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Our Duty to the Dead

Stamatina Liosi enlists the help of Immanuel Kant to discover why we have a duty to treat the dead with dignity.

Among all the other indignities Syrian refugees have endured during the last seven years, from poor treatment at the borders and residency offices to humiliation and abandonment by immigration-hostile countries, they have also faced the indignity of not always finding a place for those who have died. Out of sheer necessity, corpses are abandoned in morgues, or cardboard boxes, or even in the backs of taxis.

I thought of them when, about six months ago, the day before my father’s funeral, my mother remarked that we all have a duty to treat the dead with dignity. For those of us who think that intuitions or widely held beliefs aren’t enough to explain why things should be done in a certain way, deeper reasons must be found. So let’s ask ourselves, why do we have the duty to treat the dead with dignity?

Duty to the Dead
Duty to the Dead © Ken Laidlaw 2018
Please visit kenlaidlaw.com to see more of his art.

Possible Reasons

It could be argued that it’s a violation of the dignity of the dead if we leave their bodies unburied to be eaten by animals because the dead had dignity while they were alive. Alternatively, it could be argued that we have to treat them with dignity because they still have dignity. Further, it could be claimed that the dead have to be treated with dignity because through such treatment we show reverence toward the God who has created them. Or it could be claimed that the dead have to be treated with dignity because this is a virtuous act that makes us better people for doing it. For instance, the fulfillment of the relevant duty by relatives or friends helps them find comfort or closure. Finally, Michael Rosen, Professor of Government at Harvard University, concluded in his book Dignity, Its History and Meaning (2012) that a dignified treatment of the dead denotes honour or respect of humanity in our own person (p.157). He was inspired in this by Immanuel Kant’s Formula of Humanity, according to which we must always act so that we use humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of another, as an end and never merely as a means [that is, as a person and not just as an object. Ed.]. However, I want to argue that except for a specific application of the first argument, none of these reasons are adequate to explain why we have a duty to treat the dead with dignity.

If dignity results from an inner feeling arising from the realization that one performs morally good acts, as Kant argues in his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), then the dead can no longer possess dignity, even if they had it while alive. So far as we can tell, the dead lack any cognitive or emotional capacities.

Next, treating the dead with dignity because this is showing reverence toward God has nothing to do with the dead themselves, but is a symbolic act which refers to our own relationship with God. As not all people are religious believers, we can hardly derive a universal duty from this.

The claim that treating the dead with dignity benefits the agent herself may be true, but, as with the God case, is another egoistical claim, and this annihilates its moral value as a pure duty to the dead themselves.

Finally, concerning Rosen’s thesis, it is not legitimate to identify the moral duties to oneself with moral duties to the dead. These are two distinct categories of duties, especially as it is difficult to argue in a Kantian way that the dead are persons in their own right.

Actual Reasons

Contrary to these claims, my own view is that independently of any other moral or religious considerations or concerns of virtue, we have a duty to treat the dead with dignity as a duty deriving from our good will. To demonstrate this I’ll need to discuss: (1) The grounding basis of this duty; (2) Who the duty-bearers are; (3) The content or extent of this moral duty; and finally, (4) The consequences of its non-fulfillment.

(1) Our moral duty to treat the dead with dignity, namely to decently bury or cremate the body, is grounded in our good will. That is to say, it is is the result of our freely-given positive response, as rational human beings, to what Kant called the moral law within us. The moral law is universal and rational, and Kant thinks we all have a sense of it even if not fully developed. The essence of the moral law is that we should act only in ways that could be universally copied. We should not think of our own actions as exceptional. So rather than asking myself if it is okay for me to do X in this situation, I should ask myself, “What if everyone did X?” Therefore we bury or cremate the dead out of an awareness that in principle it will be a better world if everyone does that, than if nobody does that.

But our reason ‘commanding’ compliance with this moral law is not an absolute ruler, or despot. If our reason was a tyrant, then there wouldn’t be millions of people who do not respect it. To pick one notorious example, Hazel Maddock would not have left the corpse of her mother unburied for up to six months, in order to keep claiming her pension. Rather, reason is understood in Aristotelian terms as the rational inner ‘voice’ which can only be listened to by those whose opposite ‘voices’ of natural inclinations, personal interests, wishes, desires, and so forth, aren’t screaming.

