Don’t Stab Corpses

Imagine you visit in a foreign land, and are invited to attend a local funeral. At the funeral, you are shocked to see that the viewing line is also a stabbing line; each attendee stabs the corpse as he passes by.  Your host explains this custom: Back in the bad old days, in rare cases the dear departed at a funeral was not actually dead. Anticipating this possibility made loved ones anxious, as they did not have full closure on the death.  The spouse could not be as sure they could safely remarry, etc. People found they could rest easier if they each made very sure the dear departed was definitely dead.

So what do you think of this culture?  Do you nod approvingly at how wise custom can sometimes be, or do you run in horror at their willingness to sacrifice loved ones on the altar of certainty.

Me, I run.  Many have offered a similar argument against cryonics, that the small chance of life it offers is just not worth the added anxiety it induces in loved ones, who can’t as cleanly get on with their lives.  This seems horrid logic to me.

Consider another example: warships lost at sea. Usually, many sailors die, and most survivors are discovered within a month.  In rare cases, however, survivors might not be discovered for years.  Should navies adopt the policy of killing all sailors they discover three months after a ship is lost, so that loved ones can more cleanly get on with their lives?

[Note: There are many arguments for and against most interesting claims.  Short blog posts can usually only deal thoroughly with one such argument.]

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  • I think the problem here is that a person who freezes themselves is actively doing something to put him or herself into the state of the quasi-dead.

    • So the stabbing ritual would be more warranted for those who may still be living due to their own earlier efforts to survive?

      • No, the point being that discouraging others from actively putting themselves into a state of being quasi-dead through moral opprobrium doesn’t rise to the level of stabbing someone.

        (Also, I personally don’t have much of a dog in this fight. I find the idea of cryonics, in itself, somewhat eccentric, but mostly harmless. I wouldn’t care if any of my family did it.)

      • Luke

        Er, no. The quasi-dead thing happens naturally. Cryonics just keeps the quasi part from disappearing.

  • One possible difference between sailors lost at sea and relatives being laid to rest is that if you’re buried alive there’s no one to find you. They might explain that this is just about closure for the family, but it seems to equally be about avoiding something that intuitively feels even more horrific than losing a loved one — that loved one being buried alive. Didn’t some cultures bury the dead with bells so that they could ring if they woke up? Both techniques seem like ways of dealing with a horror that is deeply engrained in human beings. For me, the possibility of being buried alive is the most horrific one I can imagine.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Didn’t some cultures bury the dead with bells so that they could ring if they woke up?

      Yes The wikipedia article gives examples mostly from Victorian times, with some from earlier. All are from the west. (I’d say our own culture – but I don’t know where you are posting from…)

    • Shane

      I’m with you here. If this is the setup, then I’d prefer to be stabbed.

      Of course, what I’d really prefer is if the medical folks had accurately determined that I was really dead before it got to this point.

  • tndal

    Bizarre and silly!

    Perhaps another topic truly worthy of discussion might be presented. Barring that, a day of silence might be refreshing.

  • Violet
  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Me, I run.


    Perhaps an exception might be made for powerful rulers. Most of these have blood on their hands in one form or another, so comforting many of their subjects/victims with the sure knowledge that they are actually rid of the ruler might be reasonable. A similar provision might be made if the deceased had been executed for capital murder.

  • I like the idea of charging rich yuppies say three quarters of a million dollars to cryo their head. Then, once you chop it off, just chuck it in the trash. HA HA!

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    • Jayson Virissimo

      In other words, you like the idea of fraud as long as the victim has more wealth than you.

    • “Rich yuppies”? I’ve had cryonics arrangements for about 20 years, funded by life insurance plus affordable annual dues, and I earn somewhat less than the U.S. median household income.

    • Besides, Rich Griese, people gain status by signaling that they can carry out the wishes of the deceased without abusing their positions, especially in financial matters like trusts.

    • Rob


      Also, what I take (not least, admittedly, because I agree with it) to be the genuine source of opposition:

      I imagine it would be excruciating for a non-believer to live with someone who was constantly gloating with his cronies about how great life was going to be in the imagined distant future, without you. Atheists married to evangelical Christians probably experience similar frustrations. Some people probably just shrug off the difference of opinion. I think I’d feel deeply alienated from someone who charted his future on a totally different time scale. Knowing that you’re going to die that makes every day you choose to spend with someone that much more of an investment.

  • Phil

    When you say “I run,” do you run at the stabbing of a modern victim who’s certainly dead, or do you run at the stabbing of the bad old days victim who might not be dead?

