The Human Truth Foundation

Approaching Death
Some Instincts of the Human Animal

By Vexen Crabtree 2014


Those wishing for a non-religious funeral ceremony should contact the National Secular Society, 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL. Tel: 020 7404 3126.

Human and animal instincts towards death and dead bodies evolved so that species would avoid dangerous sources of disease, which dead bodies certainly are. As decomposing bodies also represent a pollution risk for drinking water, more advanced land-based species' instincts are often to find a secluded spot where both socialisation and drinking are unknown. In social species such as ours, this had led to specific religious prohibitions, social taboos and social customs all to do with sanctifying burial grounds.

Also human instinct and the human want for remembrance, as a result of our powers of abstract thinking, compel us to provide ways for the dead to be acknowledged and for now-defunct emotional ties to be addressed. A memorial service or funeral of some kind is often valued for those who the deceased leave behind. Prof. Zwi Werblowsky, a sociologist of religion, said "I think I can venture to locate the beginning of religion: it begins wherever human beings do more to a corpse than is strictly necessary for its disposal"1. This phenomenon is seemingly timeless. We have buried our dead at least since the Paleolithic era, and later early modern humans buried people alongside flowers, tools and other artefacts, making ritual and symbolism a feature of death2. In Egypt "by 3500 BCE architectural models were buried with the dead to provide solace in the afterlife. During late predynastic times (the Gerzean or Naqada II period, c. 3400 BCE) large, elaborately decorated and furnished tombs were built to house decease people of status"3. Some kind of final closure on someone's life is something we yearn for. It is not just a Human instinct; animals such as Elephants exhibit behaviours towards death that seem ritualistic, and according to the paleontologists Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin in "Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human4", the Neanderthals (who became extinct 32 000 years ago) "occasionally buried their dead with a degree of ritual that we recognise as Human"5. Bodies were buried alongside tools and in symbolic bodily positions6. The funeral ritual instinct can take many forms and is not synonymous with a typical Western funeral.

1. Hiding Death

#dead_bodies #death #funeral_directors #humour #sogyal_rimpoche #soldiers

Over a hundred years ago the psychologist William James taught that normal Human beings hide death away. Later David Clark in "Sociology of Death, the" (1993)7 devotes a chapter to the way that we in the West, have secluded all things bloody from common sight. We clinicalize death, so that only trained professionals have anything to do with the practical side of blood, slaughter, bodies, funerals and burials8,9. This denial of reality extends far and wide amongst the masses. Dead bodies do not litter the floor of battlefields in films and in computer games corpses fade away majestically and discretely. We are so far removed from the natural cycle of life that some parents even worry about how to explain to their children about where beefburgers and sausages come from. Even one's own future death hardly features in public angst, except where the subconscious, desperate, finds expression in dreams.

Book CoverWe divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is.

"The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James (1902)8

People who deal with death, including the likes of soldiers, mortuary workers and Funeral Directors staff, must outgrow the attitude towards death where the topic is steeped in permanent seriousness. One religion that centers itself on the concept of the universal victory of death over all life is the Church of Satan. Its founder and proponent Anton LaVey writes that those who work close to death frequently often develop a profound and sanity-saving sense of humour about this dark topic. He notes that "a larger than average number of humorously-inclined professionals" can be found attending to the business of death10. When it comes to discussing the threat of death and the reality of mortality, the apparently rapid-as-a-flash wit of soldiers can seem callous and inappropriate to outsiders. In reality, their approach is life-preserving. Don't let the threat of death diminish our lives while we are still alive! Embrace death! Make fun of death by enjoying life - this is perhaps the only mastery we can ever have over death.

Sogyal Rimpoche, a Tibetan Lama who has written on the subject of death and dying, examines the issue thus: 'At the moment of death our life becomes clear. Death is our greatest teacher. But, unfortunately, people in the West think of death only when they are dying. This is a little bit late'.

