Category: Pick The Right Theme (page 1 of 2)

Post-Mortuary Cannibalism and the Case of Kuru in the Fore Tribe of Papua New Guinea

Cannibalism, the act of consuming one’s own species, has been a long-winded, ethical debate between cultural anthropologists and Western ethics for centuries. The act of eating one’s own kind, not only creates the notion that individuals who practice cannibalism have unethically committed “the ultimate betrayal of humanity” [i], but additionally, raises several health concerns surrounding the cleanliness of consuming human flesh. These concerns have been amplified with the outbreak of kuru, a disease categorized by “’shivering’ or ‘trembling,’ [ii] in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea and its relationship to cannibalism, specifically as a funeral practice. Though the Fore tribe hasn’t practiced cannibalism in more than 50 years, Western views continue to challenge the value of their culture, raising questions that target our own cultural beliefs and practices: Why are our cultural practices valued while others’ are ridiculed as ‘outlandish’ and ‘disturbing’? How can the cultural mourning practice of cannibalism in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea be justified when examining our own Western cultural practices? Not only do cultural factors come to play, but additionally, ethical and scientific factors and effects are necessary to analyze and fully answer these questions. Looking at post-mortuary cannibalism through multiple lenses reveals new perspectives on the motivations and lasting effects that cannibalism as a funerary rite creates.

Before they ceased in the late 1950s, the Fore tribe used cannibalism as a funeral practice to honor the dead. When a member of the tribe died, the men “consumed the flesh of their dead relatives, while women and children ate the brain” [iii]. The Fore tribe believed that “it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects”[iv]. Due to this belief, utmost care was taken in order to prepare the body for consumption. While the men consumed the flesh, the women of the tribe “removed the brain, mixed it with ferns, and it cooked it in tubes of bamboo. They fire-roasted and ate everything except the gallbladder”[v] The roasting and consumption of the brain was typically completed by women because “their bodies were thought to be capable of housing and taming the dangerous spirit that would accompany the dead body” [vi]. However, what the Fore tribe didn’t expect was the ‘dangerous spirit’ of kuru that resulted from their cultural mourning practice.

This map outlines the location of the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea.

The Fore people in Papua New Guinea practiced cannibalism traditionally until the mid-to-late 1900’s when this practice attracted international attention due to the discovery of kuru as an endemic disease within Papua New Guinea[vii]. Cannibalism, practiced less from a nutritional standpoint, was considered a way of forming social and familial ties and is known as endocannibalism.

The kuru disease is a “degenerative disease of the central nervous system” that “reported annual mortality rates of 1.6% and 0.8% for the South and North Fore respectively” [viii]. The disease is so deadly because it “can remain clinically silent for incubation periods as long as several decades” [ix]. Kuru begins with muscle coordination failure “and a tremor involving the trunk, extremities, and head” [x]. In a few months, the individual infected is “no longer able to walk or stand, and speech becomes unintelligible. As death approaches, the victim becomes completely incapacitated and is unable to eat, urinate, or defecate” [xi]

Kuru belongs within a disease classification of spongiform encephalopathies, all diseases caused by prions, misfolded proteins resulting in degenerative bodily effects. Similar diseases include Scabies and Mad Cow Disease. However, unlike Scabies and Mad Cow Disease, kuru is not seen to originate in any other hosts but humans[xii]. Kuru was once considered to be an unconventionally slow virus resulting in neural degeneration. However, after further research on affected brain tissue, kuru was shown to result from infectious particles called prions. These perpetrators of disease are proteinaceous particles that induce normal proteins to change shape, thus converting once healthy proteins into dangerous molecules. Because these infectious agents can be recycled, they begin a domino effect that ultimately creates holes in neural tissue in the brain leading to neuro-degradation and loss of muscular control [xiii]. Many scientists have tried to trace the origin of kuru in attempt to understand the pathology, spread and treatment of this disease. It was found that the Fore people had high frequencies of a certain codon coding for an allele that predisposed them to the mis-folding of the proteins specifically the PrP protein[xiv]. In a study conducted on the brain tissue of affected individuals, 38% of those affected by kuru carried this allele, where this allele was absent in all 129 survivors of the disease[xv]. After these findings, the allele in question is thought to harbor an unknown gene or mutation the predisposes a susceptible population to kuru.

This graph shows the trend of deaths caused by kuru that increased in the 1950’s and decreased around the 1980’s. This steep decline was caused by the halt of cannibalistic activity within the Fore tribe.

The genetic transfer and biological spread of kuru are widely questioned and highly speculated to have resulted from the Papua New Guinea’s common practice of cannibalizing the dead. Where some deceased were discarded and considered unclean, due to death by diseases like leprosy or dysentery, those who died from kuru were most likely to be consumed as their muscles atrophied making their body’s meat tender. It has been assumed the consuming of prions through cannibalism resulted in a cyclical reinfection of the disease in the consumer. This theory aliens with the historical observation of parallel the decline of cannibalism and kuru in the 1900’s. However, kuru cases emerging in the early 2000’s questioned this theory and some suggested non-oral transmission of the disease was possible[xvi]. Anthropologist Gajdusek suggested that kuru may have spread through the ceremonial cutting up and laying out of the deceased body in preparation for eating[xvii]. Regardless of the direct cause or transmission of the disease, the idea that kuru has been perpetuated by the practice of cannibalism in Papua New Guinea is accepted by the majority of scientists and anthropologists today. This notion is supported especially by kuru endemic amongst the Fore people as they practiced Cannibalism, not only as a post-mortuary practice, but as a social entry into kinship

Due to the recent kuru epidemic in Papua New Guinea, when one thinks of cannibalism, it evokes elements of disgust, terror, and vile behavior. Western societies have been engrained with these feelings of repulsion towards cannibalistic behavior for centuries, despite the overwhelming amount of cannibalism that occurs in the natural world in order to promote survive[xviii].  In some cases, we see cannibalism as “justified,” as in the case of survival or necessity. But where do we draw the line? For some cultures, cannibalism is a way of life. The necessity is drawn at a different spot in the sand, but the idea is the same- this type of cannibalism brings about good.

From a Western world perspective, cannibalism is justified only in extremely rare cases, such as survival. When cannibalism becomes a necessity to survive, it is not looked upon as an inherently bad thing. For example, in 1972 when a plane had crashed into in the Andes Mountains, the survivors had to consume the bodies of the already deceased as a means of survival[xix]. Due to the presence of a moral decision between life and death, the individuals involved believed that their actions were justified. The ethical principle of utilitarianism was in place, as the act itself would not necessarily be considered good, but became good because of the help that it provided. However, justification goes on a case to case basis for different groups.

This photo depicts the Wari’ people of Papua New Guinea. This tribe was one of many in Papua New Guinea to engage in cannibalism as a post-mortuary practice.          

For some cultures, although cannibalism is not based on survival, the reasons for the performance still justify the act itself. In the former tradition of the Wari’ people, cannibalism was also a matter of life and death, simply for the consumed rather than the consumer. As a funeral rite, people close to the recently deceased would consume almost the entire body[xx]. To the tribe, this act would be justified as a means of doing good for the deceased because friends and relatives are performing these actions rather than enemies. The Wari’ view cannibalism as a means of helping the soul of a deceased individual pass into the next life [xxi]. In a similar vein to the Western world, this form of cannibalism is viewed as just.  By performing this act of post-mortuary cannibalism, the Wari’ see themselves as “saving” the souls of those gone before them.  Cannibalism, once again, becomes an act that is providing good rather than evil, exemplifying the action itself as considered right by those acting.

The justification of post-mortuary cannibalism is not always completely felt while performing the act. Those who have participated in Wari’ mortuary cannibalism rituals have described the most difficult moment being when the deceased is initially taken away from mourners to be dismembered[xxii]. This is because the feelings of mourning are amplified and the loved one is appearing dehumanized while being cut up. The consuming, then, becomes the saving grace. The cannibalism, itself, is what really saves the individual, which is why it is looked at as the healing part of the process. This aspect is, once again, proving it a just action.

Differences exist within circles of cannibalism as a form of mourning, however.  In some groups, instead of the entire body being eaten, only parts are consumed.  The purpose of this cannibalism is not to benefit the eaten, but the eater[xxiii]. It is thought that the person consuming the body receives part of the spirit of the deceased. Although the reasoning for this post-mortuary cannibalism is different, the theme of justification is the same: the person believes that there is good coming from this act, so the act itself is right.

Post-mortuary cannibalism is practiced in different ways in different social groups, but the ethics of justification transcend those differences. In every circle, there exists a certain moral line where the consuming of the dead becomes justified. The differences are vast, ranging from absolute life or death to self-improvement, but each storyline carries a similar motive. When the actions bring about good in the end, the means of cannibalism is right. The folklore and fear that surrounds cannibalism cannot truly represent it, only a simple question can: When is cannibalism “OK?”

From a Western perspective, cannibalism is rarely accepted because it clearly diverges from our cultural norms. The main reason Western culture is so appalled by the practice of cannibalism is the fact that our culture loathes it [xxiv]. In Western culture, any outside practice or belief that does not line up with eurocentrism is distinctly ostracized as ‘unrighteous’ or ‘sinful.’ Despite the reasons justifying cannibalism as a funeral practice in both the Fore tribe and Wari’ people of Papua New Guinea, this symbolic rite does not line up with Western culture, thus creating issues surrounding its legitimacy and value in the world.

This photo depicts a drawing by one of the Wari’ people describing their mourning process involving cannibalism.

Culturally, we reject anything that diverges from our concept of the values of Christianity. When Western civilizations imposed their religion and its practices onto a group of indigenous people, they simultaneously condemned and destroyed that culture’s practices because they did not line up with the Western Christian lens. This rejection of differing cultural practices resulted in creation of the social stigma surrounding the practice of cannibalism.

Interestingly, though the West readily accepts it, the Western Catholic ritual of communion mirrors that of cannibalism. During the Eucharist, the technical term for the practice of communion, Catholics believe in the symbolic consumption of the body and blood of Christ. They do not believe that this is an act of cannibalism because “Christ is symbolically present” [xxv]rather than physical there. Using the word ‘transubstantiation,’ meaning “transformation of the substance,” [xxvi] Catholics ensure that the bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ respectively, justifying their belief that the ritual diverges far from the physical action of cannibalism.

We only devalue the Fore tribe’s cultural mourning ritual of cannibalism as barbaric, while simultaneously valuing Western Catholic transubstantiation as sacred, because “it has historically been convenient for Westerners to stigmatize cannibalism” [xxvii]. The act of condemning ‘outlandish’ and ‘barbaric’ behavior, such as consuming one’s own species, justifies Western colonization. During his conquest in 1492, ‘Western hero’ Christopher Columbus used the word “cannibal” to describe the “fascinating New World Natives” [xxviii]. In his journal, he writes of his concern over the ‘exotic’ behavior of the Caribe people by stating that he wishes “to send to Spain men and women from the islands which they inhabit, in the hope that they may one day be led to abandon their barbarous custom of eating their fellow-creatures” [xxix]. This statement excuses the further persecution of indigenous people because it labels groups of people who exhibit ‘exotic’ behavior as projects that need to be both Christianized and Westernized, rather than human beings that practice their own unique rituals and customs.

Practices of grief and mourning surrounding death largely vary across cultures, and though some practices may seem abnormal or foreign to an outsider, they serve purposes beyond what the eye can readily see. Cannibalism, a practice frowned upon by many cultures, is one such tradition arousing skepticism and discussion, ultimately leading to the degradation of this practice in many parts of the world. The Fore people would have non-kin consume their dead as a ritual to symbolize outsiders entering into kinship.

From the outside looking in, the practice of cannibalism arouses several questions from scientific, ethical and cultural perspectives that ultimately result in undefined answers. From an anthropological perspective, it is important to look into such topics with a prospective free of ethnocentricity. For the Fore people, their practice of consuming the dead was not done to meet nutritional need or out of mal intent, but rather it was seen to create bonds of “one blood” through a common ancestor, in this case the dead[xxx]. Without first knowing the significance of practices like cannibalism within a culture, it would be unsound to draw conclusions regarding the ethical or social intentions of such a practice. Understanding the reasons behind culture and custom is the appropriate way to address any issue at hand. This rings true in the case of Papua New Guinea where the cultural practice of cannibalism lead to an endemic of kuru within the region.

Kenzie Chasteen, Emma Uhrlass and Dominic Antonietti   



[i] Worrall, Simon. “Cannibalism-the Ultimate Taboo-Is Surprisingly Common.” National Geographic. February 19, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[ii] Bichell, Rae Ellen. “When People Ate People, A Strange Disease Emerged.” NPR. September 06, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[iii] Kaplan, Sarah. “How a History of Eating Human Brains Protected This Tribe from Brain Disease.” The Washington Post. June 11, 2015. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[iv] Refer to Footnote [i]

[v] Refer to Footnote [ii]

[vi] Refer to Footnote [ii]

[vii] Kusinitz, Marc. “Kuru.” In The Gale Encyclopedia of Science, 5th ed., edited by K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. Science In Context (accessed April 5, 2019).

[viii] Steadman, Lyle B., and Charles F. Merbs. “Kuru and Cannibalism?: Kuru: Early Letters and Field-Notes from the Collection of D. Carleton Gajdusek . Judith Farquhar, D. Carleton Gajdusek.” American Anthropologist84, no. 3 (1982): 611-27. doi:10.1525/aa.1982.84.3.02a00060.

[ix] Refer to Footnote [viii]

[x] Refer to Footnote [viii]

[xi] Refer to Footnote [viii]

[xii] “kuru.” In The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, edited by Helicon. Helicon, 2018.

[xiii] Liberski, Paweł P., Agata Gajos, Beata Sikorska, and Shirley Lindenbaum. “Kuru, the First Human Prion Disease.” Viruses 11, no. 3 (2019): 232.

[xiv] Wadsworth, Jonathan D. F., Susan Joiner, Jacqueline M. Linehan, Emmanuel A. Asante, Sebastian Brandner, and John Collinge. “The Origin of the Prion Agent of Kuru: Molecular and Biological Strain Typing.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1510 (2008): 3747-3753.

[xv] Liberski, Pawel P., Beata Sikorska, Shirley Lindenbaum, Lev G. Goldfarb, Catriona McLean, Johannes A. Hainfellner, and Paul Brown. “Kuru: Genes, Cannibals and Neuropathology.” Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology 71, no. 2 (2012): 92-103.

[xvi] Refer to Footnote [xv]

[xvii] Refer to Footnote [xv]

[xviii] Baggini, Julian. “Eating Humans.” TheTLS. May 05, 2017. Accessed April 07, 2019.

[xix] “Death and Dying.” Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Accessed April 07, 2019.

[xx] Conklin, B. (1995). “‘Thus Are Our Bodies, Thus Was Our Custom”: Mortuary Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society.” American Ethnologist, 22(1), 75-101.

[xxi] Conklin, Beth A. “Hunting the Ancestors: Death and Alliance in Wari Cannibalism.” The Latin American Anthropology Review 5, no. 2 (2008): 65-70. doi:10.1525/jlca.1993.5.2.65.

[xxii] Refer to Footnote [xv]

[xxiii] Conklin, Beth A. Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011, 27.

[xxiv] Diamond, Jared M. “Talk of Cannibalism.” Nature407 (September 7, 2000): 25-26. September 7, 2000. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[xxv] Staples, Tim. “Are Catholics Cannibals?” Catholic Answers. November 7, 2014. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[xxvi] Refer to Footnote [xxv]

[xxvii] Mufson, Beckett. “Everything You Know About Cannibalism Is Wrong.” Vice. June 21, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[xxviii] “How Columbus Created the Cannibals.” How Columbus Created the Cannibals. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[xxix] Refer to Footnote [xxviii]

[xxx] Refer to Footnote [xiv]

Media Representation & Police Killings of African Americans

By Hannah Lee, Kendall Bradley, and Habib Khadri

Over the past ten years, police killings have pervaded American media, along with the ensuing riots and protests that have shaken the nation awake to police brutality in the United States. This shared experience of death among the American public has shaped the way our nation confronts the intersection of death, race, and justice. The increase in publicity around police killings, which disproportionately implicate the black community, has also led the public to consider what death communicates about life itself. In order to more closely study the impact of police killings, we will be using the lives and deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner to examine the personal intricacies, as well as the public phenomenon, of the killings of these men and boys.

However, in order to fully understand the context of the recent and widely publicized police killings, we must understand the data and evidence behind what has become a cultural movement and moment. While it seems almost a given to pair the topic of police killings with the conversation around race and racism in the United States, this link has not always been made in the American schema. Therefore, we will investigate the statistical reality surrounding police killings and their connections to race, looking at the relationships between perpetrators’ races and victims’ races. Furthermore, we will investigate the psychology behind these race relations and the neurological circumstances that the officers in question underwent during their respective confrontations.

