Strand 6: The Criminal Corpse Remembered: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Power, Agency, Values and Ethics

Strand Researcher: Dr Floris Tomasini

The criminal corpse was the locus of great ambiguity. Apparent contradictions in historical attitudes towards it, examined in the other strands, will inform Dr Floris Tomasini's enquiry in Strand 6 into the multiple meanings of the criminal corpse over time. This also involves a comparative analysis between past and present, providing deep historical roots for contemporary anxieties about the treatment of the dead.

Strand 6 has two parts. Part one is an investigation of themes that illuminate the conceptualisation of power, agency, values and ethics implicit in previous strands. The following themes will act as a historical prism for conceptual analysis:

  • the criminal corpse as an object of deterrence and vilification (Strand 3)
  • the criminal corpse as a subject of profane burial practices (Strand 3)
  • the criminal corpse as a locus for retributive justice (Strand 1)
  • the criminal corpse as an object of medical knowledge (Strand 2)
  • the criminal corpse as an object of spectacle and public entertainment (Strand 2 and Strand 3)
  • the criminal corpse as a curative agent for healing and transformative power (Strand 4
  • the criminal body as re-presented through cultural fears and desires (Strand 5)

Part two builds on investigation of the historical roots of the criminal corpse. This Strand extends the conceptual analysis of part one to contemporary contexts where ethical issues around the treatment of the dead remain. The objective is to trace change and continuity in our treatment of the corpse from the more distant past. Whereas the profane in the past is often associated with the burial locations of the criminal corpse (Strand 3), contemporary anxiety about the treatment of the dead relocates profanity in the unethical post-mortem practices of the medical establishment on the vulnerable and innocent, as illustrated by the public inquiries at Alder Hey Hospital and Bristol Royal Infirmary. When post-mortems were performed on the corpses of children, their parents were often deceived and consent procedures bypassed. For the parents, children's corpses were remembered (literally and figuratively) in multiple funerals and were perceived to have been posthumously harmed. In this case, religious values of the sacred and profane transformed into the secular values that underpin normative ethical theories about what is and is not acceptable in our treatment of the dead. This is reflected in a shift, in more contemporary discourse, to the body as locus of posthumous harm rather than retributive justice.


This strand is methodologically complex, in at least two different senses. First, because it involves engagement with all the other strands it is the most demanding as an interdisciplinary exercise, bringing together the past in the present in a philosophically sensitive way. In broader terms, this involves transforming multi-disciplinary practice into interdisciplinary understanding of medical humanities.

Second, and in narrower terms, a philosophical conceptual analysis depends less on archival research sources and practices, and more on how one goes about achieving a philosophical understanding of history. Sensitive conceptual analysis in historical context is successfully achieved through the practice of hermeneutics. Moreover, a historically appropriate ethics will be - in the first instance - descriptive rather than prescriptive, paying close attention to what people think is right in historical context.

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