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.


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4 Responses

  1. Miriam Cherry says:

    This is a great post, very thought-provoking! I haven’t been to see “Bodies” because I’m squeamish, but also because I’d heard it was presented in a pretty flippant way, and at least here in St. Louis – the exhibit was being displayed at incongruous places like the local mall… I’m not sure if that’s the same exhibit as the 1995 one, or whether there are different companies with different exhibits…

  2. Penny Andrews says:

    Thanks for bringing this issue to our attention in such a thoughtful manner. The issue raises interesting questions, more so for the living than the dead. [Apologies for being so obvious.] Aside from the
    compelling considerations of status, power, and treatment of the individuals so “desecrated” after death, does much not depend on our approach to science, or to religion, or indeed to death itself?

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    Really interesting issue — but there appears to be a typo in the post. The Fortune’s Bones website indicates that he died in 1798, not the 1880s.

  4. “The human species is only partly natural. It is the only species about which that can be said.”—George Kateb in his book, Human Dignity (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011)*

    I’ve been thinking about this delightfully provocative post for some time now, perhaps with little of substance to show for it. Nonetheless, I think it is true that there is something to the notion of a dignitary “interest” (not my favorite term, but it will do for the moment) with regard to the dead (as individual persons). Apart from recognizing the expressed desires of the decedent about what to do with his or her remains or attempts at inferring the wishes (e.g., by way of immediate family, closest friends, or end-of-life caregivers) of the decedent, and sans any burial or after-death treatment and (ritualistic) practices associated with a decedent’s worldview that may express or somehow reveal this dignitary attitude (so it would not be about any post-mortem interest as such), I’m inclined to believe this should really be thought of along the lines of what Kant meant by dignity in the sense that that concept is in the first instance about the respect we show humanity in the individual person.

    Now, for various reasons, some of them of Kantian provenance or inspiration, showing respect for such dignity has been taken to mean acknowledging the person’s (normative) human agency (as a capacity), in the sense that the ways of being (a) human (animal) distinguishes us from our nonhuman animal relatives. This means honoring both our “being” and “willing.” David Luban, who prefers a naturalistic and non-metaphysical account of dignity—albeit one with “ontological heft”—believes Kant was speaking more about the “willing” than “being” but I think he’s mistaken on this point. In any case, Luban’s discussion of dignity is largely intended for legal ethicists (although it has wider value outside that application, as he himself suggests and demonstrates), and in this context he speaks of the lawyer listening to the client’s “story,” every person having a “story” to tell insofar as they are “authors” in some measure or another of their lives (and, as characters, part of the narrative accounts of at least some of those with whom they have interacted over the course of their lives). These stories revolve around “meaning” of various kinds, however inarticulate or disturbing we might, as outsiders, find them to be (think of those accused of the most heinous crimes), for to “have a story,” Luban writes, “means being the subject of experience, and it means existing in a web of commitments, however detestable or pathetic those commitments may be.” Luban’s naturalistic rendering of dignity appears unable to account for how we might accord dignitarian respect toward the decedent, after all, the author of the story, the subject of the experience, is no longer with us. And yet he or she may become a character or even protagonist in the stories of those who survive and follow the decedent, for we are, as has been said “inveterate story tellers” (folk psychological theory, say, like that proffered by Daniel Hutto, is here quite useful in accounting for this fact). These stories could be seen as functioning to remind us what it means to be human, involving questions of individual and collective identity, memory, and meaning, for example. In short, we treat the dead with respect (more about this in a moment), as a reminder to the living what it means to live a human life, for death is a vivid and insistent reminder of the value and beauty of life (human and non-human), a value and beauty that becomes part and parcel of the best stories we tell.

