Category Archives: cadaver

Ebola: Public Safety Issue or Cultural Violation?

Locals observe foreign health officials burying an Ebola victim. WHO Guidelines for Ebola Burials

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak claimed about 11,000 lives and transcended country borders. Ebola presents with frightening symptoms: more frightening was that it kept spreading. Thanks to Anthropologists, health officials knew why: local burial practices endangered the lives of those partaking in burial rituals. We will look at how those practices influenced Ebola policies and procedures:

Initial Resistance

When the first responders to Ebola came to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, they were determined to stop Ebola’s transmission at any cost. The Ebola virus is transferred through infectious bodily fluids, so foreign health officials took over disposing of the dead and developed a procedure to handle mass casualties. The African locals did not respond well to this practice, often resisting health officials’ efforts to bury the dead.

Anthropologists’ Observations

Anthropologists were tasked with understanding the locals’ resistance. Anthropologists discovered common practices and beliefs among locals:

  1. Handling of the body with the bare hands
  2. “Love Touch”: loved ones either touch the face or lie on top of the deceased in order to unify the living and ancestral spirits, and even receive spiritual gifts from the deceased.
  3. Importance of a proper burial: many locals believe in life after death. If a proper burial does not occur, then the deceased cannot achieve spirithood, and therefore the angry spirit will return and punish the living relatives.
  4. Mistrust of government: foreign health officials had to have communicated with the government to assist, so many Africans thought their governments did not respect them. As a result, many locals mistrusted their leaders and did not want to comply.


Anthropologists realized that in isolating deceased Ebola victims, the health officials were dishonoring locals’ culture and beliefs. Anthropologists relayed these findings to policymakers, who formed coalitions with government officials, tribal and religious leaders in order to come up with burial techniques that would honor the dead and living while halting Ebola.  As a result, locals allowed their leaders and foreign officials to assist and Ebola transmission slowed. It was one of the first times that foreign health officials recognized that religious and cultural practices and political beliefs strongly influence health promotion techniques on an epidemic level. They adjusted their procedures accordingly.


It was important to recognize the cultural factors at play, but was recognition and adjustment too late? How many have to die before world aid organizations adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate many different cultures and societies? Although these organizations are powerful, they sometimes adopt a “savior” mentality, and forget that they can still learn. Another outbreak could happen: public safety is of great importance, but so is cultural relativism.

Works Cited:

Manguvo, Angellar and Benford Mafuvadze.”The Impact of Traditional and Religious Practices on Spread of Ebola in West Africa.” The Pan African Medical Journal. Vol 22 Issue 9. 10 October 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017.

Maxmen, Amy. “How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions.” National Geographic. 30 Jan 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017.

Tibetan Sky Burials

Sky burials (or celestial burials, as they are also called) are the burial rites of choice for the Tibetans. After a member of the community has died, the body is cut into pieces by a Burial Master, and then taken to a selected site, usually in an area of high elevation. This is because the corpse is then supposed to be eaten by vultures, who tend to congregate at higher altitudes. After the vultures have consumed the body, the belief is that they take the body away to heavens where the soul of the deceased person remains until they are ready for their next reincarnation. This practice is believed to have been practiced for as many as 11,000 years, but there is little written evidence, or physical evidence, due to the fact that the remains are ingested by the vultures or other animals.

For Tibetans, the sky burial serves both practical and spiritual functions. Often, the ground is frozen, making it difficult to dig graves, making sky burials an appealing alterative. Also, some of the central values in Tibetan culture revolve around being humble, generous, and honoring of nature; sky burials allow the physical bodies of Tibetans to be returned to the earth in a way that generously provides a meal for the vultures and very minimally disturbs the earth. Because of their belief in reincarnation, death is seen as more of a transition as opposed to an ending. They believe the soul moves on from the body at the very instant of death, leaving very little room for attachment to the physical body after death. In fact, in order for the soul of the person to have an easy transition into their next life, the Tibetans believe there should be no trace left of the physical body after death, providing another advantage of this practice.

