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Zombies & Philosophy

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When A Body Meets A Body

Tim Madigan discovers that Jeremy Bentham has risen from the grave!

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust inclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.”
Epitaph on William Shakespeare’s headstone

For reasons I can’t entirely fathom, I have a predilection for visiting the graves of philosophers. So far, I’ve stopped by the final resting places of, among others, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, Sartre and de Beauvoir (in the last case it was two for the price of one, since they are buried together at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris). Given that they were all at best skeptical about the afterlife, if not downright deniers of it, one could ask why I make it a point to visit those who are surely not at home. One reason is that, while admitting their superiority to me as thinkers, I do have one advantage over these famous philosophers. I’m still here, and they’re not. This gives me a certain ‘existential’ joy.

However, one particular philosopher has thrown a curve ball into this calculation, namely the late great Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Unlike the others just mentioned, I’ve actually seen him face to face, for his final resting place is not in a grave, but rather in a glass-fronted wooden box just inside the main foyer of University College, London, a college whose establishment he strongly supported, and for which he is still known as its ‘spiritual founder’ (ironically, given his irreligious views). Madigan and Bentham Here’s a photo to prove my visit for those who might doubt it (that’s me on the right, in case you can’t tell us apart). It was taken by Philosophy Now founder Rick Lewis, who accompanied me. Known as the ‘auto icon’, the Bentham cadaver can be seen online at The ‘icon’ (again a rather spiritual term for such a nonreligious thing) consists of Bentham’s padded skeleton clad in his own clothes and with his actual walking stick, even though his walking days are long over. There is a wax head on top, capped by Bentham’s straw hat. At one time his skull used to reside in the box at his feet, but students from UCL’s arch-rival King’s College kept stealing it as a prank – including, as legend goes, once using it for football practice. Rick Lewis, who once worked at King’s, disavowed all knowledge of such capers, but I did notice that Bentham’s stare seemed rather severe when Rick came into the icon’s sightline. Alas, poor Bentham – the original noggin now resides in another part of the campus, under lock and key.

Entrepreneurial Spirits

Although he’s not a zombie, there’s something rather disconcerting about seeing Bentham in the flesh, as it were, so long after his natural demise. What possible motive could he have had to request to be put on display in this way? When showing the above photo to my students, I always ask them for their thoughts on this, and usually get one of two responses: he was crazy, or he was a complete egotist. While not ruling out either answer entirely, I then give them a bit of advice from one of my philosophy instructors at the University at Buffalo, Berkley Eddins: Always assume that a great philosopher had a reason for what he or she did or said, no matter how odd it might strike us. With that in mind, when I returned to the States, I did some investigating to see if I could discover why in the world UCL has a Bentham-in-a-Box.

It turns out that one of the great ethical dilemmas in Britain of the late 1700s and early 1800s, the heyday of Bentham’s writings, was the phenomenon of body snatching. Medical colleges – such as the one just recently started at UCL – were in dire need of cadavers for staff and students to experiment upon, but the supply was woefully inadequate. Very few people were willing to donate their bodies to science: some because of religious fears, some because of squeamishness, and most because they just found it to be too strange or disturbing to contemplate. Therefore – as usually happens when supply fails to meet demand – a black market arose. So-called ‘resurrection men’, such as the notorious Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, began digging up newly-laid graves and delivering the contents to the back doors of doctors’ offices. Soon realizing that snatching bodies from cemeteries was time-consuming and likely to be discovered, these ‘resurrectionists’ started cutting out the middleman by creating their own corpses. They began to prey upon the destitute, plying them with alcohol, and after they were suitably befuddled, smothering them to death. While it must have struck the doctors that the bodies they were acquiring seemed strangely fresh, this cash business continued for quite some time. (Perhaps this was the origin of the concept ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’.)

Needless to say, this activity created a tremendous sense of horror and outrage throughout the British Isles. Relatives finding the graves of their loved ones disturbed were none too pleased, and the homeless community, already prone to countless indignities, now had the fear of murder-for-profit to add to their worries. In order to try to do something to get cadavers into medical schools legally, the British Government passed a law allowing the bodies of executed prisoners to be used for dissection. The reasoning was that since these were criminals who were going to go to Hell anyway, there could be no complaints about the morality of thus disposing of their final remains. In a case of poetic justice, when Burke and Hare were finally captured, the latter informed on the former, and while Hare was released, Burke was hanged, and his body sent to the very medical school he had previously supplied with cadavers. Habeas corpus redux.

