Knee Deep in the Dead

No one knows exactly what happens to our consciousness when we die, but we do know what happens to our bodies: they rot. Flesh festers and decays, bone and sinew dissolve and the elements that once formed us are cycled back into the Earth. At least that’s what happens if we don’t interfere with the natural process.

Humans have always been fascinated with death, particularly death of those of our species. Because of this fixation, and also our attachment to those who have departed the world of the living, death rituals are an important practice in every culture.

A death ritual is a ceremony held shortly after the death of a member of society, which honors and commemorates their life through speech, dance or song.

The precise purpose of a death ritual can vary, but they are generally viewed as a sort of final farewell that releases a soul into the afterlife, honors the life of the deceased and offers closure to those left behind. Although these ceremonies share common purposes, their executions are unique and can be shocking to the unfamiliar.

The preparation of the body may involve a number of different customs, including dismemberment, mummification or even applying makeup and dressing it in fine clothing. The final ceremony may involve burying, burning or eating the corpse. Many of these customs seem vile and heretical to Western folk, for we predominantly bury our loved ones and seldom interact with the body. What’s interesting is that of all the ways to dispose of a dead body, burial in a marked grave is the only unsustainable method.

By assigning a small plot of land to each person, every member of society receives a shrine in their honor. Each grave is marked with a stone that bears a brief inscription epitomizing the person’s values and accomplishments. Because of our respect for the dead, these memorials are expected to remain undisturbed. However, this practice cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually our cemeteries will fill, requiring that we devote more and more land to those unable to appreciate our efforts.

This isn’t a threat that many are worried about, since cemeteries now occupy only a very small portion of developed land, which is only a fraction of the 150,000,000 square kilometers of land on our planet, but at some point we must address this issue.

Allowing for reasonable spacing between graves, each plot would require about 6 square meters, which means that the Earth could accommodate around 25,000,000,000 graves. If we inaccurately assume that our population and annual mortality rate remain constant, at 7,000,000,000 and .86% respectively, and that burial soon becomes the official worldwide death ritual, it will be a short 446 years before the entire globe is transformed into a graveyard.

It’s possible that the reason we abandon our world and take to the stars in search of a new home won’t be war, pollution or overpopulation (at least in the conventional sense), but that this planet’s overrun by the remains of our ancestors. It’s true that 2459 is a long way off, and that things could change by that time, but we could be losing 336,000,000 square meters of land every year – land that could be used to benefit the living.

Rather than fearing that the dead rise from their graves, perhaps we should fear that they remain there.

Lex Talionis

Crime is an inevitable part of our world. No matter how much freedom and plenty are available inside the fence, some people will inevitably climb that fence, either due to boredom, curiosity, selfishness or mental impairment. Though we may be able to reduce crime through social programs and education, the question remains: what do we do with those who break the law?

Throughout history this question has been answered in many different ways, including fines, hard labor, torture, mutilation, exile, execution and incarceration. Imprisoning convicts has become the established method of administering punishment in the developed world, where physical discipline is considered barbaric. Of course, it is likely that a society which used beatings and public shaming to punish its criminals might consider the idea of removing people from their belongings, friends and family for decades to be much more brutal.

Incarceration is a luxury that many societies have not been able to afford, and many questions have been raised about the how correctional the facilities actually are. British Politician Douglas Hurd, regarding the effectiveness of incarceration, stated that, “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse.”

Each society has its own view of law and criminal justice which defines what behavior is considered criminal, which crimes are, in general, grievous and the aim of punitive action. No matter what the method of punishment, the intent behind criminal justice is to satisfy one or more of four major objectives:

  1. Retribution: To exact punishment on the person who committed the crime.
  2. Deterrent:  To set an example to the rest of society in the hopes of discouraging others from similar activity.
  3. Protection: To keep the citizens safe from criminals.
  4. Correction: To ensure that criminals do not continue to offend.

Different methods of punishment accomplish these four objectives in different ways, as illustrated by this chart:

Objective Punishment
Pain Mutilation Fines Exile Incarceration Execution
 Retribution Strong Strong Strong Strong Strong Unknown
 Deterrent Fair Strong Fair Strong Fair Strong
 Protection Weak Strong Weak Strong Strong Very Strong
 Correction Weak Strong Weak Weak Fair Very Weak

Obviously the level to which each type of punishment achieves its aim depends on implementation. Incarceration, for example, provides a great opportunity for corrective programs as well as negative influence from fellow criminals, while mutilation, which may prevent future crime, can render recipients permanently debilitated. The method of punishment which consistently generates the most controversy is execution.

The death penalty holds the most absolute consequences of any punishment, which is what makes it so attractive to its supporters and so unbearable to its detractors. Although execution grants permanent protection from further crime, critics argue that because death is irreversible we cannot offer compensation to the wrongfully convicted. This argument is based on several unprovable presumptions. First, that every wrongfully convicted individual will be exonerated, second, that those who are exonerated are, in fact, innocent and finally, that we can adequately compensate for incarceration. It’s true that we cannot revive the dead, but neither can we travel back in time to restore lost years to these whose lives we have ruined.

There is much debate over whether increased punishment leads to increased deterrence. As we have already discussed, there is at least a meaningful relationship between punishment and deterrence, which means that the death penalty would offer the greatest deterrence of any form of punishment. So capital punishment offers impenetrable protection, tenacious deterrence and non-existent correction, but how does it fair at dispensing retribution? Death penalty supporters often tout its retributive power, but we can’t actually be certain how effective it is.

By incarcerating an individual we can control almost all aspects of their lives, but when we kill someone we relinquish control of their fate to the icy coils of death. Sure, there’s the fear and mental anguish endured by those poor souls on death row, but what happens after they die and how can we be sure that it’s bad?

There are many theories and beliefs about what awaits us beyond the grave, including heaven, hell, Blisstonia, non-existence, parallel realities and reincarnation, but ultimately we don’t know what exactly happens in the afterlife because scientists stubbornly refuse to die and study it.

If the criminal were to go to heaven or a parallel world after death, then there wouldn’t be much of a punishment. Non-existence seems frightening, but we all had no problem not existing before we were born, so it can’t be that bad. If we only had some evidence that there was, in fact, eternal torture awaiting the victim, then capital punishment might be viable. But as it stands, there’s a chance that they could end up in paradise, and death shall have no dominion.