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Is Necrophilia Wrong?

Writer Tauriq Moosa argues that our objections to necrophilia come down to primal disgust, and that most ethical arguments against are logically untenable. 

Cemeteries are not for the dead, but for the living. The dead will not thank us for the coffins made to their specifications, nor compliment us on the choice of flowers or gravestones. They cannot do so, since they are, by definition, dead: they feel nothing, they cannot communicate, they are no longer living. That is why we should find the concept of abusing the dead, specifically necrophilia, a bizarre topic. It’s not bizarre because of people having sex with inanimate objects. This occurs frequently and frankly it shouldn’t concern us that some people find, say, toasters sexy. What’s bizarre is what we’re prepared to do and the attitudes we’re prepared to dredge up in cases where those inanimate sexual objects once happened to be living humans.

Like incest, we may find the act of having sex with corpses disgusting, but we can’t let that be the only determinate of an appropriate response. Take the case of Richard Sanden, from Ohio, who was accused of necrophilia (or rather negligent necrophilia since he “didn’t know” his sex partner was dead). He was initially charged with “abuse of a corpse”, after he notified the police that his partner was dead. However, after police watched a video he had tried to hide, he was charged with necrophilia.

The case is made easier (or more ridiculous) by the fact that Mr Sanden did not “intend” to have sex with a corpse. But intention is not important for now. What matters is the overarching idea of whether or not it is possible to abuse, harm, or in some way offend the dead. 

We are Not Sacred

The major problem is that almost all arguments about respect for the dead tend to be extrapolations from the idea of humans as some kind of cosmic or metaphysically “special” beings: that is, humans are, by definition, sacred because of some relation to elements or entities that transcend our everyday existence. This is usually a god or something equally important to many people. There are few reasons to think such supernaturally and cosmically important entities even exist, so naturally there will be little reason to think their relations with us true. 

Indeed, untying ideas of sanctity from assertions of divinely-ordained anthropocentrism is, I think, impossible. And there is little reason to think humans are cosmically special, since there are few arguments that are not merely circular, theological pap. However, whether one believes in god or not, the arguments presented about necrophilia do not sustain criticism.

Denying cosmic significance does not mean we should treat our fellow humans as entities for us to abuse. Ideas of dignity, rights and deeper moral questions continue, without automatic accord going to the supposed assertions of mythological beings, entities and concepts. So much backward thinking continues, such as unrelenting stances against euthanasia, organ donation and abortion, because of the idea that humans are special beings with some kind of cosmically significant purpose. Even when we are discussing adults being able to do what they want with their bodies – whether it’s donating organs or taking their own lives – very strong opposition exists almost solely resting on the belief that humans are “special” beings.

For our current purposes, denying the automatic sanctity accorded humans means we can more seriously consider whether there’s justification for thinking human bodies are automatically inviolable. This is why testing these assumptions against the case of necrophilia matters, since it will show whether we’re consistent in our application.

Is Necrophilia By Definition Wrong?

If humans are not significant by any supernatural measure, are they significant by others? Ruling out arbitrary metaphysics does not negate the notion that we can still respect each other through concepts of rights and dignity and so on. There are numerous problems with these notions, too, but at least these rest not merely on the whims of whichever deity or religion is in fashion. We can treasure each other, love, care and empathise quite easily without divine or cosmic mandates. But when it comes to dead bodies, we cannot say the same. We cannot say we love the dead: What we love, honour or treasure is what they gave to us while alive. Whether Socrates’ body is cut up and boiled matters little to those who find his contribution to Western thought important. This is why cemeteries are for the living, not the dead. 

The first opposition to necrophilia then is about, as we’ve seen, ‘abusing’ or disrespecting the dead. But the reason we ought to be upset by someone violating a dead loved one is not because it will offend the deceased, but because it offends us. Our dead loved ones become, essentially, property. Just as we wouldn’t want someone breaking into our home and making a concubine of our toaster, we would not want the same for the bodies of our deceased loved ones. Their memory is not violated, only the corpse which once housed their living selves, personality, or whatever. Thus, we can condemn necrophilia but we should get rid of the term and simply call it property violation. There is nothing special about a dead human body.

A notable inconsistency arises. The fact that people give up their bodies to science, medicine and crematoriums means we are willing to do things that ‘violate’ the deceased. If so, we ought to be willing to say that if someone truly wants to be merely a cadaver with which another can sexually pleasure himself, then so be it. Why are we willing to chop up, burn and mutilate a body but suddenly turn Puritan when sex steps into the picture? There’s no reason to oppose sex with a corpse, by definition. Again, one might oppose it on property violation grounds, but this only highlights the irrelevance of its being a dead human being.

Another response to necrophilia rests, as usual, with the transmutation of disgust into a crime. No one, surely, can consider disgust a sufficient criterion for sending people to prison and darkening their lives with a criminal record. But different things disgust different people, so we would be resting criminal procedure on the whims of whoever happened to hold the highest office that day. This would affect anyone, since one could be convicted for merely holding a view, let alone committing an act, that someone finds disgusting. This is no way for a society to exist. We need open discussions, based on reasonable debate, as much as possible. This is not a call for relativism, as some might think, but a call for an effective use of open, critical discussion, not using (merely) emotions and personal feelings as sufficient grounds for decision-making.

This need not be said but at least should be mentioned: corpses cannot be physically harmed. Thus, if we factor out aspects like property violation, there is little that crops us to indicate necrophilia as a wrongful act. 

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Some might say having sex with the dead is unhealthy. But then so is smoking, driving, drinking, which we allow. Besides, corpses can be cleaned and can be made more hygienic than many living people.

Again it’s not clear what makes necrophilia wrong by definition, aside from property violation since the dead only matter to the living. If there was no living person who cared about the corpse in question, what would make violating it – whether through sex or mutilation or eating – wrong? It’s uncertain, but there’s little reason to support sending people to prison for merely having sex with corpses, if there’s no one to whom the corpse belongs. 

Not Advocacy but Reflection

Necrophiliacs may disgust us, but we cannot let our disgust filter out clear reflection on the subject. There is little reason to think the act automatically wrong. But being unconvinced by the arguments against an act does not mean one automatically supports or encourages it. 

All that we have done is reflect on arguments and justifications which proclaim necrophilia automatically wrong. We have shown them to be highly suspect and wanting. Indeed, by weeding out bad arguments we can arrive at more comprehensive and non-metaphysically or divinely-based reasons for opposing necrophilia: for example, property violation. 

All other reasons tend to be merely elaborations on disgust or some special pleading that treats humans as magical entities that play some cosmic role. By ridding ourselves of these notions, especially the latter, we can more clearly understand why we should, for example, care about other humans based on reasons that don’t rest on spurious metaphysics and cosmic aspirations.


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