An Encouraging Display

Yet even with the large numbers of executions occurring at this time, there was still a significant shortage of carcasses. Bentham would have been well aware of this. As a social reformer, unlike many of his peers, he did not call for even more executions to increase the supply. Instead, applying his utilitarian views, he argued that capital offenses should be severely limited, and punishments should be made to fit the crimes. Furthermore, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ would be better achieved if people freely donated their bodies rather than have them disinterred against their will or sent to medical professionals as a final form of retribution. And always being the type who wished to practice what he preached, Bentham willed that upon his death his own cadaver be sent to the UCL Medical School for dissection. His reasoning was perfectly in line with utilitarian thinking: being dead, he no longer would feel any pain, so no harm would come to him, whereas those dissecting the body would learn vital details about human anatomy which would prove useful to them when they began to practice on the living. Much benefit and no harm – a utilitarian no-brainer (after the brain itself was examined, of course). And as a final way to promote the greater good, Bentham requested that once his dissection was completed, his remains were to be put on display, in part to encourage others to do as he had done. Since the enlightened populace at UCL were much less likely to be superstitious about the final disposition of their bodies than the general populace, Bentham thought they would be more likely to follow in his footsteps and donate their remains to the school, and perhaps embolden their equally enlightened friends to do likewise.

Alas, although his heart was in the right place, as it were, Bentham’s plan was not successful. Very few people chose to follow his example by donating their bodies to the medical school. Yet the need for cadavers remained as great as ever. Therefore in 1832, the year of Bentham’s death, the Anatomy Act was passed. Although it revoked the previous legislation allowing the dissection of hanged criminals (thus destigmatizing dissection from being a final means of punishment), the Act also stipulated that bodies unclaimed forty-eight hours after death (principally those of the destitute) would be delivered to medical facilities. This was exactly the type of decision Bentham did not desire. He understood that it was primarily the poor and uneducated – those most vulnerable to the Act – who would most fear having their final remains treated in this manner, as they would be much more likely to have superstitious concerns or religious qualms. Therefore, increasing the supply of bodies in this manner would also increase the amount of fear in society. So while the Anatomy Act did in fact put body snatching to rest, it did so at the cost of furthering the agonies of the most vulnerable, adding another cruel indignity to the treatment of the poor.

Bring Out The Dead

Madigan Sartre de Beauvoir
Simone, Jean-Paul and Tim in Montparnasse, Paris, July 2009

Shortly after seeing Bentham’s auto icon, I returned to my home town of Buffalo, New York, and had the opportunity to view several more human cadavers. The Buffalo Museum of Science was sponsoring an exhibit entitled ‘Body Worlds’ which, as the title implies, had traveled throughout the world displaying bodies. Created by the inventor of a process called ‘plastination’ – a German doctor named Gunther von Hagens (who deliberated cultivates a mad scientist look by dressing flamboyantly in black fedora) – the Body Worlds Exhibit placed the bodies in question in provocative and sometimes disturbing poses. The experience of viewing this exhibit was rather unnerving – literally, since the cadavers’ skin was replaced with transparent plastic, showing the nervous system as well as exposing internal organs. I most recall a corpse kicking a soccer ball with its skinless foot, which reminded me of poor Bentham’s skull being so employed by King’s College pranksters.

I had first learned about von Hagens and plastination about ten years earlier, coincidentally enough when visiting Rick Lewis for the first time. He and his partner Anja had just gone to see the exhibit in London, and showed me the illustrated programme. The original Body Worlds had caused a great deal of controversy (not least because anything involving Germans and human experimentation can bring up unpleasant connotations). Picketers had raised serious questions regarding just whose bodies were on display, and more importantly, had they consented to it? This was, if you’ll pardon the expression, quite a bone of contention, and continues to be so, especially when rival shows began to compete with Body Worlds, amid claims that some of those bodies were being sold on the black market. There were also allegations that some of the bodies in question had come from Chinese prisons, leading many ethicists to ask just how likely it was that such prisoners had consented to having their remains so displayed, as well as to whether their ‘crimes’ might have been political dissent.

