On December 20 the British Medical Journal published a fascinating and important article by ethicist Len Doyal and law professor Thomas Muinzer - "Should the skeleton of 'the Irish Giant' be buried at sea?"
Charles Byrne was born in County Londonderry in Ireland in 1761. It was clear from early in his life that he had a growth disorder. He ultimately grew to approximately 7' 7". Charles, who was from a poor peasant family, became relatively wealthy from being exhibited as a freak. In 1780 he went to London where he entertained audiences and was described as "civilised" and "amiable." But his health deteriorated, and he died in 1783.
Charles was terrified that Dr. John Hunter, the famous surgeon, who was known for collecting corpses to dissect, would lay hold of his body after death. He requested that he be placed in a lead coffin and buried at sea. After his death friends set out to do as he wished, but Hunter bribed them, and his body was removed and replaced with stones. Hunter boiled the body to reduce it to a skeleton, which he exhibited in his own museum, which is now part of the Royal College of Surgeons.
The video that accompanies the article provides a brilliant opportunity for moral deliberation. The authors argue persuasively that Charles Byrnes's clearly expressed wishes ("advance directive" in current parlance) should be respected, albeit belatedly, by burial at sea. But Brendan Holland, a man with acromegaly (Byrnes's condition) from the same area of Ireland, whose pituitary tumor was successfully treated, persuasively argues that if Charles Byrne understood how study of his skeleton has benefited others (by identification of a genetic mutation that predisposes to acromegaly) he would want his skeleton to remain in the museum where further therapeutic research could be done as new methodologies emerge.
The BMJ posed a poll along with the article. As of today, with 700 votes having been cast, 54.3% favor burying Byrnes at sea, 13.4% favor keeping the skeleton for further research but not exhibiting it, while 32.3% would leave it on display.
The video pits Doyal and Muinzer's "respect-for-the-individual" argument against Holland's "respect-for-the-good-of-others" position. Holland imagines that Byrne would have been persuaded by his perspective, a move that - if accepted - undermines Doyal and Muinzer's conclusion. But as they point out, his conclusion about what Byrne would have wanted is purely speculative.
This contest between rights of the dead and welfare of the living came up for me in a consultation many years ago. A clinician whose patient had committed suicide had been approached by his patient's family with a request for information. Their underlying question was - "did X love us?" X had given no guidance about his wishes. I asked what my colleague inferred X would have wanted him to do. He felt that while X knew that suicide would hurt his family, he would not have wanted them tortured by the question of whether he loved or hated them. I suggested that my colleague follow his best sense of what X would have wanted.
But suppose X had expressed hatred of his family and a wish that his suicide would punish them? What then?
I don't believe this question can be answered without much more detail about the circumstances. But in my view the analysis should attend to the wellbeing of the living as well as the wishes of the dead. With regard to Charles Byrne that perspective leads me to favor (a) retaining the skeleton for its further potential for research that would help the living, thereby respecting the welfare of the living, but at the same time (b) using Doyal and Muinzer's argument as the basis for prodding moral reflection, thereby respecting the dignity of the dead.
(Disclosure: Len Doyal was very helpful to me when I was a fellow at the King's College Centre of Medical Law and Ethics in 1992. I haven't seen him for more than a decade, but I think of him as a friend.)