After We Die

After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    After We Die
    Book Description:

    What will become of our earthly remains? What happens to our bodies during and after the various forms of cadaver disposal available? Who controls the fate of human remains? What legal and moral constraints apply? Legal scholar Norman Cantor provides a graphic, informative, and entertaining exploration of these questions. After We Die chronicles not only a corpse's physical state but also its legal and moral status, including what rights, if any, the corpse possesses. In a claim sure to be controversial, Cantor argues that a corpse maintains a "quasi-human status" granting it certain protected rights-both legal and moral. One of a corpse's purported rights is to have its predecessor's disposal choices upheld. After We Die reviews unconventional ways in which a person can extend a personal legacy via their corpse's role in medical education, scientific research, or tissue transplantation. This underlines the importance of leaving instructions directing post-mortem disposal. Another cadaveric right is to be treated with respect and dignity. After We Die outlines the limits that "post-mortem human dignity" poses upon disposal options, particularly the use of a cadaver or its parts in educational or artistic displays. Contemporary illustrations of these complex issues abound. In 2007, the well-publicized death of Anna Nicole Smith highlighted the passions and disputes surrounding the handling of human remains. Similarly, following the 2003 death of baseball great Ted Williams, the family in-fighting and legal proceedings surrounding the corpse's proposed cryogenic disposal also raised contentious questions about the physical, legal, and ethical issues that emerge after we die. In the tradition of Sherwin Nuland's How We Die, Cantor carefully and sensitively addresses the post-mortem handling of human remains.

    eISBN: 978-1-58901-713-9
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    My stepbrother died in 1973 at age thirty-nine. He was a flamboyant criminal trial lawyer and, true to his character, he left unusual instructions for his funeral arrangements. He wanted a New Orleans–style funeral in Trenton, New Jersey. His widow was to wear white. During the wake in the funeral home, a Dixieland band was to play jazz. On the day of the burial, the band was to lead the procession out of the funeral home.

    My stepfather, a traditional Italian padrone di casa, was scandalized. He objected strenuously to his son’s unconventional funeral arrangements. The widow, my stepsister...

  4. Part I Status and Rights of the Cadaver
    • Chapter 1 When Does a Person Become a Corpse?
      (pp. 11-27)

      Important consequences hinge on when a person becomes dead, that is, reaches the point at which a moribund human officially qualifies as a corpse. The first impact is upon potential medical or quasi-medical intervenors. Doctors, nurses, and emergency personnel must decide whether to start pounding the flaccid body in an effort to resuscitate a person who is experiencing or has lately experienced cardiac arrest. Pathologists must determine whether the body will be dismantled and minutely examined—that is, whether an autopsy will be performed in order to seek information about the cause of death. (Even with sophisticated diagnostic tools, physicians...

    • Chapter 2 The Human Nature of a Cadaver
      (pp. 28-44)

      Some people say that they don’t care what is done with their corpse. After all, it is just inanimate waste—crow bait or fly bait, depending on how much shelter is provided to the cadaver.¹ Tell those people that their corpse will be tied to a jeep and dragged naked through the streets with a sign giving their name, after which their remains will be fed to the local farm animals. See if they are still indifferent to their postmortem treatment!

      The vast majority of people seem to care whether their remains will be mutilated, desecrated, or treated with honor...

    • Chapter 3 The Legal Status of the Postliving: Do Corpses Have Rights?
      (pp. 45-72)

      Multiple decisions have to be made about the disposition of a corpse. Most immediately, will the body or body parts be made available for use before final disposal—for autopsy, for use in research or education, or for transplantation to live persons with critical needs? What method of final disposal of the corpse or its remnants will be used—burial or some more exotic disposition? Will there be a commemorative ceremony? Will there be a religious rite? Who will speak? Will the body be displayed? How will the corpse be clothed? If the method of disposition is burial, where will...

  5. Part II Disposition of Human Remains
    • Chapter 4 Decomposition of the Body and Efforts to Slow Its Disintegration
      (pp. 75-90)

      The first clue that the human body is highly degradable comes from terminology. The word “cadaver” is, at least according to court opinions, derived from the Latin words caro data vermibus, meaning flesh (or carrion) given to worms. That derivation is sometimes contested. Some commentators connect the word “cadaver” to the Latin cadere, meaning to fall. Certainly, a cadaver has, in some sense, fallen. I still prefer the first derivation, caro data vermibus, not because I think it is the real source of the word “cadaver,” but because it contains an important truth. Depending on its mode of disposal, a...

    • Chapter 5 Final Disposal of Human Remains
      (pp. 91-118)

      Without proper disposal, a corpse not only gives sensory offense, it poses some danger of contagion to the living. Decent disposal also signifies respect and fidelity to the deceased, consistent with the hope and expectation of the vast majority of people that their remains will be afforded a dignified final disposition. And proper disposal of remains can give comfort and perhaps closure to survivors, often fulfilling a sense of responsibility toward the cadaver on both the natural and supernatural planes.¹

      Cultural traditions shape the appropriate mode of cadaver disposal and provide a paradigm for its safe management.² Rituals for the...

