March 5, 2024

It’s about more than pushing up daisies

Why should we mourn the dead?

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a wide range of difficult ethical questions. Many relate to care for the vulnerable –care for the aged, distribution of vaccines, mandatory social distancing, and so on. But all these revolve around living people. What about those who have died?

In a thoughtful post in the blog of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Portuguese philosopher Luís Cordeiro-Rodrigues asks why we should mourn the dead. During the current troubles, many regretted that they could not mourn their loved ones properly because funerals are often prohibited or postponed.

But from both a Kantian and a utilitarian perspective, this makes little sense. For a Kantian, duties are owed only to rational autonomous beings. A corpse is neither. For a utilitarian, the dead should be respected only because of the disutility to their significant others.

But Cordeiro-Rodrigues points out that neither approach accounts for the deeply human need to grieve and to give the dead “a good send-off”.

“A better explanation for why we owe mourning rituals to the dead,” he writes, “lies on a relational moral theory. According to this theory, the highest good consists of positively relating to others.”

We can have a partial moral relationship with a corpse, he contends. “When mourning the dead, we are performing acts of good-will to the extent that we are helping to fulfill the goals they once had. We are also performing an act of identification because we are not creating distance, but closure, finding ways to connect with significant others who are no longer alive. In terms of negative duties, the theory implies that, as an act of good-will and identification, we ought not to use their body in ways they would not accept.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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