Death Related Crime: Applying Bryant’s Conceptual Paradigm of Thanatological Crime to Military Settings


This research paper began with a brief introduction of the definition of thanatological crime followed by an explanation of  Clifton Bryant’s (2003) paradigm of thanatological crime. It concludes with an application of this paradigm to thanatological crime in a military setting. Finally, a content analysis is conducted of magazines, news transcripts, and newspaper articles to gather information relevant to thanatological crime in a military setting.

Sociologists have long since studied the act of dying to include the process, the act, and the aftermath.  Almost all modern day societies have some type of prescriptive norm regarding the dead.  These social cues can include a simple utterance of the deceased’s name, funeral processions, body disposal, and the mourning process (Bryant, 2003, p. 974).  A majority of societies are similar in that most have strong taboos regarding mistreatment toward the dead with the prevailing theme of a socially reprehensible connotation (Bryant, 2003, p. 974).  While some researchers have focused on confronting death, others have devoted their attention to death as a social process (Durkheim 1954 [1915]; Berger 1969).  Clifton Bryant not only coined the term thanatological crime, but also brought this type of deviant behavior to the forefront for the first time in history.  Despite the copious amount of deviant acts that occur on a daily basis in our society and around the world, this area of deviance still remains under-studied in sociological literature.  Many of the activities discussed by Bryant (2003) in his paradigm of thanatological crime occur within a military setting.  The goal of this paper is to review the paradigm of thanatological crime as outlined by Bryant (2003) and provide an application of this paradigm to acts of thanatological crime committed in a military setting.


As noted by Bryant in his paradigm, thanatological crime is comprised of four distinct categories of motivation: functional instrumental, malicious mischief/amusement, profit/economic advantage, and pathological/compulsive.  The first, function/instrumental motivational mode, characterizes crimes as, “purposeful, rational, and functional” (Bryant, 2003 p. 976). These crimes are often fiscally sound in nature, yet still violate traditional societal norms.  Crimes of this type are generally aimed at achieving goals of either an individual or group and include acts perpetrated against the dead such as: cannibalism and desecration of bodies for trophies as well as graves for souvenirs.  In addition to the dead themselves being victimized, the body of the dead can also be used to victimize the living.  Here, the functional/instrumental motivation includes acts such as: using the dead for a political advantage and using the dead in a military context to decrease moral or intimidate the enemy.  Causes frequently include cultural conflict, emergency situations, or extreme need (Bryant, 2003, p. 977).

The second category of motivation, malicious mischief/amusement is defined as acts that are, “performed simply because they are ‘fun’ (Bryant, 2003 p. 976).  The mission of these crimes is generally personal gain or malice.  Here, crimes against the dead include desecration of bodies or vandalism of tombs for fun and collection of bodies for pleasure (Bryant, 2003, p. 977).  Conversely, types utilizing the deceased to victimize the living include playing jokes on families of the deceased like making prank phone calls and vandalizing homes of the deceased. This category is considered especially heinous due to the pernicious nature (Bryant, 2003, p. 979).

The third motivation of thanatological crime outlined by Bryant (2003) is profit/economic advantage.  This category is characterized by a, “desire for profit or economic advantage” (Bryant 2003, p. 977).  America is home to an expanding materialistic culture where people without the means to achieve wealth often substitute a honest, hard-working lifestyle with deviant acts to achieve their goals (Bryant, 2003, p. 984).  Regrettably, some even resort to deviant acts against the deceased to help facilitate their personal shortcomings.  Victimization of the deceased for this category include selling body parts on the black market, body snatching, stealing items from graves, and posing the dead for profit at events such as carnivals (Bryant, 2003, p. 977).  Ways that profit motivated offenders use the dead to victimize are mainly focused at harming the family of the deceased.  Crimes include burglarizing the home of the deceased during the funeral, delivering goods supposedly bought by the deceased to the victim’s family, and exploiting the family by mediums (Bryant, 2003, p. 977).

