Hunter S. Thompson, the American "gonzo journalist" and author of the (fabulous) book upon which the (unspectacular) movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was based, was perhaps one of the least European humans ever to live. A prodigious consumer of mind-altering drugs and a Second Amenment (firearms) fanatic, he recently killed himself after finding that he had achieved all he needed to in this world.
67 years, he said in his suicide note, was "17 more than I needed or wanted." After he died, he wanted his ashes to be shot into space. Johnny Depp provided the necessary funds, and now the cremated remains of Hunter S. Thompson are floating in the whatever-sphere. Now, in the latest edition of Chrismon, a monthly magazine of the German Protestant church, I read the following item (my translation):
Burial: Urns in the Living Room?
Should grandfather's ashes rest on the fireplace mantel? Or perhaps in the rose garden? Gerry Kley, Social Minister of Saxony-Anhalt (FDP) wants to change the burial law of his state. Survivors should be permitted to take the ashes of deceased relatives home with them. The new law would satisfy the wishes of many individualists. Critics, however, see the new law as an invitiation to abuse. The churches protest against the change in the law: the dignity of an individual should be protected by the State even after his death, says Axel Noack, bishop of the church province of Sachsen, Magdeburg.
To the question: Burial, Urns in the Living Room?, I answer, as an American, sure, why not? To the question of whether permitting someone's survivors to take their ashes is consistent with human dignity, I have the following questions:
- If you trust your survivors to dispose of your property, your money, your used underwear, your dogs and/or your children properly, why should it be impossible for you to trust them to dispose of your ashes properly?
- Even if what your relatives do with your ashes might not be what you wanted when you were alive, won't you presumably have more important things on your mind after you're dead than where your ashes end up?
- If it is legal for you to pay for your living body to be shot into space, why should it be impossible to have your ashes shot into space?
What we're having here, of course, is a classic trans-atlantic "frame difference" discussion concerning the meaning of "dignity." To many Americans, dignity sounds like a vague, wishy-washy concept. To the extent it would make sense at all, it would be defined at an individual leve, and be strongly linked with the idea of freedom. Someone like Hunter S. Thompson would maintain that the State is respecting my dignity best when it lets me do as I please as often as possible. Even if you put your relative's ashes in a gaudy silver urn -- or chuck them in the Rhine, for that matter, how does that harm anyone else or justify state intervention?
Now I'm sure I'll get answers and explanations from a German perspective in the comments section. But I wonder whether any of them will be truly persuasive to me and to other Americans...