    • Chapter 6 Eternal Preservation of the Deceased: Literally and Figuratively
      (pp. 119-140)

      The common forms of cadaver disposal leave few remains in the end. Cremation reduces a corpse to about seven pounds of nonorganic dust. A buried corpse gradually decomposes into a dark, moldy, undifferentiated mass. Contrary to popular belief, typical modern embalming postpones decomposition of the human corpse only for days or weeks. Within twelve years the buried cadaver will deteriorate to a moldy mass and, over an additional span of years, will become skeletonized. Increased amounts of embalming fluid can extend the period before decomposition, but would leave a corpse distorted in initial facial configuration, body shape, and skin tone....

  6. Part III The Multiple Roles of a Cadaver
    • Chapter 7 The Cadaver as Supplier of Used Body Parts
      (pp. 143-176)

      A host of uses can be made of a human cadaver. Some of them are utilitarian, such as using ground-up human remains for crop fertilizer or for filler in artificial reefs. Other uses are more humanitarian, as in education and research for the advancement of medicine and science. Corpses or parts of corpses are used beneficially as teaching tools in medical education or as practice tools for health care providers. Preserved human remains appear in museums and exhibitions that teach about human evolution and anatomy. Corpses as subjects of scientific research contribute to therapeutic advances in medical knowledge. A basic...

    • Chapter 8 The Cadaver as Teacher, Research Subject, or Forensic Witness
      (pp. 177-210)

      Most people assume that death ends their period of service to fellow human beings and seek to implement their historic entitlement to quiet repose. They contemplate a final disposition that allows their remains to rest in peace. They worry only about the comparative dignity of various means of disposal, the associated costs, and the toll on surviving loved ones.

      A different paradigm of final disposition abjures quiet repose in favor of postmortem service to humanity. The previous chapter notes a cadaver’s opportunities to save or improve human lives by supplying critical body parts for transplantation. Further opportunities to benefit humanity...

    • Chapter 9 The Cadaver as Parent
      (pp. 211-236)

      It is not easy for cadavers either to become or to function as parents. Though necrophiliacs may try all sorts of sexual stimulation, the inert cadaver will not respond. Normal means of sexual reproduction are out. Nor can cadavers serve as the nurturing, directive parents that child rearing demands. There are other ineffective parents in the world, but none so dormant as a cadaver.

      These obstacles to parenting, though, do not prevent a cadaver from becoming a genetic parent. The most prosaic scenario is one in which a male impregnates a female and then dies during the ensuing pregnancy that...

  7. Part IV Abuses of the Cadaver:: What Does Decency Demand?
    • Chapter 10 Body Snatching, Then and Now
      (pp. 239-253)

      The archetype of cadaver abuse is grave robbing. Purloining a human body or its parts is a serious offense to all interests associated with human remains. While the corpse may not physically sense disturbance to its sepulcher, “rest in peace” has always been considered an appropriate approach to disposal of human remains. And because the cadaver is a powerful symbol of the decedent, its mistreatment strongly affects the feelings of survivors.

      Most Americans have chosen sepulcher—below or above ground—as a dignified means of final disposal. That a corpse, once decently buried, is entitled to quiet repose is a...

    • Chapter 11 Desecration of Human Remains
      (pp. 254-275)

      Since time immemorial, the human cadaver has been regarded as a sacrosanct entity entitled to dignity and respect. Because of the human aspects of cadavers—whether due to their human origin or to the continuation of a deceased’s memories in survivors—the concept of dignity has extended to the treatment of cadavers. As noted in chapters 2 and 3, society protects interests in postmortem bodily integrity as an element of postmortem human dignity. In the Anglo-American tradition, families take possession of their relative’s cadaver for the purpose of providing a respectful final disposition—usually after funerary rites (such as a...

    • Chapter 12 Public Display and the Dignity of Human Remains
      (pp. 276-294)

      Since Gunther von Hagens started the Body Worlds traveling exhibitions of plastinated corpses and body parts in 1995, over twenty-five million people worldwide have viewed these displays of the marvels of human body systems. (The plastination process for extracting liquids from cadavers and creating polymer-reinforced cadaveric tissue is described in chapter 6.) In the exhibitions, various plastinated figures highlight different aspects of body function. The circulatory system, respiratory functioning, neurological networks, the gastrointestinal tract from mouth to anus, and the interconnections of muscles and ligaments are vividly reproduced—usually in contrasting colors and with clear labels and explanations.¹ Though the...

    • Chapter 13 Don’t Neglect the Fate of Your Remains
      (pp. 295-302)

      Now that we have examined the nature, duration, and utility of the human cadaver, it is time to consider the implications of this study. How might the fate of your cadaveric remains be affected by this book’s findings?

      Certain commonalities and continuities between corpses and their living predecessors account for the quasi-human status attributed to human remains (see chapter 2). One of the commonalities of living humans and cadavers is appearance. A person who dies is normally readily identifiable after death as the same person, albeit in a defunct status. The cadaver contains the same brain and heart that only...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 303-332)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 333-350)
  10. List of Cases
    (pp. 351-354)
  11. Index
    (pp. 355-372)