War. Genocide. Pandemics. Heat. Famine. Racism. Misogyny. Hunger. Violence.
There are so many ways for mortal beings to die, especially the most vulnerable, and too often these deaths are state sponsored, sped by capitalism, and/or preventable. We — humans and nonhumans alike — live in deadly times on an imperiled planet, a nightmare of our own making.
And yet, despite repeated warnings about impending catastrophe and a robust and visible climate movement, humans (at least some of us) march on as if we are immune to extinction, or even harm. Some of us believe that we are exceptional, smarter and stronger than the world imploding around us, and this seems to apply especially to the very wealthy and those whose livelihoods are built on resource extraction and the labor of others.
It is past time for a wake-up call, because the bodies are piling up — literally.
Humans have long buried or cremated our dead individually or in small groups, marking the disposal of bodies with solemn ceremonies. These rituals simultaneously showcase the uniqueness of the individual and their connections to family, community, and land. Such rituals, laden with cultural and spiritual meanings, are intimate and integral parts of the grieving process. They also embody at least part of what it means to be human.
Anonymous burials and cremations have been reserved for rare occasions. In the absence of financial resources or loved ones to grieve, the dead may be buried in Potter’s fields with unmarked or even shared graves. In some cemeteries, areas are set aside for deceased infants who are either unknown or whose families could not afford gravestones. These burial grounds are sometimes called “babyland,” and they are heartbreaking.
Sometimes, the number of the dead overwhelm the capacities of the living to adequately process bodies. Then, mass graves are created, often by genocidal regimes who have already discounted both the lives and deaths of the individuals, brutally so. When a new regime takes over, resources may be devoted to exhuming mass burial sites, identifying remains, and re-burying bodies in a more individualized and solemn manner.
Such practices of recovering the dead are deeply political and often highly politicized. They make for compelling histories, excellent primetime soundbites, and evocative photographs. Yet they rarely make for systemic change, because there is always another cruel regime, fascist dictator, or grasping industrialist just around the corner. Spectacle over substance, profit over persons.
But what if the dead outpace our capacity to create even anonymous mass graves, much less individualized mourning experiences?
This happened at the end of the Holocaust, when bodies were stacked throughout death camps waiting to be incinerated, buried, or reburied to hide evidence. Corpses were piled indiscriminately and cruelly, and their discovery contributed to the horror experienced when the camps were liberated. Many asked: How could the Nazis kill so many? How could human beings have been so appallingly treated? How could human remains have been handled in such an impersonal and dehumanized way?
During other mass death events, such as the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004, corpses were stacked and mass graves trenched. Some 226,000 people perished, the majority in Indonesia. There was simply no time or capacity for more individualized rites: “No attempt is made to identify them. They are just dumped 30 at a time on trucks and taken off to one of several mass graves that are being dug just outside the city.”
Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, in cities around the world mobile morgues were deployed as dead bodies began accumulating. Often these bodies were carefully identified and marked, and they later received individualized burials or cremations. But there were exceptions. Shipping containers were deployed to house bodies when morgues became full, but these too quickly reached capacity. In Peru, bodies were haphazardly dumped in a mass grave outside the city of Iquitos; families continue to push for identification and burial.
Of course, corpses are not always stacked. They may also be dumped into rivers, as during the Rwandan genocide or in India during the worst days of COVID, to be swept away by the current and to become the problem of those living downstream. Again, the spectre of depersonalized and dehumanized disposal of the dead is shocking to our sensibilities, fostering existential and political questions about how we manage and mark death.
Indeed, it is easy to assume that such practices are rare, or faraway in time and place, such as in the Paris Catacombs or the battlefields of Verdun and the Somme during WWI. Human ossuaries, we believe, are relegated to the historical record, or to the tourist gaze. Most of us, especially in the Global North, assume we will have an individualized funeral or memorial, and so will our family members. We cannot be sure, though, as we will be dead, the fate of our bodies in the hands of those who survive.
It is increasingly obvious, at least to us as social scientists, that the future may be littered not only with garbage, but with stacked corpses. Our interest in this gruesome topic is grounded in our profound concern for the planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. With scholarly expertise in human rights, bodies, mortality, inequality, and power — and as the parents of two young adult daughters — we are not only worried, we are furious about the current state of affairs.
Scientists now predict, at minimum, a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in global warming by 2050. We are ever more aware of what this will look like with sea-level rise as glaciers melt. Loss of tundra will release methane and destroy mangroves that are such well-designed capturers of carbon. We now have lived knowledge of extreme weather events that will become common even before 2050, including massive droughts, wildfires, heat, and flooding. Hurricanes are becoming more severe and more frequent, showing up in unusual geographies, such as Southern California, which recently experienced what some pundits termed a “hurriquake.”
