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Who Deserves to Die? The Politics and Future of Death

juliah's picture

We built a graveyard. Plaster and wood were manipulated until they resembled the demolished façade of a building. We put people there, too. People playing people—pedestrians, faces you see every day. We created a world besieged by tragedy, modeled after a very real decimation. The Bi-Co Theater Program at Bryn Mawr College’s production of “Antigone” took the infamous play by Sophocles and made it relevant in a post-9/11 world. For this production, I worked as the Assistant Costume and Set Designer, helping bring to life Director Catharine Slusar’s greater goal: to question where, how and if humanity exists after violence. Throughout the production, we continually sought ways to better represent the horror, the catastrophic events which have altered so many people’s world. To accomplish this, we confronted death; death became our facination. We scrutinized it in the faces of those in the very throes of death, and in the faces of those looking on. Death became a motif—which leads me to wonder, where is the compassion[i] in that?

In her essay “Violence, Mourning, Politics”, theorist Judith Butler questions what constitutes a grievable life, declaring that humanity lies in the unifying experience of death and mourning. She confronts America’s “War on Terror”, calling it a knee-jerk response to shock, mourning, anxiety, and anger following 9/11. Further, Butler asks why the names and faces of those lost in the attack on the Twin Towers are somehow more valuable, more realized, than the thousands of lives lost in mass killings that occur with tragic regularity. “There are no obituaries for the war casualties that the United States inflicts, and there cannot be. If there were to be an obituary, there would have had to have been a life, a life worth noting, a life worth valuing and preserving, a life that qualifies for recognition.” (34) In our adaptation of “Angitone”, we wanted to dissect just how people today might react when surrounded by death and bodies, so we transported it from ancient Thebes into a modern-day metropolis replete with technology, and all the complications that accompany it. Still, the primary themes remained—conflicts over politics and power, the battle between personal morality and societal structures. Unquestionably, these themes transcend the time period, making our translation believable, despite the transition of worlds. Butler, too, recognized such parallels[ii]. Butler makes note of Antigone’s compassion through her willingness to ignore political pressure for the chance to truly grieve the lost. “Antigone, risking death herself by burying her brother against the edict of Creon, exemplified the political risks in defying the ban against public grief during times of increased sovereign power and hegemonic national unity.” (46) One can conclude that Butler views Antigone as a feminist, due to her opposition to militarism and her decision to place loss and mourning above a political agenda. Though the cause of the violence has no meaning to Antigone, for she chooses to look beyond that and focus on grieving for compassion’s sake, Butler does take the time to note a cycle that creates and reinforces such brutalizing behavior. Her theory of derealization looks at global society as one that establishes a human hierarchy, a world where certain lives are somehow more grievable than others and thereby reinforcing an idea that violence can be acceptable, or at least not necessitate mourning, if it is done to something “unreal.” This cycle creates both the Polynices and the Creons of our world. In our case, Polynices could take the form of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects, was the center of major controversy. Where would the remains of a mass murderer lie in peace? Multiple cities refused to allow his burial within their borders. Eventually, Tamerlan’s uncle reportedly received aid from an interfaith coalition, who accepted his nephew’s remains and buried him in an unmarked grave in Doswell, Virginia. This decision sparked a heated debate. One side viewed the burial as an intrinsic human right, with a commenter stating “Whether he was Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist…when you're dead you need to be buried or taken care of, not just left in a funeral home.” The opposition felt that his being accused of killing “Americans on American soil” stripped him of that fundamental right, going on to state that Doswell does “not wish to be the home of the remains of one of those perpetrators.” Looking at such a controversy through Butler’s lens, one returns to the theme derealization. It is all too easy to make someone unreal and thus was one’s hand of the responsibility to mourn, to regret.  Butler would not excuse Tsarnaev for what he did. She sympathizes deeply with the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and surely does with the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Instead, she would claim that both of these arguments are a waste of time. Butler would not think that the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is important, but rather bring attention to the public’s obsession over him and his body. She would claim that the public’s hyper awareness of one single body, regardless of the circumstance of the death, is unjust and undeserved, seeing as thousands die every day with little to no recognition at all. She would see the headlines and public obsession over his life and death as a kind of ironic honor, and that the wrongdoing lies in his remaining presence in our minds, while so many others go forgotten. (Botelho, Newton)

This concept of the body as an entity holding such importance has been a major quandary for me. There is such irony in the treatment of the dead, the categorization of a corpse. Our society fetishizes bodies (living and dead), giving them philosophical weight even as they decay. Terms such as a “lifeless body” are paradoxical when compared to how people truly behave. As a society, we put such import on a body that calling it “lifeless” is laughable. Individual corpses are treated in extremes. Some, like Tsarnaev, are seen as symbols of hate and are intolerable. Others are revered, held as relics, entombed in glass caskets, and made into shrines. Our inability to part with bodies is perplexing; ours is the only species that attempts to somehow preserve the lifeless shell rather than allowing it to return to the earth. From ancient traditions of making casts of the dead’s faces to modern attempts to pickle disembodied heads in formaldehyde, we seem incapable of parting with the body.

