What it says about us when we leave bodies in the sea: Michael Jensen

Michael Jensen

We can receive insight into the living by looking at how they treat the dead. Leaving the bodies of asylum seekers in the sea doesn’t feel right, writes Michael Jensen.

‘Inhumanity, it is clear, is a trait specifically restricted to the human race’ – Robert Spaemann

Nobody seems to know who lies floating in the sea 65 nautical miles or so from Christmas Island.

Who will claim them?

They are, after all, dead. They are no longer part of the human race. To leave their remains drifting in the sea is not to cause them any further suffering.

They cannot be afraid anymore; they cannot be further exiled; they cannot have their possessions taken from them; they cannot be subject to torture. It seems entirely reasonable to make the decision, in the light of everything, to leave their bodies to founder, decay and slowly disappear. The sea itself will dispose of them.

The decision by the authorities to leave the bodies in the sea is entirely understandable: there were other priorities. But something feels not right about this.

It is fundamentally human to show respect for the bodies of the dead – not that we can necessarily account for this feeling in simple terms.

Even the Neanderthals, so it is said, buried their dead. For the Egyptians, the rituals associated with the preservation of the body ensured a smooth passage to the afterlife – for those who could afford it, at least. Are there more extraordinary monuments to the human regard for the dead body than the tombs of the Pharaohs – those great prisms of light on the plains of Giza?

The Romans and Greeks were aghast at the thought of an unburied body; but regarded death and the dead with horror, not hope. For them, proper treatment of the body was necessary to release the soul from its fleshy prison. There’s that horrible scene you might recall from the Iliad where Achilles drags the body of Hector around the walls of Troy from his chariot as a sign of his utter contempt for the Trojans. He rubs their noses in the taboo.

For the Jews, a dead body was unclean and untouchable (Numbers 19:16), which was ironically a way of ensuring the body of the dead person was treated with great care by the living. It was thought a great curse to have one’s body lie unburied and exposed to the ravages of the wild animals. The women who came to anoint Jesus’ body in the tomb were treating him with reverence and tenderness.

The demoniac that Jesus met in Mark 5 lived among the tombs, cutting himself with stones. He was effectively dead, cut off from the land of the living.

This makes Jesus’s insistence on touching the dead bodies of Jairus’ daughter and his friend Lazarus quite astounding. Jesus did not fear the dead, and they did not contaminate him. His own bodily resurrection from the dead signaled the Christian hope for the ongoing identity of a person with his or her own body. The body is not a prison to be released from, but is the person in a profound sense.

The early Christians, because of their belief in the resurrection of the dead, were happy to meet in the catacombs, amongst their dead. And then, to build churches surrounded by graveyards. We moderns would be spooked by that, I think. But it was a natural consequence of a belief that death is only temporary, and that a reunion with the dead is to be expected.

Post-Christian secular culture still treats the bodies of the dead as ‘sacred’ in a quasi-religious way. We would think of it as a desecration of the personhood of the dead person if we treated them with disrespect. So, you can leave your body to science, but when we hear about med students joking around with severed hands or whatever, we are still horrified.

Then there’s the longing of the parents of the missing child to know where her remains are. On a purely materialist reading, why is that? There’s something about the remains of the dead belonging with us, as if disposing of their bodies and knowing where they are keeps them in community with us somehow. We spend millions on identifying the remains of WWI soldiers lately dug up out of the mud of France so that their descendants can know what happened to them.

So what of the bodies floating around Christmas Island? Our humanity itself tells us that their bodies are in some way ‘them’. The neglect of their bodies is straightforwardly neglect of them. They were rootless and homeless. Even now there is some lack of clarity about which ethnic group they were from (I understand they were Afghan Hazaras, a Shiite minority oft persecuted by the Taliban). There is no-one to mourn for them and so their bodies aren’t worth collecting from the sea. They did not belong; and so they do not belong.

They are unknown; and so, they are ungathered.

But the gospel of the resurrection tells us something more, too. It tells us that their bodies are not beyond the God who made their bodies. They are not beyond the scope of the one who promises that at the final day there will be what theology calls a general resurrection of the dead. All human beings are united at least in this destiny. It tells us that ‘our’ dead are not just those who belong to the community that defines me ethnically. All human beings are ‘our’ dead. They, whoever they are, are ‘our’ people. They are ‘known unto God’; and thus, worthy of our respect as fellow bearers of his image.

I am simply sad about the loss of this boat. These are people who I don’t know. But there’s something about these unwanted, stateless, desperate unburied people, who died beyond the borders of any state and with no-one to care for them, that moves me.

‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ said Cain, as he fled from Abel and denied responsibility. The corpses floating off Christmas Island cry out from the sea… Surely the answer to the question is ‘yes: I am my brother’s keeper’.

This article was originally published at Sydney Anglicans.

Michael Jensen is a lecturer at Moore College. View his full profile here.

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