Looking first at the entire pool of data, it was reported that 1,166 people were killed by a police officer in 2018, following the previous trend of American police officers killing approximately 1,000 civilians per year. [1] In the past five years, many research studies sought to break down the demographics of these slain civilians. As of 2018, the data said that a black individual is three times as likely to be killed by a police officer as a white individual. [2] To look at it from another angle, black individuals are dying at a rate of 7.2 per one million people due to police violence, while white individuals are dying at a rate of 2.9 people per one million.[3] Furthermore, the sheer number of years lost at the hands of officers tends to be far higher among men of color than white men, as the average man of color killed by a police officer is much younger at the time of his death. [4] In addition, 32% of black victims were unarmed when killed, while only 16% of the white victims were unarmed. [5]

The recent events of police shootings have led many groups and individuals to statistically evaluate the presence of racism in these occurrences. One measure of this phenomenon comes by examining the number of people of color’s deaths at the hands of police officers as well as understanding the circumstances under which they were killed, such as being armed versus being unarmed. Other studies have evaluated the situation scientifically by studying the psychology behind these occurrences, specifically examining the behavior of police officers. Social psychological research has pointed to the implicit bias of police officers as one cause of racial ties to police killings. [6] The high-risk situations that police officers are potentially facing in many of these cases trigger what researcher Daniel Mears defines as “fast thinking” in decision-making. [7] Decisions made from “fast thinking” are made often without conscious thought processes. Thus, personal bias, such as subconscious racial prejudice, can take hold when a police officer is deciding whether or not to shoot. Other studies also point to fatigue and fear as conditions which can exaggerate implicit racial bias by making it more difficult to slow down “fast thinking”. [8] These findings, along with several other studies, have provided evidence that racial bias is a likely cause of the disproportionate number of young black men targeted in police shootings.

While all of this data is crucial and has been painstakingly gathered, it is also important to note that data surrounding police shootings is incredibly hard to procure and compile into official data sets. Many organizations and investigators groups have undertaken data collection, but official data sets are difficult to confirm. Thus, the above information must be further contextualized by layering stories and fragments of cultural happenings on top of the statistics themselves. Understanding this data enables us to move forward with a foundation on which to comprehend and interpret the topic of police shootings in recent media and pop culture. Such information gives us a lens with which to see the works put out by artists and news outlets, knowing that there is factual evidence behind that which we can be tempted to view as subjective due to our personal and emotional associations with the topic.

Nevertheless, since the percentages, ratios, and statistics listed above could never fully quantify the gravity of human life, it is vital to examine cultural receptions of these tragic events. In the present age, media is a key means of creating, transmitting, and augmenting culture. The things depicted in national media are the things we thereby consume, and that which we consume visually and auditorily informs what we think about, talk about, and believe about the world. In short, media does not just report on the world around us, but it also drastically influences the very way we understand it. In light of this reality, it is crucial to examine music, movies, and TV shows as pieces and representations of culture.

Music is a particularly salient contributor to culture, as it is the means of media with which we simply clock the most hours. It has grown increasingly common among black rap and hip-hop artists to include allusions to police brutality in their music. In his single “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” artist YG laments that officers’ abuse of power can have devastating effects. “Y’all badge don’t mean y’all got the right to take one of my n****’s lives,” his song declares. [9] This misuse of power is the linchpin of the black music community’s commentaries; it is not only a key cause of police violence, but is also a key factor in sentencing and punishment practices. For example, officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for fatally shooting Ferguson’s 18-year-old Michael Brown. In part, this is because the law is set up in such a way that makes it difficult to charge police officers. [10] Since officers are permitted to shoot in defense of their own life or another person’s, or to prevent a suspected violent felon from getting away, [11] there is considerable room for officers to take liberties and remain protected by the law. These liberties have grieved many artists of color, including R&B artist Miguel who sings wearily, “I’m tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands/I’m tired of watching these murderers get off.”

These representations in music are critical to understanding the very birth of the Black Lives Matter movement itself, since music is a major means of connecting personal and collective identities with broader societal themes. [12] Black artists’ discussions of police brutality in their music serves to connect individual African-Americans to the re-established black community, even with many familial undertones. [13] This reality is evidenced by the familial language black artists often use in referencing black men slain by police officers; phrases like “my brothers,” “the boys,” and “our people” allude to a notion of sameness that is fundamentally shared across the black community. This level of connection is absolutely integral to a contextual understanding of American police killings. The black community has all but had to come together in order to cope with the brutal ways this issue has hit too close to home. Without media representations like rap and hip-hop songs, the American public may not have such an intimate window into the heartbreak that the black community has widely taken ownership over. Excluding media and culture from the conversation would provide only a vacuous and superficial understanding of a complex, personal issue.

That said, music isn’t the only cultural acknowledgment of police violence in the modern day. TV shows like Blue Bloods, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Scandal have also taken turns highlighting instances of police brutality in their respective programs. [14] A 2015 article in The Guardian unpacks Scandal’s depiction of a racially charged shooting, calling it “a gripping…slice of TV as timely as it was hard-hitting.” [15] This article highlights a key piece of what we expect from the media we consume: we want the ostensibly realistic media we absorb to actually reflect our daily lives. When shows that occupy realistic spaces don’t actually depict the harsh realities we know to be true in those spaces, we tend to be frustrated with the producers for their lack of courage. Shows like Scandal and the others listed provide us with the solace that we’re looking for—they show us a world that looks like ours not just nominally or superficially, but that genuinely depicts the hard pieces of life that we face each day. The fact that these shows and many others have taken the step to highlight this particular issue is culturally significant; it reveals that at least, the police brutality conversation matters to the American people and thus to those who seek to represent it, and at most, we have reached a vital crossroads where we as a culture refuse to accept anything less than 100% participation in speaking out against racial injustice. Though the reality is likely somewhere in the middle, this paradigm itself indicates some semblance of cultural progress, even if tragic cases continue to surface faster than we can properly mourn them.

Amandla Stenberg, the young actress who portrays Starr Carter in 2018’s “The Hate U Give” acknowledges these media representations herself in a Washington Post article. She says that the film seeks to be “open and candid and multidimensional” in the way it postulates blackness. [16] The movie has been acclaimed for its potent depiction of a black high school student being killed by a white police officer, particularly because of the incisive insights Starr provides throughout the film. To her white boyfriend’s claim that he “doesn’t see color,” Starr replies, “then you don’t see me.” [17] This concise and yet poignant remark further underscores the necessity of only engaging in the police violence conversation through a lens of race. A lens of race is the reality, so to explore the topic through anything less is a disservice. The Hate U Give’s cultural significance extends beyond depicting a narrative that we have recently seen in news media; it deeply and inextricably links race to conversations around police brutality by providing an in-depth analysis of Khalil’s death. The gravity of this link cannot be lost on us.

In sum, media representations of police brutality have grown integral to our culture. Though elevating black voices in this conversation is valuable, the fact remains that representations differ hugely depending on who authors them and for whom they create this content. Thus, it is vital to also investigate the ethical angle of this topic to round out our understanding of police violence in American media.

Pervasive police killings of black Americans undoubtedly stem from the continued racial tensions rooted in socioeconomic inequality between members of the black and white communities. For this reason, various ethical considerations arise from this tension, and individuals begin to scrutinize not only the conditions that justify police force, but the true intentions of police officers involved. Both of these considerations are intertwined under an overarching question: how do we establish a balance that ensures both police safety and the preservation of the well-being of disadvantaged community members, specifically members of minority communities? As this issue gains popularity, it is the media portrayal of this conflict that allows individuals to receive insight on the specifics concerning cases of police brutality that ultimately lead to the death of community members.

In 2014, the death of Eric Garner stirred various communities around the United States and became a viral example of police brutality against African-American communities. This became the forefront of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. [18] The copious amount of media coverage of the case was imperative in publicizing and popularizing the movement as a whole. Celebrities around the world and specifically athletes in the NBA voiced their opinions on the matter with t-shirts that contained the message, “I can’t breathe,” which were the last words of Eric Garner. These actions by influencers instigated the conversation regarding the relationship between race and police brutality between everyday people and individuals who typically don’t involve themselves in conversations around racially motivated disparities. An ethical concern that arose out of this particular statement was that the “I can’t breathe” statement would devolve into a fashion statement and that meanwhile, the true issues associated with the Eric Garner case would be lost. [19] Americans saw a growing supply of merchandise associated with Eric Garner that was initially released to spread awareness, but later became simply a fashion statement. Activists were concerned that the message behind the merchandise would be lost in our consumerist society, and that with the continued cycle of police brutality, we would only grow more desensitized to the gravity of these killings through these initially positive acts by influencers.

The Black Lives Matter movement is also concerned with racially biased police officers possessing weapons and using them in situations where it is unnecessary. [20] Cases like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin provide invoke a conversation surrounding gun control amongst police officers. If officers are not meant to be sovereign citizens, why are they able to carry weapons and direct them at civilians with minimal repercussions? [21] It also places a responsibility upon officials to determine the intent of these police officers during the high-intensity situations they are placed in. It is very difficult to empathize with officers during situations where emotions are running high, and determining what is classified as excessive force can only truly be determined by individuals at the scene. Ethical concerns associated with exploring this potential option would prove to place officers at a disadvantage in these situations and lead to them fearing their lives even more. [22]

When tragic police killings occur in our communities, the impact rapidly spreads throughout our society due to the efficiency of our enhanced news networks. [23] The families of the individuals involved in the killings are of course affected, but so are the millions of people who turn on their TVs or open up Twitter on their phones to learn about the issue. While it is beneficial to our society for communities to be informed of issues that affect them, a major downfall of the rapid spread of news is the bias and ethical concerns that the media catalyzes. Due to the buzz regarding the killings, many people might breach ethical courtesies and try to profit from merchandise or coverage to publicize the event, rather than respectfully commemorating those lost. Furthermore, the bias in the media prevents the true intentions of the officers involved from being revealed, painting them in either an undeserved positive light or an equally undeserved negative light. Both of these ethical concerns, the commercialization of victims and the uncertainty of officer intention, threaten the preservation of police safety and marginalized communities.

In conclusion, the rise of both racially charged police brutality and media representations thereof in the United States have forced Americans to grapple with one chilling question: does our nation truly believe that black lives matter? By examining the lives, deaths, and legacies of several black men in recent history, we have been able to see some positive media coverage and some potentially problematic trends that linger. Above all, of course, we still face a tragic cycle of police violence that has devastating effects on individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole. By engaging with the media around us thoughtfully, we can begin to form a view on police killings that is informed by scientific, cultural, and ethical realities, and we can thereby continue to affect positive change in our respective spheres of influence.


[1]Nibras, Nadir. “US Police Killings: What the Data Tells Us.” Towards Data Science. December 04, 2018. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[2]”Mapping Police Violence.” Mapping Police Violence. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[3]”The Lives of People of Color Are More Likely to Be Cut Short by Police.” Accessed April 09, 2019.


[5]”Mapping Police Violence.”

[6]Mears, Daniel P., Miltonette O. Craig, Eric A. Stewart, and Patricia Y. Warren. “Thinking Fast, Not Slow: How Cognitive Biases May Contribute to Racial Disparities in the Use of Force in Police-citizen Encounters.” Journal of Criminal Justice53 (2017): 12-24. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2017.09.001.


[8]Correll, Joshua, Sean M. Hudson, Steffanie Guillermo, and Debbie S. Ma. “The Police Officers Dilemma: A Decade of Research on Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass8, no. 5 (2014): 201-13. doi:10.1111/spc3.12099.

[9]”YG – Police Get Away Wit Murder.” Genius. June 14, 2016. Accessed April 01, 2019.

[10]Lind, Dara. “Why Darren Wilson Wasn’t Charged for Killing Michael Brown.” Vox. November 25, 2014. Accessed April 06, 2019.


[12]”Political Rap: The Music of Oppositional Resistance.” Taylor & Francis. Accessed April 03, 2019.


[14]”12 Shows That Tackled Police Brutality on Prime Time TV.” The Community for Black Creativity and News. Accessed April 04, 2019.

[15]Ferguson, LaToya. “Scandal’s Police Brutality Episode Was TV Wish Fulfillment Writ Large.” The Guardian. March 06, 2015. Accessed April 02, 2019.

[16]CBS News. “Common and Amandla Stenberg on Tackling the Nuances of “blackness” in “The Hate U Give”.” CBS News. October 05, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2019.

[17]”The Hate U Give.” IMDb. October 19, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019.

[18]Video, TIME. “Know Right Now: NBA Stars Protest The Eric Garner Decision.” Time. December 10, 2014. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[19]Littlefield, Bill. “‘I Can’t Breathe’ Protests Reach Pro Sports.” ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Protests Reach Pro Sports | Only A Game. December 13, 2014. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[20]Koebler, Jason. “The Legal and Ethical Ramifications of Letting Police Kill Suspects With Robots.” Motherboard. July 09, 2016. Accessed April 05, 2019.

[21]Morgan, J. Tom. “Opinion: In Police Shootings: Legality, Morality and Ethics Are Not the Same.” Ajc. September 21, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2019.

[22]”Is the Media to Blame for Police Brutality?” The Prindle Post. April 17, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019.


Human Sacrifices-Shang Dynasty (China)

Human Sacrifice and Martyrdom: Shang Dynasty, China – IDST 190 WordPress Project

Janvi Patel, Mariana Price, Nikki Salazar

The ancient art of human sacrifice consisted of purposefully killing a human as an offering to ancestors and or to a deity through ritual. Although inhumane, the sacrifices played an important role in many historical cultures. Human sacrifice has plagued the history of many East Asian, South Pacific, Native American, and African cultures (Perry, 2018). In this post, we will be focusing on the scientific, cultural, and ethical perspectives on one of such cultures, the Shang Dynasty, that reigned in China from the 16th through the 11th century.

The Shang state was a highly controlled state, where the Emperor was both a military general and a priest (“Introduction,” 2019). Yinxu, the current day Anyang in Henan Province of China, the capital of the Shang state claimed 13,000 human sacrifices over a period of 200 years (Choi, 2018). The period of the Shang Dynasty is widely believed to be the period in which Chinese culture originated. After overthrowing the previous Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, King Tang of Shang made many positive changes in favor of the citizens of Shang. Whereas the previous ruler, King Jie, was considered to be a self-serving and pleasure-obsessed Tyrant, “Tang abolished Jie’s tyrannical policies and excessive taxes and instituted a new government which worked for the people instead of against them” (Mark, 2019). Not only were people granted better treatment under King Tang, but the Shang Dynasty was considered to be very prosperous. With so much positivity surrounding the rule of King Tang, it’s difficult to believe that human sacrifice played a role in Shang’s culture. In fact, the fact that humans were sacrificed so brutally contradicts King Tang’s so-called inclination to “work for the people”.  So how could a leader who supposedly cares for the people allow and initiate such brutality, and how was this idea so widely accepted by the people? Bob Yirka makes the point that the victims of the sacrifices carried out during the Shang Dynasty were not members of the Shang civilization (Yirka, 2017). Often, the victims were war captives, which could have been an ethical justification for the King because he wasn’t doing as much harm to his own people, but instead focusing the majority of human sacrifices on enemies of Shang, and therefore eliminating those who posed a threat of harm to his own people.


The image seems to display the courses of action taken by Shang leaders towards their victims soon to become human sacrifices.


These foreign victims were just one type of human sacrifice, burials, during the Shang Dynasty, the other type being worship rituals. Both are well documented through archeological evidence. Oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty have documented the methods used for human sacrifices in worship rituals. Oracle Bones, usually turtle bone or cattle scapulae, were used to depict divinatory activities (Recht, 2019). Divination activities included questions such as when would be a good time to hunt, to plant, wage war, and when to offer human sacrifices. We will be focusing on burials for the interest of this post. As for burials, when a royal, namely an emperor died, human sacrifices were made to accompany the Emperor in the afterlife to serve the royalty (Recht, 2019).


The image displays a common layout of a burial site during the ruling of the Shang Dynasty in China.


Whether it was to please the gods or to affirm the Emperor has servants in the afterlife, could there have also been a political aspect behind human sacrifice? Psychologist Joseph Watts proposed that the Social Control Hypothesis may be able to explain these phenomena.Watts argues that “human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification” (Watts et al., 2016). In other words, human sacrifices were a way for leaders to practice their power while instilling fear into their subjects; human sacrifices helped to keep the social stratification in order in high functioning societies, such as China. Many studies looking at large-scale human sacrificial rituals from other archaeological cultures have suggested that in early state societies, sacrificial rituals involving human victims often intensified during times of political instability political shifts. Their control over the lives and death dates of the victims caused fear that turned into fearful submission. In Yinxu, epigraphic evidence implied that most sacrificial activities occurred during the earlier phases of a ruler’s establishment when the ruling group was trying to establish its authority at the then new capital. (Cheung, Jing, Tang, Weston, & Richards, 2017) As wars waged, prisoners of war and residents of captured land were at hand a compromise was made to productively use the prisoners. Sacrificing them was one way in which the Shang rulers used these bodies. According to Oracle inscriptions, many of the young men killed in the Yinxu sacrifices were war captives from the “Qiang,” a name given to groups of barbaric pastoralists living to the west of Yinxu. (Cheung, 2018)


The image displays skeletal positions of human sacrifice victims, many died with their hands tied behind their backs and with broken skulls, both signs of torture.


