‘Food for the Crows’

The measure of a society's humanity is what it does to its dead

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued a document in the last days before Easter, “On the Proper Disposition of Bodily Remains.” Its topic was what a Catholic should do with the postmortem remains of a human being. It’s timely in this Easter period.

The document was likely occasioned by the juggernaut in many (particularly Democratic) states to legalize “recomposting” and/or alkaline hydrolysis as “alternative” methods of corpse disposal. “Natural organic reduction,” as “recomposting” is also known (all these euphemisms mask what it is: humanly-accelerated decomposition) wraps a body in a bacteria-laden container and adds heat to accelerate bodily breakdown into about two wheelbarrows full of “organic material” often hawked as fertilizer you can add to your garden. For those who prefer liquids over solids, alkaline hydrolysis immerses a body in a pressurized and heated container of chemicals to turn it into a liquid (with bone fragments).

In both instances, affirmative human action through technology is taken to compress and accelerate natural decomposition. The arguments for doing this are: (a) it reduces your postmortem “carbon footprint” without taking up “valuable” land for earth burial or wasting fuel to cremate you, and (b) the residue can now serve a “useful purpose” – if you wish – by perpetuating the “circle of life” through using you as fertilizer (recomposting) or warm water (alkaline hydrolysis) for heating systems.

How far have we come, as Jews and Christians, from Easter? I say “Jews and Christians” because Jews, unlike today’s liberal Protestants, would never have subscribed to the idea that “Jesus rose in the hearts of His disciples” as opposed to leaving an empty tomb. Such a disembodied “Jesus” would not have made sense to them nor motivated His Apostles to suffer brutal martyrdoms because of their newfound “Christian mental identity” devoid of any grounding in the flesh. Thomas said, “Let me probe His wounds,” not “convince me.” For true Judaism and Christianity, to be human is to be incarnate, and that incarnation has dignity.

The underlying anthropology behind recomposting and alkaline hydrolysis is precisely that disembodied, disincarnate “ghost in a machine,” some evanescent “identity” attached for some 70 years (or 80 for those who are strong) to a certain mass of biological material which, in itself, is impersonal. That mass is neutral but, after death, becomes a problem, because dead meat spoils. Since it is now “useless” insofar as its previous “user” is concerned, recomposting and alkaline hydrolysis trade on green fundamentalism to create “useful” stuff that “furthers life.” What was a problem now contributes to environmental flourishing in a species-equal world. Dirty Harry who became attractive Sally can now literally become a real tomato!

Having just celebrated the Paschal Triduum, the image of the Crucified Christ is fresh before our eyes. But Jesus’ Crucifixion was, in some ways, unique, particularly because it occurred in Israel. While Jesus died a “natural” death (in the sense of what happens to a bleeding and tortured body when its weight is suspended by its arms on a cross), the two crucified with Him suffered accelerated demise brought on by human technology, i.e., sledgehammers breaking their kneecaps. The speed was dictated by the Jewish liturgical calendar: Passover was imminent and the leadership that conspired to kill Christ did not want corpses hanging at the entrance to the Holy City for that feast, both out of respect for the celebration’s dignity and not to remind Christ’s disciples what they did.

I add these observations because we should not forget that crucifixion was commonplace in the Roman world, and that the Romans had perfected this Phoenician invention as an art form maximally to prolong the exCRUCiating (note the root) torture as a deterrent. Many of those who were crucified were not taken down from the cross. Crucifixion as a sentence often continued after death: corpses were left hanging (unless a cross was needed for somebody else) to rot off, be picked at as carrion by wild animals, or be consumed by birds. One ancient writer spoke of people who were crucified as cibus corvorum, “food for the crows.”

Now, leaving the crucified as animal food was part of the punishment. (The body might otherwise be discarded in a common grave). Like everything about crucifixion, it was intended to degrade its victim.

Can’t we recast that vision? Perhaps we also could put our deceased loves ones out (maybe not on stakes—that’s for when they fertilize tomato plants) to foster the “circle of life” by reducing their postmortem land occupancy and carbon footprint? We can appropriately shield them from prying eyes, like the walls adjacent to highways or the discreet removal of “biological waste” from abortion clinics. Given climate change, that extra bird food might be beneficial to those species whose migratory patterns have become confused by anthropogenic global warming. This recognizes the limits of human mortality and the potential for intentional human (self-)repurposing in an environmentally challenged world, for which humans bear no small measure of culpability.

The ancients may have had Sophists, but they had nothing on modern sophistry!

I assume that my readers recognize I am being satirical (in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” although Planned Parenthood’s body traders seem to have that market niche sewn up). Change some words and one can make the degrading palatable, even noble.

Like turning your relatives into humus or flow-off.

Contemporary French theologian Fr. Guillaume de Menthière has observed that the measure of a society’s humanity is what it does to its dead. One might add: what one does, not how one describes or packages it.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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