January 8, 2009
Almost 5,000 years ago, the architect Imhotep built the earliest known pyramid to house the body of the pharaoh Djoser. To honor their dead, Greek aristocrats in the sixth century B.C. built lavish funeral monuments along the roads near Athens. The Romans also honored the dead. They had professional undertakers who organized funerals. So important was the proper respect for the dead that
collegia funeraticia (burial societies) would pay the expenses of the poor so that their cremated remains would be placed in columbaria rather than dumped in pits.
In both ancient Athens and Rome, burial customs followed the same rituals. The body would be washed, anointed, dressed and laid out. Relatives and friends would accompany the body or the cremains to the place of interment. Not to perform any burial rites for a dead person was considered an insult to human dignity (
Iliad, 23.71). As Christianity spread, the Judaeo-Christian practice of burying the dead became the norm.
In our day, ecologically conscious individuals have found some rather novel ways to dispose of the dead. Their remains can be used to form coral reefs, to recharge batteries and even to produce a lifetime supply of 240 mm graphite pencils. Recently, some people are suggesting alkaline hydrolysis as a viable way of ‘disposing’ of the dead.
Alkaline hydrolysis has already been in use for the last 16 years as a way to get rid of animal carcasses. Now it is being proposed for humans. The dead person is placed in a steel cylinder along with lye. Heated to 300 degrees and subject to 60 pounds of pressure per square inch, the body becomes sterile liquid resembling motor oil. It is then safely flushed down the drain.
In ancient times, or even a century ago, no one would have even imagined these disrespectful ways to deal with the dead. But not today. Today’s culture is ripe for such ideas.
Advances in biomedical research have been changing the value that people place on human life. Research has placed within the hands of scientists and doctors possibilities never before imagined. Until modern times, the sacred gift of life was passed on within the context of a personal relationship of a man and woman. Now human life is “created” in test tubes.
Science itself shows that all the unique characteristics of the person are already present at the very beginning of human life. Thus, science leads reason to discern a personal presence from the first moment of conception. Therefore, from the very beginning, the human embryo should be respected with the dignity proper to a person. In fact, “God’s love does not differentiate between the newly conceived …and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person. God does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own image and likeness (
Gen 1:26) in each one” (Benedict XVI, “
The Human Embryo in the Pre-implantation Phase,” February 27, 2006,
AAS 98, 264).
Nonetheless, medical procedures can routinely manipulate the person in his or her embryonic state. Human embryos are created in test tubes to help infertile couples. Yet, the techniques of
in vitro fertilization treat the human embryo simply as a mass of cells to be used at will. There are many embryos produced. Some are selected. A high proportion of them are discarded. Those human embryos that are produced for therapeutic purposes are likewise used and then destroyed. Our culture has adapted an attitude toward human life as a disposable commodity.
De facto, we have become desensitized to the personal dignity of human life at its beginning.
In our society, there is no longer a universal respect for the life of the living. There is also a concomitant diminished respect for the dead. Some uses of science have buried the dignity of the human person beneath technological procedures. To reawaken rational individuals to the fundamental truth of the dignity of the human person, to offer the good that science can offer and to provide clear moral guidelines on the pressing issues of biomedical research, the Vatican has issued a new instruction called
The new instruction evaluates the moral use of new discoveries in procreation, genetic therapy, stem cell research and cloning on the basis of the dignity of the human person. For some, the Church’s unrelenting respect for life and for the beginning of all human life within the context of conjugal love seems unduly harsh and unscientific. But, in reality, this very respect expresses “
a great ‘yes’ to human life” (
Dignitas Personae, n. 1). Without such respect, man becomes just another thing to be disposed of whether alive or dead.
This is the first of two articles that will explain Dignitas Personae