(2) Following Kant’s division of duties in his Metaphysics of Morals (1797), the duty to treat the dead with dignity is a specific duty. That is to say, it’s not a duty for all people, but only for specific people – for example, for the relatives or friends of the dead, and for the local authorities. Not all people had the duty to bury the body of my father six months ago. It was only the duty of his relatives, friends, and the local authority to ensure he was buried. The same evidently applies in the case of Syrian corpses. Ultimately, the duty to treat the dead with dignity does not require actions by all people, but only by specific duty-bearers.

(3) The moral (and legal) duty to treat the dead with dignity consists only of the duty of relatives or friends, as well as the local authority, to bury or cremate the corpse. This duty to the dead cannot be extended to a duty, either for individuals or for the local authority, to also carry out ceremonies in commemoration of the dead. Such commemorations are related to specific religious or philosophical worldviews, and their requirements can’t be morally compelled or legally enforced.

(4) The duty to treat the dead with dignity – that is, the duty to bury or cremate the body – is a duty which cannot be overridden.

First, there are legal consequences arising from the non-fulfillment of this duty, derived from the fact that its non-fulfillment may lead to serious life-threatening conditions. It is no accident that the burial and cremation of the dead are mentioned in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 in British law, with similar laws holding in other countries.

Contrary to the duty to bury or cremate the corpse, all the rituals surrounding this are related to specific religious or philosophical worldviews, omission of which rituals may lead only to cognitive or emotional distress rather than physical health risks; for example, the feeling of guilt of relatives or friends of the dead man or woman. Therefore these other aspects ought not to be legally required.

Rights and Duties

Three associated issues must be clarified here. First, who has the right (if there is a right) to the fulfillment of the duty of burial or cremation? Second, how is this right derived from the duty to treat the dead with dignity? And third, to whom is the dignity in the phrase ‘treating the dead with dignity’ actually attributed?

Regarding the first issue, the dead body cannot claim such a right to burial or cremation. Only living human beings, whose hygiene and health are in danger in the case of the non-fulfillment of the duty, can claim it. Moreover, the duty-bearers are not all people, institutions, or states, but only specific others, namely the relatives and friends of the dead, as well as the local authorities. Given this, this right to hygiene and health is also not to be regarded as a universal human right per se. It might instead be regarded as a socioeconomic right, comparable to the socioeconomic right to health stated in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Kant grave
Suitably dignified: Kant’s own grave in Kaliningrad
Photographer: Anastasia Kravcova / Creative Commons 4.0

Moving on to the second issue, of how this right is derived from our duty to treat the dead with dignity, Kant’s derivation of every right from a particular duty could be invoked here. Specifically, in The Metaphysics of Morals 6:239, he argues that our awareness of the concept of rights proceeds from the moral imperative which gives us the concept of duties. As he says, “the capacity for putting others under obligation, that is, the concept of right, can be generated from the proposition which commands duty.” It could be claimed from this that without the duty to treat the dead with dignity, that is to say, to bury or cremate them, the subsequent right to hygiene and health of the living would not exist. (Incidentally, given my previous argument, this also means that the living people whose health is in danger have the right to claim the burial or cremation of the body by the relevant duty-bearers not because the latter have a specific duty to benefit the former, but simply because the duty-bearers must fulfill a moral duty arising from their good will towards the dead, independently of any other considerations or concerns.)

Finally, concerning the question by whom the dignity is possessed, it can be claimed that ‘dignity’ in the statement “we have a duty to treat the dead with dignity” does not refer either to the dead person, as it is often mistakenly said, or to those living beings who have the right to claim the burial or the cremation of the dead body. Instead, it is possessed by the specific duty-bearers, who (following Kant) have the rational capacity to respect the moral idea within them – such as the idea of their duty to treat the dead with dignity. The dignity of the duty-bearers here consists of a feeling of ‘inner value’ resulting from the realization of their higher selves as autonomous, or of themselves as good persons, which derives from their treatment of the dead with dignity.


So the relatives and friends, as well as the relevant local authorities, wherever Syrians die, either in Lebanon or in Greece, have the specific duty to bury or cremate them. Along with all our family and friends, as well as the local authority in Athens, I myself had exactly the same duty to bury the body of my father six months ago. This duty could not be overridden. My duty to carry out the other commemorative ceremonies for him since then could be overridden. However, none of our unburied memories can be overridden.

© Stamatina Liosi 2018

Stamatina Liosi is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury. She previously practised Law in Athens.

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