Another form of ethical justification can be built upon the grounds of religion. People in ancient Chinese civilizations often believed that human sacrifices would suffice the Gods and that in return they would be granted answered prayers, blessings, and avoid the wrath of the Gods (Bulling, n.d.). Since it was widely accepted that human sacrifice would bring rain, prosperity, and protection from disastrous events such as war, flooding, and famine, it was believed that human sacrifice was essential to the well-being of entire Kingdoms (Yirka, 2017). Therefore, it is likely that although human sacrifice was brutal, it was viewed by King Tang as a necessary measure in order to assure the overall well-being of his people.

Other than human sacrifices a more popular and accessible option were animals. Animals sacrificed during the period included horses, dogs, pigs, and other types of farm animals. (Baker, 2011). It was believed animals, especially dogs, that their presence would continue to be of service after death by guiding and protecting the souls and by guarding the site against evil spirits (Bulling, n.d.).  The Shang state religion called for sacrifices to the Shang person’s ancestors, and oracle bones were used for divination to decide upon the best days to offer such sacrifices (“The Ancestor”).

Ironically, while the Shang state used religion to justify their control and show of power, researcher Kevin Rounding at Queen’s University argues that “the primary purpose of religious belief is to enhance the basic cognitive process of self-control, which in turn promotes any number of valuable social behaviors,” and that it encourages more self-monitoring (Herbert, 2011). So perhaps, human sacrifices hold more to it than religious and political connotations, societal norms of favoring tradition was a big factor. The strength of tradition in regards to human sacrifice was particularly strong for the settlers living under the rule of the Shang Dynasty. Ancient Chinese history played a major role in the way of life and social norms of the time, great importance was set on the spiritual realm.

In search of the origin of human sacrifice, an old tale of oral and written tradition was found. The ancient tale centers around the founder of the royal house of Shang, Tang offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people to the gods, for there was a long-concurring drought seen as punishment. According to legend he hardly finished his prayer when it started to rain. This story introduced the understanding that the gods would answer prayers when offered human sacrifice. Not only were sacrifices made to the Gods but to the ancestors of the honored deceased.  This also added to the notion that there was greater importance in the value of royalty and nobility versus commoners and peasants and much less value on the lives of prisoners of war. (Bulling, n.d.).


The image seems to display and emphasize the class difference between the Shang Dynasty elite versus peasants/commoners through clothing and power stances.


Although human sacrifices themselves could be justified in a number of ways, there is still a question of why the sacrifices were so brutal. Common methods of human sacrifice were burning alive, stoning, and slow removal of limbs and other body parts (Bulling, n.d.).  If one must be killed, why not kill in the most humane way possible, instead of making it brutal and painful? One big implication of human sacrifice during the Shang Dynasty is that it served as a way to promote social stratification. By carefully choosing victims who are prisoners of war and/or from the lower rungs of society, human sacrificing for religious reasons also took on a sociopolitical agenda. Societal elites, the more wealthy, and those in close proximity to the King were rarely subjected to the horrors of human sacrifice, whereas those who were poor or prisoners of war were the most commonly sacrificed. These people were considered unimportant to society, and those higher up on the social ladder strived to maintain that sense of  importance and privilege by keeping others down, The fact that social elites have the privilege of being spared from sacrifice, highlights the inclination towards of preservation of social hierarchy among societal elites and oppression of the lower class (Benson et al, 2016).  So how does the idea of social stratification play into the brutality of the killings? Since people who were sacrificed were so low in society, and elites aimed to reinforce this separation of classes, the killings were likely unnecessarily brutal so that a higher sense of superiority, control, and power could be established. Treating sacrifices with as little respect as possible further enforces their lack of importance and power than giving them a more humane death.





Baker, C. F. (2016, April). Human Sacrifice! Retrieved April 8, 2019, from

Benson, E., Escobar, H., Couzin-Frankel, J., Normile, D., Cornwall, W., & Mervis, J. (2017, December 09). Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex. Retrieved from

Bulling, A. G. (n.d.). A Late Shang Place of Sacrifice and its Historical Significance. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from

Cheung, C. (2018, May/June). The Chinese History That Is Written in Bone: The bones of 3,000-year-old sacrificial victims in China are revealing unexpected new twists. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from|A537718656&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon

Cheung, C., Jing, Z., Tang, J., Weston, D. A., & Richards, M. P. (2017). Diets, social roles, and geographical origins of sacrificial victims at the royal cemetery at Yinxu, Shang China: New evidence from stable carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotope analysis. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 48, 28-45. doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2017.05.006

Choi, C. (2018, August 17). Unearthing Secrets of Human Sacrifice. Retrieved April 2, 2019, from

Geographic, N. (2010, March 02). Retrieved April 09, 2019, from

Herbert, W. (2011, November 9). Why Do We Have Religion Anyway? Retrieved April 1, 2019, from

Introduction to the Shang Dynasty. (2019). Retrieved April 1, 2019, from

Mark, E. (2019, April 08). Shang Dynasty. Retrieved from

Perry, P. (2018, September 17). Researchers Discover a New Reason Why Ancient Societies Practiced Human Sacrifice. Retrieved April 2, 2019, from

Recht, L. (2019). Human sacrifice: Archaeological Perspectives From Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Ancestor Cult in Ancient China. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2019, from

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. D. (2016, April 04). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from

Yirka, B. (2017, June 19). Skeletal tests suggest sacrificial victims during Shang Dynasty were held for a time. Retrieved from




Differences and Similarities of Green Burial in the United States and Europe

Green burial practices originated in the United Kingdom in 1993 and enabled the dead to reduce the dramatic environmental impact that traditional burials often produce [1]. Since then, environmentalists in both Europe and the United States have developed innovative ecological methods of burial. The interest in these methods in Europe — specifically the United Kingdom — and the United States stems from different cultural burial practices and social movements surrounding death, as well as some similarities in economic pressures. These new dispersal methods were born of the environmentalist desire to posit death as something that not only reduce negative environmental implications but nourish the earth that sustains the living. Despite widespread and growing support for green funerary practices, many factors render the legal implementation of these types of burials a contentious process. We attempt to understand the ethical implications behind the decisions in which the dead’s autonomy affect the future deceased’s autonomy. The main question that needs to be answered is which is more important when assessing the merit of green burial: freeing up land and considering the needs of future generations or maintaining the value attached to traditional methods for people living today.

While natural burial is presented as a new trend in Western Europe and in the United States, it has been practiced for centuries in several cultures all over the world. Native Americans and Muslims traditionally practiced natural burials without embalming or coffins, the Chinese have a tradition of cremation, Greece has a practice of renting graves, and all over Europe, Australia, and New Zealand graves are often reused [2]. Furthermore, Europe’s history of death from several wars and plagues lead to the use of mass graves and church graveyard overcrowding. In the American context, mass graves evoke the images of ethnic cleansing and disrespectful treatment of the dead [3]. However, Europeans can be considered to be more desensitized in seeing the dead treated this way as it was a requirement during times of high death toll and even in today with the lack of land for burials. For example, there are several churches built from bones such as the ossuary in Sedlec, Czech Republic, in which bones are used as ceiling trims, crests, and for a chandelier [4].

Women demonstrating the preparation of a green burial with the use of a biodegradable cloth that surrounds the body while in a coffin [32]

These practices are heavily contrasted with the United States’ “one time use burial system” which first originated after the Civil War. As many soldiers died on the battlefield, many had to be embalmed for the body to make the journey home for a funeral [5]. This has contributed to the fact that the United States places a greater emphasis on preserving the body than Europe, at the very least for the purposes of delaying its decay until its internment [6]. For example, in Europe, approximately 40% of bodies are embalmed because it is less common to have an extended period of display of the body in funeral rites [7].

Funeral directors present embalming as a positive so that the dead can be put on display for their loved ones at open-casket funerals [8]. Thus, the United States saw a shift from home burials in which families were directly involved in bodily preparation and burial to the beginning of the industrialization of funerary practice in which bodies were prepared by business and death became a display [9][10].

As Americans transitioned to this new style of burial, the ideal lawn-park cemeteries seen today sprung up. As urban elites grew more wealthy, the association with death as display transitioned into having burials sites as a display as well. Grave sites were becoming “monuments to the earthly stature of the urban bourgeoisie and pleasurable retreats from increasingly crowded cities” [11]. However, this type of burial practice requires manicured lawns which are often unsustainable economically and ecologically.  

Embalming, the process undertaken to preserve the body, involves the injection of formaldehyde into the body. Upon burial, this turns cemetery land “chemically manicured” [12].  One study examining whether conventional coffin burial practice affected the mineral content of cemetery soils showed elevated metal concentrations on-site. In some cases, the mineral composition of cemetery soils was higher than off-site land by a ratio of 8:1 [13]. This high soil contamination originates from minerals released by burial loads; toxic chemicals include those used in embalming, varnishes, sealers, preservatives, metal handles and ornaments as well as wood preservatives and lead and mercury found in paint [14]. Thus, the burial of coffins constitutes an environmental hazard as these corroded metal toxins leach into surrounding soils and groundwater. Furthermore, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the national organization that monitors the funeral industry, cites no public health benefit from embalming and there’s no state requirement to provide it [15].

While embalming practices still remain prevalent in the United States and in Europe, cremation has risen to be a popular alternative as it embodies a less ecologically harmful method for burial. Continuing, the popularization of cremation is a huge part of the movement towards green burial methods. From 2000 to 2015, the proportion of Americans choosing cremations doubled as well as in Great Britain [16]. Similarly, Europe saw a drastic rise in cremation rates following World War II to address the land constraints involved in a conventional burial, so the soil suffers less [17].

The popularity of cremation is on the rise in the US [33]

Cremation was first proposed as the “pure and hygienic” alternative to conventional burial, but cremation has environmental negatives of its own regarding energy consumption and emissions, using around 180 liters of gas to reduce the average corpse to ashes [18][19]. Cremation is even more problematic in the United States because the E.P.A. does not regulate or label human bodies as “solid waste,” and thus have implemented marginal regulations for crematoria that allows them to continue to pollute the air [20].

To combat the negative effects of traditional burial, Environmentally-concerned citizens of both countries have developed innovative dispersal practices, greatly limiting the air and soil pollution that comes from conventional burial. One such practice is human composting, which has proponents in both the United States and Europe. The American Recomposition movement converts human remains into the soil through a 20-day process of “natural organic reduction” during which the body is covered in wood chips and aerated, creating the perfect environment for microbes to decompose the body [21]. After the “transformation,” of the body, the family is able to take some of the soil home [22]. Despite its growing following, this process is not currently legal in the United States. In Europe, a Swedish company called Promessa seeks the same purpose of replacing cremation with organic composting by a different mechanism [23]. Through “promession,” the body is cryogenically frozen and shattered, and the resulting pieces are freeze-dried and used as compost for a memorial tree or shrub [24]. Both of these companies see death as the possibility for new life, arguing that we should give critical attention to how our means of showing reverence for the dead adversely affect the living.

The tangible differences between standard burial and a natural burial [34]

These ecological alternatives emulate nature’s cycles and regenerative design. Contrastingly, hardwood and metal caskets marketed as protecting the body from the elements of nature, creating a barrier between realms. Whereas the processes of cremation and coffin burial contain the dead within spaces intended to separate the dead from the everyday environment of the living, these movements intend to disperse the dead back into the environments that sustain the living [25].

While there are many proponents of green burial practices, the movement has been met with uncertainty and criticisms from those who worry that composting takes away the “specialness of being human” by treating the body as waste to be turned into soil [26].  An important factor that complicates the ethics of green burial is the fact that those in the funeral industry stand to profit more from traditional burial methods. For historical context, in Great Britain, the response to the overcrowding of church graveyards was the establishment of cemeteries in rural environments. Burial and placement of a headstone was the accepted way of remembering and disposing of the dead, and the wealthy would have large and ornate stones to symbolize their wealth. Thus, unmarked graves were often associated with poverty and the lack of choice in death [27]. As these practices and connotations moved to the United States, the production of death became industrialized and costly. The high price of traditional burials and funeral cost upwards of $4,000 while most green burials can cost less than half. The incentive of low costs is certainly a major factor in the increase of green burials as families often take more active roles in the funeral, there is a lower consumption of resources, and an overall lower cost [28].

Many online sources claim this as a reason for the criticism that natural burials face. A writer from the website “Order of the Good Death” quotes many comments by those in the funeral industry that attack green burial methods, mostly by saying that it is merely a fad and a buzzword and will eventually become obsolete [29]. Yet, it is through organizations such as the GBC that the natural burial movement has been able to reach so many people while at the same time develop a level of professionalism and care that protects the sacredness of burying the dead. In the UK, where the natural burial movement is more developed, the Association of Natural Burial Grounds has been guiding cemeteries across the country with its Code of Conduct [30]. With the Code, the ANBG aims to “ensure that the public can have full confidence in the integrity of the provider and the quality of services offered by them.” The existence of such networks and organizations in the United States as well as the United Kingdom indicates that the natural burial movement is far from being just a fad.

Map of Green Burial Sites in the UK [35]

The moral drive behind the natural burial movement could further be described as wanting to do no harm to the environment and letting nature take its course after a person has passed on. Cynthia Beal, founder of the Natural Burial Company expressed this sentiment when she asked, “what would happen if we all buried ourselves naturally, and put our bodies back where we got them – from the soil, from the Earth itself? What would happen if we just ‘put our stuff back’?” [31]. While these green and natural burial methods have become popularized in recent years, the movement has been met with plenty of hesitation and worry. However, in spite the lack of support and criticism that the green burial movement encounters in both the United States and Europe, citizens are still broadening their scope of conceivable action for the disposal of their bodies. Increasing consciousness of scientific processes that allow death and its associated rituals to be simultaneously dignified and in tune with the natural world might soon facilitate a cultural shift in burial practices as well as mitigate the environmental damage caused by conventional burials for an increasing population.

If interested, North Carolina has one natural burial site, Pine Forest Memorial Gardens. More information about their services and burial styles can be found at


1843 Words – Lauren Hutson, Kate Queen, Kevin Johnson Mata


  1. Nicholas Read, “A green way to dispose of the dead; Environmentally friendly burials are popular in Europe and the U.S., but only one Canadian cemetery offers the chance to truly be one with the earth.” The Vancouver Sun (January, 2009):
  2. Christopher Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US.” Landscape and Urban Planning 178 (October, 2018):
  3. Mar, “Rent-a-Grave.”The Slate Group, February 28, 2011,
  4. Alex Mar, “Rent a Grave”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Louise Canning & Isabelle Szmigin, (2010) “Death and disposal: The universal, environmental dilemma”, Journal of Marketing Management, 26 (2010): 11-12, 1129, DOI: 10.1080/0267257X.2010.509580 Retrieved from
  7. Canning, “Death and disposal,” 1133.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  10. Richard Yarwood, James D Sidway, Claire Kelly, and Susie Stillwell, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.” The Geographical Journal 181, no. 2 (May 2014):
  11. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  12. Philip R. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”, Social Epistemology 30, no. 3 (2016): 60, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2015.1015063.
  13. Cornelia Jonker and Jana Oliver, “Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils: Case Study of Zandfontein Cemetery, South Africa.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 9, no. 2 (2012): 511-520.
  14. Jonker, “Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils.”
  15. Karen Roberts, “Final Goodbyes Going Green: Nyack boutique focuses on eco-friendly, natural burials.” The Journal News (March, 2017):
  16. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  17. Canning, “Death and disposal,” 1133.
  18. Mary Roach, “Out of the fire, into the compost bin.” In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W.W. Morton, 2003, 258.
  19. Read, “A green way to dispose of the dead.”
  20. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”, 60.
  21. Tafline Laylin, “Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting,”NBC News, Dec. 29, 2018,
  22. Laylin, “Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting”.
  23. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 261.
  24. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 262.
  25. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”
  26. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 268.
  27. Yarwood, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.”
  28. Mark Harris, Grave Matters (New York: Scribner, 2007), 1 – 9,
  29. Caitlin Doughty, “Just How Bad Is Traditional Burial,” Caitlin Doughty, The Order of the Good Death (November, 2012),
  30. The Association of Natural Burial Grounds, “ANBG Code of Conduct,” The Natural Death Centre Charity,
  31. Natural Burial Company, “About the Natural Burial Company,” the Natural Burial Company – USA,
  32. “Green In Life and Death,” GreenFuneralsColorado.Com,
  33. “Cremation Services: What You Need To Know,” Funeralwise,
  34. Stephen J. Beard, “A Greener Way to Go,” Indianapolis Star,
  35. Yarwood, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.”

Racial Disparities in US Police Killings

Racial Disparities in the US: Police Killings

Out of all homicides by firearm worldwide, 82% of them occur in the United States. Within the United States, 59% of those killed by firearms are black, even though black Americans only comprise 14% of the U.S. population[1]. A Supreme Court case in 1985, Tennessee v. Garner, notes that a police officer may use deadly force on a fleeing suspect if they are believed to be posing a significant threat of physical harm and/or death to the officers involved or others[2]. This leaves the decision to act in a utilitarian way, or making a choice that yields the greatest good for the greatest amount of people[3], up to enforcement officers themselves, and allows them to define when deadly use of force should be used.