"Buddhism" by Clive Erricker (1995)11

For more, see:

2. Disposing of Corpses

2.1. Practical Matters Must Trump Intellectual Ones

Whether by burial or cremation, bodies must be disposed of properly as a great many infectious diseases are sourced from careless practices. For this reason, it is illegal to leave them alone. It is also illegal to dispose of a body for the purposes of preventing an inquest12. Although some find it taboo to ponder the issues and most people's decisions come down to cultural beliefs and instinct13, the disposal of dead bodies is a sober and necessarily practical affair where the realities of biological decay and disease must take precedence over Human superstitions, fanciful ideas and magical thinking. Many social animals have instinctual modes of behaviour associated with corpses, mostly geared around avoidance. Us humans share some of those instincts, but our ability to intellectualize sometimes misdirects our actions and leads us down unsuitable paths. This text implores people to be rational and thoughtful with dead bodies.

2.2. Gardens of Remembrance

Because we must emphasize the practical necessities of the proper disposal of bodies does not mean that we can neglect the emotional side. One feature of modern crematoria that combine these is the Garden of Remembrance.

The gardens of remembrance consist of areas set aside for the disposal of cremated remains. [...] In the majority of cases the cremation ashes are strewn or buried in the gardens of remembrance. [...] It must be borne in mind that when ashes are strewn in other places, e.g. graves, churchyards etc, prior permission must be sought and any local rules or regulations obeyed. You do not have to have the ashes disposed of and, if desired, you may keep them personally.

Usually the only permanent form of memorial available is an entry in the Book of Remembrance. This book is usually displayed in a special Memorial Chapel and each day the entries for that day are on display so that a person is remembered on the anniversary of their death. Some crematoria allow wall plaques or plaques on kerbstones etc, but these are usually for a limited period and require to be renewed periodically by further payments. At some crematoria it is also possible to dedicate a rose bush or other garden item with a small plaque, but this again is for a limited period with the option of renewal on further payment.

Cremation Society (2006)14

The daily page, that lists those who were cremated on that day on previous years, strikes a romantic chord with me, and I think it is a wonderful way to ensure that the dead have potential to be remembered, especially by the relatives of those who died on the same day.

2.3. Ground Burial: Re-Using Graves and Overcrowded Cemeteries

#china #japan #overpopulation #south_africa #UK #USA

Burying the dead, in strong wooden coffins, is often the conservative method of choice. But Europe's cemeteries are filling up. Many formal burial grounds in England are simply full. An article in The Economist in 2006 reported that England has acute problems with space to bury the dead15. Many burial grounds elsewhere rotate slots, smashing the bottom of old coffins and putting new ones on top - known throughout Europe as "lift and deepen", a practice that has been practised for 200 years in some countries, but not at all in the USA13 and is officially banned in most of the UK at the moment: In practice, it still happens16 because it is practically necessary. It was legalized in London in 2007 for graves older than 75 years old: An east London cemetery relocates bodies into communal graves at a rate of about 10 per week, as there is simply no space for new graves. In some European countries burial plots are guaranteed for as little as 20 years13. As the world's population continues to increase and space for roads, houses, recreation and infrastructure becomes increasingly valuable, these problems are only set to get worse.

Avalon [a large cemetery in South Africa] is almost full despite three extensions that took it to 360 hectares, and so are many other cemeteries, including 27 out of the 35 in Johannesburg. In cities including Durban and Cape Town authorities are advocating secondary burials, where the deceased are laid to rest above another family member, or even reduction burials, involving the disinterment of remains after no fewer than 30 years and reburial in a smaller casket to create space. So far this has not proved popular. [...]

Yet only 8% of South Africans opt for cremation, compared with a third in America, half in China, three-quarters in Britain and 95% in Japan. To many South Africans, cremation is taboo, not least because of ancestor-worship and a propensity to commune with the dead.

The Economist (2012)17

Such overcrowding is only the beginning; the world population has doubled since 1970 and the massive rate of increase is not yet slowing. See: "The Population of the Earth" by Vexen Crabtree (2019).

