Timberlake: The rights of a corpse

Ian Timberlake

As of 2007, there were nine states that had no explicit laws on necrophilia. Effective at the beginning of this year, Illinois pushed a law governing the taboo topic with a vote 114-0 in favor of: “Creating the offense of abuse of a corpse. Providing that a person commits the offense if he or she intentionally engages in sexual conduct with a corpse or involving a corpse.” The penalty for committing this crime is up to seven years in prison.

Interestingly enough, there is no current federal law governing the topic either. In other words, the state you live in determines whether you get off the grotesque act scott-free or (in the case of Nevada) spend the rest of your life in jail. In Iowa, the act is a class D felony with a potential five-year jail sentence.

My question is why is this extremely offensive act punished in such a bipolar manner across the United States? The taboo nature of the act prevents discourse on the topic.

I think the answer lies within the moral philosophy of whether or not dead bodies have “rights.” According to all state laws, acts of sexual deviance are only governed for living bodies that aren’t classified as “human remains.” According to most laws, it is a victimless crime, though potentially the most offensive of actions.

One might think that it is obvious this should be illegal, but upon closer inspection it becomes more convoluted. The seemingly only “victim” of the act is the family of the deceased, and their unlivable terror that such an act may cause. But should an act of extreme insult or offense be considered criminal? According to the constitution, no.

Obviously those that are more religious might be more inclined to demand for a greater punishment, because the contamination of a “soul” is involved. Even though the supposed soul of the deceased might no longer be with the body, it still could be taken as a desecration to the soul in heaven. This sort of logic wouldn’t stand in the legal system as it is on a religious basis. Although, “unnatural intercourse” is illegal in Mississippi — take that as you will.

The University of Minnesota’s Dr. John Troyer, who specializes in “technologies of the human corpse,” said: “Human corpses and the laws that govern the use of dead bodies are uniquely positioned to cause legal discrepancies since the dead body is a quasi-subject before the law. This creates a constant problem where the deceased body is no longer a living person and therefore not covered by the laws that regulate sexual deviance.”

He goes on to say: “I’m not proscribing more robust law enforcement but it certainly begs the question — how willing are people to examine the legal rights of dead bodies and the sexual desires of individuals deemed ‘human deviants?’” This is the question I pose to you.

My stance on any issue is that insults cannot be criminalized. Offense cannot be given, only taken. I also agree that in the eyes of the law, necrophilia is a victimless crime with the exception of the amount of psychological damage a family or friend might undertake upon learning of such atrocity to their deceased loved one — and therefore warrants some level of punishment for harming the “property” of the family.

Minimally, the supposed necrophiliac should undergo psychological evaluation. If this person is found sane, then I believe a hefty fine should be put in place, based on the percentage of their income. Jail time should exist, but only for minimal terms (no more than five years) that increases per repeated offense. The sentencing would also include the prohibition from employment at morgues, graveyards, and the like, as well as a no-contact order with family and friends of the deceased.

Why do I find this topic necessary to talk about? It’s because I don’t like the fact that circumstances in America exist where someone could either be put to prison for life or walk the streets only labeled as a creep, simply on the basis of in which state someone lives.

“To legislate against this kind of abject behavior means acknowledging its existence, which some authorities may find difficult to deal with,” said Troyer, which means breaking the taboo is necessary to create public discourse of this controversial topic. If we are unwilling to even address the topic, consistency in its punishment will never be achieved.