The study of otherness is a field focused on understanding the relationship between the self and the other. It explores the importance of recognizing and respecting differences, especially in terms of bioethics and biolaw, the relationship with the one who is different from me. The field has evolved to include debates about refugees, individuals from different cultures, races, religions, and even animals.

​​However, when it comes to the study of otherness, the discourse surrounding the deceased body continues to be neglected and the debate on ensuring and preserving dignity and individuality remains superficial and lacking in depth.

Beyond Death: How Embracing the Ethics of Otherness Can Transform Relationships with the Dead

The definition of subjectivity is central to the discussion of otherness, as it is often linked to language and the ability to respond. Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics delves into this question, understanding that language is the mediation for our “being in the world,” and that it is precisely through it that we can interpret, think, and discuss the world, placing ourselves as individuals.  Consequently, the dead body is subject to the dominance of the living subject due to the lack of language, the lack of response, which can limit our ability to recognize and respect its’ differences.

However, during life, we build ourselves around various signifiers. For example, I am an academic, Brazilian, atheist, lawyer. When we die, these signifiers and our sense of self do not die with us; they are echoed. Our constructed signifiers reverberate in the postmortem through memory, which encapsulates the weight of this subjectivity, individuality, and identity. Therefore, we can think of the dead body as one that once had language and was a subject in its own right. We are not talking about a thing, nor something that is not, or that never was.

 [death] involves a relationship with the deceased, and this relationship must be imbued with meaning and desire. 

The idea of objectification after death is a major concern, as it can result in a loss of dignity for the deceased. However, in his book “Death and Alterity,” Byul Chun Han argues that Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy offers a solution to this problem.

Levinas suggests that the human experience goes beyond being and death. In this sense, death cannot be reduced to a mere physical phenomenon. Instead, it is a process that involves a relationship with the deceased, and this relationship must be imbued with meaning and desire. In other words, the deceased’s dignity must be maintained, and this can only be achieved through the other.

According to Levinas, the fulfillment of the deceased’s state can only occur through the other, without merging or losing oneself, without fusion. The deceased can reclaim their state through the other without being absorbed. In this context, “fusion” refers to the blending or merging of identities, which Levinas separates from the relationship with the other. Instead, the focus lies on responding to the call of the deceased.

Paul Ricoeur (d. 2005)

Paul Ricoeur also contributes to this discussion by stating that alterity cannot be synonymous with sympathy. Sympathy assumes a fusion between the parties involved, while alterity, as said before, emphasizes the existence of the “other” as separate from oneself and highlights the importance of understanding and respecting the differences. Therefore, he argues that solicitude is needed. Solicitude is a concern that one has for others, a sense of responsibility and therefore can address imbalances in the relationship between entities, especially when one is in a position of vulnerability and cannot reciprocate.

The deceased lacks the ability to engage in synchronous language and participate in real-time conversations. Therefore, they remain one of the unequal poles in the “alive-dead” relationship. It is important to consider the language they used when they were alive, recognizing its significance and incorporating it into our understanding, even if we cannot engage in immediate dialogue with them. Therefore, the living must establish alterity with the deceased, without erasing their subjectivity or fusing with them. The responsibility for solicitude and alterity lies with the living, who have the ability to bring the deceased’s subjectivity into the world of the living through language.

 Their silence is exploited for the satisfaction of the dignity of the living other. 

Bringing up some issues, a transgender individual who is buried by their family with their birth gender is losing their place as an individual and their dignity per se. A vision of the self and dignity is imposed upon them, for the sake of a family member who wants to grieve “their way,” removing any individuality and identity, and silencing any words that the individual may have had in life (and in death). Here, we can think of a logic of reason and emotion that go hand in hand, but which nevertheless calls into question any solicitude and respect for alterity towards the deceased individual. Their silence is exploited for the satisfaction of the dignity of the living other.

In this way, we need to take a walk into the post-mortem, put oneself in the shoes of the corpse of tomorrow. Not in an obsessive or melancholic way, but through a gentle conversation among family members about wishes for after death. If there is this dimension, this conversation, along with a document attesting to the individual’s desires, the process of saying goodbye is much less traumatic and the family has a kind of guide to follow and be able to respect the wishes of the deceased loved one when they are gone.

The question of how to talk about death can be a difficult one to tackle, but sometimes a little humor can help. In Monty Python’s classic comedy sketch, a character who has been sold a dead parrot by a pet store employee uses a variety of phrases to describe the bird’s demise: “This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies! It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot!”

While this may seem like just a silly bit of comedy, it is interesting to think about the countless ways of saying that the parrot was dead, and in all of them, either the complete annihilation of the parrot or a life after death in the metaphysical realm, alongside God, is admitted. The parrot “is no more,” “has ceased to be,” “is expired and gone to meet its maker,” “is an ex-parrot.” Although this is a comedic excerpt, exaggerating the issue, we cannot help but think that comedy can only exaggerate life.


Often, living subjects really think that the deceased “is no more,” “has ceased to be,” “is expired and gone to meet its maker,” feeling imbued with the moral and legal responsibility to “be” in place of the deceased. In doing so, they impose their own subjectivity onto the departed, disregarding their autonomy. As said before, this issue becomes particularly significant in cases involving transgender individuals who, despite their chosen gender identity, are often buried according to their assigned birth gender by their families, as well as atheists who are laid to rest with Christian rituals, and also individuals who wish to engage in green burials, but end up being embalmed and buried in traditional cemeteries.

What this article tries to bring is precisely that some level of subjectivity must be recognized in the corpse so that the living subjects do not replace the dead, but rather allow, within the dimension of alterity, the departed loved one to be through them.

Isabella Lauermann
My name is Isabella Lauermann, I'm from Brazil and I graduated from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro with a degree in Law, and I am currently pursuing a Master's degree in Bioethics and Applied Ethics at the same institution. I also have a certification in thanatopraxy and necromakeup. Oh, I'm also a DJ at goth parties, and in my free time I enjoy working on taxidermy projects with animals that have passed away from natural causes. Since childhood, I have always been passionate about the subject of death, particularly fascinated by the way the Egyptians treated their dead. As a result, I decided to pursue an academic and professional path in this field. My research deals with necrocitizenship and the ethics of alterity, exploring how this can provide new ethical and legal frameworks for thinking about our relationship with the dead. Additionally, I advocate for causes related to advance directives and ensuring that they are upheld, as this is still a very fertile topic in Brazil.

    1 Comment

    1. Dear Isabella,
      Please visit my site at http://www.dirinaioan.com for details of my unique story and related free excerpts from it.
      With anticipated thanks,Ioan Dirina,author

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