January 18th, 2017

Why look for the bodies?

In the recent thread about the called-off search for Flight MH370, commenter “Lurch” asked this question:

I really do not understand this fetish about finding a bunch of dead bodies. A dead body is an artifact. It is not the person you loved. It’s your memories that truly matter and they can never be taken from you.

It is true that a dead body is not at all the same as the living person, although I’m puzzled by the term “artifact,” which ordinarily means an object made by humans. I don’t think that’s what Lurch was trying to say; I think he/she may have been attempting to indicate that the body, no longer animated by spirit, soul, personality—in other words, by life itself—becomes a collection of molecules destined to be broken down into component parts.

So, why bother finding those bodies? Why go to such huge expense and trouble?

My answer has several parts, some general and some specific. One of the marks of being human is that we know we and our loved ones will die, and one of the ways anthropologists mark the transition to fully human beings is that humans honor their dead, and that very much includes the body that once housed the human spirit. This would be a very long post indeed if I were to list all the ways that different religions and different cultures conceptualize how to do this honoring, but they all involve having a body there in the first place, and some sort of ceremony that involves the body or what remains of it.

But even for those who are not religious, having a body offers a burial site and a place to go to when feeling grief and the need to connect with the loved one in a special place. That can even be provided when a person’s ashes are intentionally scattered on the sea, because the sea then becomes the person’s final resting place on earth. But in the case of such burial, that is a choice, of the person while he/she was alive, or of the person’s loved one’s after the person’s death, or of both. We don’t control death, but we usually can control what happens to the remains while we are alive.

And desecration of cemeteries or of dead bodies is an ancient way to show the deepest contempt and hatred. I remember how, even as a young child, I reacted with extreme horror when I read the Iliad and learned how Hector’s body was dragged by the victorious Achilles before the gates of Troy. Even now, thinking that I would illustrate this post with a painting of the famous scene, Googling it and seeing the pictures distressed me enough that I prefer to put up this far more stylized and ancient rendition:

In the explanatory material about the jar, it says it includes images of Hector’s grieving parents, as well as this: “Winged figure of Iris sent to plead for a ransom of Hector’s body.” Such things are usually important to humans on a gut level, and even as a child I intuitively sensed that.

To return to the missing airplane, there are also some facts about this specific case that may make the absence of bodies especially difficult. Most of the dead were Chinese, and traditional Chinese funeral practices are particularly complex and lengthy, and the regular visiting of the gravesite to pay respects has been a large part of those rituals. This cannot happen in the case of the victims of the missing flight.

Even more, however, in this case—in which the story of what actually happened is unknown—it’s not even so much the finding of bodies (although that’s important) but the finding of the black boxes and flight recorder that are very, very important. There is a very deep need to know where it happened, how it happened, how long it took, did they suffer much, and all those other questions that occur when people seem to vanish off the face of the earth.

30 Responses to “Why look for the bodies?”

  1. OM Says:


    Thank you for the analysis, touching on how different cultures view and treat the deceased.

    Closure and grieving. One could ask why is the Tomb of the Unknow Soldier a sacred, hallowed place in much of America? Or why those who are “missing in action” grieved in a different way? A basic human trait it seems to me.

  2. Oldflyer Says:

    Well, since I spent most of my working life in Naval Aviation, I tend to agree with Lurch. None of my contemporaries worried about the state of the physical body after life–if we did we would have taken up another line of work. In fact, I don’t recall that Widows of friends were overly concerned. Maybe I was just not sensitive.

    I don’t question those who have the need for “closure” as it is called; I just don’t understand it. I particularly do not understand it in the Christian world.

    By the way, I think it a great stretch to invoke the Tomb of the Unknown. That is acknowledgement that many will never be recovered or identified; and in fact those who rest there are by definition among them.

    Obviously different cultures have evolved different customs, with a range between sky burial in Tibet to mummification in ancient Egypt, and Ma’nene which apparently persists in parts of modern Indonesia.

