Competing Discourses on Life and Death

A morgue

According to this news story from a few years ago, a “living” man from Ohio was legally ruled “dead”:

A US man declared dead after he disappeared nearly three decades ago cannot now be declared officially alive, though he has returned home and is in good health, a judge has ruled.

Donald Miller of Ohio left behind a wife, two children and significant debt when he fled his home in 1986.

He was declared legally dead in 1994, then re-emerged in 2005 and attempted to apply for a driving license.

A judge this week found death rulings cannot be overturned after three years.

Judge Allan Davis handed down the ruling in Hancock County, Ohio, probate court on Monday, calling it a “strange, strange situation”, according to media reports.

“We’ve got the obvious here. A man sitting in the courtroom, he appears to be in good health,” he said, finding that he was prevented by state law from declaring Mr Miller legally alive.

“I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”

What we have seems to be a case of competing discourses. If this man went to the hospital, it seems unlikely that the doctors would direct him to the morgue. On the other hand, from the court’s perspective he is dead and thus not eligible to get a driver’s license.

Given that he is medically alive, on what grounds, then, does the court find him to be dead? When we include the concerns of the IRS, Child Services, and the Social Security Administration, the plot thickens:

By 1994, Mr Miller’s back child support payments amounted to more than $25,000 … and the family had heard no word from him.

With Mr Miller declared dead, his “widow” was entitled to Social Security death benefits to support their children.

As Mr Miller remains legally deceased, Ms Miller does not have to return those funds to the government.

It remains unclear if she would have been able to collect back child support had he been declared living.

In A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, I suggested that rather than ask questions of authenticity — is this man authentically alive or authentically dead — it is better to ask “(1) who is identified by (2) whom as (3) what, and (4) with what effects” (161).

Here it’s quite clear:

(1) This man identifies (2) himself as (3) alive, with the hope that (4) he can get a driver’s license.

(1) This man’s former wife identifies (2) him as (3) dead, with the hope that (4) she does not have to repay his social security benefits paid out to her by the state.

However, we can ask the further question: whose identity claim is authoritative? Here it appears that his ex-wife’s lawyers were successful in persuading the state to authorize her claim rather than his claim. Not surprisingly, authoritative institutions can always trump common sense; even though the judge said the man appears “in good health,” the institution of the law — or at least those parts of it that assign the determination of “death” for legal purposes — is authoritatively binding. While it’s an unusual story, it’s not difficult to understand.

Compare, then, this case to last year’s story about a “200-year-old Buddhist monk [who was] found mummified in Mongolia,” and ruled to be “still alive … and nearing a state of Nirvana.” In this case, it appears much the same is going on: an authoritative institution — in this case, a Mongolian Buddhist monastery — can rule that the “Lama is sitting in the lotus position vajra, the left hand is opened, and the right hand symbolises of the preaching Sutra …. This is a sign that the Lama is not dead, but is in a very deep meditation according to the ancient tradition of Buddhist lamas.” With what consequence? The man who found the body cannot sell it on the black market, despite the fact that it might have earned him an “enormous sum.”

Competing discourses on life and death

So despite what may appear here to be “self-evident”, i.e., Mr. Miller’s apparent vitality or the Lama’s post-mortem mummification, the persistent question remains: Who has the authority to make claims, about whom, and to what end? Instead of refereeing the opposing truth claims being presented in each of these examples, we should look to the strategic moves being made and the implications such moves have. As it turns out, these competing claims about authoritative discourses are more often tied to varying material interests rather than notions of truth. In looking at these examples as discourses on authority, we can begin to see strategic moves being made — and not self-evident claims — by groups with (sometimes) competing interests at stake in much larger social agendas.


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