The Outer Worlds. A game developed by Obsidian Entertainment, taking place in a world where unfettered capitalism is taken to its logical extreme. The land is owned and operated by corporations, thus the people who live on it, past, present, and future, are not citizens, but employees. When they die, they are considered retired, and the body is considered company property.
Spoiler Warning for the Early Parts of The Outer Worlds
Early in the game when reaching the walls of the corporate owned town of Edgewater, you meet a man named Silas who describes his occupation as the town’s “junior inhumer.” In other words, he’s a gravedigger. If you speak to him long enough he’ll eventually try and offer you a job collecting debts. So far I’ve explained that the company owns the land, your body, and whatever you produce. The logical conclusion being that once you die, disposing of the body may not be all that simple.
When someone dies, that person’s relatives must compensate the company to have them buried on their land. However the company is also the one who pays them and their contract stipulates that they’re not allowed to purchase products belonging to a competing company.
Multiple definitions of words like “relative” is used to justify payment onto others. A worker named Eugene committed suicide. This was defined as an act of vandalism against company property. The person who found the body was made to pay the burial fees as she was “the closest living person relative to his body at time of death.”
Burials seem to be ingrained within the culture of Edgewater. So much so that to not pay for the burial fees of your loved ones and/or fellow man is looked upon as disgraceful by the community.
Throughout human history there have been many methods of body disposal, like tossing the body over a cliff, into a body of water, or to animals to consume. We’ve also tried burning the bodies, and ritualistic cannibalism. But at some point we determined that all of those methods were unsatisfactory, and we started burying the bodies. Then we started burying them within coffins, and now this is practiced by the majority of human cultures.
Like everything else, burying a body was practical. Predators wouldn’t find it, making it so they won’t keep coming back. Do something long enough and it becomes tradition. We start adding elements to the tradition, like burying people with some of their possessions, holding funerals, and putting them in boxes. We very well can’t have decomposing corpses out at a funeral, so we started injecting them with embalming fluid. Institutions like religions became involved, and even business started to form around it.
Later on in the game you encounter a woman named Adelaide. She informs you that the soil of this planet is completely unsuited for farming. But she claims to have found some special fertilizer to nourish the soil. With a little bit of detective work you can deduce that her special fertilizer is human remains. She’s been taking bodies from the Edgewater cemetery and using them to grow food for her congregation. Arguing that decomposition is natural and much needed part of life. And that a “person” only lasts until the last synapse and brainwave burns out.
Cemeteries, burials, and funerals are traditions that are not for the sake of the dead, they’re for the living. In today’s day, before you die you can request that your body be treated a certain way. Although once you’re dead, there’s no guarantee that it will or should be honored. However, the surviving loved ones want to feel better, and want to feel like they did good by their deceased loved ones. These feelings are important to us. So much so that we can inadvertently end up taking things too far. To the point where we’re doing harm to ourselves, to our environment, or just being wasteful.
What Adelaide says about returning the body to the soil reminds me of a song by the band “Agalloch.” You may know them, I made a video and article using one of their songs before. This time I’m reminded of the song “Falling Snow” from their album “Ashes against the Grain.”
The song tells the tale of someone who dies out in the wild and how the body systematically returns to nature. The blood evaporates and returns as rain and snow. The meat feeding the animals and insects. The bones feed the Earth and grow new life from the soil. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Now and forever they are one with nature.
Burying people locked within sealed caskets, encasing them within a sarcophagus, or entombing them within a mausoleum suspends this process. It could take upwards of 80 years just for a body to turn to dust. In real life there’s issues like land usage for cemeteries, chemicals affecting the environment, and so on. In The Outer Worlds the people also have to contend with their wage slave salaries being garnished and imbalanced diets, leading to malnutrition.
Adelaide’s solution for both problems is to use the bodies to grow food fit for human consumption. Her arguments stem from a naturalists perspective. You can choose to tell this to Edgewater’s corporate manager and he also approves, although from a corporatist perspective. Saying that it’s a remarkable solution to recycle company property long past its expiration date.
A very good case is made for Adelaide’s solution. However, it’s not without its consequences. Chief of which, is good old fashioned human emotion. As mentioned, whatever happens after someone’s death is for the sake of the living; whether it’s a gravestone, an urn, or a diamond, part of the tradition is to have a location or object for remembrance. And this desire can be strong.
Parvati, your party member mentions that Adelaide never asked permission from the deceased, but one more time, whatever happens to the body is for the sake of the living. So if Adelaide was going to ask permission from anyone, it would be from people like Parvati, the loved ones of the deceased.
When using this quote it’s always important to take heed of the key word in it: “willing.” Kreia isn’t advocating for malleable beliefs. She’s telling you that you need to have the strength; to question your beliefs, evaluate their usefulness, and if concluded, abandon or change them. Otherwise, you’re leaving yourself exposed to being taken advantage of. As we’ve seen here in The Outer Worlds.
Spacer’s Choice expertly preyed upon these people’s traditions, and sentimentality to pad their own bottom line. They even managed to disincentive any thinking of not adhering to the tradition, by having it be considered as a disgraceful act. It’s considered disgraceful to not get taken advantage of by your employer. One way they no doubt accomplished this was by preying upon their sense of community. Spacer’s Choice would have penalized the entire town for Eugene’s suicide.
So should they abandon their tradition? Yes they should. They’re getting stiffed by their company, and this could allow them to grow food, treating their malnutrition crisis. The only thing they lose is a specific location for ancestor remembrance. I know that it provides comfort. Many people speak to the graves of their loved ones and it does make them feel better. But is it really worth subjecting the living to this?
However abandoning a long held tradition may sound like it’s easy to do on paper, but people are their own worst enemy. A person can be convinced relatively easily, but even when you can clearly show them that it’s affecting them in a detrimental fashion, it can still take a herculean effort to convince people.
The practice of using human remains as fertilizer to feed the masses can also evolve into a tradition and become part of a religion, just like everything that came before. You just need to do it for a long enough time. Barring any extremes like war and human trafficking, this can be off-set by the fact that human remains are a finite resource to Edgewater.
I’m not sure what the lifespan of the fertilizer is or how much they can grow from one corpse, but it could be that even with a whole cemetery, they’ll run out of bodies eventually. They can’t use the older bodies either. Adelaide tells Parvati that her father is still in his grave. She didn’t use him because he’s just a skeleton by now. Even the local raiders, the marauders, aren’t endless. Whenever someone passes away, they can use them, but it’s still temporary. Eventually they’ll need to find another solution, this will only buy them the time to find it.
I grew up in a culture that has many traditions. Most were perfectly fine, while some I found bizarre, and others detrimental. When I expressed my opinions, people were not shy about voicing their displeasure, and they certainly weren’t entertaining any ideas about changing. But I tried to convince minds for as long as I could. Knowing that change may only come once the situation becomes too dire for it to be ignored. I just hope it won’t be too late by then. Humans tend to be more reactive than proactive. Maybe someday we’ll learn that traditions are nice, but that’s all they are.
Papito Qinn is into the whole YouTube thing, is the winner of the 2016 SpookTAYcular Scary Story Contest, and a twitter incompetent who, by popular demand, has a Discord server. “Special thanks to all the top donators of my channel.”