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Ritualizing the Disposal of the Deceased

From Corpse to Concept


William W. McCorkle Jr.

Ritualizing the Disposal of the Deceased traces mortuary behavior from the early fossil record to modern religious contexts in diverse cultural settings. By using archival and ethnographic evidence from Buddhist traditions, the author highlights the disparity between doctrines that contradict actual practices performed by Buddhists themselves. By appealing to the evolved cognitive architecture of human minds, this book argues that ritualized disposal behavior is the by-product of mental systems designed to handle living people. Due to complex social intelligence, humans are compelled to handle dead people in ritualized behaviors and to represent them in counterintuitive ways. The author also examines the professional religious guilds that have taken advantage of these ritualized compulsions over the last several thousand years, by giving and controlling the meanings behind these actions. Furthermore, experimental evidence is given to support this hypothesis, providing the first mature cognitive and evolutionary theory for mortuary behavior by humans.


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Part Four: From Corpse to Concept


Part Four FROM CORPSE TO CONCEPT Chapter Eight Corpse, Concept, and Contagion Triggers sychotic persons do not respond to dead bodies in the same way as normal persons. Extreme psychotics are primarily concerned with objec- tifying their victim.1 They sometimes wear parts of the body, keep the corpse or parts near them, or consume the body. This extreme objectification of the victim by the psychotic is often reported as involving the transfer of the victim’s ‘essence’ to the psychotic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. In interviews (MSNBC 2005 (replay)) after his arrest, Dahmer responded that he was driven to cannibalism because he, “wanted to have the victims un- der his complete control.” Dahmer claimed that by eating his victim’s body parts and internal organs, “it made me feel they were a permanent part of me” (emphasis added). Whatever his purported reasons, Dahmer engaged in various acts of handling, storing, and displaying the remainder of non-digested corpses; Dahmer moved them around in different places and in different ways. What is interesting here is that Dahmer, as well as other psychotic serial kill- ers, did not dispose of the bodies.2 Interestingly enough, fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) experi- ments with serial killers have shown that the limbic system in these extreme 1 As Meloy (1988) defines this characteristic as “a process in which affective and ideational components of the individual are attributed to another, while at the same time the other actual person...

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