Earlier today Inayat Bunglawala asked me if I condemned necrophilia. He had written - rather too jauntily for my taste - about the latest outrage perpetrated by the "justice" system in Saudi Arabia. A widow of seventy-five years of age was sentenced to forty lashes (and a year's imprisonment) after two much younger men, one of them her nephew, were found in her house by the Muttawa (the religious police) following a tip-off. Bunglawala saw this as a typical example of Saudi "dottiness", and offered, by way of comparison, this anecdote
I last visited Saudi Arabia just over 10 years ago to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. One evening my wife and I went to a restaurant in Makka only to be faced with pleas from the manager not to enter together because he was afraid of being raided by the religious police – the mutawwa'in. "They will assume you are not a married couple and this will cause me a lot of trouble," he said.
All very interesting (particularly what it suggests about the condition of most Saudi marriages), but Bungle's piece as a whole struck me as somehow lacking in the expected moral outrage, and I suggested a more vehement condemnation might have been appropriate. He shot back at me:
Yes, of course, I condemn it. Do you condemn necrophilia Heresiarch? Are you sure, because I have never heard you actually say so. Know what I mean?
Since I've never knowingly written about necrophilia, I don't think there's much reason for me to begin every article I do write with "I condemn sexual intercourse with dead bodies". But, come to think of it, do I actually condemn necrophilia? Is it really as bad to violate a corpse - which is, after all, is unlikely to feel personally insulted - as to flog an elderly woman - or anyone, for that matter - for the "crime" of taking delivery of a loaf of bread? I mused:
I can even imagine situations in which I would not condemn it at all: for example, suppose someone died and, in their will, offered their mortal remains for the use of necrophiles, and their relatives agreed. Would that be so wrong?
"Serious Poster" thought so:
I am not in any way a 'prude' but somehow I don't think that I would want to know you. I would have difficulty even manufacturing a situation like that in my mind and now that you have done it for me, I am appalled.
Am I amoral and/or psychopathic for entertaining such a notion, even for the purpose of a thought-experiment? And is there any proper basis, other than disgust, for condemning necrophilia? Let's look at the matter afresh.
Sexual interference with corpses is a crime in many US states, and a fairly recent one in Britain, having been made illegal in 2003. That measure would seem to owe more to New Labour's enthusiasm for creating new offences than to any widespread necrophilia "problem", however: I've been unable to establish whether there have been any convictions under the law. More recently, depictions of necrophilia have been outlawed, along with other types of "extreme pornography", under w ss 62-67 of the Criminal Justice Act 2008.
Thus stands the law. But necrophilia differs from most other sexual crimes in that there is no obvious victim. In a legal system derived from religiously-based morality that may be of little relevance. But modern secular law strives for rationality, and for rules based on clear principles. In the area of sex offences, the principle most often invoked is that of consent. One reason why paedophilia is unproblematically condemned, for example, is that a child is considered incapable of giving informed consent to sex. Indeed, the issue of the age at which consent is possible is precisely what distinguishes legal from clinical definitions of age-based criminality.
(Not all times, or all cultures, have placed such emphasis on an age of consent, of course. The prophet whom Inayat Bunglawala regards as his moral exemplar, for example, is widely believed to have consummated his marriage to Ayesha when she was nine and he somewhere around fifty. Yet it is often explained in his defence that she had reached menarche - possible, I suppose - and that in any case such an action was less objectionable in the Arabia of the seventh century than it would be today, at least in the West.)
Likewise, recent revisions, and proposed revisions, to the law on rape, are based on the notion of consent. Campaigners argue that consumption of alcohol negates consent; just as unconsciousness clearly does. The capacity of people with varying degrees of mental impairment, likewise, has become a controversial area, with the desire to protect the vulnerable coming into conflict with the "right" to engage in sexual relationships. Similar arguments can even advanced with respect to bestiality: being incapable of speech, an animal cannot consent to sex, even if it had the intellectual capacity to do so. But here the argument begins to break down, since it must be assumed that animals consent to sex with members of their own species, and indeed have non-verbal means of showing it. Rather, it is ancient disapproval of inter-species mating (denounced so frequently, for example in the Bible, that it must in those times have been very widespread) that is reflected in law, rather than more complex ideas concerning consent.
