After death: what can happen to the body
Memento mori ring remembering Augusta Bruce, Europe, 1701-1800
A body lies on the ground. Dead. It slowly begins a dramatic transformation. Brain cells die within minutes. Other cells and tissues follow. Blood settles and pools because there is no heart to pump it. This forms vivid patches on the lowest-lying parts. The body also cools.
Flexible tissues stiffen as rigor mortis sets in. Previously benign bacteria break down dead cells, producing green fluids and foul-smelling gases. The corpse bloats and blackens. Most internal tissues and organs liquefy within a month. Wildlife has a very nutritious new home!
Separating the living and the dead
Dead bodies are unpleasant to leave hanging around. Separating the dead and living is common across most cultures. Attempts to halt their decay are also widespread.
The commonest methods of body disposal have been burial and cremation. They vary throughout history and across the world, and the associated rituals have many influences. Central to most of them is an afterlife. Funerals help navigate the dead from this world to the next.
Commemoration and ritual
Remembrance of the dead has taken many forms. Headstones, tombs and other monuments provide public displays. There are also more personalised objects and behaviours such as memento mori and mourning clothes. These reflect the grief of those left behind.
Disposing of human remains is usually highly regulated. How, when and where they can be interred and commemorated are subject to local and national laws. But such rituals and memorials are idealised departures. For countless millions, delivery to their final resting place has been accompanied by no more ceremony than being slung into a pit. Victims of disease, war, famine or natural disaster, dead bodies can be treated very harshly. Whereas in different circumstances, they might have been painstakingly preserved or, more recently, treated as a valuable resource.
Preserving and using the body
The oldest technique for deliberate body preservation is mummification, a custom common to several civilisations. It was famously practised by the Ancient Egyptians and more recently by the Incas. Body embalming methods developed in the 1800s remain common. Refrigeration can also delay decomposition, and cryopreservation preserves certain cells and tissues almost indefinitely. This promise has led some to place their faith in cryonics to postpone final death.
Corpses have also become a highly valued medical commodity. They are central to anatomical teaching and practice within biomedicine. Dissection and examination of the dead remain cornerstones of medical training. Corpses were once so highly sought that grave-robbing body snatchers were called upon.
The body as a source of spare parts
Using the body as a source of reusable parts was limited before the 20th century. One notable exception was the growing demand for false teeth, which led denture-makers to turn to those scavenging European battlefields. Their products were gruesomely referred to as ‘Waterloo teeth’ in Britain throughout the 1800s.
Bodies can now produce a rich harvest. Many parts are removed, stored, transported and ‘reanimated’. Death is redefined as brain death. This means bodies can be exploited for organ transplantation while their hearts still beat. Numerous tissue banks now store a wide range of human remains for transplant and research.
Life beyond death
Harvesting is also done at cellular and molecular levels. Genetic material, brain cells and even sperm are salvageable. Body parts occasionally experience an enduring afterlife. For example, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but her malignant cancer cells became the first immortal human cell line, an important medical research tool. Descendants of those original cells live on in laboratories worldwide.
Related Themes and Topics
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A Robben (ed.), Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005)
K V Iserson, Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies (Tucson, AZ: Galen Press, 1994)
C Quigley, The Corpse: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2005)
P Aries, The Hour of Our Death (Harmondsworth: Vintage, 1982)
R Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute: The Politics of the Corpse in Pre-Victorian Britain (London/New York: Routledge, 1988)
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