“Mungo Man”, an episode of ABC’s Australian Story, told the very emotionally moving story of returning to “country” the bones of an aboriginal man. They called him Mungo Man, after the dried up Mungo lake bed where his skeleton was found in the Willandra Lakes region of southwest New South Wales, which is now a World Heritage site.  

Mungo Man had lived over 40,000 years ago. His skeleton was found by a geologist in the 1970’s and had been removed by archaeologists for study at the Australian National University in Canberra. It was now being returned to the country where he had been buried.

The depth of feeling of the aboriginal people who participated in the return and in the ceremony which accompanied it was patently obvious. They honoured this pre-historic ancestor leader and mourned the disruption of their culture and ensuing harm to it and them of the last 200 plus years since British settlement in Australia.

They were not alone in their feelings, however. The scientist who had discovered Mungo Man and archaeologists who had studied him were also very emotionally engaged in his return and what it meant. We late-arrival Australians have inherited the oldest living culture in the world and we are more and more coming to appreciate its richness and value.  Rather than, as in the past, trying to annihilate it, we are seeking to learn from it.

One of the archaeologists, who seemed deeply impressed with what he had learnt in studying Mungo Man’s skeleton, explained that prior to burial his body had been painted with red ochre and carefully arranged and there had been a small fire nearby. Engaging in such burial ceremonies over 40,000 years ago was a very long time before any form of ritual burial, an indicator of increasing civilization, had emerged in Europe.

At the same time as I was learning about Mungo Man, sadly, a friend of mine died suddenly and unexpectedly. I enquired about the funeral and was told there would not be one. Instead her body would be cremated and her ashes scattered in a place to which she was deeply attached, and in a few months a “celebration of her life” would take place. So what have we lost in relation to how we deal with death and why?

Yet another video I saw last week gave me a clue to answering this question. It discussed the harm of avoiding negative emotions, in particular grief. Might we be avoiding grief in having undoubtedly well-intentioned, but stripped down “celebrations of life”, instead of funerals rich with ritual and mourning of the loss of a loved one?

Thinking of Mungo Man’s red ochre paint as a step forward in human civilization, caused me to question whether “celebrations of life” are a step backward. In terms of becoming more fully human, is rejecting religious beliefs and rituals surrounding death – which are sometimes derogatorily labelled “ancient superstitions” – a step backward in civilization rather than a step forward, as it is often purported to be?

My final encounter with death last week was reading that the Netherlands has joined Belgium and Spain in adopting “opt-out” organ donation legislation. Xavier Symons writes in BioEdge:

“Earlier this week the Dutch parliament narrowly passed a bill that requires every person over the age of 18 to notify government officials if they do not want to be an organ donor.

All adults in the country not yet registered as donors will receive a letter asking if they want to donate their organs after death. Those who do not respond to the first letter, or to a second letter six weeks later, will be considered organ donors, although they can amend their status at any time.

The law is intended to reduce pressure on next-of-kin, who are often required to make decisions about organ donation on behalf of the deceased.

Yet critics of the bill complained that it puts too much authority in the hands of the government over what happens to a citizen after their death.

Bioethicist Wesley J Smith suggested that in some cases euthanasia “without request or consent” could be combined with presumed consent for organ donation: “a patient could very conceivably be both killed and [their organs] harvested without having requested it”.

The law is expected to be implemented in 2020.”

We would do well to ask ourselves whether opening up such possibilities is a major step backward in civilization and what it demands of us in the context of dealing with dying and death. I wonder what Mungo Man would answer.

Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.  

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...