  3. OM Says:


    So why does the DOD spend time and money to recover and identify remains from WWII, Korea, Vietnam? And why does the Navy consider it unacceptable for divers to remove items from sunken warships? Or why is it considered unacceptable to tamper with or disturb graves in many cultures (although archaeologists seem to get a pass). Try stretching.

  4. F Says:

    A good friend was on the Pan Am flight that was bombed mid-air and fell on Lockerbie, Scotland. A newspaper report I read suggested there was strong evidence the plane fell for around five minutes with reason to believe many people inside survived the original bomb blast and were conscious for at least part of that long fall. I think of that often and wish I had never heard the theory.

  5. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    F, from that altitude , they might have been alive but the decompression and sudden, catastrophic loss of oxygen would have rendered most, if not all, unconscious.

  6. F Says:


    I’ve thought a lot about this — more than is healthy for me — and the size of the bomb left the fuselage largely intact. It is unclear to me that there was , indeed, a catastrophic loss of oxygen. I hope so, though.

  7. Oldflyer Says:

    As I said OM, it is important enough for some people that the DOD would fear to risk not doing it. On the other hand, one might wonder about the relevance of bringing home whatever remains after many years. I wonder why it matters to a professed Christian, whose focus is on the soul? And, how does cremation fit into the equation? I can only speak for myself.

    Back to the DOD, I can assure you that no extraordinary effort is made to recover the body of a Naval Aviator who goes down at sea. I can also assure you that many caskets that do go home are closed lid–I have escorted them home personally. Do they provide closure? Maybe so. There are some disconnects.

  8. jon baker Says:

    I have been re-reading Donald Kagan’s “The Peloponnesian War”. The Greeks would often call a truce after a battle to gather their dead. After the Athenian defeat outside the walls of Saratoga, Sicily in 413 B.C., 40,000 Athenians and Allies were shamed by their hasty retreat , unable to bury the dead and leaving behind the wounded. Most would be killed or captured by the vengeful Saratogans and their Allies.


  9. Ann Says:


    You asked: “I wonder why it matters to a professed Christian, whose focus is on the soul?”

    St. Augustine offers an answer in The City of God. He first makes the point that the denial of burial to Christians “does them no injury” for “the faithful bear in mind that assurance has been given that not a hair of their head shall perish, and that, therefore, though they even be devoured by beasts, their blessed resurrection will not hereby be hindered”, and that burials are “rather the solace of the living than the comfort of the dead”.

    But then this: “Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as His organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing! For the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man’s very nature. And therefore to the righteous of ancient times the last offices were piously rendered, and sepulchres provided for them, and obsequies celebrated; and they themselves, while yet alive, gave commandment to their sons about the burial, and, on occasion, even about the removal of their bodies to some favorite place.”

    More here.

  10. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    “Look on its broken arch, its ruined
    Its chambers desolate, and portals
    Yet this [a skull] was once Ambition’s
    airy hall,
    The dome of Thought, the palace of
    The Soul.”
    Byron’s lines (from Childe Harold) came to mind when I read your interesting thoughts, Neo, about the importance of the body in many cultures. We are fascinated by the envelope in which our souls have been dispatched on their initial journey into the universe. It is difficult for us to recognize a soul, so we tend to cling

  11. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    (Oops, let me continue:)
    We tend to cling to that envelope, those “remains.” Curious, isn’t it? We call the empty envelope the “remains.” Of what? Of that person we knew, that soul. We “honor” our dead, but a lot of it is a sort of selfishness — a desire to keep some connection with what we once knew. As a Christian, I try to focus entirely on the soul. But I understand the fascination with the body, the remains. As a volunteer firefighter I have often been in situations where I have seen empty envelopes, for dead bodies. I am always struck by the utter change that has taken place. I remember vividly a bus driver, trapped behind the steering wheel after a high-speed collision. We worked feverishly, trying to free him, knowing that he was bleeding from portions of his body we could not see or reach. We spoke to him, tried to comfort him. Then, as a second slipped by, he was no longer there. Weary, sweating, sad and disappointed, we left the wreckage and waited for the coroner to examine all that remained of what had once been a living, breathing man. But in some real way, that battered envelope was of importance to family and loved ones.

