Culture and a Man’s Dying Wish

A man dies. His community’s culture deems that he be buried in holy ground lest the community suffer some catastrophe. He, having always been at odds with his community on this point, has left a provision in his will that he be cremated and his ashes scattered into the ocean. The body waits in the hospital while the community debates the issue. What is to be done?
The elders have asked for a moral opinion. What is one to say? If the belief that the man must be buried is one deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of the community, then a decision to cremate him would cause an uproar. On the other hand, if there are some who sympathize with the man, either decision might cause a schism within the community. The ultimate action would have to depend on much more than the culture’s belief about burial. It would have to take into account the culture’s beliefs on individual rights, freedom of belief, and the validity of the man’s will. It would also have to take into account the moral implications of carrying out a man’s dying wish and the repercussions of violating a sacred social institution. This is not a decision to be taken lightly, but by stepping back and weighing the options carefully, one can come to a conclusion which would be the most moral given the situation. I say most moral because there really is no right choice here. Any ac!
tion taken will most definitely be wrong to at least one group of people. Here no plea can be made to universal morality because neither belief in its specific sense appeals to any pure moral intuition. People on the other side of the world might have neither the belief that the man should be buried, nor the belief that his ashes should be spread. Each person’s choice would be too influenced by his own cultural morality, and so nobody would really have a right to judge.
Were I to be asked for an opinion on this matter, I feel I would have no authority in my response. It is really the community’s…


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