Sohma, Marina. “Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead.” Ancient Origins. N.p., 15 Nov. 2016. Web.

The Artistic and Scientific Body: a Historical Comparison

The human cadaver has different meanings based on context, and these meanings dictate differential treatment of the cadaver. How has this phenomenon manifested throughout history?

Classical Era

Post-mortem dissection is used to understand the human body. Yet, the practice was scarce in the second century C.E because it was considered a taboo; many feared that it would mar the body. As a result, those who still wanted to understand anatomy and physiology–without compromising the corpse’s integrity–resorted to animal dissections. Galen of Pergamum, a Greek philosopher and physician, often used primate cadavers in his studies. Obviously, primate anatomy is not equivalent to human anatomy, so we cannot take all of Galen’s conclusions at face value. Nevertheless, Galen’s vast array of works were passed on as truth.


The Renaissance was a time of intellectual curiosity and revisiting antiquity; many of Galen’s works resurfaced. Art was also on the rise, so it should not come as a surprise that Renaissance ideals affected perceptions of the body. Thus, many felt that the value of the corpse was not in its untouched preservation; instead, the corpse’s value was its potential for beauty and discovery.

Anatomist Andreas Vesalius channeled these dualistic Renaissance values by meshing art and science together to make comprehensive anatomical textbook de Humani corporis Fabrica libri septum. In Latin, his text outlines the mechanics and placement of organs (including some of Galen’s missteps). Paired with the descriptions are detailed images of flayed corpses with toned muscles, and nature scenery in the backdrop. Often, the full corpses’ poses represent allegories. Vesalius is credited with creating a more holistic, accurate portrayal of the human body, but I believe he is also responsible for altering perceptions of the corpse. Vesalius proved that the body was functional but also beautiful. These pictures showcase the cadaver as a masterpiece brimming with vitality that one can admire with awe and reverence.


Do these perceptions still hold true today? One can argue that the Body World exhibit displays cadavers in order to educate and fascinate guests. On the other hand, open casket viewings simply depict the corpse in its finest form, as if still alive. For current medical students, the corpse is a learning opportunity: human cadavers serve as excellent teaching tools for practicing sutures, exploring anatomy, and adjusting to death’s presence.

We ascribe values to the cadaver that are relative to our environments, but often we are influenced by our past. Will these values change? If so, what will they be? Only time will tell.


Galen. Charles Singer, trans. Galen: On Anatomical Procedures. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Garrison, Fielding H. Principles of Anatomic Illustration Before Vesalius: An Inquiry into the Rationale of Artistic Anatomy. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, Inc., 1926.

Robecht Van Hee, ed. Art of Vesalius. Antwerp: Garant Publishers, 2014.

Sigerist, Henry E. “The Foundation of Human Anatomy in the Renaissance.” Sigma Xi Quarterly 22.1 (1934): 8–12. Web 9 Feb 2017. JSTOR.

Head Transplants: the next medical feat?

The Idea

Professor Sergio Canavero wants to be the first surgeon ever to perform a head transplant. He claims that this could happen within the next year and that there are many volunteers willing to participate. He claims that despite the risk, there are many interested participants and the surgery will most likely take place in the UK, Germany or France.

The Patient

Valery Spiridonov is a 31-year-old man with Werdnig-Hoffman’s (muscle-wasting disease) who is willing to have his head transplanted onto a different body.

How it would work

All in all, the transplant would require a team of 150 medical professionals and 36 hours to complete. The first step would require freezing the head and body to stop brain cells from dying. The trickiest part of the surgery will involve cutting the spinal cord. Canavero claims a special knife made of diamonds will be used because of its strength and precision. The head will then be removed and the spinal cord glued to the donor. The testing of the procedure will be done on brain-dead donors to see how they recover neuro-physiologically.