2.4. Cremation Isn't the Answer: Noxious Fumes and Carbon Footprints

#japan #UK

England Cremation Rates (%)
Source:Grace Davie 1997Cremation Society
1930 0.87
1939 (WW2)3.83.51
19457.8 7.80
1950 15.59
1960 34.70
196650 46.89
1970 55.41
1980 65.26
199170 69.54


Because burial grounds are filling up and methods of conserving space are already showing signs of strain, some have pressed for even more bodies to be cremated. There are lots of reasons to prefer cremation to ground burial. "Cremation is recognised by Public Health Authorities as the most hygienic method of disposal of the dead"14 and is less than half as expensive as ground burial. Ashes, in Urns, are safe from vandalism and can be kept wherever the bereaved wish, even in the home, reducing the size of cemeteries and graveyards, both of which need maintaining and sometimes even, guarding.

However, it is not the ultimate solution. In some overcrowded countries such as Japan it is already the most popular choice: in the UK, three-quarters of people that die are cremated13. Without banning ground burial completely, this figure cannot rise much higher. Cremation can help slow the usage of space but is unlikely to completely solve that problem, and, causes problems of its own.

Cremating a body at 800°C requires 35 cubic metres of natural gas and releases 400kg of carbon dioxide. Other poisons are emitted too; "British crematoria produce 1.34 tonnes of mercury emissions a year, accounting for almost 16 per cent of the nation's total"13. 15 European countries have committed to an agreement to reduce this to zero by 2020, which requires cooling the chamber back down to extract the mercury.

Cremation was long heralded to be the answer to the space shortage for traditional burial in the ground. Now, because of the problems that cremation itself has, people have been searching for all kinds of alternative methods of disposing of bodies.

2.5. From Coral Reefs to Liquefaction

#sweden #UK #USA

The following methods seem less efficient as they rely upon resources that are energy-intensive to prepare, such as liquid nitrogen, or which burn and produce pollution, such as cremation.

2.6. Getting Sentimental: Urns Versus Heated Swimming Pools

#sweden #UK

Some of these methods, including cremation, result in sterile remains being produced. Increasingly the bereaved chose to walk away from the crematorium with the ashes. In the 1970s about 12% did so, but in 2005 that value was nearly 60%. "Often present in the minds of the bereaved can be a complex metaphysical connection - one that leaves a more desirable image than the memory of burial," says Prof. L. Kellaher of Sheffield University. People scatter ashes around places of beauty, or places of special association with the departed. This is ultimately romantic, sentimental and peacefully un-morbid, completely unlike the structured rituals of traditional funerals. Dr Tony Walter from the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath says that there is a trend towards "personalisation" of funeral rites, and "an almost over-the-top sensibility about human remains. [...] It's a fascinating shift"19.

The shift towards personal disposal of ashes, and the storage of ashes in urns, is a return to an ancient practice. Our ancestors in the UK were immolated and buried in urns, just as the pagan Vikings in Sweden would cremate the dead then bury the remains in a clay pot under a mound20.

At the opposite end of this spectrum come the practical affairs of the crematorium. When chambers are cooled (for example, to collect mercury and metals) quantities of hot water in cooling pipes are produced as a byproduct. Redditch Borough Council in the UK in 2011 plans to use it to heat a nearby swimming pool. "The 280 kilowatt-hours of heat energy [...] will meet nearly half the pool's heating needs, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 104 tonnes each year, or around 5 per cent of the council's carbon footprint [... and save] £14,500 per year."13This is clearly a sensible option: the energy saved by heating the swimming pool offsets the energy used by the crematorium when burning fuel.

There are two human factors at play here and they needn't conflict. Sometimes pragmatism wins over squeamishness, and a swimming pool gets heated by waste heat from a crematorium. Sometimes sentimentalism wins and people take their loved ones home with them in urns. There is no reason to refuse to walk down either of these streets.

2.7. The Battle Between Pragmatists and the Christian Establishment

#christianity #islam #judaism #UK

By the time of the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations cremation had been generally adopted as a method of disposing of the dead. With the advent and spread of Christianity, however, and its concomitant belief in the resurrection of the dead, cremation fell into disfavour and by the fifth century the practice had become almost completely obsolete.

