bodily remains from mass graves created by wars or terrorist attacks, we dig them for the victims of plagues and pandemics. In the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, corpses lined the streets of some neighborhoods in the United States, and few living persons remained to bury them.7 Mass graves were dug. Wood to construct coffins ran out. In the aftermath of this pandemic, there were few public displays of mourning, and the rituals and ceremonies that traditionally accompanied the dead were absent.8

While the dead body was used as a weapon of war between Indigenous people and colonizers, the weaponization of the corpse has continued throughout US history. Between 1882 and 1942, over four thousand African Americans were lynched in the United States.9 After the murder of African Americans at the hands of white people, the Black bodies-now-dead were desecrated. Body parts became “souvenirs,” sliced from the corpse and distributed to the crowd. The United States Postal Service even made photographs of Black bodies left hanging in trees into postcards, mailed around the country.10 The Black corpse itself was unwillingly enlisted as a signifier of racialized violence in Jim Crow America.11

Achille Mbembe painfully reflects on massacres like these that happen the world over and the ways in which “bodies stripped of being” are quickly returned to bones: “The most striking thing is the tension between the petrification of bone and their strange coldness, on the one 

hand, and the obstinacy in wanting to signify something at all costs, on the other.”12 The same might be said of the corpse itself—before it returns to cold bone: it signifies something to us about our treatment of bodies, both dead and alive, and activates movements toward justice in the wake of violence and death.

In addition to the corpses of the massacred becoming an obstinate signifier of injustice and, in prior eras, becoming weapons of war, the willing corpse has also been enlisted as an actor in nonviolent protest. In his art and writings in the midst of the US AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, activist artist David Wojnarowicz engaged with the corpse, exploiting “productively the hypervisibility of the person with AIDS in the discourse of American politics and mass media . . . and refashioned this vilified corpse into a political weapon to be detonated at the door of those directly responsible for perpetuating the epidemic.”13

The activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) staged “die-ins” in conspicuous places like the lawn of the United States Food and Drug Administration and in the aisles of New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to bring attention to those dying of AIDS while the government and the church did nothing to help, instead disparaging gay people who were experiencing the brunt of the epidemic. But beyond people living with AIDS and their allies posing as dead, activists also turned to the AIDS corpse itself as an ally in activism. Funerals were politicized, with coffins put on public display and the cremains of friends brashly placed at sites of “perpetual wrongdoings” as a witness against the suffering wrought by the virus.14 On October 11, 1992, the cremated remains of several bodies were even scattered on the lawn of the White House in an act of protest against the Bush administration’s neglect of the AIDS crisis. In some circumstances, it becomes “difficult to distinguish the funeral from the demonstration.”15

Our care for and about dead bodies in these instances is telling. We have a visceral reaction to any act we perceive as desecrating the corpse—whether it is dead soldiers whose corpses are lost on the foreign battlefield, or Michael Brown’s body lying on the hot asphalt of Ferguson, Missouri, for four hours. We express shock at the sight of bodies buried without ceremony or the necessity of interment in the mass graves of a pandemic. We look back on lynching and are appalled not just by the wanton murder of Black people but also by the blatant indignity added by the racialized mutilation of their bodies after death. We develop the ability to weaponize the corpse against enemies in war, as well as the ability to enlist the corpses of dead comrades in acts of civil disobedience and protest. We regularly draw on the corpse’s ability to do something and not just be something.

One day, then, we will all be dead bodies. This is distinct from saying that one day we’ll all be dead. We have myriad cultural and religious impressions about what being dead will be like for us, from a resplendent heavenly existence, to an earthly reincarnation, to a deep and dreamless sleep. What is different about saying that one day we will all become dead bodies is that it stops us just short of those theological, spiritual, philosophical images of what comes after death, if anything. It confronts us with the materiality and meaning of our dead body and the significance of our own body becoming dead.

