On page 114 of The Intellectual History of Cannibalism, Catalin Avramescu writes:
“In contrast to the debate about the right to punish, about which it could be said that only its contents have changed, it is clear that the entire debate about the right of sepulture has vanished from among the identifiable concerns of the ethical philosophers.”
“By virtue of what reasons was the right to sepulture removed from the contents of modern ethics?”
Avramescu answers his own question, arguing that discussion of the right to sepulture is not absent because it’s resolved, but because our definition of “natural law” has transformed from the idea that there exists a divinely ordained moral order to mean the scientific laws which govern the natural world. To discuss something as “natural law” in the 16th or 17th century had a very different philosophical underpinning from what it means when we say “natural law” now, and as “natural law” arguments in moral philosophy have receded, utilitarianism has ascended.
I disagree with Avramescu.
We no longer mutilate or expose corpses in posthumous continuation of bodily humiliation, but we cast the bodies of enemies of the state into the sea to deny them a monument and place of remembrance. (See: the burial of Osama bin Laden.) We no longer mandate the corpses of prisoners or the poor be turned over to science for dissection, but we have discussions about whether organ donation should be opt-in or opt-out as a matter of public policy, and whether fetal tissue is entitled to a burial. (See: US states passing laws to mandate the burial of aborted tissue.) We still have discussions over who is entitled to be buried in accordance with their beliefs, and where that may take place. (See: Muslim cemetery in Quebec.)
These discussions aren’t predicated on a 16th century understanding of “natural law” but our current ideas about human rights.
Our century thus far has been shaped by the global impact of a single act of punishment which culminated in a political denial of sepulture. The ongoing war in Afghanistan began in the United States’ declaration of its right to punish Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, the United States achieved that in killing him. They then put bin Laden’s body in a weighted bag and dropped it anonymously into the ocean, asserting the right of the victor to control the burial of an enemy.
Moral and philosophical ideas about the treatment of the dead are as relevant a topic now as it ever was, both in public discourse and to ethicists. I’d argue, in response to Avramescu’s assertion the right of sepulture has been removed from modern ethics that, that as human knowledge and society have evolved, so have our ideas and discussions about that to which the dead are entitled.