Cremation Society (2006)21

From 1939 cremation rose rapidly in popularity, overtaking religious coffin funerals as the preferred postmortem arrangement for bodies from the 1960s. England was the first Western country to adopt cremation widely, but the government had to transfer responsibility from a protesting Church to local government22. Previously, Christian religious funerals were all but compulsory, no matter the beliefs of the dead. The Cremation Society, founded and ran from the UK, has been the biggest secular organizer, enacter and proponent of cremation, since the late nineteenth century, a role which often brought it into conflict with established Christianity in the UK. In the end, practical realities convinced the public to abandon religious lines of thought from the 1930s, coinciding with the mass abandonment of religion by the British public in that era.

Superstition has led some religions to ban cremation and argue against it. Before its legalization in 1884 there was a long period were religious clerics succeeded in preventing cremations from going ahead. Thankfully religions that have impractical dogmas telling people how they should behave towards the dead have become obsolete and are largely ignored by many of their own adherents. The Catholic Church banned cremations of Catholics until 1963, and it is still banned by Orthodox Judaism23 and Muslims.

3. Organ Donation24

#christianity #death #islam #judaism #shinto

Old Donor Card schemes work like this: volunteers opt-in, and carry a Donor Card which elects that certain, or all, healthy body parts can be used in transplants shortly after they have died. This saves many lives. But many lives are lost because it requires active volunteering, and unfortunately many people don't know that they have to do the paperwork first25, and others want to help others but haven't bothered with the forms. There is a better system: donation by default or presumed consent, generally called "opt-out" schemes. This is where all organs can be routinely used to save lives, but where one can choose to carry an exemption card, popularly called a "Not a Donor Card". The main difference is that in opt-out schemes, more people are saved be default. Activists who are against organ donation can still exempt themselves by carrying a Not a Donor Card. This still allows the morally challenged to prevent their organs from helping others live. Of the five countries with the highest rates of organ donation (Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Croatia and USA26), the top four all operate opt-out schemes.

It is possible to argue even further: the benefits are so great to the living that the wishes of the dead should even be ignored: there shouldn't even be an option to exempt oneself from the organ donation scheme. Opposition has come from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Shinto communities27 whose religious beliefs prevent them from helping others in this way. But as religion loses its power across much of the world, entire continents such as Europe have been moving towards opt-out schemes, where 24 countries have done so28.


4. Military Remembrance Parades


It is right, healing, educational and value-enforcing to remember those who have died in conflicts. This is done principally on Remembrance Sunday, and typically every single military unit either holds its own or attends a wider garrison event. But across the board, non-Christians have found funerals, memorials and regular church events to be divisive, with an atmosphere that excludes non-Christians and those with no beliefs. A letter of complaint to the National Secular Society newsletter by a senior soldier saw three weeks of letters of distress from those who have also experienced this for themselves29.

Memorial services should remind us of the horrors of the past and therefore hint at the potential horrors of today that soldiers may face in the line of duty. They should also serve as solemn appraisals of the valiance of fallen soldiers and quiet condemnation of the futility of war. It is right that such proceedings are led by a Padre, whose job it is to preside over such events as it is what he is paid for. The Chaplaincy's remit is an "all-faiths" ministry and not intended to be just a Christian outfit

Importantly, memorial events should be inclusive so that all can remember, in peace, those of the past. In the British Army days such as Remembrance Sunday are taken very seriously and it is compulsory to attend. This compulsory nature, and the universalism of tragedy, both imply that the mourning be conducted in a way that does not exclude any particular people.

There is no need to add religious teachings, worship or religion-specific commentary to these days. If, for examples, Hindus in the Army want to hold their own Remembrance Sunday to include their own religious methods of reflection, then they can, but religion-specific preaching should be absent from the compulsory & universal central events.

However, this is not the case. In the British Army memorial events are heavily Christian. The Padre does not lead a universal and inclusive ceremony. He invariably leads a Christian service, with the mentions of fallen comrades taking second-place to the promotion of Christian religion. For example, in the 2005 Remembrance Sunday service in Javelin Barracks, all ten pages of the ceremony timetable include references to God and Jesus. There are far fewer mentions of the victims of war, than there are Christian comments on God and Jesus. This has been the case in all of the (many) services I have attended.

