Dead right

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Religious Studies and Philosophy 

I went to the Mary Rose Museum a couple of weeks ago, and was blown away by the exhibits; the amazing things that have survived for 400 years under the sea. But when I got to the case with a human skeleton inside, I felt a bit odd, and on Monday in assembly, I took students through a philosophical journey, thinking about why that was. We started by asking ‘where’s the harm?’ After all, the person had no more need of their bones, and perhaps they could be an important part of an educational experience. More than this, why should we be precious about these cells? The cells in our body regenerate all the time – why should we be precious about the cells someone was composed of when they died? John Mazas, ably-supported by a skeleton from the Biology Department, did his Yorick routine, reading the passage from Hamlet (V.i) where he remarks that the ‘earth’ that once made Alexander the Great could now be bunging up a hole in the wall.

Next, we looked at objectification. Heidegger distinguished between beings that were aware they existed (Dasein) from objects of use. Perhaps what’s weird is that when we put a skeleton or a mummy, or any other human remains, in a museum, they are no longer human, they are an exhibit; an object of use.

But here’s where the Mary Rose got it so right, because they had gone to great pains to keep these stories humanised. There is the archer, who was found with a ridge in his finger from where he drew his bow. There was the Purser (Bursar), who was identified because of his disability; no other member of the crew could not have been fully able-bodied.

It’s not just this experience that is educative, in the broadest sense, though. Coming, quite literally, face-to-face with mortality acts as a memento mori, a remembrance of death. It is this that can jolt us back into realising what it means to exist.