Selected Minor Works: Why We Do Not Eat Our Dead

Justin E. H. Smith

[An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing is now online at]

Now that an “extreme” cookbook has hit the shelves offering, among other things, recipes for human flesh (Gastronaut, Stefan Gates, Harcourt, 257 pages; paperback, $14), perhaps our gross-out, jack-ass culture has reached the point where it is necessary to explain why these must remain untried.

I will take it for granted that we all agree murder is wrong. But this alone is no argument against anthropophagy, for people die all the time, and current practice is to let their remains simply go to waste. Why not take advantage of the protein-rich corpses of our fallen comrades or our beloved elderly relatives who have, as they say, “passed”? Surely this would not be to harm them or to violate their integrity, since the morally relevant being has already departed or (depending on your view of things) vanished, and what’s left will have its integrity stolen soon enough by flame or earth. Our dearly departed clearly have no objections to such a fate: they are dead, after all. Could we not then imagine a culture in which cannibalizing our dead were perfectly acceptable, perhaps even a way of honoring those we loved?

The fact that we do not eat our dead, in spite of their manifest indifference, has been duly noted by some participants in the animal-rights debate. They think this reveals that whatever moral reasoning goes into our decisions about what sort of creature may be eaten and what must be left alone, it simply is not, for most of us, the potential suffering of the creature that makes the moral difference. Whereas Peter Singer believes that we should stop eating animals because they are capable of suffering, others have responded that this is beside the point, since we also make humans suffer in multifarious ways. We just don’t eat them.

But again, why not? Some moral philosophers have argued that the prohibition has to do with respect for the memory of the deceased, but this can’t get to the heart of it, since there’s no obvious reason why eating a creature is disrespectful to it.

It may be the answer is simply that, as a species, we are carrion-avoiders. After all, it is not just the vegetarian who will not eat a cow struck by lightning, but the carnivore as well. Put another way: we do not eat fallen humans, but we also do not eat fallen animals; we eat slaughtered animals. It is then perhaps not so much the fact that dead humans are (or were) human that prevents us from eating them, but the fact they are carrion, and that we, as a species, are not scavengers.

Consider in this connection the Islamic Shariah laws that one must follow if one wishes to eat a camel that has fallen down a well (I turn here to the version of the rules stated as stated by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani): “[If the camel] falls down into a well and one feels that it will die there and it will not be possible to slaughter it according to Shariah, one should inflict a severe wound on any part of its body, so that it dies as a result of that wound. Then it becomes… halal to eat.”

Now, why is it considered so important to inflict a fatal wound before the camel dies as a result of its fall? Though this is but one culture’s rule, it seems to be the expression of a widespread prohibition on eating accidentally dead animals. In the case of the camel, an animal that is about to die from an accident, and the instruction is: if you want to eat it, you better hurry up and kill it before it dies! This suggests that people do not slaughter simply so that a creature will be dead, but rather so that it will be dead in a certain way. Relatedly, in the southern United States, roadkill cookbooks are sold in souvenir shops as novelty items, and the novelty consists precisely in the fact that tourists are revolted and amused by the thought of the locals scavenging like vultures.

Of course, human beings do in fact eat other human beings, just not those dead of natural or accidental causes. Some decades ago, the reality of cannibalism was a matter of controversy. In his influential 1980 book, Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy the social anthropologist William Arens argued that stories of cannibal tribes were nothing more than racist, imperialist fantasies. Recently, though, substantial empirical evidence has been accumulated for the relative frequency of cannibalism in premodern societies. Notable among this work is Tim White’s archaeological study of anthropophagy among the Anasazi of Southwestern Colorado in the twelfth century. More recently, Simon Mead and a team of researchers have made the case on the basis of genetic analysis that epidemics of prion diseases plagued prehistoric humans and were spread through cannibalistic feasting, in much the same way that BSE spreads among cattle.

In the modern era, frequent reports of cannibalism connected with both warfare and traditional medicine come from both natives and visitors in sub-Saharan Africa. Daniel Bergner reported in the New York Times that “in May [2003], two United Nations military observers stationed in northeastern Congo at an outpost near Bunia, a town not far from Beni, were killed by a local tribal militia. The peacekeepers’ bodies were split open and their hearts, livers and testicles taken – common signs of cannibalism.” One of Bergner’s informants, a Nande tribesman, recounts what happened when he was taken prisoner by soldiers from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo:

“One of his squad hacked up the body. The commander gave Kakule [the informant] his knife, told him to pare the skin from an arm, a leg. He told Kakule and his other assistant to build a fire. From their satchels, the soldiers brought cassava bread. They sat in a circle. The commander placed the dead man’s head at the center. He forced the two loggers to sit with them, to eat with them the pieces of boiled limb. The grilled liver, tongue and genitals had already been parceled out among the commander and his troops.”

Bergner notes that it is a widespread, and commonly acknowledged belief in the region that eating the flesh, and especially the organs, of one’s enemy is a way to enhance one’s own power. This practice is sufficiently documented to have been accepted as fact by both the U. N. high commissioner for human rights as well as Amnesty International.

Cannibalism has been observed in over seventy mammal species, including chimpanzees. The hypothesis that cannibalism is common to all carnivorous species, or that this is something of which all carnivores are capable under certain circumstances, does not seem implausible. If one were to argue that these recent reports are fabrications, and that its modern disappearance in our own species has something to do with ethical progress, surely sufficient counterevidence could be produced from other, even better documented practices to quickly convince all concerned that no progress has been made.

The evidence suggests that, when cannibalism does happen, it is never the result of the fortuitous death of a comrade and the simple need among his survivors for protein. Rather, it follows upon the slaughtering of humans, which is exactly what we would expect, given the human preference for slaughtered pigs and cows over lightning-struck ones. Where eating animals is permitted, there is slaughter. And where slaughtering humans is permitted, the general prohibition on eating them does not necessarily hold.

In short, eating human beings is wrong because murder is wrong, and there’s no way to get edible meat but by slaughtering it. I suppose Stefan Gates could look for a “donor,” who would in case of an untimely death –a car accident, say– dedicate his body to pushing the limits of experimental gastronomy. But if the cook fails to find any willing diners, this may have much more to do with our distaste for roadkill than with respect for the memory of a fellow human.