There has been a staggering rise in the amount of unarmed black Americans that have been victims of encounters with the law. Between 2015 and 2017, black Americans attributed the most to the amount of unarmed people killed by officers[4]. The disparity between the races was largest in 2015, with 14.67% of unarmed victims being black, with only 6.04% being white. Hispanics were 11.05% of victims, totaling 25.72% between black and Hispanics in 2015. These numbers show a growing issue within racial crimes, with arguments posed to ties of racism and prejudice within the police force.

Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health collected data to determine if racism plays a part in the racial disparities found in police killings. They scored each state based of off five different indexes: racial segregation, incarceration rate gaps, educational attainment gaps, the economic disparity index, and employment disparity gaps[5]. They looked to see if the states score correlated with a high per capita rate of black unarmed victims, and found that this “structural racism” correlates with higher levels of police killings by an average of a 10 point increase in score correlating to a 24% increase between unarmed black and unarmed white victims of police shootings. Two theories were also used as a controlled effect when it came to the study: the threat hypothesis, “which reflects the influence of racism on police interactions with African Americans” and the community violence hypothesis, “which supposes that higher rates of violent crime in black neighborhoods might explain higher rates of police shootings of African Americans”. Lead researcher Michael Siegel states that while both contribute, they do not fully explain the disparities. The study showed that there was a significant indication in tying structural racism with police shootings of unarmed black suspects.

If there is a link between racism and police incidents, then there must be a link to one’s own childhood experiences and racism. Many studies have shown that racism is not inherited, rather it is a learned behavior. Researcher Mahzarin Banaji conducted a study where 263 children (3 to 14) were shown pictures of faces, and found that white children thought that black and Asian faces looked angry and the white faces looked happy, while black children showed no disposition to either[6]. Banaji also states that children tend to grasp the concept quickly and exhibit biases similar to adults, but around 10 the child’s environment has a greater influence on the child’s prejudice[7]. The environment can either decrease the child’s prejudice, or have the adverse effect. Studies show that people who grew up in more integrated, multicultural areas were more likely to be invested in the well-being of those groups, but the increase of racial segregation limits this potential[8]. Some people also attribute this to feelings of fear, a need to belong, emotional incompetence, and projection.  Many psychological and environmental factors attribute to the inherent racism that permeates through the US. Data shows and supports the idea that structural racism does play a part in contributing in the racial disparities of police killings.

The culture of the United States can be portrayed through actions of our police officers. A number of studies describe the rudeness, insults, lack of understanding, posturing, and brutality that police officers exhibit toward black bodies and other minorities. A police officer has the right to question and search any individual who he considers suspicious. Race has a big impact on the police officer’s choice to question an individual or not. For example, in an examination of how race relates to the decision to detain a suspect, it is evident that race appears to be the sole factor sustaining detention; minority members are questioned because they are somewhere they do not belong; Hispanic or Asian ethnicity is used to identify an illegal alien; in drug courier profiles, race is the most probable factor; and police officers believe that minority race indicates the likelihood of committing crime[9]. Complaints by minorities entail that police officers use “derogatory name calling, discourtesy, harassment, brutality, choke holds, and lethal force”. Our law enforcement programs offer an insight into our prejudice society.

Racial Disparities: US Police Killings

Historic rates of fatal police shootings in Europe suggest that American police are 18 times more lethal than Danish police and 100 times more lethal than Finnish police[10]. American police also killed civilians more frequently than police in European countries. There are four main reasons that could possibly lead to this difference. First, U.S. gun culture and the uncertainty about whether the suspect is carrying a gun could account for many of the killings, as well as racism[11]. The third reason could be that American policing is local, meaning municipal and county police departments are responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline, and training officers, so departments may not perform these tasks well enough. In Europe, police forces are provincial, regional, or national which enables a more uniform set of codes and standards to be enforced. The fourth possible reason is the different standards. The European Convention on Human Rights is the standard that police forces operate by, meaning the nations are allowed to use “deadly force” only when it is absolutely necessary to achieve a lawful purpose.

High-profile cases have brought forth racial disparities within the criminal justice system and more specifically, racial disparities among police killings in the United States. Michael Brown was an unarmed, 18-year-old black man with no criminal record and shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014[12]. According to an analysis of FBI data optionally submitted by state departments, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012[13]. As statistics continue to publicly expose disparities in the justice system, many question the ethicality of the use of force by police officers in the United States. This force is often deadly and presents a greater risks for individuals who are racial minorities. For example, Darren Wilson, the white police officer that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, would not have been free of charge in Europe because he “thought” that Brown had a gun. Edwards, Esposito, and Lee conducted a research analysis on police-involved fatalities and found that relative to white men, the risk for police-involved death was between 3.2 and 3.5 times higher for black men and between 1.4 and 1.7 times higher for Latino men[14]. Likewise, they found that the risk is larger than originally thought in smaller metropolitan areas[15].

Various Protests

However, despite the differing number of police killings, European countries have many of the same motivations and biases that Americans do. For example, Mitch Henriquez, an Aruban man on vacation in the Netherlands, was killed as a result of intense police violence. He was arrested when an officer claimed he had a weapon, however he resisted and the police officers had to use force. Footage showed that he was choked and unconscious when he was dragged into the police station, where his cause of death was strangulation. Reports showed that what Dutch enforcement officers categorize as “suspicious behavior” is strongly correlated with specific ethnic characteristics. Police officers consider young men with dark skin as especially “suspicious”. Negative stereotyping by police is clearly a cross-cultural issue. An investigation by The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom found that more than 3,000 police officers in the UK are under investigation for assault and majority of the complainants were racial minorities. In London, Black and Asian people account for a third of the population but over 50% of the brutality victims. In conclusion, there are fewer lethal use-of-force incidents in Europe directed at racial minorities, however the stereotyping attitudes are still prevalent.

Nationally, police academies spend an average of 58 hours on firearm training but only 8 hours on de-escalation or crisis intervention[16]. While states vary in regards to police officer training, the majority have a scant amount of hours dedicated to ethics. For example, California’s basic enforcement training totals 664 hours, and only eight are allotted for ethics[17]. Additionally, only 16 out of those nearly 700 hours are spent on cultural diversity. This may present issues as many officers resort to use of force in controlling deviant behaviors of others due to the large focus on physical training in many programs. Statistics show that the training programs in California alone lack an appropriate amount of training in ethics and cultural diversity, as 19% of homicides committed by law enforcement officers out of almost 1,000 deaths between 2005 and 2014 were African American men, evidencing clear racial disparities within the system[18]. The law enforcement attributed death rate for black men was 3.4, with the rates for Hispanics being 1.2, and whites being .7. The Police Executive Research Forum highlights the need for different training as well as different policing culture in their report “30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force”. The report explains that police culture emphasizes a “command and control” approach to every situation, which is likely to endanger lives.

Overall, police violence towards racial minorities is a cross-cultural issue. High numbers of police killings are also a problem in South America. Over the course of the 1990s, the police in the state of São Paulo, Brazil killed more than seven hundred people[19]. In some years, the police killed about one person every six hours. In Salvador de Bahia the per capita rate of police killings was three times higher than rates in the worst years in São Paulo. Many other countries in South America portrayed the same results. Buenos Aires killed just as often as the police in São Paulo. There is also information that suggests that Venezuela police killed twice as often as Salvador. Police violence is an everyday occurrence, and the phenomenon seems to be growing. Conviction rates for police officers who kill are well below 5% in Brazil and about 20% in Venezuela. The response by the courts to the situation suggests that the places where the police use lethal force most indiscriminately, the justice system punishes police homicides least often.

Various states in the US are beginning to require shared information of all use-of-force data, likely in order to decrease racial disparities in police killings which is often attributed to racial bias more than legitimate deviant activity. Then Chief of Dallas police, David Brown, restructured lethal force policies. Brown required officers in his department to take refresher courses on de-escalating conflict along with sharing use-of-force data with the public[20]. Additionally, these officers were required to take an ethics course and challenged to think of how an ethical officer would react in any given situation, performing their job virtuously. After these changes within their system were made, officer-involved shootings dropped from 23 in 2012 to 13 in 2016. Furthermore, complaints against the department regarding excessive use of force dropped 74% in those four years. The positive results of Brown’s policies, if adapted by police departments across the nation, could significantly reduce racial disparities in police killings and encourage police officers to act in a way that displays beneficence, doing what is right and good for the people they protect.

Taking time, assessing the situation, and responding calmly and appropriately would be better for everyone. It also explains that we need accountability. When police unlawfully take a life, district attorneys need to file charges. Police chiefs need to provide training, guidance, and policies so that officers are trained to assess situations, de-escalate problems, and keep themselves and the public safe. Police chiefs need to remove officers who react with violence or bias which may cause irrational responses to people in crisis and people of color.


[1] Mesic, Aldina, Lydia Franklin, Alev Cansever, Fiona Potter, and Anika Sharma. 2018. “The Relationship Between Structural Racism and Black-White Disparities in Fatal Police Shootings at the State Level.” Journal of the National Medical Association 110 (2): 106–16.


[2] Kemp, David, and Chris Skelton. N/A. “ Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).” Justia. Justia. N/A.


[3] Marr, Tim. 2019. Some Basic Ethical Principles.


[4] Beer, Todd. “POLICE KILLING OF BLACKS: Data for 2015, 2016, 2017, and First Half of 2018 – Sociology Toolbox.” The Society Pages. Last modified March 1, 2018.


[5] Mock, Brentin. “The New Explanation for Racially Disparate Police Violence.” CityLab. Last modified February 15, 2018.


[6] “Racism is Learned at an Early Age | Applied Social Psychology (ASP).” Sites at Penn State – WordPress | Powered by WordPress. Last modified March 25, 2017.


[7] Burton III, James. “Harvard Researcher Says Children Learn Racism Quickly – The Boston Globe.” Last modified June 10, 2012.


[8] Abrams , Allison. 2017. “The Psychology Behind Racism .” Psychology Today. Psychology Today. September 6, 2017.


[9] Mann, Coramae Richey. Unequal Justice a Question of Color. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press , 1994.


[10] Jones, James M. “Killing Fields: Explaining Police Violence Against Persons of Color.” UNC Chapel Hill Libraries. Accessed April 05, 2019.


[11] Lopez, German. “American Police Shoot and Kill Far More People than Their Peers in Other Countries.” Vox. November 14, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2019.


[12] Lopez, German. 2016. “What Were the 2014 Ferguson Protests About?” Vox. January 27, 2016.


[13] Lopez, German. 2015. “This Chart Explains Why Black People Fear Being Killed by the Police.” Vox. July 29, 2015.


[14] Edwards, Frank, Michael Esposito, and Hedwig Lee. 2018. “Risk of Police-Involved Death by Race/Ethnicity and Place, United States, 2012–2018.” American Journal of Public Health 108 (9): 1241–48. .

[15] Kramer, Rory, Brianna Remster, and Camille Z. Charles. “Black Lives and Police Tactics Matter.” Contexts Black Lives and Police Tactics Matter Comments. October 4, 2017. Accessed April 8, 2019.


[16] Mizner, Susan. “Police ‘Command and Control’ Culture Is Often Lethal – Especially for People With Disabilities.” American Civil Liberties Union. May 11, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019.


[17] Elliott, Kevin, and Joycelyn Pollock. 2014. “The Ethics of Force.” In Law Enforcement Ethics, 231–56. Sage Publications.


[18] McCarthy, Ciara, and Nadja Popovich. 2018. “California Police Killings Database Reveals ‘Clear Racial Disparities.’” The Guardian, September 2018.


[19] Brinks, Daniel M. The Judicial Response to Police Killings in Latin America: Inequality and the Rule of Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.


[20] Smith, Sonia. 2017. “‘How Would an Ethical Officer React?’” The New York Times Magazine. The New York Times. August 17, 2017.


Delaney Keith, Breanna Fowler, and Jorell Jimenez

The CSI Effect

Entertainment media is a major part of American culture, specifically television entertainment. Studies have been conducted in order to determine the ways in which television influences our thinking, and one such theory resulting from the research was developed in the 1960’s and labelled “cultivation”. Cultivation “affirmed that people who are avid television viewers tend to accept the content distributed through the television media and embrace the material as factual reality.”[1] The idea that people will unquestionably accept what they watch on television to be fact may be overreaching, however, it does seem clear that media- whether it be entertainment television, social media, the news, the radio- all play a role in influencing their audiences’ understanding and perception of the topics being portrayed. This idea of cultivation displays itself in Americans’ perceptions of crimes as determined by their viewing of crime-based entertainment.

The topic of crime remains extremely popular in the entertainment business, reflected by television viewer ratings; “Eight crime dramas, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its sibling programs, made it into the top 20 shows last October. On one Thursday that month, 27 percent of all American televisions that were turned on were turned to CSI.”[2] The popularity of crime shows among the American public has been explained by Time as, “a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity.”[3] Additionally, they claim that people are intrigued by crime because, “it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us-fear.”[4] Regardless of why people are interested in crime television shows, the reality is that Americans are watching them with consistency. Though watching television can be considered a harmless and passive activity, when viewing television’s influence through the lens of cultivation it is clear that Americans use crime-based entertainment media as their source of information on the investigative processes following a crime.

According to an article written by Kristina Ericksen, the CSI Effect is a phenomenon discovered by prosecutors that illustrates how crime shows, like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, alters jurors’ courtroom expectations.[5] In turn, this makes it more difficult to convict the defendants with solid evidence. Ever since these crime shows have become popular, judges have wanted more and more evidence to convict someone, even when the truth behind the fingerprints is right in front of them. Because these television programs have been widely shown around the world, the CSI Effect has influenced American jurors to expect more forensic evidence to convict defendants of crimes.

Forensic science is any science that is used in the legal system that applies to civil proceedings and criminal cases. Forensic scientists work with the investigators at the crime scene to collect evidence and traces to help determine more information from the crime scene. Although strict procedures must be followed during real-life crime scene investigations, television programs don’t usually show the realistic steps of the investigation process. These crime scene investigations programs often shape the public’s expectations of what a true crime scene investigation looks like.[6]

According to the Microbiology Society, forensic scientists must follow strict procedures when collecting evidence such as bodily fluids, trace materials, fiber identification, toxicology, and fingerprints.[7] The first step of any crime scene investigation is to ensure the safety of the scene and mark off any hazardous areas that can influence the collection of specimens. Forensic scientists need to outline the area of investigation to ensure that no evidence is destroyed by medical, fire or coroner respondents. The second and most important step of any crime scene investigation is to establish security of the scene to ensure that everyone that enters the scene is documented. This helps investigators know exactly who has stepped foot on the crime scene that could have obstructed or collected evidence. The next important step in the crime scene investigation procedure is to plan, communicate and coordinate with all persons investigating the crime scene. Investigators want to generate an initial hypothesis of the crime to help the crime scene team expect what evidence to look for. This ensures that no evidence is looked-over and missed while collecting data, and allows the team to call in backup if a more specialized resource is required to gather evidence.

Before collecting any evidence, the team needs to walk through the crime scene and document any initial observations they notice; position of furniture, areas of interest, smells, and the temperature; these observations are typically photographed and documented on paper for future references. This step guarantees that every detail of the crime scene is documented in case something was to be obstructed during the collection of evidence. Once the scene becomes safe and the walkthrough has been completed, the following initiative is to collect the evidence from the crime scene. Proper procedures must be followed while containing the evidence found at the scene so that it can be tested in the future. Investigators also take more photographs of the evidence and sketch diagrams that would provide more information of the evidence collected. As a control step, investigators will run through the crime scene one final time to ensure that all useful data has been properly collected from the crime scene. The final step of any crime scene investigation is to create an inventory log of all evidence collected during the investigation process. This documentation will follow the crime all the way into the courtroom until someone has been convicted. All information from this log ensures that the evidence collected at the crime scene is accounted for.[8]

Once every step of the procedure has been completed, forensic scientists can then use this evidence to help convict the defendant involved. This information is most important in any criminal case because it provides hard evidence to convict the guilty.

Many current crime scene investigation television programs falsely demonstrate the proper legal procedures of real crime scene investigations. These programs often show investigators quickly running through crime scenes and improperly collecting evidence. This gives jurors a false idea of how the investigation process actually works. Many jurors today expect DNA evidence from every crime scene using top-notch technology that has not actually been developed.[9] The CSI Effect has caused jurors to expect more hard evidence than needed to convict someone.

An image depicting a crime scene investigation that took place on CSI Miami: Crime Scene Investigation. This photograph illustrates the false procedures that take place on television programs. 

There are several effects of using fiction television as a basis for understanding real-life processes following a crime, a main one being peoples’ misunderstanding of the forensic procedures. The danger of viewers’ act of interchanging fiction with fact is the unrealistic expectations that are placed on the criminal justice system, as well as the data processing of forensic evidence. Crime television programs have been identified as the culprits for giving, “the impression that forensic laboratories are fully staffed with highly trained personnel, stocked with a full complement of state-of-the-art instrumentation and rolling in the resources to close every case in a timely fashion.”[10] The interpretation of forensic science given by crime television shows is not all that accurate, as in reality there are not enough employees to keep up with the increasing demands being placed on labs for data analysis.

