Fortune’s Bones: Is There Dignity after Death?
In 1995 Gunther von Hagens presented his Body Worlds exhibit, described as a collection of real human bodies that have been “plastinated” to prevent their decay and make them more malleable. Some of these plastinated bodies were cut open to reveal their inner organs and then positioned in lifelike poses. The exhibit toured the world and was wildly popular.
Body Worlds also generated some criticism. Canadian social scientist, Lawrence Burns, argued that “some aspects of the exhibit violated human dignity.” (7(4): 12-23 Amer. J. Bioethics 2007) Although touted as an educational experience Burns and others worried that the bodies were being used as “resources to make money from the voyeurism of the general public.” A key concern was that the bodies were denied burial and that this was a dignitary affront. Burns conceded, however, that the concept of human dignity as applied to deceased individuals is unclear.
I started to think about whether there is dignity after death and, if so, what are its parameters, when I read a news article from the New Haven Register, about the skeleton of an enslaved man that was being studied by the anthropology faculty and students at Quinnipiac University prior to burial.
The enslaved man who died in the 1798 (slavery was not abolished in Connecticut until 1848), was named Fortune. At the time of his death Fortune was the human chattel of a Waterbury Connecticut physician who upon Fortune’s death boiled his body to remove the flesh keeping his skeleton to study human anatomy. Fortune’s body remained unburied and was on display as late as 1970 at the Mattatuck Museum where until recently it was still housed.
I was familiar with the story because last academic year the University of Maryland College Park sponsored a year-long series of events about Fortune. The series was triggered by a 2004 book written by Connecticut poet-Laureate Marilyn Nelson, Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem and inspired by Ysaye Barnwell a UMCP professor and member of the cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. I was a member of the committee that worked on the series. We were disturbed by Fortune’s story and his unburied remains. The series was a year-long requiem to precede his long-delayed burial.
Aspects of Fortune’s story reminded the Committee of a contemporary Maryland story described by Rebecca Skloots in her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In 1951 researchers at Johns Hopkins University took the cells of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black Baltimore mother of five who was dying of cervical cancer, without her consent and developed the “immortal” HeLa cell line, a major human cell line used globally in scientific research.
Last month I learned that a year after the UMCP requiem Fortune still had not been buried, and that his bones had been shipped to Germany for further examination. Then later that month I learned that Mrs. Lacks’ family, who did not benefit from the research using her cells, felt even more violated once they learned that scientists sequenced the genome of the HeLa cell and posted that information online. The genetic privacy concerns of her survivors aside, what about Mrs. Lack’s dignitary interest? To a non-expert in this area, these incidents seem like continuing assaults on the dignity of the deceased.
Scientists and anthropologists might argue that the cases of Fortune and Mrs. Lacks are distinguishable from Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibit because the educational value is clearer in the former than the latter. They might also argue, as one Johns Hopkins researcher told me, that the HeLa cell is not part of Mrs. Lacks but has morphed into something quite different. Thus it does not matter that her family consider the cell to be a living part of their deceased family member. Still others like academic Stephen Bates ask whether human corpses are different from skeletons or human cells. (Prenates, Postmorts and Bell-Curve Dignity, Hastings Center Reps. 2008) The more human-looking the remains, Bates writes, the more concerns about dignity seem to arise.
According to my colleague Leslie Henry, there are strong moral arguments for dignity after death as well as some laws that arguably recognize some type of dignitary interest. Physicians usually are required to secure consent from the deceased’s next of kin before using a cadaver to teach medical students. There are statutes that penalize the desecration of grave sites (beyond trespassing). There also is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which required federal agencies to return “cultural items” including human remains, to the descendants of Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Granted none of these laws directly touch on the cases of Fortune and Mrs. Lacks.
In the end I offer no suggestions. But I am concerned because too often the people denied dignity in death, were also denied dignity in life.