In Death We Don’t Part from our Obligations

Last week in New Zealand, Ivy May Ngahooro became the third body snatched after disputes about burial between non-indigenous and Maori relatives. The distress of Ms Ngahooro’s family was extensively covered in the New Zealand press, with the will’s executor, niece Trish Scoble, saying that the loss of the body made her feel both “sick” and “frightened”. Scoble said that she would not stop until her Auntie May was laid to rest as she had wanted.

The body snatching cases raises interesting legal issues. One is that because New Zealand (like Australia) does not recognize bodies as property, the unauthorized removal of Ngahooro’s remains did not constitute theft or justify police intervention (though lawmakers in New Zealand now appear ready to change this).

The moral issues are just as compelling. For some, the Auntie May case was a storm in a teacup. Who cared where the woman was buried? Auntie May wouldn’t because she was dead.

But is it really that simple? Can we simply disregard the wishes of the deceased? Or are there things we owe to the dead?

Many moral thinkers, including Aristotle and Confucius, believed we did have obligations to the dead. Every time we refuse to speak ill of them or work to carry out their last wishes or insist they get justice when their demise was the result of foul play, we strenuously agree.

But while we know that it would be wrong to override Dad’s request to be an organ donor or for staff at the morgue to violate Mum’s body, it’s hard to explain why. After all, being dead, neither Dad nor Mum are likely to care.

But the end of a body doesn’t mean the end of a relationship. Just because my mother’s dead doesn’t mean she’s not my mother. So while the relationship demands of the dead are few, what demands there are can be said to create obligations in the living.

In the same way that relationships carry forward beyond death, so too do the interests of the dead person. It’s not hard to see why dead people would maintain an interest in the fate of their body and organs, and the protection of their memory, legacy and reputation. The law recognizes these things by enforcing the terms of the deceased’s will.

The fact that the dead won’t know of our failure to protect their interests doesn’t mean those interests don’t exist, and our failure doesn’t count. If you pledge fidelity to your partner when you marry, then sleeping with someone else make you a cheat and causes your partner hurt, even if they never find out. And if you don’t scatter Dad’s ashes in the Blue Mountains like he asked, the fact that he’ll never know doesn’t mean he wasn’t harmed when you let him down.

The upshot? That even if the dead don’t know we’ve harmed them, they have legitimate interests that can be harmed. These interests are ones those of us bound by relationship to the dead are obligated to defend.

Of course, many of the laws and customs surrounding death protect the interests and wellbeing of the living, too. For instance, restrictions on savaging the dead protect those who loved them from the helpless hurt of watching their memory and legacy tarnished.

But our obligations to the dead are stand-alone, too. Things we must do because despite the loss of their bodies, the dead are still people, too.

Publication history

In Death We Don't Part from our Obligations  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)