An additional effect of using crime-based entertainment as a basis of understanding the forensic and legal investigative processes is the previously defined phenomenon, the CSI effect, which is “the belief that television crime shows are affecting decisions made in the courtrooms from jurors.”[11] According to the CSI effect, jurors are imposing unrealistic expectations on crime scene evidence in order to prosecute a crime; thus, the aforementioned increasing demand for data analysis from forensic labs can be attributed to this phenomenon. One such example of the increasing demand for crime scene evidence occured in Virginia, where “in 1989 Virginia labs processed only a few dozen cases. The number of cases being submitted this year has ballooned into the thousands.”[12] This increasing demand for forensic evidence ties to the legal proceedings following a crime, as jurors assume that evidence is the unarguable proof of a defendant’s guilt.

The influence of the CSI effect was studied as it impacted New York State prosecutors, and there appeared to be a relationship between jurors’ increased demand for forensic evidence and their likelihood of persecuting the individual on trial. As stated by the study, “In some instances, legal employees had to practice ‘defensive investigations’ using forensic evidence, not because it was involved in the case, but rather to satisfy the intrigue of the jury.”[13] According to the research study- despite consistent debate about whether the CSI effect is real- prosecutors are changing their tactic in the courtroom in order to account for the jurors misconceptions about the investigative crime procedures. Another aspect of the study states, “I have found jurors now expect more evidence than they did before. They want to see DNA testing in every case. They expect police officers to fingerprint every square inch of a crime scene. In a way, it feels as though our burden of proof is raised; non-forensic evidence must be much stronger in the absence of forensic evidence”[14] Thus, not only are forensic analysts facing more pressure, but prosecutors have to alter their arguments in order to convince jurors of the defendant’s guilt when facing a lack of crime scene evidence as well.

Though forensic evidence is not always necessary in order to justifiably deem an individual to be guilty (such as by eyewitness testimony), it arguably goes further in convincing a jury of guilt. Crime’s ever present influence and intrigue among the American public can be summarized by the statement, “Crime remains an unfortunate, yet integrated part of American culture, not as hopelessly interwoven as the media would have use believe, but regardless, a part of life (or at least the evening news).”[15] Regardless of the degree to which the CSI effect truly explains entertainment television’s impact, the influence of television on the public’s understanding of crime remains inevitable; the extent to which the legal and forensic processes change based on the cultural influences of entertainment media will be determined as they occur.

Ethics is a huge part of crime scene investigations, and law enforcement officers going through these processes are expected to investigate the case with ethics and morals in their minds. Police and forensic specialists are obliged to preserve the integrity of their investigations. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences provides no guidelines for crime scene ethics or retention of items from former crime scenes.[16] Without these guidelines, there are no rules that regulate whether or not someone can keep, remove, or sell anything found during a crime scene investigation.

Ethics is a huge part of crime scene investigations, and law enforcement officers going through these processes are expected to investigate the case with ethics and morals in their minds. Ethics can be defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity”.[17] Police and forensic specialists are obliged to preserve the integrity of their investigations. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences provides no guidelines for crime scene ethics or retention of items from former crime scenes.[18] Without these guidelines, there are no rules that regulate whether or not someone can keep, remove, or sell anything found during a crime scene investigation which is why it is so important to use ethics in your practices.

What exactly does ethics mean for a Crime Scene Officer (CSO)? As a CSO it is your role first and foremost to help the public and to understand that you are called to a crime scene because something is wrong. Never “jump the gun” on a case because you cannot force evident to fit someone’s ideas. Go into each case unbiased, and let the evidence speak for itself. Officers must be aware that they are not able to let their personal feelings interrupt objective, critical, and reflective consideration of the case.[19] It is important to approach each scene with the attitude that you’re there to help the victim(s), assume that each case is going to a jury trial, act professionally, take the time to process each scene, and ultimately solve the case.[20] There is also a set of directions on how to process each scene professionally. It starts with stressing the importance of documenting everything thoroughly using photography, videography, diagrams, and sketches. Then, it is important to record all information about evidence that is found on the Evidence Custody Sheet. You should list each piece of evidence with its item number, what was done with it, where it was found, etc. and the item number must correspond with the number found on the photograph of the item and the number entered on any evidence collection bag. When appropriate, you must swab and collect evidence in that way. One of the most important things to remember as a CSO is to not ignore evidence because you do not think that it can be processed,  recognize your limits. Dick Warrington, a crime scene consultant, stressed that “It’s far better to call in fingerprint or other experts than to lose evidence because of your pride”.[21]

A large part of ethics is being morally right which brings out the idea of whether or not evidence from crime scenes should be released to the public before court. A conversation between Katherine Biber, a law professor, and Peter Doyle, a researcher of crime scene photographs, joined a conversation about the ethics at crime scenes.[22] The biggest reason why evidence should not be released to the public, especially before court, is because people will start to question and try to get involved with the investigation even though they should not. This is especially due to the theory of the “CSI Effect”. After watching a couple of CSI shows, the public thinks that they can solve the crime and their interference can actually do more harm than good. Crime scene photos also are a big part of being able to properly, and ethically, solve a case due to its authenticity. Some of the ethical rules behind crime scenes is to not touch or interfere with anything and leave it exactly how it is. A lot of times pictures can be confusing because it becomes difficult to realize what exactly you’re looking for. In response to this statement, Peter Doyle said “I’m so good at unpacking them, decoding them- you can see how they manipulate us, you can see the mythic underpinnings”.[23] Many people in the public if photographs were released would attempt to make a bigger deal of something than it needed to be rather than letting the professionals who are trained to look at these photographs figure it out for themselves.

Crime scene photos and other evidence being released to the problem also brings out the ethical problem in the “CSI Effect”. Reality and fiction have begun to blur with crime magazine TV shows like 48 Hour Mystery, American Justice, and Dateline NBC.[24] These shows portray actual cases, but extensively edit the content for a dramatic effect. Also, crime fiction TV drama shows like Law and Order, Criminal Minds, CSI promote plots that are “ripped from the headlines”. It has been proven that watching shows like this cause jurors to wrongfully acquit guilty defendants when no scientific evidence has been presented. Donald Shelton, a felony trial judge for the past 17 years, recalls that he once heard a juror complain that the prosecution had not done a thorough job because “they didn’t even dust the lawn for fingerprints”. These shows have caused a rise in the unreasonable expectations for evidence that is presented during a trial. Many jurors compare cases that they are in trial for to ones that they hear about and watch on TV. Some statistics that support how the “CSI Effect” is real in court cases are as follows: 46% of jurors expect to see some kind of scientific evidence in every criminal case, 22% expect to see DNA evidence in every criminal case, 36% expect to see fingerprint evidence in every criminal case, 32% expect to see ballistic or other firearms lab evidence in every criminal case.[25]


Bria Bryant

Kayla Bortoff

Lauren Meyer

[1] Erickson, Elizabeth. Perceptions of the CSI-Effect by New York State Prosecutors and Forensic Science Requests at Trial. Northcentral University: Proquest Dissertations Publishing, 2015.

[2] Houck, Max M. “CSI: Reality.” Scientific American 295, no. 1 (July 2006): 84–89. (pg. 85)

[3] Bonn, Scott . “Why We Are Drawn to True Crime Shows.” Time. TIME, January 8, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kristina Ericksen, 7 Ways the CSI Effect is Altering Our Courtrooms, (2017). Retrieved from:

[6] Michael Roberts, How the CSI Effect Influences American Jurors, (2019). Retrieved from:

[7] Lorna Dawson/ Chris Gannicliffe, Managing the Myths, CSI Effect in Forensic Science, (2017). Retrieved from:

[8] National Forensic Science Technology Center, A Simplified Guide to Crime Scene Investigation, (2013). Retrieved from:

[9] Donald Shelton, The ‘CSI Effect’: Does It Really Exist?, (2008). Retrieved from:

[10] Houck, Max M. “CSI: Reality.” Scientific American 295, no. 1 (July 2006): 84–89.

[11] “The CSI Effect.” Crime Museum. Crime Museum, 2017.

[12] Houck, Max M. “CSI: Reality.” Scientific American 295, no. 1 (July 2006): 84–89.

[13] Erickson, Elizabeth. Perceptions of the CSI-Effect by New York State Prosecutors and Forensic Science Requests at Trial. Northcentral University: Proquest Dissertations Publishing, 2015.

[14] Ibid, 25.

[15] Durnal, Evan W. Crime Scene Investigation (as Seen on TV). University of Central Missouri: Forensic Science International, 2010.

[16] Rogers, Tracy L. “Crime Scene Ethics: Souvenirs, Teaching Material, and Artifacts.” Journal of Forensic Sciences49, no. 2 (April 2004): 1-5. Accessed April 8, 2019. doi:10.1520/jfs2003287.

[17] “Ethic.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[18] Rogers, Tracy L. “Crime Scene Ethics: Souvenirs, Teaching Material, and Artifacts.” Journal of Forensic Sciences49, no. 2 (April 2004): 1-5. Accessed April 8, 2019. doi:10.1520/jfs2003287.

[19] McCartney, Steve, and Rick Parent. Ethics in Law Enforcement. April 17, 2015. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[20] Warrington, Dick. “Ethics at the Crime Scene.” Forensic Magazine. June 14, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Biber, K., Doyle, P., & Rossmanith, K. (2013). PERVING AT CRIME SCENES: Authenticity, ethics, aesthetics: A conversation. Griffith Law Review, 22(3), 804-814. Retrieved from

[23] Ibid.

[24] Shelton, Donald E. “The CSI Effect: Does It Really Exist?” PsycEXTRA Dataset, 2008. Accessed April 8, 2019. doi:10.1037/e444972008-001.

[25] Ibid.

Green Burials in America and Associated Stigma


Green burials can be defined as a practice in which the deceased are buried or otherwise disposed of in any manner that attempts to cause either no damage or very minimal damage to the environment. The nature of green burials excludes any chemical embalming processes or other practices that are designed to render the physical body more permanent after death. Within the practice, there is an emphasis on biodegradability and impermanence.1

The process of embalming is long, tedious, and quite intrusive to the dead body. It takes a myriad of skills and patience to embalm, and it costs a fortune for the family of the deceased. Why do thousands of Americans pay so much to have their loved ones’ bodies altered to such a state, when it would be practical to leave the body alone? Embalming began as a practical measure but has turned into a common practice that many people accept as a cultural norm. Culture in the US concerning burials in the past century has focused on embalming a body and placing it in a wooden casket, but in the last two decades, more attention has been brought to methods of burial that do not require any chemicals and focus more on the relationship between the body and soil.

Humans have always performed alterations on dead bodies for ritualistic purposes. In Northern Jordan, archaeological digs have revealed that people from the PreNatufian/Epipaleolithic period (23,000-11,600 BP) would cut the heads off of dead bodies before burials.4 Historically, embalming was developed as a result of the rise of capitalism and the translocation of soldiers during wars, who died in large numbers and required the development of preservation methods so their bodies could be sent back to their families.

In Europe, during the Enlightenment, people started focusing more on the lives and personalities of their dying children, and with an increased focus on the lives of infants, more people decided to bury them in family tombs, whereas before, it was common to dismiss the death of infants.3

In early American colonist homes, the dead were prepared and laid out in common spaces for their loved ones to pay respects. They were often buried in simple caskets in backyards or local churches. It was not until the Civil War (1861-1865) that people began using chemicals to preserve the body. Soldiers in the war that died had to be shipped over the course of weeks; their bodies needed to last the journey in order to be properly buried at home.

During the time of slavery, one of the few “freedoms” that slave owners gave slaves was the freedom to develop their own mortuary practices. African Americans had little access to materials outside of their environments, and therefore practiced more naturalistic methods of burial. The burial practices of slaves evolved from African cultures, who emphasized the journey of the soul after its body had passed on. In the early 1800s, African Americans began using standardized coffins. This is partially a result of the rise of sanitation standards that occurred in America. The location of cemeteries moved from churches to private municipal lands. African Americans lost a lot of their connection to African burial practices as a result of the rise of the funeral industry. 4

The rising popularity of embalming practices in the 1960s came in opposition to the publication of The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. Her book suggested that Americans return to naturalistic modes of burial that had been lost in the last century. Many of Mitford’s justifications for green burials were in her questioning of the funeral industries intentions. As a result of the publication, funeral businesses promoted their practices and attacked Mitford as a radical that was unworthy of attention.5

The term ‘green burial’ has only been used in the past twenty years. It stems from a rising culture of environmentalism with an emphasis on maintaining natural processes of life. There are many advantages to doing away with embalming and moving toward green burials. The chemicals used in embalming are carcinogenic and toxic to the ecosystem.14 Besides having less of an impact on the environment, green burials have the potential of reducing cost of death. People may also treat death with more acceptance and understanding when they acknowledge the decomposition of the body into soil.

Embalming practices explored as a culture reveal a disassociation between nature and the physical human body. Embalming rose in popularity also due to the fear that many Americans have of death. People who embalm their loved ones shut them off from the outdoor elements that break down cells and tissues. They feel as if the body should be preserved, which can be demonstrated with the practice of cryopreservation.

Popular American culture demonstrates Green burials reflect a growing awareness of the connection of the body to the forces of nature. There still remain ritual associated with green burials, but it focuses more on the life that the deceased person lived rather than the physical state of the person’s body.

Green burials are, in principle, a practice of conscious disregard for the typically modern and technologically advanced burial processes that are integral to North American conceptions of propriety of managing the dead and respecting the memories of the deceased. Typical modern burials include the use of embalming chemicals and techniques to delay or prevent decay of physical remains; this theme indicates a strong connection between the physical body and the concept of personhood. In the North American collective conscious there is, then, the notion that the loss of the physical body correlates to or causes the loss of the memory of the deceased person and their personhood. Any burial practice that actively promotes the natural decay of the physical body, such as green burial does, will then be received with some suspicion and will face stigma because of the potential threat to customary practices that it constitutes.

Although the green burial movement seems to promote the return to burials devoid of modern scientific interference, and by extension to an idealized past, it can also be examined with the additional perspective of looking toward a different type of modernity. While the practice excludes the use of chemicals and other components of a modern burial, it does so with the goal of being environmentally responsible; thus, the movement combines practices of the past with ideals of the future. The emergence of the green burial movement reflects a changing social conscious and perception of the surrounding world.6 This emerging social transformation is a sign of a societal liminal state- ideals and perceptions of matters of importance are shifting, which creates rifts between diverse demographic groups, and can lead to ethically ambiguous grounds of debate.

The societal disruption with changing burial practices is a projection of the smaller-scale disruption of the social fabric that is rendered by the death of a person. In this more personalized liminal state, funeral practices and mourning rituals help to repair the social fabric after the loss of a person. If such practices are threatened by the emergence of alternative practices, then it stands to reason that such alternative practices will be regarded with reluctance, distrust, misunderstanding, or even fear.7 Green burials, with the focus of environmental respect, tend to be presented from a position of moral superiority; an individual who chooses a green burial will be acting according to his or her own ideas of virtue or beneficence ethics; the most morally responsible way to live and die is one that exists in accordance with protecting and preserving the environment. This line of reasoning implies that all humans should also exist in such a way or else pose a threat to the entire environment and the human species by extension. Such a ‘holier-than-thou’ position tends to generate negative responses from those in the out-group, along with increased reluctance to accept the alternative practice.

In addition to the adverse position of green burials to contemporary traditional burial practices, there is the additional consideration of personal obligations to confront death. Green burials are intended to actively cause the decay of the physical body, which used to be a very natural and well-understood part of death until the movement of Romanticism, which sought to sanitize death and dying. After this social shift, people in North America became removed from the physical processes of decay.8 This lack of contact with decay makes the green burial movement more difficult to accept because of the associations of discomfort with the physical realities of death; this can be morally irresponsible because it makes the acceptance of death more remote or unattainable, thus extending or complicating periods of mourning for the bereaved.9

Additionally, much of the stigma surrounding green burials stems from fears and misconceptions about death and bodily decomposition. Mainly, this includes concerns that bodies can spread diseases during decomposition if they are not embalmed or contained in an airtight conventional casket.10 These concerns are often instigated by the ways in which the funeral industry have reacted to the growing popularity of green burials. Determined to protect a billion-dollar industry, funeral providers have lobbied the government for new regulations on the burial of the deceased and perpetuated the idea that a resource-intensive funeral is the “right” way to bury people. There are currently no laws requiring bodies to be buried in a coffin and very few federal laws regulating the handling of bodies at all. This is beneficial to those that want a green burial but detrimental to the funeral industry. Consequently, this industry has increasingly advocated for legislation that would mandate embalming and only permit burial in established cemeteries.11

Also, many people are skeptical of green burials because they want to feel as though they’ve left a legacy upon their death. This is threatened by the way in which bodies decay more rapidly when buried outside of the more traditional casket burial practice. However, green burials can counteract this issue by utilizing green cemeteries as nature preserves or park land in addition to their role as a final resting place. This allows those buried there to have a lasting legacy as being able to contribute to the local community, even in their death.10

Changing physical landscapes and climate in the present time period are demonstrating the evolving threat to the environment and human existence caused by humans. Contemporary burial technologies are part of the environmental threat in that chemicals can leach into the ground, physical bodies takes up valuable space, and nutrients aren’t recycled into the environment. Especially in an urban context, physical space is at a premium; green burials could prove to be a viable solution to this pressing need for space in urban areas by freeing up land that would otherwise be reserved for body internment purposes.12 In this situation, green burials are ethically utilitarian; the greatest good is provided for the greatest number of people. In an environmentally precarious future, it is imperative that any and all environmentally responsible practices be pursued to the greatest extent possible.