The final category of motivation, pathological/compulsive, is characterized by, “temporary loss of self-control.”  External acts resulting from this destruction include, “overindulgence of alcohol or drugs or so-called temporary insanity” (Bryant, 2003, p. 977). Crimes against the dead include necrophilia, sex with the dead, mutilating the dead, and failure to follow proper burial norms.  Crimes using the dead to victimize the living include vandalizing graves, mutilating or kidnapping the dead, or damaging tombstones.  All of these acts are committed with the goal to harm the victim’s family (Bryant, 2003, p. 976-977)

The dead can be victimized and in turn the dead can also be used to victimize others (Bryant, 2003, p. 977).  In America, and many other societies, the dead are treated very similar to the living.  The United States, in particular, people go to extraordinary lengths to comply with the deceased’s final wishes.  These drastic measures include specific and detailed funerals, long and complex grieving processes, and attempts to communicate with the dead through the use of mediums.  This identity affords the dead many of the same social rights as the living.  As a result, transgressions of these rights result in two types of sanctions: informal and formal.  Informal sanctions, regulated by socialization, include a dirty look or verbal criticism.  On the other hand, formal sanctions, enforced by the government, include criminal charges which range on a continuum.  The dead can be victimized through acts such as desecration of bodies, vandalism of tombs and cemeteries, and the selling of body parts on the black market.  Conversely, ways the dead can be used to victimize others include the use of corpses for intimidation or fear, burglarizing the homes of the victim’s family, and grave robbing.

Functional/Instrumental Motivation

Bryant (2003) lists desecration of bodies by military personnel as an example of functional/instrumental victimization of the dead.  Desecration is defined as, “the act of depriving something of its sacred character” (desecration).  As noted in his thesis, the desecration of corpses in a military setting is not a new phenomena.  In 2011, a group of Marines on deployment in Afghanistan urinated on the bodies of several Taliban fighters and then proceeded to take trophy photographs with the corpses.  When asked why he felt the need to desecrate the corpses, one of the marines, Staff Sgt. Edward Deptola, offered no excuse for his behavior saying he knew his actions were wrong (Royal 2013).  Despite new and advanced training on ROE’s, or rules of engagement, military personnel still desecrate the corpses of their enemies to obtain personal souvenirs. Also in Afghanistan, Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role and leadership in the killings of three unarmed Afghan men. Gibbs, the highest ranking of the five men involved, was described as a, “bloodthirsty leader,” by two of the other men involved. After fatally shooting the unarmed victims, Gibbs proceeded to cut off their fingers and even yanked out the tooth of one victim. When asked about the war trophies, Gibbs replied, it’s, “like keeping the antlers off a deer you’d shoot” (Johnson 2011). These cases offer only a glimpse into the expanding area of military thanatological crime. Both of the perpetrators desecrated bodies for military trophies with seemingly no purpose other than personal gain.

Malicious Mischief/Amusement and Victimization of the Dead

As noted by Bryant (2003), some deviant acts are committed because they cure the hunger for excitement, adventure, or fun.  He further specifies vandalism of graves and tombs for fun as a typology of this particular subset of thanatological crime (Bryant , 2003, p. 977).  In Des Moines, Iowa, dozens of veterans’ graves were vandalized.  Vandals took off after ultimately stealing 45 grave markers and 41 American flags. Sgt. Jason Halifax, police spokesman, stated that the, “thefts appeared to be a vandalism, rather than a theft for profit” (Aschbrenner 2013).  This case goes to show that even at rest, veterans are not safe from the breadth of thanatological crime.  Also during the Iraq War, U.S soldiers were shown burning the bodies of two Taliban fighters in a TV documentary.  The accused soldiers were members of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.  The burning of the corpses supposedly occurred after an intense gunfight between Taliban and U.S. forces. After burning the bodies, the U.S. soldiers used the charred corpses as a means of harassing and taunting the local Afghan populace (Walsh). These two examples depict Bryant’s (2003) malicious mischief/amusement typology of thanatological crime by using the deceased to victimize. The vandals in Des Moines, Iowa not only victimized the veterans’ whose graves they targeted, but also the families of those veterans. Similarly, the U.S soldiers who killed then charred the remains of the Taliban fighters victimized the individuals they killed, their families, and the nearby villagers who witnessed or heard about the crime.

