Posthumous Humanity

Everyone is human; therefore, everyone is entitled to equality and dignity. Although this belief is supposedly foundational to modern society, repeatedly we have seen our ancestors ignore these teachings. Recently, my Humanities class has challenged me to reflect on how all people are worthy of dignity and should be treated as such. More personally, I have been thinking about humanity after death in our society. 

When someone dies, many believe the person loses their soul; their body becomes an empty vessel. The living tend to see the dead as different––inhuman even. Since the person is no longer alive, society no longer values them. To an extent this belief is justified, the dead cannot actively contribute to society in the way that they did when they were alive. However, we cannot forget that the dead have lived a life and are still worthy of respect. 

I have never been much of a stranger to death: living next to a cemetery and oftentimes seeing funeral processions normalized death for me. I came to understand death as a sacred part of life that we all need to understand eventually. When I worked at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center during my highschool years, I came to understand death from a different perspective.

Although hospitals are primarily tasked with healing people, they are also tasked to deal with death and dying. Death is a part of life; it happens to everyone, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status––death is indiscriminate. The only difference is how and in what conditions we die in. Some die peacefully, while others die violently; some die with people, some die alone; some die old, some die young; some die with dignity, some die in shame. 

I talked to Dr. Scalea, the head trauma surgeon at the center, about the difficulties inherent to witnessing so much pain, suffering, and death. He explained to me that death is something that needs to be understood as an inevitability. Sometimes shock trauma surgeons are forced, despite their best efforts, to do nothing but prolong the minutes before a person’s death. Not all battles can be won. Scalea explained to me how after a patient is declared dead, their paperwork is filed, organs are harvested (if they opted to be donors), and the family is informed. The procedure tends to be minimal and non-exhaustive. At the time of death, the deceased patient is simply a body. After the person is signed off by an MD, they are sent to the mortuary and their responsible party decides what to do with the body. At this point, they are treated as remains. This situation can potentially become problematic since the person has become dehumanized to an “it.”

What happens if the patient does not have a responsible party? What happens if they died alone without someone to miss them, in which they don’t have anyone personally responsible for their remains or to attend their funeral? These people died without having anyone remember them. No individual deserves to be forgotten that way. This form of death is not limited to just the hospital, it happens to indigents who have nowhere to go, convicts and executed offenders with no family to claim them, or any person who lives alone. These are the forgotten dead.

Standard procedure for the forgotten dead is to either cremate them or bury them in a potter’s field. Last summer, I decided to visit a potter’s field in Baltimore City. It was a moving experience in which I remember the suppressing silence that came with visiting such a lonely place, always surrounded but never acknowledged by the living. Walking around the unmarked field, I helped remember the unknown dead, thinking about the lives they led and contemplating on who they are. It gives solace to the soul to know that I am remembering these people rather than letting myself become afraid or depressed about death because I can look for meaning in death and respect its holiness, often ignored by the living. 

As I stood there to pay respects to the people buried in that mass grave, I acknowledged that although I will never know their identities, I will still treat them as people. For in life, they may have not been treated as humans, but in death the least I can do is remember them as such; humanity extends beyond just the living, it also applies to our dead.