  12. OM Says:

    Ralph Kinney Bennet:

    “But in some real way, that battered envelope was of importance to family and loved ones.” You have stated it well.

    Oldflyer claims not to understand. Does he have funeral arrangements made, plans? Does his family care or will they care if he just disappears without a trace one fine day? As he said, some disconnects there.

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    Ralph Kinney Bennet:

    Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:

    I agree that a newly-dead body is instantly and extraordinarily different from a living one, even when the living one seems to not be moving. At least, that certainly has been true of the dead I’ve seen.

  14. Molly Brown Says:

    This speaks to something very deep in the human soul, and my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones in this way. I live in Hawaii. We are surrounded by the ocean. We live in and on the water. When we die, we are cremated and our ashes scattered on the waves. Sometimes, the living go out on the water and never come home. And it is not the same thing at all.

  15. Yackums Says:

    If you were a basketball fan, and you somehow acquired the jersey Michael Jordan wore in his last game, would you throw it out, dirty, ripped and all?

  16. Richard Aubrey Says:

    lSome people do, and some people don’t. What’s the point of the latter telling the former they don’t get the former’s view?
    trying to tell the world you’re all hard-nosed and realistic and….stuff?

  17. Yackums Says:

    Dang it, stopped in mid-thought.

    But surely it was the person and the player who was important, and not the uniform!

    The uniform was the vessel that contained the player in all his greatness. We therefore treat it with respect and even reverence (for the really rabid fans among us).

    Our bodies are the containers, the vessels of our souls. Even more than the uniform, the body is what enables the soul to fulfill its mission, and hopefully to achieve greatness, in its earthly sojourn. As such, the body, even after the soul has left it, has acquired inherent value and should be treated with no lesser reverence than as when it contained a living soul.

  18. Big Maq Says:

    After reading this a.m. was ready to post my reaction and found OM captured the essence of it.


  19. Artfsldgr Says:

    they dont look for those clinton or obama bodies, so why bother…

    and you realize that crabs have eaten every tiny bit in the first week?

    they move like creepy aliens accross the bottom in huge herds picking everything clean.. .

    but given the problems wit tracking, and the lies, and so on, no one knows where to look

    i figure they are all hanging out with the navigator and emelia earhardt… at a party hosted by Elvis

  20. OM Says:


    Hagfish, grenadiers and other marine life, it’s all food to them. We aren’t them.

    Tell us more about the communists, “You could dump Vladimir I. Lenin in the ocean and he would never decay….”

  21. neo-neocon Says:


    I doubt anyone is expecting actual bodies—that is, soft tissue. I think, however, that bones/teeth are still possible. Otherwise, traces of personal possessions might wash up. More airplane parts would be good, but above all the black boxes. If relatives have information from the latter about how the plane went down, it would help immensely.

  22. Artfsldgr Says:

    It is true that a dead body is not at all the same as the living person, although I’m puzzled by the term “artifact,” which ordinarily means an object made by humans. I don’t think that’s what Lurch was trying to say; I think he/she may have been attempting to indicate that the body, no longer animated by spirit, soul, personality—in other words, by life itself—becomes a collection of molecules destined to be broken down into component parts.

    whether he (lurch) knows or not he is taking the communist/materialist position

    americans think materialism is about their shopping.
    but its communism. materialism is just another word in which your atheism is in full flower. your comment takes in that living matter is special, the socialists take the position that a rock, is a piece of matter and so are you and that you cant kill a rock and humans dont matter if you kill them they are just matter. there is no god, so there is no other metaphysical (invisable hand in more than just economics), just matter.

    there are also no morals, as that is an artificial construct…

    by artifact he is not referring to the body, but to the creation of man that the 120 dollars in raw materials that wanders around being important IS created by man and so an artifact.