It is not only the quantity of Christian-specific elements in many of these events; it is also the tone which is a problem. The tone implies that only Christians are worthy to be present. In 2005, the Chaplain, Rev. Brian Millson's first three paragraphs all state that proceedings go on 'before God'. "We meet today, to remember before God all who have died" and "We bring before God in penitence the hatreds of our world" are two examples. There is no hint that non-Christians might also want to express penitence for mankind's ills; and for those that aren't religious at all, it's almost stating that they have no right in being there! The service on page 7 even instructs the assembly to pray for those who have no faith in Jesus Christ. How offensive and inappropriate, on a day of mourning, to be shoving religion down people's throats! This is not peculiar, but is a feature of all such parades. Of the many Remembrance Sunday events I report on, all of them have been the same. The references to "praying", to religious beliefs, overwhelm the other emotions of the service. This is wrong. The service should be victim-orientated, not god-orientated, and certainly should not be an opportunity for a Christian to preach hir beliefs to others.

For more, see:

5. Assisted Suicide

#belgium #death #germany #luxembourg #netherlands #suicide #switzerland #UK #USA

2012 Mar 30: I've expanded this section of this page into a new page of its own. Read the full version here: "Accepting Assisted Suicide: A Focus on UK Law" by Vexen Crabtree (2012)

Assisted dying is a form of palliative care (end of life care) where a doctor gives medication, or withdraws medication, in a way that purposefully brings about the death of a terminally ill patient. Switzerland's Dignitas is one place where people can go to find a final peace, and over 1,000 people have done so there, many from Germany and also some from the UK. By 2000, assisted suicide was also legal in Colombia, Belgium and the Netherlands but is illegal almost everywhere else30. It now legal in Luxembourg and in some states in the USA31. This is generally done by request of the patient, or if comatose, by request of their closest relatives. Assisted suicide is a form of suicide where a doctor first gives the patient the lethal medication for the patient to take themselves or, where the patient needs help in physically committing suicide if they can't do it themselves.

Assisted suicide is illegal in most countries that have laws on suicide. Exceptions, according to circumstances, are in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, and in the two USA states of Montana, Oregon and Washington32. In the UK suicide was decriminalised in the Suicide Act of 196133. The same law made it illegal to help another person do this legal act, and is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. But this isn't the whole story. Eight hundred Britons have signed up with Dignitas, and one hundred and sixty have voluntarily died there, aided to their end by physicians. In the last 6 years, at least 90 have travelled abroad to get help with committing suicide32. None of the Brits who travelled with them, or the relatives who helped them beforehand, have had a prosecution brought against them. A principal book on UK criminal law states that "if it is determined that the terminally ill person was competent, her local authority had no power to seek to maintain an injunction to restrain her spouse from complying with the wife's wishes to take her to Switzerland" to commit suicide33. This creates, in reality, a conflicting, contradictory and impractical state of law.

Patients should be allowed to die in their home country near friends and family, and not forced to travel abroad to do the same. The state has no right to force people to live in misery if they do not wish to. UK law already permits some forms of assisted suicide. Relatives and loved ones can help others travel abroad in order to end their lives at Dignitas in Switzerland: hundreds of cases are known to prosecutors, and they profess that under normal (moral) cases, no prosecutions will be brought. Living wills made in accordance with the Mental Capacity Act 2005 allow people to state under what criteria they wish to be allowed to die, and in 3% of end-of-life medical settings doctors and relatives make a decision to end life without even having ascertained explicit consent from the patient. In 22% of all deaths in the UK there has been a specific decision to act - or withhold acting - in a manner that causes death. Many patients are permanently sedated until death because their symptoms are severe: this is nothing but slow-acting effective assisted death. All that has clear moral and legal support. Assisted suicide is milder than cases where doctors and relatives choose to end life without explicit consent, and the much higher percent of cases where patients' wishes are respected in a manner than quickens their death. Assisted suicide cases are, and will remain, far fewer than any of these already-accepted methods of chosen death. To argue against assisted suicide is to reject the humanity and morality of these other similar situations.