Cemeteries have historically been sources of environmental contamination due to the presence of coffins and other grave contents. Synthetic and inorganic materials that are used in the production of coffins can be discharged into the environment as casket components degrade and decompose over time. These materials often include metals such as steel, bronze, nickel, copper, zinc, and iron, as well as other synthetic materials such as rubber, glues, paints, and velvet. Additionally, as human bodies decay, toxic chemicals used in the process of embalmment can further be discharged into the environment. The leaching of these materials into the soil can contaminate groundwater, vegetation, and surface water and cause health problems for humans and other organisms. Numerous studies have found groundwater within the vicinity of cemeteries to be contaminated with both inorganic metals and harmful pathogens, as well as heavy metal contamination in the soil surrounding many cemeteries. While these effects can differ based on the local geography of the burial site and the type of materials used for internment, it is evident that casket burials contribute to soil and land pollution.13 In order to avoid this pollution, many have turned to cremation as a more environmentally friendly burial practice. Although cremations are considered to be a greener option than the traditional casket burial, it is estimated that one cremation uses as much energy as a 500-mile car trip and releases 250 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.10 On the contrary, research shows that green burials which lack a formal casket and embalming processes do not pollute the environment in these ways. Using a lower density coffin, such as a simple wood coffin, or no coffin at all, lowers the environmental impact of the burial in terms of manufacturing processes and decomposition products. Additionally, accelerating decomposition, as green burials do, helps to avoid soil and groundwater contamination15. In light of this information, green burials are clearly the most environmentally conscious choice for burials. Since we have a responsibility to prevent further environmental degradation as much as possible, green burials are a viable option to fulfill one’s obligation to the planet.

Bryn Walker, Sarah Ashworth, Mary Frank




Works Cited

  1. “Green Burial Defined.” Green Burial Council. Weebly. Accessed April 8, 2019.
  2. Bacqué, M. F. “Stillborn children and infant death. History of funeral practices and rites in Europe stem from the affective and social expression of grief. Second chapter: From the Enlightenment to the present ages.” Neuropsychiatrie De L’enfance Et De L’adolescence, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.neurenf.2018.04.005
  3. Clements, S. W. “Dead and green: Discourses of death from Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” to modern green burial” ProQuest Dissertations Publisher, 2016).
  4. Jamieson, R. “Material Culture and Social Death: African-American Burial Practices.” Historical Archaeology.
  5. Maher, L. A., Stock, J. T., S. F., Haywood, J. J., & Miracle, P. T. “A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan).” PLoS One, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.001581
  6. Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1996.
  7. Habenstein, Robert, and William Lamers. The History of American Funeral Directing. Milwaukee: Bulfin Printers, 1962.
  8. Canine, John. The Psychosocial Aspects of Death and Dying. Stamford, Connecticut: Appleton & Lange, 1996.
  9. Kastenbaum, Robert. The Psychology of Death. New York: Springer, 2000.
  10. Chiu, Allyson. “Green Burials Bring Awareness to Environmental Concerns.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, March 4, 2016.
  11. Yeo, Sophie. “Natural Burials Are Rising, and That’s Good for the Planet.” Pacific Standard, July 30, 2018.
  12. Marrall, Rebecca. “Urbanism and North American Funerary Practices.” PSU McNair Scholars Online Journal 2, no. 1 (2006).
  13. Aruomero, Amuno, and Oluwajana Afolabi. “Comparative Assessment of Trace Metals in Soils Associated with Casket Burials: Towards Implementing Green Burials.” Eurasian Journal of Soil Science 3, no. 1 (2014): 65–76.
  14. Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007.
  15. Oliveira, Bruna, Paula Quinteiro, Carla Caetano, Helena Nadais, Luís Arroja, Eduardo Ferreira da Silva, and Manuel Senos Matias. “Burial Grounds’ Impact on Groundwater and Public Health: An Overview.” Water and Environment Journal 27, no. 1 (June 29, 2012): 99–106.

Burial Rituals Across Time and Space: Chinchorro vs. Egyptians

The corpse and its preservation, widely varies across many cultures according to their methods and throughout the progression of time. Mummification is historically a process people strictly associate with the ancient Egyptian societies, depicted in television shows, movies, and other entertainment outlets. However, a group called the Chinchorro mummies in Chile, who used mummification processes as early as 5000 B.C.[1], and these processes vary quite drastically from those of the ancient Egyptians. The Chinchorro civilization’s mummification process was very revolutionary for the time and was also very detailed. First, the deceased would be stripped of all their skin, organs, and brain and these cavities would be cleaned and the bones would be burned to remove all the liquid to prevent decay. Following the burning of the bones, the Chinchorro people would resemble the bones in a skeletal structure as well as using twigs to supplement the bulk of the body. Then, they would reapply the skin and apply an ash paste to the body and a clay mask to the face followed by a black paint, creating a seal so the skin would preserve during the mummification process.[2]

7,000 year old Chinchorro mummy found in Chile’s Andes Mountains


Scientist tested hair samples of the first Chinchorro mummies and found high levels of arsenic, presumably from their drinking water, which is thought to be the cause of death for many of them.[3] Scientists have also discovered that in the past decade Chinchorro mummies have been withering away and decomposing after thousands of years. Scientists think the recent climate change and increase of humidity in the air in Chile allows for bacteria and microorganisms to thrive in the mummies, causing the degrading and discoloration of these ancient mummies.[4] It is crucial that these bodies be exhumed and maintained in a controlled environment to ensure the preservation of these first known mummies.

When people think of mummies their first thought is the Ancient Egyptian mummies, however their mummification process differs quite drastically of the processes of the Chinchorro mummies. The Ancient Egyptians discovered early in their mummification process how bacteria manifests in the deceased and to counteract this decomposition they needed to remove the organs from the body. They removed the brain by placing hooks in the nostrils and pounding the bones and brain tissue allowing for a passageway for the loose brain fragments and liquid ooze out. To ensure the liquid from the body was dried up to prevent decomposition, they used a salt mixture called natron which produced a very dried out, yet recognizable body.[5] The use of natron is extremely revolutionary to the mummification process and shines light on how innovative and ingenious the Ancient Egyptians were. The next step in the Egyptian mummification process is the wrapping of the body, using hundreds of yards of linen material to ensure the mummy was fully cloaked, even wrapping fingers and toes separately in many cases.[6]


Many of the Ancient Egyptian mummies have been exhumed by scientists and anthropologists to study more about their way of life and the processes of which have preserved these historic bodies. Scientists discovered that DNA from Egyptian mummies has been nearly impossible to extract, though to be because of the desert climate at the chemicals used in the mummification process. However, they successfully recovered DNA sequences and genomes from 90 Ancient Egyptian mummies, giving scientists insight onto the hierarchical lines of the mummies and how they relate to the mummification process.[7] Scientists also made another revolutionary discovery by using CT scans to find that Ancient Egyptian mummies had a predisposition for and presence of atherosclerosis, which caused calcification of their bones thought to be due to their environment and their genetics.[8] Scientific and Anthropological research of these Ancient Chinchorro and Egyptian mummies continue to reveal the way of life and contributing environments of these primitive societies, also how these differing techniques and climates affect the preservation of these historic mummies. There are many ethical issues, ancient and modern, that arise when discussing these mummies, such as the aforementioned exhuming of ancient Egyptian mummies. For ancient Egyptian burials, the issue of class privilege is often discussed.

Egyptian mummification was directly influenced by the culture’s social construct. Although many people of different social classes participated in the mummification processes, the elaborate procedures and burial rituals were an expensive undertaking. Many members of the lower social class were financially unable to participate in the elaborate rituals, and bodies of these individuals have been found in massive communal grave sites.[9] The contrast in treatment of the dead from different social classes is ethically controversial. It was of no importance to elite Egyptian society to encourage the afterlife preservation of their poorer counterparts. The ethical principle of beneficence is not represented in the elaborate rituals needed to properly transition into the afterlife. The exclusivity of the mummification procedures prevents certain members of society from having a proper burial, by definition of cultural constructs.

The elaborate mummification process of Egyptian culture reflected the importance of afterlife in society. The careful preservation of each individual organ, and the re-stuffing of organs back into the deceased body was essential to the preservation. The care in which the priests embalmed the body indicated that Egyptians believed that the soul and body were tied together even after the person had passed. A body that had not been preserved at all, such as those found in the communal grave sites, would be no home for a soul in the afterlife.

Communal grave sites in Chinchorro burial grounds

In contrast, Chinchorro mummification appeared to have been a more inclusive societal practice. A unique aspect of Chinchorro mummification is the various typologies of mummification that have been discovered.[10] Naturally preserved bodies, artificially reconstructed mummies, and mud-covered bodies are all examples of methods of body preservation used by the Chinchorro people. The complexity of the majority of the mummification procedures shows extensive knowledge of anatomy. The reconstruction and conservation techniques show that the Chinchorro people prioritized external preservation rather than internal preservation.[11] This suggests that there were no ethical concerns in dismantling the internal structures of the bodies after they had passed on. The normalization of dissecting bodies as part of a culture’s mummification process suggests that a person’s body and soul were seen as separated once they were determined dead.

It is also important to address the ethical issues that anthropologists face when dissecting mummies from sites such as those in the Chinchorro culture. From an anthropologist perspective, collecting data about extinct cultures can be challenging. Sometimes important information contributing to our understanding of these societies can only be collected by dissection. The act of dismantling a body that has been intentionally preserved in an extinct society for the benefit of modern day is controversial. This could be represented as an action of disrespect to the bodies buried from past cultures. By applying the ethical term of utilitarianism, one could argue that dissection of the remains would yield the greatest amount of good to the most people in the form of present-day knowledge. Due to the anthropological duty to contribute to science, this method of investigation is often scientifically justified. Despite this understanding, it is essential to continue to utilize technology such as computer scanning in attempt to limit the destruction that anthropological exploration causes.

Egyptian Mummy being evaluated through a CT scan [12]

Non-invasive techniques such as MRI and X-ray have been studied as ways of conducting anthropological research on mummified bodies. The issue with these imaging techniques is the cost and time commitment required per body examination. In this regard, a physical autopsy of an uncovered body would prove to be a more efficient process. With increasing technology, devices such as the CAT scan have been able to collect information on the bony and soft tissue structures of a body, including degenerative disorders and dental diseases[13]. As technology continues to expand non-invasive research capabilities, physical dissection currently remains the “gold standard” of anthropological research.

Many anthropologists also believe that there should be a clear code of ethics to outline dissection principles. The implementation of an international mummy research protocol to address these ethical considerations would allow for uniformity among researchers. Specific dissection procedures, how much of a body can be dissected, and who has the authority to dissect bodies are all topics that those in favor of ethical conservation have expressed importance in outlining.[14] Body dissection has also previously been utilized for commercial purposes.

Although the process of Chinchorro mummification is understood, little is known about the background of the mummies. Studies of the climate during the time provided archaeologists with clues of what spurred the practice; the speculation churned out many theories. Prior to the start of the mummifying, the climate improved, leading to increased food and water supplies, which resulted in an increase in population growth of living and dead. The dry desert climate meant that the bodies did not decompose, and a need of corpse disposal arose.[15] [16]

The practice was not tied to class and Chinchorro mummies were not limited to the wealthy and privileged, but rather a practice that everyone was a part of. In contrast, mummification in ancient Egypt was connected to class as the process was very expensive so besides pharaohs, only nobility, officials and some commoners were mummified.[17] The elaborate process of ancient Egyptian mummification indicates that they were highly preoccupied with the afterlife.

The high costs are a result of the beliefs held by ancient Egyptians of the afterlife. The indicators of the Chinchorro burial rites and beliefs are nonexistent, while archaeologists have a relatively thorough understanding of the ancient Egyptian’s[18]. The burial rituals and symbols of the ancient Egyptians originated from the cult of Osiris, a popular god. The myth of Isis and Osiris influenced the practices and care taken to mummification. The care of a dead body was very elaborate and started even before the person had died. They believed that, with the proper rituals performed, the person would bring items to the Afterlife. This belief meant that prior to the death much had to be prepared. Many workers —craftsmen, artists, and others— are involved in tomb preparation to create the furniture, paintings, foods, and other essentials thought to be needed in the Afterlife.

Great care was taken of the corpse as well; maintaining the body was essential as it was one of the nine parts of the soul, the Khat, and linked to one’s identity and immortal soul. In comparison, the Chinchorro likely did not feel a similar connection between the corpse and the soul3, as the normalization of dissection and disregard for the corpses insides contrasts the care in preserving the organs and body present in ancient Egyptian rituals. In death, the Khat is essential in allowing two other parts, the Ka and Ba, to recognize each other post-release upon death. Such recognition was considered important since the Ka and Ba would be confused once released and need to find a familiar form to regroup by. Without this recognition, the spirits would be lost. [19]After this recollection of the spirits post-death, the body still remained an anchor as the Ka stayed in the tomb with the offerings, the Akh headed to the Afterlife after receiving the Final Judgement in the Underworld, and the Ba flew freely in and out of the tomb.

Due to the religious importance of some animals, humans were not the only mummies. Cats, baboons, bulls, crocodiles, and other animals were sometimes mummified, depending on the dynasty due to their association with certain ancient Egyptian gods. This contrasts Chinchorro mummies, which were all human. These animals were sometimes buried with people or given their own tombs.[20]

A fresco depicting a funeral procession [21]

Once the tomb and body were prepared, there still were rites to do to finalize the process. Egyptians of high status would have funeral processions to display their status. Among the participants were relatives (some of whom acted as Isis and Nephthys, the goddesses who were the chief mourners of Osiris’s death, while others preceded or followed the coffin), priests, hired mourners, dancers, and musicians. Some marchers carried the canopic jars containing preserved organs and other grave items. The procession would cross the Nile to the western bank, which was the favored burial location. At the opening of the tomb, special rites were performed by priests during the funeral ceremony to allow the dead enjoy the Afterlife. For example, the most important rite, the “Opening of the Mouth”, allowed the spirits to enjoy the senses had in life by ensuring the dead person could eat and speak in the Afterlife with a touch of a special instrument to the mouth. After these rites, the mummy was placed into the coffin(s) and the tomb was sealed.[22][23]

Comparing the ethical, scientific, and cultural aspects of Chinchorro and ancient Egyptian mummies allows us to understand the differences between the burial practices and beliefs between the civilizations that created the mummies discussed above. With two thousand years between the start of each of the practices, there are many similarities and differences between the two kinds of mummies. There is still much to learn about the Chinchorro and ancient Egyptian burial practices; as this comes to a close, the questions and wonders of the oldest and the most famous mummies are far from sealed.

Karahgan Munday

Heather Fowler

Michelle Zheng


[1]Bernardo T. Chungara Arriaza, “Arseniasis as an Environmental Hypothetical Explanation for the Origin of the Oldest Artificial Mummification Practice in the World,” ProQuest Central, vol.37(2005):255-260.

[2] Kate Lohnes, “That’s a Wrap: Methods of Mummification,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[3] DeAraujo, Vasanthakumar, Sepulveda, et al., “Investigation of the recent microbial degradation of the skin of the Chinchorro mummies of Ancient Chile,” Journal of Cultural Heritage, vol.22(2016):999-1005.

[4] DeAraujo, Vasanthakumar, Sepulveda, et al., “Investigation of the recent microbial degradation of the skin of the Chinchorro mummies of Ancient Chile,” Journal of Cultural Heritage, vol.22(2016):999-1005.

[5]Anthropology Outreach Office, “Egyptian Mummies,” Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

[6]Anthropology Outreach Office, “Egyptian Mummies,” Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

[7] Lizzie Wade, “Egyptian mummy DNA, at last,” Science, vol.356(2017):894.

[8] Allam, Thompson, Wann, et al., “Computed Tomographic Assessment of Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies,” Jama, vol.302(2009):2091-2094.

[9]  Jones, J., Higham, T., Chivall, D., et. al.. (2018). A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: Evidence for an ‘embalming recipe’ and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments. Journal of Archeological Science, 100, 191-200.


[10] Aufderheide, A., Muñoz, I., & Arriaza, B. T. ( 1993). Seven Chinchorro mummies and the Prehistory of the northern of Chile. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 91, 189– 201.

[11] Guillen, S. E. (1992). The chinchorro culture: Mummies and crania in the reconstruction of preceramic coastal adaptation in the south central andes (Order No. 9308327). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304017705).