Profit/Economic Advantage and Victimization of the Dead

According to Bryant (2003), a majority of thanatological crime is motivated by the desire to accumulate wealth.  In an ever-increasing materialistic society, criminals are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to supplement their lavish lifestyles.  This incentive has proven to serve as a catalyst for the most heinous of crimes.  One specific type of crime under this subset is grave robbing for profit.  Sometimes robbers take bronze statues or vases from graves, selling them for high profit to scrap dealers.  This was the case in Hubbard, OH, where two men cut up a bronze military statue and attempted to sell it for scrap. According to police, one of the perpetrators, Richard Couturiaux sold the stolen property for $25.50.  He was later sentenced to 18 months in prison with felony charges of receiving stolen property and vandalism as well as two misdemeanor counts of desecration.  Chaplain David Luther said Couturiaux, “represents the cancer that is eating away at the very heart and soul of the United States of America, wanting to satisfy its own cravings at the cost of everything we hold sacred” (Runyan 2013).

Pathological/Compulsive Motivation and Victimization of the Dead

Some forms of deviant behavior are completely irrational and may be the result of temporary loss of self-control (Bryant 2003).  In the southern province of Kandahar, Afghanistan, 12 U.S. soldiers allegedly murdered Afghan civilians, mutilated their corpses, and kept grisly souvenirs of their acts.  The soldiers in question allegedly threw grenades at civilians and then proceeded to fire upon them. Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs is alleged to have kept finger bones, leg bones, and teeth from the corpses while Spc. Michael Gagnon II is alleged to have kept a skull from one of the corpses (Starr 2010).  In Vietnam, soldiers were court-martialed and later convicted of cutting the ears and fingers off of Vietnam soldiers.  General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, cited the soldier’s actions as, “subhuman,” and “contrary to all policy and below the minimum standards of human decency” (Elliott 2011). These crimes are particularly heinous and egregious as they have no rational motivation.  There is no profit or return for the perpetrator. Rather, these acts are committed simply to justify pathological and compulsive desires of the offender.

Functional/Instrumental Motivation and Using the Dead to Victimize

When it comes to defending and fighting for freedom, many countries often adopt the idiom, “All’s fair in love and war.”  The practice of psychological warfare has had a long history of successful practice.  In the words of Maj. Ed Rouse, “Psychological Operations or PSYOP are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of organizations, groups, and individuals” (Rouse n.d.).  One subset of Psychological Operations is the use of intimidation.  As Bryant (2003) notes, the dead can be used in this process.  Military members leave mutilated enemy corpses in a location where they will later be found by opposing forces with the deliberate intention of striking fear in the enemy.  In 2003, a Canadian sniper was accused of mutilating two enemy combatants.  Master Corporal Arron Perry allegedly cut off the finger of one enemy combatant and then proceeded to stage the body for a trophy photograph placing a cigarette in his mouth and propping a sign on his chest with the phrase, “fuck terrorism.”  He was later accused of defecating on another enemy combatant.  Perry was eventually cleared of all allegations due to a lack of evidence (Bell 2003).  This case is just one in a handful of many deviant acts committed during the Iraq War. Some U.S. soldiers are choosing to use their new-found knowledge of Muslim culture to devise ways to inflict harm upon the local populace (Graham 2005).  Atrocious crimes are also levied by enemy troops against U.S. soldiers.  Four American civilians working as contractors in Iraq were killed by grenades and heavy gunfire.  Their bodies were then charred and mutilated by a violent mob.  The bodies were then tied to a car and drug through the streets of Falluja to the tune of a cheering crowd.  At least two of the four bodies were hung form a bridge (McCarthy and Borger 2004).  These examples all comply with the fifth typology of thanatological crime, using the dead to victimize with a functional/instrumental motivation, as outlined by Bryant (2003) in his paradigm. Both the United States and Afghan forces have utilized the act of leaving corpses in plain sight with the main purpose of intimidating or striking fear in the enemy (Bryant 2003).

