It has been almost twenty years since I dissected a dead human body. It still seems strange: My first encounter with a human body to learn the art of healing was an encounter with a corpse. What is more, I took this body to pieces. In any other context, this act would have been a felony.
Respect for our mortal remains has been a permanent feature of human behavior from the dawn of history. The particular methods of honoring the dead differ across various societies, but all times and cultures share an innate sense that some ritual act of regard is necessary. The human body can be desecrated in death, just as it can be in life.
The central moral conflict in Sophocles’s Antigone revolves around the protagonist’s duty to bury the body of her dead brother, even if this means disobedience to the king’s prohibition against burying the rebels of Thebes’s civil war. Homer’s Iliad describes how the victorious Achilles drags Hector’s dead body around the tomb of his friend Patroclus. Amid all the carnage of war recounted in the poem, this is perhaps the most brutal moment. More than death itself, Homer’s heroes feared having their carcasses left on the battlefield as food for the dogs. In the wrenching final scene, Hector’s royal father, Priam, grasps the hand of the man who killed his son, and desperately begs Achilles to return Hector’s body for proper burial.
Read more at First Things.