Our Ethical Obligations to the Dead

A code of ethics is a guide for dealing with other people even after the other person is dead. That’s particularly true when it comes to the right of privacy, though it can be a lot harder to figure out where to draw the line when the other person isn’t around to tell you.

I found myself contemplating this dilemma after reading Pat Barker’s novel, Toby’s Room. (If you plan to read it, you might not want to continue with this entry because I’m going to give away some important developments.)

Barker’s novel, like her wonderful trilogy Regeneration, is set in England during the First World War. Toby is a doctor sent to the front, where he meets a mysterious end. His family is told he is “missing and presumed dead,” but that’s not enough for his sister, who needs to find out for sure whether her brother is alive. She tracks down Kit, a soldier who seems to know but won’t tell. She enlists a mutual friend, Paul, and Kit finally relents and describes the key events, letting Paul decide whether to tell the family.

It turns out that one night Kit had discovered Toby having sex with a stable boy, an abuse of his position and grounds for a dishonorable discharge. Kit tells the chaplain, who tells the commanding officer, who gives Toby a choice: Face public disgrace and humiliate your family or do the honorable thing—kill yourself.

Toby opts for suicide, in front of Kit no less. An ensuing bombardment means his body is never recovered and Kit tells no one. That leads to the “missing and presumed dead” note to the family.

Kit reasons that a man willing to kill himself to spare his family public disgrace is entitled to have his wishes honored; let his family go on being ignorant. But Paul decides that Toby’s sister needs to know and can handle it, and he proceeds to tell her. She is able to handle it and the news lets her get on with her life, but she never considers telling her parents.

Did Paul have the right to make that decision? Did Toby’s suicide earn him the right to a coverup of his abuse of authority? The questions are complicated by the circumstances. Toby could have committed suicide without witnesses (he had other, less-than-noble reasons to involve Kit). And Toby’s sister had a particularly strong need to know what happened and never judged her brother (Paul was right about that).

I think Kit and Paul made the right decisions in this particular fictional case, but it got me thinking about the right to privacy after death in other circumstances. Author Jill Morrow wrote an intriguing blog recently about famous people who keep journals or diaries that become public after their death, but she also raised the question of whether family members should even read those journals.

A friend found letters her parents had written each other sixty years before their deaths and struggled over whether it was appropriate to read them.

In my novel Hawke’s Point (set to be published next year), a widow finds a large sealed envelope hidden in her husband’s underwear drawer. She anguishes over whether to open it.

My own view is that respecting other people’s privacy is a paramount ethical principle that ought to be as important after death as before. You’d need a pretty compelling reason to violate it. Those who keep journals ought to leave specific instructions on whether they can be read after death, but if they don’t, the journals ought to be burned. Ditto with mysterious envelopes, although there’s a risk there that the surviving family members will think the contents worse than they are (better not to leave secrets where they can be found). And what about I won’t condemn the suspicious spouse who can’t resist checking his wife’s cellphone, but I’d certainly urge him not to.

There’s a message here for all of us, steps to be taken before we end up being the silent deceased. Think about the mysteries you may leave behind. Communicate your wishes as well as you can. And take all possible steps so those who survive you won’t face a difficult problem.

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One thought on “Our Ethical Obligations to the Dead

  1. Pingback: Edith Wharton's Letters – Late Last Night Books

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