Beyond the Body

The human body is something that persons both have and are. It is the medium through which we experience the world and through which others experience us. Conventional wisdom assumes that the relationship between an individual and reality, especially social reality, ceases at death. Authors Elizabeth Hallam, Jenny Hockey, and Glennys Howarth argue that this is not true, and that embodiment is inadequate to explain human identity. We are more than our medical selves, our cosmetic selves, or the obituaries that recount our passing. Intriguing chapter titles within Beyond the Body: Death and Social Identity address the ideas raised. Such teasers as “’Vegetables,’ ’vampires’ and other hybrids” and “Married life after death,” explore human beings in perspectives greater than biology.

Does the mortal coil, put aside in death, delimit human relational potential? If one is to look at the social context, relational connections seem not always to be severed at the last breath. Funeral directors compose the corpse to look alive at best, asleep at worst. Widows chat with their dead husbands. Legal documents explore the cause of death, the context surrounding the passing, and—in cases of foul play—the gory details of the passing. After-death apparitions as well as prolonged coma blur the distinction between the “alive” person and a world beyond.

Gender is a subtext to the discussion: women’s privileged place at death, historical attitudes toward women’s bodies, women as narrators of the events that surround death or as care givers. Certainly the fact that the authors reject what they call a “body-based dualism” is indicative of a gender- sensitive perspective. The book is quite readable. It forces one no longer to privilege the biological, especially the biological death, but to think “beyond the body” to find its complex meaning.