    IF you know the opposition, you win, etc etc etc

    most of us dont care to know that there is a whole different take on things depending on which school.
    so when obama talks about oppression, is he talking about the people, or the leaders lke him who are oppressed from acting?

    when they talk about materialism, do they really mean the mall, or communism?

    well, if you dont know their take and reasoning, you might as well be listening to things half in english and half in another language you dont understand!!!!!!!!!

    which is why i see people miss things and so forth that they would easily understand otherwise.. .if it wasnt for the fetish assumption that they are like us and the differences are cosmetic and so, i can project and assume they want the same, they regard the same, etc.

    but they dont. they have a completely different view
    america thinks racism is about skin color
    obama said it as about culture
    trotsky invented it about culture

    whats the clue here? obama doesnt think about things the way you do, he thinks the way trotsky does. so analysing him from a non trotsky soviet basis, your gonna be wrong wrong wrong.

    The Representation of the Body under ‘Communism’

    Today Communism is being commodified for consumption and this is part of the process of circulation of cultural stereotypes. It seems that Communism was the ‘lingua franca’ and yet for those of us coming from the ‘so-called’ Eastern European context, it is loosing its status of ‘lingua materna’. Ironically, Communism and its big brother Socialism were developed as clear patriarchal systems.


    The body is a topos and a tropos, a figure, construction, artifact, movement, displacement. So the question ‘how to squeeze the body and fill it with oil and blue vitriol?’ is a not rhetorical, but strategic.


    The body is an artifact cobbled from other artifacts rather than from a profound experience of life. In contrast to the mass media produced idea that the body connected with new media achieves a natural totality, processes of post-Socialist visualization of the subject and of his/her body in the media underline this artificial, mediatized, constructed and non-natural human body and his/her thoughts and emotions.

    [notice how you always try to put the square peg in the round hole when they do someting from that other world and you try to interpret it as if it came from yours]

    Dialectical materialism (sometimes abbreviated diamat) is a philosophy of science and nature, based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and developed largely in Russia and the Soviet Union.[1][2] Inspired by dialectic and materialist philosophical traditions, it accepts evolution of the natural world and the emergence of new qualities of being at new stages of evolution. As Z. A. Jordan notes, “Engels made constant use of the metaphysical insight that the higher level of existence emerges from and has its roots in the lower; that the higher level constitutes a new order of being with its irreducible laws; and that this process of evolutionary advance is governed by laws of development which reflect basic properties of ‘matter in motion as a whole’.”

    The formulation of the Soviet version of dialectical and historical materialism in the 1930s by Joseph Stalin and his associates (such as in Stalin’s book Dialectical and Historical Materialism) became the “official” Soviet interpretation of Marxism. It was codified and popularized in text books which were required reading in the Soviet Union as well as the Eastern European countries it occupied. It was exported to China as the “official” interpretation of Marxism but has since been widely rejected in China in the Soviet formulation.

    despite it being rejected the western progressives are stuck in the playbook of the 1920s and 1930s…
    like race matters when so many are mixing… their rhetoric has no place in a country where they got rid of the dems miscongagination laws were removed!!!!!!!!!!


    ‘Matter disappears’ means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears, and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are disappearing that formerly seemed absolute, immutable, and primary, and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole ‘property’ of matter, with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up, is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside of the mind. Lenin’s contribution

    by the way, common core is just Stalins compulsory education
    In the 1930s Joseph Stalin and his associates formulated a version of dialectical and historical materialism that became the “official” Soviet interpretation of Marxism. It was codified in Stalin’s work, Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938), and popularized in text books used for compulsory education within the Soviet Union and throughout the Eastern Bloc.