Von Hagens’ organization is now ultra-sensitive to these charges, and the exhibit in Buffalo made it quite clear that every body so displayed came from the Institute for Plastination’s body-donor program, and that independent ethicists had reviewed the protocols involved and verified that each specimen was properly donated for public exhibition. In fact, donor information cards were available at the end of the exhibit. (Anyone so inclined can go to for further details.)

The exhibition raises an interesting moral question. Do we really have duties towards the dead? Surely autonomy cannot be attributed to the non-living, so questions of consent seem like a category mistake when applied to the dead. Why not just do whatever we want with human remains? After all, there is still a great medical need for human cadavers, as well as for organs and other body parts for transplantation. The number of donations is still woefully inadequate, especially when there are so many bodies for the taking. Should we really be so fastidious about making use of cadavers?

Body Snatching In The Twenty-First Century

This topic took a ghoulish twist in December 2005, when the family of urbane BBC broadcaster and Masterpiece Theatre host, Alastair Cooke, who had died of lung cancer in March 2004, learned that instead of his corpse having been cremated as they had thought, his body parts had been carved up and sold to various bidders in the New York City area. To make the parts more marketable, the company that illegally harvested Cooke’s remains falsified the medical records to claim that they came from the body of a young, healthy man, rather than from a nonagenarian who had succumbed to cancer. It was soon discovered that over a thousand bodies had been likewise plundered, with various funeral homes telling grieving relatives that their loved one had been cremated while forging their signatures and shipping the remains to warehouses across New York State. (I was shocked to learn that one of the bodies discovered in such a warehouse had once been a close relative of a colleague of mine. In this particular case, the funeral director and his black market associates were tried and imprisoned, but unlike Mr Burke, did not suffer the indignities they had inflicted on others.) Apparently there is big money in such ventures: some estimates claimed that the various pieces of a single cadaver could be sold for up to $200,000. Body snatching, it seems, is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

Such a public betrayal of trust, not to mention the appalling health-related deceptions involved, is deeply disturbing. But what lessons can be learned from this modern macabre tale?

First, it might help us understand why zombies remain such a topic of fascination. Another of my teachers at the University at Buffalo, the noted scholar Leslie Fiedler, often pointed out that classic tales such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Body Snatcher’ (1884), Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843), and countless ghost stories by countless other authors, continue to touch a nerve precisely because they deal with the taboo subject of tampering with the grave and unleashing undead beings amongst us. He felt that regardless of their literary merits, such works would constantly be revived, since as long as death remains something we prefer not to think about, these tales will continue to haunt us. Like William Shakespeare, most folks would prefer to have their bones unmoved.

But there is also a moral lesson to be learned here. I strongly feel that the way in which we treat our dead reflects upon our own dignity. Perhaps that is why I continue to pay my respects to the gravesides of those who made such great names in the profession I have chosen. It’s a way of showing homage to figures whose work still resonates long after their earthly existence ended. It’s also why I am glad that Doctor von Hagens (who recently announced that he will have his own remains plastinated and put on view after his demise) is now so upfront about getting consent from those he puts on display. I once had the chance to visit Lenin’s tomb while I was in Red Square, but chose not to, knowing that he had never requested to be put on public view. While no great fan of Lenin’s philosophy, I could at least show him this modicum of respect, by averting my eyes from peeking at his cadaver. Since Bentham expressly wished to be on view, I had no such qualms in stopping by to see him in his display case. Rather, it seemed the decent thing to do.

Furthermore, to show that Bentham’s body still has some life in it, I have officially donated my own body to science (mindful of Woody Allen’s remark that he’s donated his body to science fiction). I’ve gifted it to the Medical School of my alma mater, the University at Buffalo. It’s a minor attempt to reciprocate for the solid education I received there, and for being introduced to wonderful professors like Eddins and Fiedler, who, although no longer alive, continue to influence me. And although the University doesn’t have to display what’s left of me after the dissection is done, I’ll have my hat and walking stick at the ready, just in case.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2013

Tim Madigan is alive and well and living in Rochester, New York.


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