Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics

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PAST AND DISTANT PEOPLE - WHAT ARE OUR OBLIGATIONS TO THE DEAD?

What are our obligations to the dead?

INTRODUCTION:

"Dead men tell no tales," so should it matter how we treat them? Is there anything wrong with partying on their graves, violating the terms of their wills, or speaking ill of them? After all, it's not as if we can harm them, right?

Should we remove an ancient burial ground in order to uncover natural resources, or to gain archeological knowledge?

Can we use organs of the deceased to save others regardless of the their stated wishes?

Do the dead have interests that must be looked after or even rights that must be respected? If so, are we obligated to follow their wishes to determine what happens to their bodies and their property after they die? Are we obligated to preserve their memories or values as a part of our history and culture? And if we do ascribe rights or interests to the dead, how do we weigh these against those of the living?

What are our obligations to the dead?

 

INSTRUCTOR PREPARATION:

  • Reading of suggested materials below
  • General understanding of the major issues in question:
    • Current legal policies and practices regarding the respect for autonomy
    • over one's property and remains.
    • What constitutes harm
    • The right to autonomy and its limiations
    • The conditions under which the interests of an entity must be protected?
    • How the rights of the dead may conflict with the interests of the living

 

LIST OF SUGGESTED MATERIALS TO BE READ BEFORE CLASS:

The resources below are intended to give the reader an introduction to the problem that presents them with some of the major issues of the debate without going into much detail about any specific issue.

General Information:

 

IN-CLASS ACTIVITIES:

 Watch:

Do: Ask students to think about and discuss the following questions:

  • Do the dead have any interests?
  • Is possible to harm the dead?
  • Is respect for the dead something that benefits us, the dead, and/or their family members?
  • As a society, is it useful to us to have norms that demand that the dead be shown respect?
  • What are some of the ways respecting the dead might be expressed?
  • In what situations might the possible interets
  • of the dead interfere with those of the living? What do we do in such situations?
  • Do our obligations to the dead (if we have any) depend on whether we have had personal relationships with them when they were alive?

 

* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our Suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.