- Dead Rights
When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, his corpse was displayed in Moscow. The plan was to leave it there for forty days—long enough for people from outlying provinces to pay their respects. Then, as Nina Tumarkin recounts in her 1983 book Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia, Joseph Stalin decided to make the display permanent. When mold appeared on Lenin’s skin after a few weeks, Soviet scientists experimented on corpses they took from morgues until they developed an embalming fluid—the precise formula is still secret—that would prevent decay for an extended period. And though talk of burying him is growing, Lenin is still on display, eighty-seven years later.
Just one problem: Lenin himself wanted to be buried near his mother. His next of kin also opposed his preservation. His widow, Krupskaia, urged Soviets not to “allow your grief . . . to express itself in the external veneration of his person.” But Stalin overruled their wishes. Lenin would be accorded an unprecedented honor whether he wanted it or not. His corpse was nationalized.
Norman L. Cantor would disapprove. A professor emeritus at Rutgers Law School, he believes the law should almost always enforce the deceased’s wishes, as he writes in After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver, a wide-ranging and well-researched guide to the dead and their rights.
Rites of the dead, sure, but rights? Cantor persuasively argues that the concept of rights can help us understand our duties to the departed. The dead can’t litigate, of course, but their survivors can represent their rights in court. Cantor finds analogies in the concept of animal rights and the protections accorded late-stage fetuses. As for what those rights entail, a corpse is fundamentally entitled to what he terms “postmortem human dignity.” In practice, that means that self-determination ought to survive death. Cantor thinks we should heed almost every wish expressed by a decedent, regardless of how unorthodox it may seem. So if someone wants her corpse added to “Body Worlds”—which Cantor finds more educational than exhibitionist—her wishes should be honored. And if someone wants his skin used to make drumheads, that desire should “probably” be honored, too. Yet as he acknowledges, the decedent’s wishes aren’t always clear. Would a dead man have wanted his sperm harvested to impregnate his wife? Would a brain-dead pregnant woman have wanted to remain on life support for the fetus’s sake? Such issues can arise, and most decedents never state a preference during life. So the question is not necessarily what the decedent wanted, but what he or she, if alive, would want. Answering it can require a court to conduct an in-depth, fact-intensive inquiry.
What about overruling a decedent’s wishes for the sake of the public good, as Stalin aimed to do? Cantor would do so, as the law now does, in the case of forensic autopsies—the state’s interest in solving crimes overrides the decedent’s and their next of kin’s interest in keeping the corpse intact. And no matter how ardently decedents may want their remains subjected to cannibalism or necrophilia, he thinks the law should continue to criminalize those practices as innately antithetical to postmortem dignity. But he wouldn’t make organ donation mandatory. In that realm, he deems the state’s interest less weighty.
Like Christine Quigley’s The Corpse: A History (1996) and Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), After We Die is larded with ironically lively anecdotes and detours. For example, when the Titanic sank, Cantor reports, the corpses of first-class passengers got embalmed and returned to their survivors; the corpses of those with cheaper tickets were buried at sea. In another aside, he relates his favorite epitaphs. Although they don’t always bear on his legal arguments, he also recounts the history of burial, cremation, dissection, autopsies, and grave robbing, as well as the process of decomposition. His...