My interest in this fetishization stems from personal experiences with death. Being raised without a religion, I had no belief in the body possessing a soul that was distinctly separate from the physical, biological self. I believe that we do live on, but it is only through our impact on this earth and the legacy we leave in the minds of our friends and families. Any experiences with death that I have been directly affected by all basically happened over the phone. Each time a friend or relative died, the only memories I have are of those painful phone calls; for me, their lives ended when the call did. I’ve never attended a funeral service, nor do I think they happened for any of the deaths in my family. We grieved, but we understood. Death, for me, is such a part of life. The person who has died is mourned and often spoken of, but their death is never the focal point; we never commemorate, or even remember, the day they died. Their body is not made into a relic, I don’t visit gravesides, it’s just not necessary. Instead, they remain prominent in my thoughts, just as they were in life.

For the religious, such an outlook must inevitably raise the question of the “soul”. Again, I do not ascribe to traditional religious dogma, and do not believe the soul is a separate entity; however, this conviction is clearly held by many[iii]. The idea of the soul as separate from the body poses some real questions for me. For example, why is such importance placed on a body if the belief is that, in death, the soul parts from it? This preoccupation leads to the politicization of bodies for disjointed, unclear reasons. There are those who have tried to link the body with the soul, however. An episode of Radiolab, entitled “After Life”, tried to make the connection between the two, reporting on various stories that made different cases for the importance of bodies and the existence of souls. The first story that had real significance to me was that of a physician’s experiment to detect if a soul, in fact, parts from the body in death. In 1907, Dr. Duncan MacDougall sought out to prove that the soul left the body after death, and that this was a measurable event. To do so, he took dying individuals and placed them on a scale, comparing their weight directly before and after death. While he did claim to have found a mean difference in weight of his subjects, the results were so miniscule, they could have easily been flukes of the scale (especially figuring the technology of the time). This example of the fixation with the soul illustrates the need for some to create a link between beliefs of the significance of a soul with the vessel that carries it. People search for a way to make the abstract concrete, attempting to prove that the spiritual has evidentiary support. Perhaps this is why significance is placed on the body; those who believe in the soul as a separate being cannot resolve that idea with the impermanence of a body, and look for measureable proof that could somehow endow a body with such divine properties.

All of these questions are made even more complicated with science’s seemingly ever-changing views on what constitutes death, and for that matter, life. In that same episode of Radiolab, they make the case that, as science has progressed, our lines for determining whether someone is alive or dead are blurring. In the past, simple tests for a pulse, breath, or heartbeat were used to ascertain mortality; however, science has developed so far that those simple signifiers are easily remedied with defibrillators, ventilators, heart pumps, and all manner of other technological advances. However, when the mind seems to have ceased functioning, does the still-operating body (despite the fact that it is only functional with extraordinary assistance) constitute a living being? Again, this brings issues concerning the body and soul to the forefront. If the soul only leaves the body after death, then isn’t trapping it in an inanimate, decomposing  vessel sacrilege? The body no longer constitutes a life, but the soul may only part the body after death; therefore, keeping the body alive only gets in the way of the soul’s ability to move on. This simplification, however, does not factor in the brain. As the people of Radiolab explore in their episode, the brain is a far more complicated place. Some brain activity can be detected to confirm a person’s level of understanding, and if coherence is life, then this is the only true way of determining if someone is alive or dead. Clearly, lines of life and death are just as complicated as those previously discussed between the body and the soul.

There are much simpler, less prolonged musings on the soul that I find compelling for my own views on life. This semester, I have been awakened to the ecofeminist movement, and have come to truly identify with many of the ideals it possesses. I explored the basics of ecofeminism in my first Web Event entitled “Putting Down Roots: My Journey to Ecofeminism”. In it I discuss ecofeminism as a political, spiritual, compassionate movement that, in my opinion, it is the most inclusive of all the named branches of feminism. According to an essay by Kimberly Fry, ecofeminism does not see the soul as a religious entity, but rather as an extension of the self. It attempts to take spirituality out of the abstract and orient it “within cultural norms, symbols, expressions and politics of the day,” (Fry 203). Ecofeminism is a response to the oppression of all beings, animals and Earth, by kyriarchal structures. Fry cites theorist Heather Eaton’s views on eco-spirituality, saying that it links together the spiritual beliefs with the political motives of ecofeminism. She states that ecofeminist spirituality plays “an important role in contesting other more dominant ways of viewing nature in environmental education, especially the view of positivistic science,” (Fry 203). Ecofeminism argues that, if souls exist, they exist in every living thing, not simply human beings. Therefore, with this logic, everyone, everything is deserving of the same care, and the same degree mourning upon their death. If Butler were arguing for ecofeminism, I’m sure she would agree that her arguments on derealization apply not only to human victims of violence, but to the Earth and all of the things that live on it equally. The demolition and appropriation caused by kyriarchal systems has reinforced ideas of a system of worthiness, making people believe some bodies are more meritorious than others. Ecofeminism argues against that, stating we have all suffered the same ruins, and should all fight against institutions that reinforce such behaviors.