It is not just a morbid philosophical exercise in confronting our own mortality. Saying that we will one day be a dead body is a statement about our lives as embodied creatures, incarnate beings. Our fleshy incarnation holds within it the inevitability of death as part of its very substance. Our bodies contain within them, at this very moment, a sure unfolding toward death. Death is not, however, the end of our incarnation. Rather than an ending, death is integral to the process of our bodily becoming.16 There is an element of desire to this becoming. Our incarnate bodies hold a desirous beingness-toward-death.

Importantly, we will still continue to be bodies—just dead ones rather than living ones.

What we do in relation to this stage of bodily becoming, the inevitability of our incarnation into death, presents us with a number of theological questions. But these are questions to which very few Christian theologians, ministers, or faith communities have given any careful attention in the last century. What we do in relation to our dead bodies is a subject that we do not often discuss in a theological way in our circle of friends, with our family, or within our congregations.

What we want “done” with our bodies after death is often reduced to a check mark on a funeral director’s planning form under the heading “disposition.”

Cremation or burial?

Embalming or no embalming?

No viewing, family viewing, or public viewing?

This casket or that urn?

Chapel service or graveside?

We’ve made the options for body disposition easy. Once the box is checked and the papers signed and the payment rendered, we no longer have to think about it. When we become dead bodies, our disposition is decided and paid for. We stop asking questions about the dead body.

Our bodies, however, do not make their dispositions quite so transparent to us. In addition to what we want to be done with something—how it is to be placed or arranged in space—“disposition” can also mean the qualities or natures or inclinations that something or someone possesses: a child with a cheery disposition, a dog with a disposition to run away when let off leash, or an employee with a disposition toward perfectionism.

One is a question of administrative disposition over the dead body, the other a question about the meaning of a body’s disposition in the process of becoming dead: “the way our embodied nature yearns to unfold.”17 When we come to the administrative question of the disposition of a dead body in the first sense, the theological question becomes one of disposition in the second sense: In our beingness-toward-death, what do our embodied “natures” and our fleshy desires and our incarnate becoming suggest to us about what we should do with and in relation to our dead bodies?

Every embodied experience we have leading to the moment of our death suggests something about our incarnate body’s desires—from our first memories of seeking shelter in the warmth of a parent’s embrace, to our romantic impulses leading to a first kiss, to our body’s draw toward the familiar grounded feeling of plunging our hands into the dirt of our gardens, or a sense of being lured into the woods to trek among the trees.

Bodies also have desires in relation to their becomingness-toward-death, a disposition of fleshy resistance against the simplicity of checkboxes on a form in the face of the body’s deathly incarnation. Engaging theologically in our body’s “disposition” raises critical questions about how we’ve come to relate to our bodies when they become dead.

Why have these choices of “disposition” and no others become the selections we are routinely given to make in relation to our dead body?

Where did these options come from, and what is their history?

How are contemporary options for body disposition related to grander narratives that attempt to make sense of our body’s relationship to the wider world?

What is the meaning of these options to us when we face our own incarnate movement toward becoming dead bodies?

How do we conceive of our place among the community within the living web of life that is affected by the decisions we make in relation to our dead bodies?

Importantly, if the choices we are presently given for the administrative disposition of our dead bodies have a developmental history tacitly resting just behind each one of these options, are there also potential futures of deathcare toward which we might move if we turned a theological eye toward the question of the body’s disposition toward death?


Corpse Care

This is an excerpt from the introduction of Corpse Care: Ethics for Tending the Dead.

Topics: Excerpt, death, Ethics

Mikeal C. Parsons and Cody J. Sanders

Written by Mikeal C. Parsons and Cody J. Sanders

Mikeal C. Parsons is Professor and Macon Chair in Religion at Baylor University, where he has taught since 1986. He has authored, co-authored, or edited more than twenty-five books and numerous articles and essays. With Heidi J. Hornik, Parsons co-wrote the Illuminating Luke trilogy (T & T Clark). He also co-authored the Baylor handbook on the Greek Text of Luke and Acts and published commentaries on Luke and Acts in the Paideia Series, which he co-edits. The Rev. Cody J. Sanders, Ph.D., is pastor to Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square; the American Baptist Chaplain to Harvard University; and Advisor for LGBTQ+ Affairs in the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is Affiliated Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology & Chaplaincy Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.