Whether sex with a corpse raises such issues of consent is a moot point. Obviously the corpse is not consenting, although it is possible to imagine h the person whose corpse it is consenting in advance (for example, by signing a written document permitting sexual intercourse with his or her remains). But a corpse is not the person it used to be: that person has either ceased to exist altogether, or has gone to a better (or worse) place, depending on one's spiritual beliefs. In either case, the corpse has become an object. It is no more capable of giving or withholding consent than is a dildo or a blow-up doll. Logically, therefore, it must be of less intrinsic moral worth than a living human being, or even an animal. Whether a corpse is buried, or cremated, or exposed to the vultures, or consumed in an act of ritual cannibalism: these are questions of anthropology, sociology and culture rather than ones of pure morality. It is reported that among the Kachin tribe of Burma, and also among the Luo of East Africa, it was formerly the practice for a deceased virgin to be ritually deflowered - the theory being that her ghost would otherwise wander abroad in a state of sexual frustration, tormenting the living as a vampire or succubus. Among the Bellacoola tribe of British Columbia, by contrast, it was a widower's prerogative to say farewell to his deceased wife in the most intimate possible way.
In treating of necrophilia we are dealing, then, with a taboo rather than something with a rational or even moral basis. Of course, necrophilia is "unnatural", in that conception is not a possible outcome; but by this token, gay sex, oral sex, masturbation and sex in which one or both parties is using artificial contraception are equally unnatural - and rape isn't. It "outrages public dencency" - but so, not many decades ago, did homosexuality. These are shifting boundaries in any event: in Saudi Arabia (to go back to the starting point for this discussion) it so outraged the sense of decency of the Muttawa that a widow of 75 years was visited by her nephew that she was sentenced to be flogged. Causing outrage to a prevailing sentiment cannot, therefore, be a morally uncomplicated ground for denunciation. Opponents of necrophilia will have to do better than that.
It might be said that the outrage to the feelings of the deceased's relatives formed a better ground for condemnation. But that is circular reasoning: for one must first establish why such outrage should be felt. Because it's "disgusting"? Possibly. In most human cultures, a dead body is the source of conflicting emotions. As having once been a human being - and, in most cases, a loved relative or friend - it is the focus of reverence and grief, and thus accorded respect. But it is also polluting - in a literal sense, and also in a metaphorical or cultural sense. Disposal of the body, though attended by ritual, is also a means of getting rid of potentially hazardous waste. Today, however, embalming enables a corpse to be preserved in a lifelike condition for long after death, without the health risks associated with decomposition. In which case necrophilia need no longer be viscerally disgusting. And in any case, while there is a close connection between physical disgust and moral disapproval, it is a psychological rather than a moral connection. Just because it sounds icky doesn't mean it's wrong.
Is it, then, a pathology? Certainly, it is treated as one in the clinical literature - but then so, for many decades, was homosexuality, and in many texts consensual sadomasochism still is. The most thorough study, by Rosman and Resnick (1989), anatomised the phenomenon and found substantial differences in personality between, for example, murderers who violated their victims (whose primary motivation was to kill) and those who were erotically fixated on dead bodies. "The genuine necrophile" they wrote "has a persistent sexual attraction to corpses. The sexual attraction may be manifest in the necrophile's fantasies, or in a series of necorphilic acts." The most common motivating factor was a desire to "possess and unresisting and unrejecting partner", in some cases reflecting a history of abuse, or a persistent lack of success with the living. A fairly high proportion of necrophiles (not surprisingly perhaps) worked in funeral parlours. This might have been because corpse-lovers sought out the work, but it is also possible that constant exposure to cadavers broke down normal barriers between the living and the dead. Similarly, I suppose, if you spent long enough tending sheep on a Welsh hillside you might come to hear in their bleats a flirtatious invitation.
More broadly, one could perhaps say that there are two types of necrophilic impulse: one directed towards corpses in general, in which a person is erotically interested in dead bodies, would generally be seen as pathological. But there is another impulse, in which the attraction is to the person who merely happens to be dead. It is this "romantic necrophilia" - expressed, according to Rosman and Resnick, more commonly by kissing and caressing, than by sexually penetrating, the corpse - that so interested the nineteenth century, an era that was as obsessed by death as our age has been by sex. Edgar Allan Poe, especially, returned repeatedly to the subject, though this was about as explicit as he got:
of the beautiful Annabel Lee
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee
And so all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In the sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea
"A dead person who loves", wrote Freud's disciple Ernest Jones, "will love forever and will never be weary of giving and receiving caresses....On the other hand the dead being allows everything, can offer no resistance, and the relationship has none of the inconveniences that sexuality may bring in its train in life."
I leave you with a very romantic story from Key West, Florida, of a man who couldn't bear to let his wife go, and got into serious trouble as a result.