[12]  Petrella E, Piciucchi S, Feletti F, Barone D, Piraccini A, Minghetti C, et al. (2016) CT Scan of Thirteen Natural Mummies Dating Back to the XVI-XVIII Centuries: An Emerging Tool to Investigate Living Conditions and Diseases in History. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0154349.

[13] Moissidou, D., Day, J., Shin, D. H., & Bianucci, R. (2015). Invasive versus non invasive methods applied to mummy research: Will this controversy ever be solved? BioMed Research International, 2015. doi:


[14]  Lacovara, P. & Baines, J. (2003). Mummification and mummies in ancient egypt. In C. D. Bryant & D. L. Peck Handbook of death & dying (pp. 819-828). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412914291.n81

[15] “Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile.” Choice Reviews Online33, no. 08 (1996). doi:10.5860/choice.33-4578.

[16] Arriaza, Bernardo T. “Chinchorro Bioarchaeology: Chronology and Mummy Seriation.” Latin American Antiquity6, no. 01 (1995): 35-55. doi:10.2307/971599.

[17] Agai, Jock M. “Resurrection Imageries: A Study of the Motives for Extravagant Burial Rituals in Ancient Egypt.” Verbum Et Ecclesia36, no. 1 (2015). doi:10.4102/ve.v36i1.1457.

[18] Lacovara, P. & Baines, J. (2003). Mummification and mummies in ancient egypt. In C. D. Bryant & D. L. Peck Handbook of death & dying (pp. 819-828). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412914291.n81


[19] Mark, Joshua J. “Mummification in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 14, 2017.

[20] Agai, Jock M. “Resurrection Imageries: A Study of the Motives for Extravagant Burial Rituals in Ancient Egypt.” Verbum Et Ecclesia36, no. 1 (2015). doi:10.4102/ve.v36i1.1457.

[21] “Egypt, Ancient Thebes, Luxor, Valley of Nobles, Tomb of Ramose, fresco depicting funeral procession.” In Bridgeman Images: DeAgostini Library, edited by Bridgeman Images. Bridgeman, 2014.


[22] Agai, Jock M. “Resurrection Imageries: A Study of the Motives for Extravagant Burial Rituals in Ancient Egypt.” Verbum Et Ecclesia36, no. 1 (2015). doi:10.4102/ve.v36i1.1457.

[23] Dodson, Aidan, and AIDAN DODSON. “Egypt, Ancient: Funeral Practices and Mummification.” In Encyclopedia of African History, edited by Kevin Shillington. Routledge, 2004.



Tibetan Air Burials as a Mode of “Green Burial”

Before going into the gruesome details of the process of Tibetan air burial, we will first dive deeper into the decomposition process that human bodies undergo after death.  During the first three days after death, the organs within the body start to decompose, a process called autolysis (self-digestion).  This process is initiated by the stopping of blood circulation as well as respiration, which means that the body has no way of taking in oxygen and letting out carbon dioxide, and therefore triggers the cell membranes of cells in the body to rupture and die.  Rigor mortis also starts to set in during the first three days, which is the stiffening of the muscles in the body after death.  Three to five days after death, the body starts to bloat up as the enzymes from the ruptured body cells start to create different gases and the bacteria in the body start to cause skin discoloration.  This is also around the time when the body starts to smell very unpleasant which is due to a process called putrefaction.  Each part of the body decomposes at different speeds, but a month after death, the body starts to liquify and all that remains in the hair, bones, and cartilage remain of the dead body.[i]

Air burials are done in a manner where the majority of the decomposition process is skipped and the body of the deceased person is eaten up and digested by vultures before it has time to decay on its own.  The process of a air burial starts as soon as someone passes away, and it starts with the body being kept in a sitting position for three days.  During the first 24 hours of “sitting,” the body is accompanied by a lama, which is a spiritual leader of the Tibetan tribes.  The lama recites prayers from the “Bardo Thodol,” which is a book of spiritual literature and prayers that are used during spiritual rituals, like the process of air burials.  After the three days of being in a sitting position, the body’s spine is broken, which makes it easier to carry the body to the burial site, called the dürtro, where the rest of the ritual will take place.  By this time, only the first part of decomposition has started, and the body has not started to smell unpleasant yet.  As the body is carried to the burial site, family members will usually follow and chant and play drums.  When they reach the burial site, the body is laid face down on the ground and juniper incense is burned to attract the vultures as the rogyapa, started to cut apart the body.  He first cuts off the hair on the body and then disembowels the body and cuts off the limbs.  After chopping the body into smaller chunks with an ax, the vultures are given time to eat the body of the deceased and leave the bones.  The rogyapa then takes the bones and pulverizes them and mixes the bone powder with barley flour so the even the bones can be consumed by the birds.  This is the conclusion of the air burial and it is considered to be successful when the entire body is consumed by the birds.[ii]

So why do the Tibetans use this ritual process in order to dispose of their dead bodies?  There are many different factors that may be in play here, but one of the biggest reasons why the Tibetans use air burial is the fact that they are totally incapable of burying their dead.  The “soil” of Tibet is just a layer of permafrost that is centimeters thick that lays on top of solid rock, which would be impossible to dig holes in.  Tibet also has a very limited number of trees, which is due to the fact that Tibet has a very high elevation and most of Tibet is above the tree line.  Therefore, Tibetans are unable to cremate their dead using fire and extreme heat.  Tibetans aren’t the only people who use the method of air burial.  There are also other cultures in parts of India and Iran, specifically the Zoroastrians, who also opted for air burials in order to “bury” their dead.  They believed that corpses are dirty and impure, and also able to be possessed by demons.  Therefore, they didn’t think it was appropriate to bury them and risk contamination of their water sources, or to cremate them and contaminate the air with the fumes/smoke of the dead bodies.  In Australia, certain tribes also performed a variation of air burial, where bodies would be put on raised platforms until only their bones were remaining, but this was mostly because of their fear of ghosts, and they thought that this process would keep the ghosts of the dead from haunting their villages.  Surprising, this ritualistic process was also used in America, specifically by the Native Americans, who put corpses in trees for up to two years before taking the remains down and burying them in the ground.[iii]

Air burials are significantly more environmentally friendly than ground burials and cremation when it comes to the different methods of getting rid of dead bodies.  Both ground burials and cremation processes have been proven to negatively influence the areas around where they take place.  Cremation, for instance, increases the air pollution around the crematories due to the smoke and fumes that they create from burning the bodies.  This increase in air pollution in these areas are proven to be caused by the crematories because the highest concentrations of air pollution are where it is closest to the crematories.[iv] Ground burials also cause problems for the people who live around burial sites.  They have been tested and proven to impact the groundwater around them when they aren’t in the most ideal conditions for decomposition, which is bad because people usually rely on groundwater for drinking water and water to use for cleaning and bathing.  This is a big health hazard since harmful pathogens could possibly be transported through the groundwater from the cemeteries where the dead bodies are buried.[v] On the other hand, air burials have no such implications because the body is being consumed by vultures in a matter of minutes and digested by the birds, which is a natural process that would occur with anything that a vulture would eat.

In understanding a custom such as air burials, it is imperative to view the custom in context of the culture in which it exists. In the case of Tibetan air burials, Tibetan Buddhism plays a primary role in the formation and continuation of the tradition. Without understanding Buddhist beliefs and the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, air burials may be gravely misunderstood.

Air burials are practiced in several regions around the world, but most notably, perhaps, in Tibet. The use of air burials’ time of origin in Tibet is unknown, but the custom was cited in the Book of the Dead, a 12th-century Buddhist work.[vi] The tradition is believed to have developed to satisfy Buddhist beliefs (most of the population follows Tibetan Buddhism) and as a practicality of disposing corpses in Tibet.

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet from India around the seventh century, but did not take hold as the major religion of Tibet until the ninth or tenth century.[vii] Today, over half of Tibet’s population follows Tibetan Buddhism. There are several different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, each with varying beliefs and practices, but the overall spiritual ideal of Tibetan Buddhism is “the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for all beings”.[viii] Prominent features of the tradition include its deities (qualities of enlightenment such as wisdom, compassion, etc.), meditation practices, and extensive teachings on death and dying.

Teachings on death and dying within the Buddhist tradition, specifically on one’s acceptance of death, focus on the idea of impermanence and non-attachment. Most Buddhist traditions stress the idea that one should not be attached to things in this world, because the nature of everything is temporary–impermanence is the only permanence.

Buddhists have a set of beliefs that surrounds physical death. At the time of death, the consciousness may take up to three and a half days to leave the body after physical death occurs (this refers to the cessation of all vital signs), according to the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.[ix] For this reason, many Tibetans believe the body should not be touched for at least three days, so as not to disturb the consciousness in its journey. The consciousness then moves into a state of bardo, where it awaits reincarnation. When juxtaposed with the custom of air burials, one can see how the Buddhist belief system aligns with features of the burials ceremonies.

The initial part of the actual ceremony involves dismembering the body. In most cultures, especially those of the western world, this practice may be viewed as vulgar or barbaric. For Buddhists, however, it signifies the impermanent nature of existence and the practice of non-attachment to the physical realm. To face death and other tragedies of life, one must understand and accept the impermanent nature of everything. Death is viewed as a transformation or transition, so it is approached with a sense of serenity. Since Buddhists also believe that consciousness continues after death, the body is not of much importance. Thus, the symbolism of breaking the body is more important than any emotional attachments to the physical body.

The second portion of the ceremony involves feeding the dismembered body to birds, usually vultures. This portion is symbolic of the Buddhist virtue of compassion for all beings. Feeding the body, which no longer has function for the person to which it belonged, to the birds serves as a final act of charity on behalf of the deceased–he or she is providing food for living beings.[x]

Several issues can arise regarding the morality and ethical reasonings behind Tibetan air burials. Cultural differences in general pose questions to how ethical air burials are because of a difference in values and morals between societies. One ethical issue regarding Tibetan air burials is the influence the Chinese have on the process. During the video entitled “Sky Burials: Traditional Becomes Controversial Tourist Attraction”, a member of the Tibetan Buddhists comments on the immoral display of actions by Chinese tourists who visited the sacred grounds to witness a burial.[xi] Whilst there, the camera captured multiple tourists laughing and joking about the process as if it were a show. Regarding ethics, this is observed as being extremely disrespectful and irreverent. While this practice is not a primary mode of burial in China, laughing at a dead body being eaten piece by piece by vultures as a religious and sacred ceremony may be deemed as highly unethical.[xii]

While many Chinese view the Tibetan air burials as possibly grotesque and brutish, the process is a religious ceremony. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the vultures are like angels who take the souls of the deceased to heaven where they then await reincarnation.[xiii] Therefore, scoffing and belittling the sacred ceremony is not only offensive to those present for the burial, but also to the recently deceased who is completely vulnerable and has no voice to defend themselves.

Although it is unethical to intrude on this religious ceremony and mock it, the Chinese have made several legislative adjustments in order to ensure the physical safety and health of the vultures. This legislation is in place to ban air burials for bodies which have been infected or diseased in order to attempt to protect the vultures involved in the practice. Through the Tibetan air burials, there have been many cases reported of vultures with unexplained death.[xiv] This can be viewed as unethical treatment to the parties involved, such as the vultures. Therefore, but introducing new legislation to hopefully reverse this occurrence.

Another ethical concern of Tibetan air burials is the process in general. To many in different cultures, this procedure could possibly be viewed as grotesque and inhumane. Ethically, some could say that this mutilation of a body and feeding to animals could be seen as a disrespectful act which doesn’t properly honor the recently deceased. However, in many cultures cremation serves as a similar practice for the disposing of the deceased. Whereas in the Tibetan Buddhist culture they carve the body of the deceased and allow the vultures to eat the pieces as a gateway to the afterlife, in other cultures, such as the American culture, it is a common procedure to cremate the deceased to where their remains are ashes.[xv] Although air burial seems very blunt and gruesome to some, possibly even unethical, in the Tibetan Buddhist religion it is merely a traditional ceremony to allow their loved ones to pass peacefully. Similarly, the environmental implications that result from cremation can be argued to be unethical with regards to environmental health, whereas air burials are free from emissions and therefore more environmentally friendly.

There is intersectionality between morality and culture regarding Tibetan air burial. What some cultures deem as unethical may in turn be completely ethical in another culture. This is the case with the Tibetan Buddhists and more Westernized cultures. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer as to how one should proceed to dispose of the deceased, however, there are cultural differences that make these questions more prevalent and highly discussed. While there are certain ethical issues or question that may arise in regards to Tibetan air burial, determining whether or not they are valid or not is frequently a subjective issue to discuss.


[i] “What Are the Four Stages of Human Decomposition?” Aftermath. 2017. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[ii] Lamb, Robert. “How Sky Burial Works.” HowStuffWorks. July 25, 2011. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[iii] Huygen, Meg Van. “Give My Body to the Birds: The Practice of Sky Burial.” Atlas Obscura. March 11, 2014. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[iv] Wang, Lin-Chi, Wen-Jhy Lee, Wei-Shan Lee, Guo-Ping Chang-Chien, and Perng-Jy Tsai. “Characterizing the Emissions of Polychlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins and Dibenzofurans from Crematories and Their Impacts to the Surrounding Environment.” Environmental Science & Technology37, no. 1 (2003): 62-67. doi:10.1021/es0208714.

[v] Oliveira, Bruna, Paula Quinteiro, Carla Caetano, Helena Nadais, Luís Arroja, Eduardo Ferreira Da Silva, and Manuel Senos Matias. “Burial Grounds’ Impact on Groundwater and Public Health: An Overview.” Water and Environment Journal27, no. 1 (June 29, 2012): 99-106. doi:10.1111/j.1747-6593.2012.00330.x.

[vi] “Sky Burial.” Wikipedia. February 19, 2019. Accessed April 09, 2019. – CITEREFMartin1991.

[vii] John Zijiang Ding. “A Comparative Study of Han and Tibetan Views of Death.” Brigham Young University. April 1 2016. Accessed March 21, 2019.

[viii] “Tibetan Buddhism.” The Buddhist Society: Tibetan Buddhism. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[ix] Sogyal, Patrick Gaffney, and Andrew Harvey. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider Books, 2017. I referenced “The Practices of Dying” and “The Process of Dying” from Part two of the book.

[x] Marinasohma. “Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead.” Ancient Origins. November 15, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[xi] Geographic, National. YouTube. February 06, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[xii] “Sky Burial in Tibet ,Tibetan Funeral Customs.” Tibet Travel and Tours – Tibet Vista. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[xiii] Carney, Matthew. “Stumbling upon Ritual of Feeding the Dead to Vulture ‘angels’.” ABC News. September 16, 2017. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[xiv] Beijing, Richard Spencer in. “China Clamps down on Tibetan Sky Burials.” The Telegraph. January 13, 2006. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[xv] “How Is Cremation Done?” Cremation Resource. Accessed April 09, 2019.



By Isabel Stellato, Sara McCown, and Josephine Lee

HIV/AIDS in the United States

The HIV/AIDS epidemic broke out in the 1980s and continues to impact individuals across the world today. In fact, Ross et al. noted that individuals diagnosed with HIV respond in ways similar to Kübler-Ross’s death and dying because HIV/AIDs was and is to an extent today still a diagnosis that is a threat to one’s life [1]. The immense HIV/AIDs epidemic can be better understood when looked at from the perspective of the patients who are infected and how society responded to these individuals. With this in mind, understanding the origin, transmission, and possible treatments of HIV/AIDs provides background as to nature of the disease and the prognosis that individuals face. Secondly, the prevalence of socioeconomic and minority disparities in HIV diagnosis and treatment contribute to the treatment of these individual patients. Lastly, an ethical perspective can be applied to early HIV testing methods, confidentiality surrounding patient diagnosis and care, and the stigma produced by religious beliefs to help explain the effects of these measures on the treatment of individual patients.

In the 1980s, the world began to see the initial signs of an epidemic. Early in the decade, reports increased of seemingly random and rare infectious diseases across the world, but it was not till the end of 1981 when the first case of HIV was medically diagnosed. These rare infectious diseases became more prevalent due to HIV/AIDS weakening individual’s immune systems. In the beginning, HIV was only understood to be viral, deadly, and highly contagious. Society quickly became aware of this new life-threatening illness and because little was known about the virus panic began to set in. Furthermore, with little information on the transmission of HIV, the rate of infected individuals began to grow exponentially. There were nearly 500 documented cases in 23 states within a year.  By 1993, there was estimated to be around 2.5 million documented cases of HIV/AIDs around the world. Then in 1995, AIDs became the leading cause of Death for Americans for ages 25 to 44 [2] .

Understanding the transmission of the virus was the first step in slowing down the increasing infection rate. Among new cases, there was a higher prevalence of diagnosis in homosexual and needle drug using communities. This clear correlation lead scientists to determine that HIV was spread through blood or bodily fluids [3]. Unprotected sex or sharing needles are two ways that individuals would directly come in contact with bodily fluids and thus increase their chance of being exposed to HIV [2]. Another possibility of transmission includes women who have HIV and them passing it to their baby either during pregnancy or through breast milk [3]. Learning how the virus was transmitted, allowed scientists to isolate the pathogen and perform further studies.

