Bodily Autonomy Does Not End When Your Life Does

candles and white rose petals under a wineglass
Image by Harry Strauss from Pixabay

Bodily autonomy is having a cultural moment. Over the last year or two, just about all of us have participated in conversations about what it means, who is denied it, and who should be writing policy about it. If yours is a body that’s marginalized by the state for being brown, disabled, queer, trans, having the potential to become pregnant, or any other “unruly” behavior, you know this moment is long overdue.

Most of the time, bodily autonomy as a political concept is associated with sexual violence and forced birth laws, particularly as the latter have popped up like weeds across several U.S. states this year. It’s also connected to other social plagues like mass incarceration, drug prohibition, and any other law that challenges a person’s human right to control their own body. I’m interested in another such issue that I rarely hear or read about, even though it impacts every single one of us. It’s quite possible that you’ve never given it any thought before.

 What do you want to happen to your body once it can no longer sustain life? 

Your Body Is Always Yours

Ours is a very death-fearing society. It’s filled to the brim with euphemisms, odd taboos, and grisly crime scene photos. It makes perfect sense to fear an experience that’s completely unknown and unflinchingly final. But when we let fear get in the way of planning for this inevitability, we lose the opportunity to honor this sacred transition in a way that aligns with our desires and personal beliefs. Think about it: we rarely, if ever, give our loved ones the final say in major decisions pertaining to our bodies while we’re alive. Why should they be the ones calling all the shots when we die?

There are lots of people giving this some serious thought. During the past decade, a “death positive” movement was born of a desire to demystify and destigmatize death, normalize curiosity and fascination around it, and encourage agency around the choices that follow it. It has developed alongside modern movements of sex positivity and body positivity, and has many overlapping supporters. 

This makes perfect sense when you find the common thread: the belief that we each have a right to know, experience, and control our own bodies according to their natural states and our individual inclinations. This explains the heavy influence of feminist ethos in death-positive rhetoric. Women have a lot to gain from shifting the narrative around death, and they are the ones at the helm of this movement. 

Death doesn’t make your body any less yours. Doctors can’t even harvest your organs to save someone’s life if you didn’t give express consent to do so while you were alive. The only thing that changes after you die is your ability to advocate for yourself. We shouldn’t take that opportunity for granted.

Speaking Your Mind, For Your Body’s Sake

the death card in the Linestrider tarot deck
The Death card has one of my favorite illustrations in the Linestrider tarot deck.

I find a strange comfort in the certainty of death. Little in life is promised to us, and I can’t help but cling to this rare exception. I like to wonder how many years I’ll be given on this pretty little space rock. Sometimes I try to predict the cause of my demise, and have always sensed that it might be due to a tragic accident or natural disaster. 

Most of all, I like to think about how my body should be handled when my spirit can no longer use it. I make those wishes known to my loved ones whenever I can. I could have far less time left than I think.  

Because of the stigma surrounding discussion of death, it doesn’t occur to most of us to formulate our desires, let alone to make them known. I certainly didn’t give it any thought before fairly recently. However, if you want something other than the experience prescribed by your family’s dominant culture, the time to express that is now. 

That may mean having conversations that are uncomfortable in the moment (or maybe you choose save your wishes for your will), but think of the stress, and perhaps, the cost, that your loved ones will be spared because you did so. It could even start some fascinating and sincere conversations about spirituality and the meaning of life, and we could all use a little more of that.

“‘Til We Find Our Place…”

screenshot of Mufasa and Simba in "The Lion King" (1994)
I feel like Mufasa would have made such a good life coach.

I remember being a little kid watching The Lion King over and over, and being struck by a particular exchange in the beginning. Mufasa is describing the storied “Circle of Life” to young Simba, and where they fit into it. Simba is incredulous when his father asks him to respect every form that life takes, even the antelope that they so often make meals of. 

“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance… When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.” 

I can’t tell you why this resonated so much with my seven-year-old self, but it did. Ever since, I’ve understood that my body was created from earthly matter, and that it’s meant to be returned from whence it came. I sensed, on a primal level, that it was highly important to stay connected to the chain of life that extends to the beginning of time. As I grew up, I came to center the natural world in my sense of spirituality. It made sense to find a tangible way to have my inevitable death form a link of that chain.

My Next Life

tree with green leaves and pink blossoms
Image by Lerkrat Tangsri from Pexels

And so, it’s my wish for my ashes to be grown into a tree. I’ve always been drawn to them. Vibrant with life, but solemn as snow. Tall and strong, but deeply sensitive. Like us, they grow and they change, often imperceptibly so. Unlike us, they can stick around for centuries, or even millennia. I love the idea of defying time this way, of being around so long to observe and absorb the world and its constant transitions.

Aside from the sentimental value of infusing a loved one’s ashes with a living organism, it’s gotta be the greenest way to go. It fights deforestation, adds oxygen to the atmosphere, and beautifies its environment. As cremation increases in popularity alongside a growing environmental consciousness, biodegradable urns (with and without tree seeds) are becoming cheaper and easier to find. When my time comes, all my family will have to do is pick a place and a plant that resonates with them. 

As a feminist and a sex educator, I think a lot about what it means for human beings to have true bodily autonomy. It’s an issue that occupies that fraught space where the personal meets the political. So many of humanity’s most ancient wounds are rooted in the lack of it. We will never heal them until we begin to reckon with that, globally, in a meaningful way. Perhaps it is death, the great equalizer after all, that has the best shot at bringing this sea change about.