    At this point I think we might go beyond Luban and back to Kant, for the respect we show the dead is more than their potential to become part of the stories we tell, in fact, more than a few people die alone, without loved ones or others who will recall their lives as part of any narrative, however modest. It is about the respect we bestow upon the dead person because the dead remind us of the incalculable, intrinsic worth, and thus non-instrumental value of human dignity in the living person, of why, as Kant said, we should always treat people as “ends” (‘self-sufficient’ ends at that, and thus not in the sense of some thing or state of affairs to be brought about by us) and never merely just as “means” (the ‘Formula of Humanity as End-in-Itself’). Death, as we say, serves somehow to give meaning to life (of course the concepts of life and death are mutually—conceptually if not logically—dependent on each other). Kant’s concept of human dignity (as Martha Nussbaum and Michael Rosen would each remind us, there may be other forms of dignity) is “metaphysical” (in a secular sense, although there are of course religious conceptions of dignity, and Kant’s treatment comes awfully close to revealing religious or religious-like sentiment, as when he speaks of the ‘inviolable holiness’ of humanity), and I think it is only a metaphysical conception of the person that would license us to speak in any significant or meaningful way about treating the dead person with respect and dignity (insofar as the ‘metaphysical’ for Kant is beyond the’ phenomenal,’ natural, or material world). Bernard Williams correctly pointed out that “The ground of the respect owed to each man thus emerges in the Kantian theory as a kind of secular analogue of the Christian [actually, in the first instance, Judaic] conception of the respect owed to all men as equally children of God. Though secular, it is equally metaphysical….” From the vantage point of Liberal political philosophy, democratic pluralism, and Rawlsian “overlapping consensus,” the advantage of a “secular” metaphysical conception should be of some importance, as it might be endorsed by both the religious and non-religious (save those who are not simply agnostic but rather dogmatic naturalists or materialists, metaphysically speaking). We need only acknowledge or appreciate this non-naturalist metaphysics in a “thin” or minimalist sense without subscribing to the specifics of Kant’s own metaphysical views. Kant did at times link dignity to our capacity for self-legislation, morally speaking (we are sources of ‘law’), but his emphasis on the inviolability and equality of dignity possessed by each of us in virtue of our metaphysical status as human beings is what is foremost and paramount, even if it is the possession of this or that attribute or property that prompted Kant to explain how we are at once both part of (our ‘empirical’ nature) and outside of the created or natural world. It is this Kantian metaphysical conception, greater in scope if not deeper in value than the (or ‘a’) moral principle of autonomy that prevents dignity from being “redundant” (vis-à-vis autonomy) as argued by the bioethicist Ruth Macklin. It is this Kantian concept that is something other than what Stephen Pinker described as “squishy, subjective notion,” even if its origins as an idea lie in a somewhat dim or inchoate awareness that functions as an intuitively axiomatic value in the form of a simple presupposition or assumption prone to the “frequently dismissive or hostile attitude” among those few philosophers who have taken notice of the concept (Michael Rosen). George Kateb refers to this, somewhat confusedly I think, as an “existential” value.

    Such dignity as we possess as an intrinsic value is not dependent upon the exercise of what Kant referred to as our morally self-legislative capacity or the realization of this or that attribute or property because, as Rosen has noted, personhood for Kant, that is, the “humanity in my person,” is logically (if not metaphysically) “prior to the power of choice and overrides it.” Thus even if one important way we demonstrate respect for persons is by fulfilling the conditions of human agency and providing freedom for expression of the powers and capabilities associated with human nature or human autonomy, dignity is not dependent on these or any other actions as it is, metaphysically speaking, intrinsic to our nature as human beings, for we are by definition embodiments of transcendent value, of “unconditional” worth (a somewhat mysterious and dualistic mix, so to speak, of the ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘noumenal’). This is why we say someone cannot rid themselves, surrender, or disavow their dignity (cf. Rosen: ‘Individuals are capable of acting in ways that show their intrinsic dignity even in the most humiliating or degrading circumstances.’), even if someone deliberately demonstrates a lack of respect or self-respect with regard to its possession, or if others try to undermine our capacity for expression of that dignity. Hence, as Rosen rightly states, “We do not have to bring the dignity of humanity into being or stop it from being destroyed, but we do have to find ways for acting that express esteem for it.” No doubt the most urgent and important expressions of that esteem should occur in the instance of human lives here and now, still, there does seem something to be said for a secondary, derivative, or parasitic expression of such esteem even at and after death, if only to remind us of what is lost with the death of a human person. But this does not mean or imply that life itself is of absolute value, after all, if Kant’s conception of dignity is a non-naturalist, metaphysical one, there may be some things or things of value beyond life as such, in Kant’s words: “If a man can preserve his life in no other way than by dishonoring his humanity, he ought rather to sacrifice it” (this should suffice my way of showing that Christians don’t possess a monopoly on appreciation of ‘sacrifice’ on behalf of transcendental value). In fact, it was Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), who Rosen calls upon to supplement Kant’s account of dignity, who has something intriguingly relevant to say in this regard, for he argued, in Rosen’s words, that “respect for humanity requires us to mark the value of human being even (or indeed especially) when the gross material facts of our animal existence are inescapable—in contexts of death and suffering.”

    * Although Kateb helpfully explains what he means by humanity’s partial “break with nature,” for a fuller philosophical elaboration of this idea, please read all three volumes of a trilogy by Raymond Tallis: The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being (Edinburgh University Press, 2003), I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), and The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth ((Edinburgh University Press, 2005).