These weather events are exacerbating existing conflicts and inequalities while creating new ones. We should assume that climate-related conflicts will only become more frequent, more intractable, and more deadly. And all of this will occur at an accelerating pace up to 2050, and then worsen thereafter. We should begin to question our funerary expectations, as we are already — or should be — questioning the terms of our existence on Earth. To be clear, the “we” in this paragraph (as throughout this essay) is highly diverse and stratified, with some communities at greater risk and with far more to lose than others.
Catastrophe is relative to how one has lived, though no less disruptive if one has not lived well than if one has lined one’s bathrooms in expensive marble. Trauma can affect anyone, and neither money nor power will soften the blow. Though lack of money and power almost invariably makes things worse. Poor people get sicker and die quicker than those with financial resources. The majority of poor people in the world are girls and women, who are vulnerable to gender-based violence alongside other catastrophes.
The global community has become fairly adept at staving off the worst outcome of humanitarian disasters, human mortality. When nearly one million Rohingya refugees in 2017 were subject to ethnic cleansing and forced to flee from Myanmar into Bangladesh, the world community, led by the Bangladeshi government, the U.N., and NGOs, responded collaboratively to meet the basic needs of the Rohingya, thereby preventing a mass death event.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the global community responded with massive amounts of aid to help hundreds of thousands of refugees. Yet, thousands of Ukranians (and Russians) are dead as a result of the ongoing conflict. As widespread mass graves are discovered in areas that the Russian military formerly controlled, forensics experts have been called in to identify human remains and to assist with the reburial and memorialization process.
Since we began writing this essay, numerous additional disasters have occurred, including a devastating wildfire on Maui. Lahaina is nearly gone, reduced to rubble. More than 100 are dead and more than 1,000 still missing. Many survivors have nowhere to go; some hope to travel to other parts of Hawaii or off-island to family and friends. Damage is estimated at $6 billion, but the emotional toll is “incalculable.” Even worse, water was in short supply to fight the fires due to what locals call “plantation disaster capitalism.” This is not only heartrending, it is criminal.
In the past two months, a brutal civil war has broken out in Sudan’s capital between rival military leaders and has unleashed renewed fighting between ethnicities and warlords in fragile places like Darfur. The bodies are stacking up. In lieu of the normal community grieving and careful attention to the body, mass graves are dug and makeshift funerals held with the few mourners present worried about coming under attack.
What if multiple such conflicts such as those described above occur at the same time? What about five or 10 such events? Would the global community be able to react? What happens when — not if — another pandemic occurs, one worse than COVID, concurrent with severe weather events and armed conflict? This is in addition to predicted natural disasters, such as earthquakes or the expected eruptions of large volcanoes, or the increasingly likely use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, or another Fukushima.
What if one “hurriquake” or wildfire or war or genocide becomes many, all over the world, all at the same time?
Simultaneous mass death events will outstrip our collective capacity to respond. Local communities, states, regions, and entire countries will be overwhelmed, and the global community is likely to fracture even more than it has. The center cannot hold in the face of such massive quantities of loss and devastation. At repeated times in the next two to three decades, or possibly even years, we will need to cope with numerous mass death events simultaneously. And these occasions of global mass mortality will follow one another at an accelerating pace.
Though stacking corpses may seem far removed from us in time and place, it is highly likely that many people reading this essay, who rarely if ever touch a dead body, will be engaged in handling and stacking corpses at some point in the future. Perhaps more likely, it will be our corpses that will be stacked alongside hundreds of others. We will be meatsacks, dehumanized and deindividualized in death. Instead of solemn ceremonies or joyful remembrances, our corpses will be disposed of in the most expedient way possible, with little time for ceremony or space to grieve.
This is our shared future, one in which all — even the wealthy and privileged — will be denied refuge by changing global conditions. It is little wonder that 21st-century billionaires seek new futures in outer space. Ignorance will not save us, nor will elite gated communities, nor will continuing down the science-denying path of climate skepticism. The COVID pandemic was a grim preview of what is still to come. If all of this sounds terrifying, it is. Reasonable humans should be worried sick about Earth’s future, and consequently our own.
Time is running out.
William Paul Simmons, Ph.D. is Director of the Human Rights Practice Program at the University of Arizona and writes frequently on human rights issues. His most recent book is “Joyful Human Rights,” published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Monica J. Casper, Ph.D. is a sociologist at San Diego State University and Special Assistant to the President on Gender-Based Violence. Her most recent book is “Babylost: Racism, Survival, and the Quiet Politics of Infant Mortality, from A to Z,” published by Rutgers University Press.