    Dialectical materialism as a heuristic in biology and elsewhere
    Remember to pay attention to real objects in time and space and not lose them in utterly idealized abstractions. Remember that qualitative effects of context and interaction may be lost when phenomena are isolated”. And above all else, “Remember that all the other caveats are only reminders and warning signs whose application to different circumstances of the real world is contingent.”

    life as something special and sacred, as religion is the opiate, is just and idealized abstraction that we like and we created and is self serving… 🙂

  23. Artfsldgr Says:

    I doubt anyone is expecting actual bodies—that is, soft tissue. I think, however, that bones/teeth are still possible. Otherwise, traces of personal possessions might wash up. More airplane parts would be good, but above all the black boxes. If relatives have information from the latter about how the plane went down, it would help immensely.

    cartharsis through that method is a fraud.. just as putting someone to death doesnt really help either..

    their belongings will exist… most of their bodies are gone… teeth?

    well read the forensics books as i have… icky if you can stomach it… stay away from de-gloving

    how fast a body lasts depends on temperature and location… in the north sea it can last a long time, until the crabs and lobster and such show up… then its gone..

    in warmer water, its gone faster… in fact, the bones are eaten too… heck, there are worms and things that eat rubber off of power and communication lines, carve tunnels in wood, and so on.

    Bodies have been retrieved almost completely intact from waters below 7°C after several weeks, and as recognisable skeletons after five years


    In tropical waters such as the Arabian sea, it’s a different story. Even a weighted body will normally float to the surface after three or four days, exposing it to sea birds and buffeting from the waves. Putrefaction and scavenging creatures will dismember the corpse in a week or two and the bones will sink to the seabed. There they may be slowly buried by marine silt or broken down further over months or years, depending on the acidity of the water.

    yeah but there is more..
    When a dead body decomposes in the ocean, scientists know little about what happens to it. To find out, some researchers performed an unusual experiment that involved dropping pig carcasses into the sea and watching them on video.

    Gail Anderson, a forensic entomologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada who led the unusual study.

    fascinating stuff… they started on land and once it became in on this, lots of people been putting pigs all over.

    In the study, published Oct. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE, Anderson and her team used a remotely operated submarine to drop three pig carcasses into the Saanich Inlet, a body of salt water near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, at a depth of 330 feet (100 meters).

    all well and good and what happened? was it what i said? 🙂

    It didn’t take long for scavengers to find the pigs. Shrimp, Dungeness crabs and squat lobsters all arrived and started munching on the bodies; a shark even came to feed on one of the pig corpses.Scavengers ate the first two bodies down to the bones within a month, but they took months to pick the third one clean.

    This kind of research helps solve mysteries such as the “floating feet” found wearing running shoes that have washed up along the West Coast in recent years. In fact, it’s quite normal for ocean scavengers to gnaw off feet, and the running shoes simply make the body parts float, Anderson said.

    the area where the plane is thougth to have gone down is an area that is very active, and their bodies would never have lasted this long, and skeletons go too…

    here is one from the study
    Time Lapse: Decomposition of Pig Under Water

    and another

    Watching Pig Bodies Decomposing at Sea, for Science!

    my wife loves seafood… so i wont let her see how things really are… i expect things to be real, so it doesnt bother me… dont ask about lots of critters and things… you may not want to know if you let your imagination and such control your brain and ideas and then, being placed by yourself so far from reality, you become a snoflake and cant handle reality

    at the medical school and hospital i work at, we have safe spaces, puzzles, coloring books all for the adults to play with at work… (and you wonder why medicine is so expensive? they run it the same way the feminsits ran the first magazines that went out of business before they got lots o mony from big alcohol and big cigs to turn women into sodden men with bad vices for money. they now collect to help stop what they created.. happy happy.. )

  24. Frog Says:

    “life as something special and sacred, as religion is the opiate, is just and [sic] idealized abstraction that we like and we created and is self serving… (smiley face)” is a comment by Artsfldgr. Perhaps he meant differently, and is not his position. Could have come from Stalin.

  25. Juli Says:


    From a Catholic perspective, burying the dead is considered a corporal work of mercy.

    From the USCCB’s site:

    The Corporal Works of Mercy are found in the teachings of Jesus and give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise. They “are charitable actions by which we help our neighbors in their bodily needs”. They respond to the basic needs of humanity as we journey together through this life.


    The other corporal works of mercy are:
    To feed the hungry.
    To give water to the thirsty.
    To clothe the naked.
    To shelter the homeless.
    To visit the sick.
    To visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.
    To bury the dead.

