Questions concerning the ethical treatment of the dead have been with us at least since Sophocles, for whom a single act of leaving a corpse unburied brought mayhem that threatened the stability of society. In Antigone, the punishment King Creon gives to the murdered Polynices is so severe that it extends beyond the limits of life. According to Polynices’s sister Antigone, death is only the beginning of the torments a body can face: “As for the hapless corpse of Polynices, it has been published to the town that none shall entomb him or mourn, but leave him unwept, unsepulchred, a welcome store for the birds, as they espy him, to feast on at will.”
For Sophocles, to leave the dead unburied is an insult not just to the deceased or his family, but to the gods. That proper treatment should be given to human remains, Antigone insists, is among “the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.” She defies the state and risks her life in the attempt to see these statutes carried out, and calls upon others to do the same, even asking her reluctant sister, “Will you aid this hand to lift the dead?”
It’s difficult to imagine how Antigone’s plight might play out today. For those with the savings or the life insurance settlement to pay for it, there are any number of ways of dealing with human remains that are considered acceptable, and in every case the state requires, rather than prevents, some form of timely and permanent removal. Burial, cremation, resomation, organ donation, “whole body gifts” to science; all have become legitimate options. Although it is common for the preferred means of disposing of an individual’s remains to be stated before death, often the method is chosen by the family of the deceased. In either case, there are few ethical concerns. Though a corpse has no autonomy, the treatment it receives, if carried out in accordance with specified wishes, can be seen as the last act of the will.