While focusing through the ecofeminist lens, I would like to turn attention back to the dead human body specifically. Our current fetishization of the body has created an industry dealing with corpses in a manner that our environment, our home, simply cannot sustain. With our populations rising at exponential rates, our Earth is incapable of sustaining the burden of bodies preserved unnaturally in caskets. Without serious consideration for alternative ways of managing the remains of those who have died, mass graveyards are not unlikely in our future. One such place exists currently, though under the radar. Hart Island is the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world. Located right off the coast of the Bronx in the Long Island Sound, it spans over 101 precious acres. Burials there started during the American Civil War, and continue to this day. Conversely, unmarked, unclaimed, unmourned bodies are dealt with in an almost factory-like system. Harkening back to Butler’s argument of the clear inequality in the treatment and tribute paid to the dead, such mass burial sites deepen society’s creation of a kyriarchal system that ranks a body’s worth, its noteworthiness. Not only is this an issue with morality and equality, but the sustainability of such burials threatens our ecosystem.

Ecological impacts of burial using common practices of embalming and intering are taking a major toll on the Earth. Even cremation is controversial, due to its “release of vaporized mercury, dioxins and furans, and greenhouse gases,” according to end-of-life information website SevenPonds. While the site does list ways of offsetting the environmental costs of more traditional practices, like cremation or burial, it touches on more recent trends of ecoburials. Promession, a practice not yet popularized in the United States, but gaining traction in places such as Sweden, is one such form of disposition that can bridge the gap between ecologically friendly burial practices and more traditional purposes. Promession is when “a body is reduced to small bio-degradable fragments…(and in these) treatments, partiulates are not emitted, and metals within the body are filtered out rather than vaporized.” Unquestionably, alternative burials are entering into peoples’ consciousness as the environmental costs of traditional dispositions are beginning to make themselves more apparent.

We built a graveyard. And so much more. Death, it's recognition, it's acceptance, it's justifications, it's finality were all represented on that stage. Body bags void of any real corpses were carried with the weight of death. This weight, though perplexing the origins, is unequivocally real. Be it emphasis on the soul, the body, or both, the unknowable death has become an obsession for some. The influence of bodies, and their rampant inequality, proves the derealization necessary for violence to occur. Bodies are not treated equal, so what about the soul? No matter your religious or spiritual views, it is clear that our treatment of bodies before and after death plays into the current kyriarchal systems, continuing the cycle of oppression of both animals and the Earth. Only after a reevaluation of what it means to be a living being on this planet, before and after death, can we begin to take the steps necessary for reconciling life with its inevitable conclusion. Death is a part of life, and both are a part of our planet. Realizing the connections plays a vital role in our future.


[i] I specifically avoid the word “humanity” because of its speciesism. Butler often uses the word interchangeably with “compassion”, which makes sense as her argument focuses on humankind; however, adhering to ecofeminist beliefs, I prefer not to use that kind of exclusionary language.


[ii]  While it could eerily seem as though she was foreshadowing the Boston Marathon bombing, Butler’s arguments linking societies’ reactions to terrorist attacks to “Antigone” were directly speaking to the events on September 11, 2001. Our adaptation of “Antigone” tried not to tie itself to one particular event, though the Boston Marathon bombing was definitely what we alluded to most.


[iii] Specifying any particular religion goes against the goals of my paper, so I will try to generalize what I see as a view held by the majority, without any one religion in mind.






Works Cited


“ANTIGONE: a play by Sophocles”. Directed by Catharine K. Slusar. Bi-Co Theater Department at Bryn Mawr College. November 15-17, 21-23, 2013. Performance.


Judith Butler. Chapter 2: “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and  Violence. Verso, 2004. 19-49. 17 Dec. 2013.


Bothelho, Greg and Paula Newton. “To locals’ surprise, Tamerlan Tsarnaev buried in Virginia cemetery.” CNN U.S. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 11 May 2013. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.


“After Life.” Radiolab. NPR. WNYC, New York. 17 Dec. 2013. Podcast.


Fry, Kimberley. “Learning, Magic, & Politics: Integrating Ecofeminist Spirituality into Enviornmental Education.” Canadian Journal of Enviornmental Education. Spring 2000. 17 Dec. 2013.


The Hart Island Project. 2008-2012 The Hart Island Project. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.


“Environmental Impact of Death.” SevenPonds. SevenPonds. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.