Malicious Mischief/Amusement and Using the Dead to Victimize

According to Bryant (2003), this category of victimization includes playing jokes on the victim’s family and vandalizing the home of the victim’s family.  These acts are often committed when the family is attending the funeral of their loved one.  Criminals will read obituaries in the newspaper and plan their deviant acts for corresponding times of funeral processions.  These acts are especially heinous in nature as they take advantage of they use the death of someone’s loved one to fill their malicious desires (Bryant 2003). Despite an exhaustive search, no examples of this type of thanatological crime in a military setting could be found.

Profit/Economic Advantage and Using the Dead to Victimize

Analogous to victimization of the dead for profit or economic advantage, using the dead to victimize for the hopes of high profit returns consummated by stealing from corpses or stealing bodies for economic ransom (Bryant 2003).  Perpetrators who commit this typology of thanatological crime are motivated by the acquisition of wealth, affluence, and money.  These criminals are opportunistic in nature and will stop at nothing to make a quick buck, even if that entails taking advantage of a fallen soldier. Comparable to the previous typology of thanatological crime, despite an exhaustive search, no examples of this type of thanatological crime in a military setting could be found.

Pathological/Compulsive and Using the Dead to Victimize

The final typology of thanatological crime outlined by Bryant (2003) includes acts that are pathological or compulsive in nature.  These crimes include vandalizing graves, kidnapping or mutilating bodies to inflict harm upon the victim’s family, and damaging a monument at a gravesite to hard the victim’s family or a larger group.  The motivation of these criminals varies widely.  Their actions are aberrant and irrational and often the result of a loss of self-control whether that be the result of a mental illness, brain damage, psychosis or substance related.  One such example of these heinous crimes is Westboro Baptist Church of Hinesville, GA.  In August of this year, members of the church vocalized their plans to picket the funeral of Sgt. Stefan Smith, a U.S. soldier who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country in Afghanistan.  In an effort to derail Westboro’s demonstration, members of the Hinesville community created a Facebook group which attracted more than 2,000 members.  The funeral was even moved to a different day in an attempt to thwart the demonstrators.  This case is a perfect example for Bryant’s (2003) final typology of crime, using the dead to victimize with a pathological/compulsive motivation. The members of Westboro chose to attend Smith’s funeral with the sole purpose of harming his family and friends to justify their overarching belief that soldier’s deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are the ultimately God’s way of punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality (Huffington Post 2013).


This paper has applied a paradigm of thanatological crime as outlined by Bryant (2003) to crimes committed in a military setting.  The examples given in this paper align with the eight typologies depicted by Bryant (2003) in his paradigm.  These examples represent a small sample of all thanatological crime committed in military settings.  Future research should be conducted to broaden the research presented here and delve further into the area of deviance that is thanatological crime.


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Royal, Judy. (2013, Jan 16). Marine pleads guilty to urinating on bodies of dead Taliban, posing for photographs. Today. Retrieved from

Runyan, Ed. (2013, Aug 21). Hubbard man sentenced to 18 months for vandalizing military statue, grave marker. Retrieved from

Starr, Barbara. (2010, Sep 10). Army: 12 soldiers killed Afghans, mutilated corpses. CNN. Retrieved from

Walsh, Declan. (2005, Oct 20). US fears backlash after TV documentary shows soldiers burning Taliban corpses. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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