    These can be traced back to the Books of Isaiah and Tobit.

    The spiritual works of mercy are:

    To instruct the ignorant.
    To counsel the doubtful.
    To admonish sinners.
    To bear patiently those who wrong us.
    To forgive offenses.
    To console the afflicted.
    To pray for the living and the dead.

    These can be traced back to the Books of Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, and 2 Maccabees.

  26. J.J. Says:

    In 1965 I was O-in-C of a detachment flying strikes into North Vietnam. When one of the pilots of my unit was shot down, it was my job to write a letter to the parents explaining what happened and expressing condolences of the Navy and a grateful nation. Prior to writing the first letter (something I had never done), the CO of USS Midway, Capt. James O’Brien, called me to his cabin for a talk about what such letters meant to the families and how using such terms as “missing in action,” “missing in action, presumed captured,” missing in action presumed killed,” and ‘killed in action” all needed to be considered very carefully. It was his opinion from his experience in the Korean War that giving a family false hope was the wrong thing to do. He related the tale of two of his squadron mates who had been shot down whose parents had been told their sons were “missing in action, presumed captured.” In fact both men had been killed when they were shot down. After the war, their remains were found. However, the parents refused to believe that their sons were dead. Both families spent many years and small fortunes trying to find their sons. All because the first word they had about them was that they were “missing in action, presumed captured.”

    In my case I worded the letters “missing in action, presumed killed” and backed that up with details about the combat that indicated that we were pretty sure they did not survive. The thought was that if they later turned up on the roles of POWS, that would be a pleasant surprise. I didn’t want to give them false hope.

    The remains of the four members of my unit who were killed in action were returned to their families in the years between 1985 and 1993. All were given welcome homes befitting of heroes and proper burial ceremonies. The families finally knew with some finality what had happened to their sons and gained the closure that comes with that knowledge.

    Another pilot from the Midway Air Group that was shot down was reported to his family as “missing in action.” He had successfully bailed out but was killed by ground troops shortly after he reached the ground. Much as had happened during the Korean War, as told to me by Capt. O’Brien, his family spent many years searching for him. They could not give up the hope that he was somehow alive. Even when his remains were returned to the U.S., they refused to believe the remains were his. Most families have a need to see the body or remains in order to accept the finality of death of a loved one. The burial ceremony allows them a chance to accept the truth of death and pay respects to their loved one.

    Even for those of us aboard the carrier, the finality of the loss of a squadron mate was hard to accept. You had just seen him a few hours before and then his plane didn’t return from a strike. Yes, there were on scene witnesses – other pilots on the raid. But details were always sketchy because in the fog of war and in the heat of battle events happen quickly and sometimes no one saw the missing plane get hit, a parachute, or even the impact explosion. So, an airplane doesn’t return and suddenly someone you knew like a brother is gone. You hope above hope that his name will turn up on the POW roles even though you are well aware that being a POW is just short of Hell on Earth. At least a POW has a chance of coming home. When we were pretty sure our brothers had been killed in action the Midway always paused ops for a short time for an at sea burial ceremony. It was a chance for us to pay respects and gave a sense that these honored men were not coming back.

    Maybe this provides some small insight into the need of survivors to have some final knowledge of what happened to their loved ones.

  27. Oldflyer Says:

    OK. I get the various points made; although some conflate the respectful treatment of the bodies of recently dead with rather extraordinary efforts to recover remains of the long dead–as well as with the barbaric action of desecrating the bodies of slain enemies.

    OM. I do not have burial plans. I really don’t care one way or the other. On the other hand, my family feels differently, and I expect that my body will molder in a grave in a national cemetery. If that gives them any measure of comfort, I am content.

  28. n.n Says:


  29. Lurch Says:

    Wow! My am so honored my comment generated an actual post by neo and all the intelligent, considered comments from the most distinguished group on the internet.

    I plan to donate my corpse to science, where it might actually do some good.

    Love you guys and gals!

  30. J.J. Says:

    ROLLS, not roles of POWs. Sigh. Clearly, my brain is no longer that clear.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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