    What’s the harm in stabbing a corpse, if it assuages the loved ones? The anxiety of the survivors is real, even if it’s completely irrational. Why not get rid of it?

    • Aron

      What’s the quickest way to discern this position from pro-life on Terri Schiavo? The money? The lack of a living will? The ‘brain-dead’ thesis?

      Who’s got the better chance of waking up?

      • Aron

        Son of a gun, I did a reply instead of doing a top-level again..

  • Captain Oblivious

    At first glance this does indeed seem like a horrible thing to do… but as I was reading it (having temporarily forgotten your cryonics obsession), I realized that we actually do pretty much this exact thing, just not quite as personally… the purpose of replacing a corpse’s blood with embalming fluid is to ensure that he’s truly dead – if by chance he wasn’t quite dead before, he’s definitely dead now!

    Also, while we’re on the subject, a friend always said he wanted to be cremated (instead of buried) because no one ever woke up in a urn… hard to argue with that logic!

  • KrisC

    Has the deceased left a will asking for activity counter to societal norms?

    If the logic is to ensure the deceased’s status, then we should consider the two cases. If we believe the deceased is dead, we ought to (IMHO) ascertain medically the status, by stabbing in this culture. If we believe the deceased is not yet deceased, we should follow the deceased’s wishes, which we would assume in the absence of contrary information to be standard for the culture: stabbing.

    Only in cases were the deceased had expressed otherwise should we deviate from the societal standard. The justifications members of the culture cite for their beliefs are not to be trusted.

    Stabbing may prevent premature burial, cannibalism may increase fitness, and incineration or sky burial may prevent pollution. However, the reason for death rituals is for the benefit of the community, to aid the grieving process. The appropriate time to convince an individual to ordain an alternate disposition of their corpse is before they take ill or die.

    An assumption I now assert is that the body of the individual is the property of the individual until such time as that individual gives up that right. Dying without a plan counts as giving up the right to one’s body; being pronounced dead is only someone else’s opinion. As long as there is a hope of recovery or a chance of executing the deceased’s will, the deceased’s will ought to be followed as long as no one is put into demonstrable physical danger.

  • Dave

    Many people request being dissected under certain circumstances. For instance I have heard more than one person say” If I die and they think it is suicide,I want an autopsy. Because I was murdered.” And most state laws will concur.

  • Bellisaurius

    However, what if their explanation is that they’ve seen evidence that people who they thought were dead were actually alive, and this is in fact a mercy issue so they don’t bury them alive?

    If one was religious, there’s an argument to be made that freezing the body traps the “you” in a limbo where you can’t get anywhere. Before this gets poo-pooed on lack of proof of something like an afterlife, remember, the freezee is taking it on faith that they’re ever being revived, and even if they are, taking it for granted that things will be no worse than the current day. Those are educated assumptions of course,when the possibility of death is certain, but not a guarantee.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Does the “limbo” viewpoint persuade Frisbeetarian clergy to endorse cryonics? 🙂

  • I’ve heard that a big reason for the modern tradition of embalming is to ensure the deceased stays dead. Wish I knew a source to cite on that.

  • I wouldn’t dislike the culture as long as the not-quite-dead were likely to continue living only short unpleasant lives. The ‘closure’ for friends and family is a real benefit however strange that may seem to you and me. It’s just tiny compared to the benefit to the person who might be revived as long as their quality of life would be good.

  • MikeMcK

    The navy metaphor might work better if all sailors were fitted with heavy weights on their ankles, and all lifevests and rafts removed from ships. That would ensure that any one on a downed ship would drown, and provide closure for the families.

  • So what do you think of this culture? Do you nod approvingly at how wise custom can sometimes be, or do you run in horror at their willingness to sacrifice loved ones on the altar of certainty.

    Neither. I chalk it up as “just another krazy kustom (sp)”, and recognize that their methods for ascertaining death are much better today than when the custom originated, so they almost certainly don’t actually kill anyone this way, and only continue the custom out of a sense of tradition rather than a conscious belief that their probably killing someon to save their certainty.

    By the way, Robin_Hanson, I heard a rumor that some cultures — get this — bury their dead. Can you imagine that? If they made a mistake, then that would *certainly* kill off the person even if they were alive!

  • I don’t understand why so many people feel guilty about existing, then express hostility towards cryonicists who implicitly don’t share in that guilt. Does existential guilt signal higher status in the person who advertises it about himself? And does its absence lower a person’s status?

  • tom