The impact of this virus on a patient’s body was crucial to the understanding the intensity of this epidemic and potentially developing a cure. The virus that causes HIV/AIDs infects the body’s T cells. More specifically, it infects CD4 cells that are responsible for the body’s immune response. These cells are critical in the body’s ability to fight off infection [3]. A lower CD4 count is correlated with a higher probability of infection. Although Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDs) are caused by the same virus, it is important to note that there is a distinction between them. An individual is diagnosed with HIV once the virus can be detected in their system. Without treatment, HIV progresses into the final stage of the disease called AIDS. AIDS is when the body is no longer able to fend off outside diseases and infections. Medically, this is characterized by a patient having one or more infections and a T cell count of less than 200. To compare, a healthy immune system has anywhere from 500 to 1600 T cells [3]. Once the origin of the virus was understood, scientists were able to work on treatments and potential cures to aid individuals living with this terminal illness.

Today, roughly 1.1 million people in the US alone have HIV, and an estimated 162,500 are unaware of their condition [3]. Due to the widespread impact of HIV/AIDS, an effective treatment or potentially a cure is crucial. In 1987, one of the first antiviral drugs called zidovudine (AZT) was approved to successfully treat HIV. Now over 25 antiviral drugs have been developed and approved to prevent transmission and spread of HIV and its progression to AIDS [4].

Figure 1 demonstrates that taking effective HIV treatment can increase HIV positive individual’s life expectancy from 32 years to 71 years. [5]

The root of every successful HIV treatment is to preserve the patient’s immune system. This is done by stopping the rapid replication of the HIV virus within a patient’s T-cells [2]. The virus can be suppressed by combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) that contains three active drugs from two or more different drug classes [4]. Using treatment as prevention approach can significantly decrease the rate of newly infected individuals and as a whole control the HIV epidemic. This system involves frequent universal testing and initiating ART drugs early after diagnosis. Treatment at any stage of the HIV infection significantly decreases the rate of viral load across the population of individuals living with HIV [6].

In addition, drugs were created in order to protect individuals that were seen as a high risk to exposure to the virus [4].  A drug called Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a daily dose of HIV medications to prevent them from getting infected [3]. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is an antiretroviral medicine to prevent people from becoming infected after being potentially exposed to HIV. PrEP should be used 72 hours after a recent possible exposure. For all these medications, the treatment is only effective when used exactly as instructed and taken at specific times [2]. The development of these drugs in society have allowed individuals with HIV to live long healthy lives. Furthermore, they have allowed people who do not have HIV to engage in healthy sexual relationships with HIV + people. Although these drugs are available today, universal access to them is not guaranteed.

Unfortunately, there is a correlation in HIV/AIDs diagnosis in those affected and socioeconomic and minority disparities. HIV has frequently been a disease associated with social and economic inequality due to the high proportion of individuals with a lower socioeconomic status having tested HIV positive [7]. For instance, experts claim that “some African American and Hispanic/Latino communities experience high rates of sexually transmitted infections, poverty,  and incarceration as well as low levels of socioeconomic status and education” [8]. This statement attributes that the main disparity between minority groups is due to different socioeconomic status and education. Additionally, it has been confirmed that the individual risk behaviors associated with contracting HIV such as having unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners do not justify the differing percentages of HIV infection in various ethnic groups [8]. This large variation can be attributed to the difference in the social and structural environments in which risk behaviors occur [xx]. Unfortunately, those with constricted economic opportunities are more likely to engage in riskier sexual practices in order to survive making these individuals more at risk for becoming HIV positive [7].

In Figure 2 above, the relationship between HIV prevalence and income is demonstrated indicating a trend. This trend concludes that as an individual’s income decreases HIV prevalence increases [9].

With limited resources, individuals with lower socioeconomic status have limited health care and transportation which contribute to the high percentage of women who are HIV positive [7]. With increased rates of poverty, many individuals are less educated causing them to potentially engage in unsafe sexual habits without the knowledge of how to prevent contracting various diseases [8].

Additionally, due to the association of HIV with different minority groups, many HIV positive individuals who are of racial minorities are challenged with various types of HIV stigma which contribute to increase psychological distress within these individuals [8]. This disease continues to be one of the most “stigmatizing illnesses in the United States” due to “attitudes within and about racial minority communities are typically disparaging of HIV” [8].  In some extreme instances, employers who obtained the knowledge that job applicant had HIV would not hire them due to the belief that they were somehow incompetent and would not be able to fully complete the expectations required of the occupation [7]. This prevents individuals who have HIV from obtaining a job; thereby, worsening their economic situation further which may force them to return to unsafe sexual practices which would continue to spread the disease even further. These stigmas surrounding HIV can be lessened with increased awareness regarding HIV to the public. Another suggestion to improve the treatment of those with HIV is to implement methods to advance viral suppression among minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanics. For example, providing more accessible resources would diminish viral suppression and the likelihood of HIV transmission [8].

Additionally, lower education has been associated with increased HIV; therefore, scholars strive to reduce this by implementing school-based programs that have been proven to reduce risky sexual behavior and prevent HIV in numerous areas [7]. Hopefully, these measures will not only help reduce unfair treatment of those with HIV but also the prevalence of the disease itself due to the fact that “four of the eleven counties in the lowest unemployment quartile had the lowest unemployment rate” implying that as unemployment increases the persistence of HIV increases as well [9].

The large disparities between socioeconomic groups and the association of HIV positive individuals have created a cultural gap due to the different ways in which people from various social classes think [10]. In essence, class plays a huge role in the development of specific cultures. Culture can be de defined as “the values, rules, norms, religions, scientific theories, and symbols that can be identified in a society”; therefore, socioeconomic divisions strongly influence a society’s culture and must be considered when analyzing different cultures [11]. When there are large disparities in the prevalence of a disease between socioeconomic groups, assumptions begin to arise between the two social classes conveying a sense of resentment or dislike [13]. In order to reduce the stigma associated with HIV positive individuals, one must consider how the culture of that particular society influences the way in which different social classes not only interact but also think. HIV needs to be made more aware of in communities which would help reduce the cultural connotation implied when discovering that an individual has aids. Additionally, there continues to be a disparity in the availability of HIV testing resources that contribute to the growth of stigmatization within certain underprivileged socioeconomic groups.

Due to the stigmatization of the disease, in part related to the socioeconomic divisions, many people avoid being tested due to the lack of resources that are available within certain socioeconomic groups and due to the psychological factors associated with the diagnosis. However, slightly less than half of those infected with HIV are unaware of their status, so early HIV testing has become increasingly more important in our society today, even if it may cause damage to one’s social relationships [13]. Current legislation in Connecticut and New York requires mandatory testing for HIV in newborns, which indirectly reveals the mother’s status with respect to the disease [14]. This legislation brings forward an ethical debate over whether testing should be mandatory at birth due to the severity of the disease. Even though mandatory testing is a part of the law, it is still a breach of the individual’s informed consent because children may be tested without the parents’ knowledge or consent. Testing after birth provides the parents with knowledge about the baby’s HIV status, allowing them to immediately begin treatment to help their children live healthier and longer lives if their child is HIV positive. However, there is no universal cure for the disease and the knowledge that a child is HIV positive can be burdensome on the parents, who may not wish to care for or may not have the resources to properly care for a child with a terminal illness. Recommended testing for pregnant women would resolve the majority of these issues. If HIV testing were to become a routine part of prenatal care, women would not be required to specifically consent to the HIV test, but they would still be informed that the test would be conducted [15]. Early diagnosis of the disease leads to a better response to treatment and a reduced chance of transmission to others [13]. Thus, the parents and the child could benefit from prenatal testing instead of testing after birth. Also, if tests were performed prenatally, the parents of the child would be able to decide if they wanted to go through with or terminate the pregnancy. Many ethical issues can be raised in relation to recommended testing for HIV. If the screenings become frequent and routine, the woman may not realize she has the autonomy to opt out [15]. Additionally, routine testing raises issues of confidentiality over the baby’s and mother’s HIV status, which could result in social or marital isolation due to the stigmatization of the disease. However, due to the severity of the disease, many the US Public Health Service (USPHS) and many physicians recommend that prenatal testing for HIV become a routine part of prenatal screening [15].

Figure 3 shows that mothers who discussed HIV testing with their prenatal care doctor, were more likely to receive testing before or after birth [16].

The psychological factors associated with the disease result from the stigma surrounding the disease that affects the individual. Stigma surrounding HIV has existed since the initial outbreak when the disease became known as “gay-related immune deficiency” because members of the gay community made up the majority of those infected with HIV [18]. Not only is the gay community affected by the disease, but many other marginalized social groups that face the greatest discrimination are greatly affected by the disease. Many scholars believe religion is the driver of the marginalization of these communities affected by HIV [18]. This raises the question – can religion ethically be used as a morally sound basis for discrimination toward those infected with HIV? After the initial outbreak, many religious leaders immediately identified HIV with the gay community and took the position that God was punishing them for their sins associated with being homosexual [19]. Even though there was significant evidence that the disease could be spread by heterosexuals, many religions saw the disease as a way to marginalize homosexuals and to communicate that being homosexual was a sin according to God [19]. These religious leaders used the moral principle of fidelity to demonstrate how their hatred toward the gay community stemmed from their faith in God. However, these leaders lacked the moral principle of veracity because they denied that heterosexuals were also affected by the disease, even though there was sufficient evidence to support this fact. Even though these religious leaders adhered to some of the basic moral principles, they lack support from ethical principles like nonmaleficence, which suggests that one should inflict the least amount of harm possible. The religious leaders and their followers created a stigma for HIV/AIDS that continues to cause harm to marginalized communities. Many people refuse to get tested because of the social implications that become associated with the individual who has the disease and others keep their diagnosis a secret in fear of becoming a social outcast.

The health professional’s duty to keep patient information about HIV diagnosis secret has created some ethical dilemmas about confidentiality. Currently, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) governs the rules about HIV testing and treatment confidentiality [19]. However, there are issues with HIV-infected patients refusing to disclose their condition to their partners, and health professionals are legally required to refrain from intervening. In one example, a 37-year-old man infected with HIV was having unprotected sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend. When a clinic worker attempted to convince him to tell his girlfriend, the man responded that telling her would destroy his dream of getting married and having children [19]. Under the ethical principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence, the health professional should have been able to inform the man’s girlfriend of his condition so that she and her potential children would not be affected by the severe disease. Unfortunately, health professionals are not always able to act strictly on ethical principles because of certain laws and regulations.

Through the progression of our scholarly analysis, it becomes evident that HIV/AIDS is a complex disease. A consideration of the scientific, social, and ethical factors surrounding the disease allows us to gain a complex understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as it pertains to the individual. Although HIV/AIDS is a terminal diagnosis that an individual face, the initial outbreak, and resulting repercussions impact society as a whole. Furthermore, these effects and implications of the disease are still prevalent in our society today. In the future, it will require widespread support in order to reduce the number of transmissions and stigmatizations associated with infected individuals.

Sabrina Deweerdt

Elena Wilson

Hannah Weisbecker


[1] Schweitzer, Ana-Maria. Mizwa, Michael. Ross, Michael. “Psychosocial Aspects of HIV/AIDS: Adults,” In HIV Curriculum for Health Professional, 334-349. Baylor College of Medicine, 2010.

[2] Public Health. “HIV and AIDS: an origin story.”

[3] NIDA. “Drug Use and Viral Infections (HIV, Hepatitis).” National Institute on Drug Abuse, April 23 2018, infections-hiv-hepatitis

[2] Public Health. “HIV and AIDS: an origin story.”

[3] NIDA. “Drug Use and Viral Infections (HIV, Hepatitis).” National Institute on Drug Abuse, April 23 2018, infections-hiv-hepatitis

[3] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cihlar, Tomas. Fordyce, Marshall “Current Status and Prospects of HIV treatment,” Current Opinion in Virology, vol. 18, 50-56, (June 2016),

[5] The Center for Disease Control.Web. HIV Medicines Help People with HIV Live Longer (Average Years of Life). January 2019.

[2] Public Health. “HIV and AIDS: an origin story.”

[4] Cihlar, Tomas. Fordyce, Marshall “Current Status and Prospects of HIV treatment,” Current Opinion in Virology, vol. 18, 50-56, (June 2016),

[6] Wilson, David P. 2012. “HIV Treatment as Prevention: Natural Experiments Highlight Limits of Antiretroviral Treatment as HIV Prevention.” PLoS Medicine 9 (7) (07): e1001231. doi:

[4] Cihlar, Tomas. Fordyce, Marshall “Current Status and Prospects of HIV treatment,” Current Opinion in Virology, vol. 18, 50-56, (June 2016),

[6] Wilson, David P. 2012. “HIV Treatment as Prevention: Natural Experiments Highlight Limits of Antiretroviral Treatment as HIV Prevention.” PLoS Medicine 9 (7) (07): e1001231. doi:

[4] Cihlar, Tomas. Fordyce, Marshall “Current Status and Prospects of HIV treatment,” Current Opinion in Virology, vol. 18, 50-56, (June 2016),

[7] Tenkorang, Eric Y., and Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor. “Individual- and School-Level Correlates of HIV Testing among Secondary School Students in Kenya” Population Council, [no. 2].

[8] McCree, Donna H. et al. “An Approach to Achieving the Health Equity Goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States Among Racial/Ethnic Minority Communities” Sage, [no. 4].

[8] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[7] Tenkorang, Eric Y., and Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor. “Individual- and School-Level Correlates of HIV Testing among Secondary School Students in Kenya” Population Council, [no. 2].

[9] CDC Study Reports Poverty Among Minorities Doubles HIV Infection Rate. Figure 2. July 18, 2018. Web. Conference Report.

[7] Tenkorang, Eric Y., and Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor. “Individual- and School-Level Correlates of HIV Testing among Secondary School Students in Kenya” Population Council, [no. 2].

[8] McCree, Donna H. et al. “An Approach to Achieving the Health Equity Goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States Among Racial/Ethnic Minority Communities” Sage, [no. 4].

[8] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[7] Tenkorang, Eric Y., and Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor. “Individual- and School-Level Correlates of HIV Testing among Secondary School Students in Kenya” Population Council, [no. 2].

[8] McCree, Donna H. et al. “An Approach to Achieving the Health Equity Goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States Among Racial/Ethnic Minority Communities” Sage, [no. 4].

[7] Tenkorang, Eric Y., and Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor. “Individual- and School-Level Correlates of HIV Testing among Secondary School Students in Kenya” Population Council, [no. 2].

[9] Fede, Ana L. et al. “Spatial Visualization of Multivariate Datasets: An Analysis of STD and HIV/AIDS Diagnosis Rates and Socioeconomic Context Using Ring Maps” Sage, [no. 3].

[10] “Social Class as a Culture” Association for Psychological Science.

[11] Gabrenya, W. K., “Culture and Social Class” Research Skills for Psychology Majors: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started.

[12] “HIV/AIDs and Socioeconomic Status” American Psychological Association.

[13] Evangeli, Michael, Kirsten Pady, and Abigail L. Wroe. “Which Psychological Factors Are Related to HIV Testing? A Quantitative Systematic Review of Global Studies.” AIDS and Behavior 20, no. 4 (2015): 880-918. doi:10.1007/s10461-015-1246-0.

[14] Wolf, Leslie E., and Bernard Lo. “Comprehensive, Up-to-date Information on HIV/AIDS Treatment and Prevention from the University of California San Francisco.” Ethical Dimensions of HIV/AIDS. (2001).

[15] Hlongwa, P. “Current Ethical Issues in HIV/AIDS Research and HIV/AIDS Care.” Oral Diseases 22 (2016): 61-65. doi:10.1111/odi.12391.

[13] Evangeli, Michael, Kirsten Pady, and Abigail L. Wroe. “Which Psychological Factors Are Related to HIV Testing? A Quantitative Systematic Review of Global Studies.” AIDS and Behavior 20, no. 4 (2015): 880-918. doi:10.1007/s10461-015-1246-0.

[15] Hlongwa, P. “Current Ethical Issues in HIV/AIDS Research and HIV/AIDS Care.” Oral Diseases 22 (2016): 61-65. doi:10.1111/odi.12391.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Center for Disease Control. Figure 1. May 21, 1999. Web. Prenatal Discussion of HIV Testing and Maternal HIV Testing — 14 States, 1996-1997.

[17] Courtenay–Quirk, Cari, Richard J. Wolitski, Jeffrey T. Parsons, and Cynthia A. Gómez. “Is HIV/AIDS Stigma Dividing the Gay Community? Perceptions of HIV–positive Men Who Have Sex With Men.” AIDS Education and Prevention 18, no. 1 (2006): 56-67. doi:10.1521/aeap.2006.18.1.56.

[18] Blevins, John B., Mohamed F. Jalloh, and David A. Robinson. “Faith and Global Health Practice in Ebola and HIV Emergencies.” American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 3 (2019): 379-84. doi:10.2105/ajph.2018.304870.

[19] Heimer, Carol A. “‘Wicked’ Ethics: Compliance Work and the Practice of Ethics in HIV Research.” Social Science & Medicine 98 (2013): 371-78. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.10.030.

[19] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.


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