The Questions

While many medical experts around the world claim his theories are science fiction and a head transplant is not feasible, Canavero claims that the surgery will have a success rate of 90%. If it is possible to perform a head transplant, than there are many questions that I have. Firstly, how would someone cope with living in a completely new body? More importantly, would they be the same person or would they change? Many questions are also raised about who the donor and recipient would be and what the requirements are to participate. I think while an interesting idea, many ethical questions are raised by the idea of a head transplant.

More information:

History of Cannibalism and Cultural Differences

From one of our initial discussions in class, the subject of cannibalism stuck out to me because I didn’t know too much about it. Having grown up in a modern, developed society, most of us have an intrinsic aversion to this concept (at least I would hope)— eating another human being’s flesh is unfathomable and inhumane. However, do all societies feel this way and has it always been this way? And the answer is no.

I think a good place to start would be from an evolutionary standpoint, after all human beings are simply organisms— a highly adapted and specialized species— nonetheless, mere animals. In the animal kingdom, the ingestion of other members of species is not uncommon, and is in fact, a strategy for survival. In many species, eating another member is natural, even logical, in that you’re increasing your own fitness, while eliminating competition. This practice is seen in cobras, fish, praying mantis, spiders, cats, lobsters, octopuses, sharks, polar bears, and crabs, to name a few. So, I guess I can understand how an argument could be made that it wouldn’t be that weird for a human to eat another human (I mean I still think it’s incredibly unsettling though). But my research showed that, in fact, cannibalism was a rather common part of human history.

Both archeological and genetic accounts indicate that cannibalism has been practiced for thousands of years and were an important part of rituals and cultures (ex. removing the flesh, by eating, before burying the bones) and of survival (during periods of food shortages and starvation). There are many instances throughout history that we see cannibalism (Fun fact: for a while in the 16th century, Egyptian mummies were ground up and sold as medicine) and even some cannibalistic accounts exist still even today. While researching for this post, I ran into an interesting book written by Beth Conklin: Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, which depicts modern cannibalistic practices in the Wari’ Indian tribe of the Amazonian rainforest, as an expression of compassion and a way for the loved ones to grieve and accept their loss. She explores their concept and culture of person, body, and spirit to explain why they prefer cannibalism to cremation or other burial practices, which I thought was a novel, yet interesting, take on this concept.

Then, when did we begin to see our Western cultural aversion in society? I contend that it was a myriad of factors: the increase in life longevity, religious practices and views, legal restrictions on fundamental human rights, and perhaps most importantly, an increase in interpersonal relations. In the past, disease was rampant, which meant lifespans were short. You didn’t really have time to form bonds and relations with other people, whether it be with your family or friends. Because the increase in scientific and medical knowledge and technology, our life expectancies are longer and intimate relationships are more likely to continue for years. This allowed for the development and stability of interpersonal relationships, which remain an important resource across our lifespan now, significantly reducing the need/ desire for cannibalism.

The Bodies Exhibit

I recently visited the Bodies exhibit at Atlantic Station which features anatomical presentations of preserved human corpses. They kind of ease you in. The exhibit opens tamely with a segmented human skull in a plexiglass box. The next room has a skeleton and a series of other bones. That’s when I turned, after staring at a few pieces of vertebrae, to see a cadaver with the skin peeled away; skeletal muscle fully exposed, gripping a basketball in an athletic stance, staring back. Something about knowing it was real, that this had once been a living person, made it different than any previous attempt to teach me anatomy. I was shocked and honestly a little scared. I had to force myself to come closer, some part of me fully expecting him to burst into violent life. It’s strange, but I think it may be the first time I’d seen a human corpse in person. It took a moment for my morbid fascination to make room for scientific curiosity, but something about the combination of those two feelings formulated the sensation of awe. It was almost as if I felt obligated to look closely, as a matter of respect, to the people who provided their bodies. It was incredible to look at the intricate musculature laid bare before me and know that something similar and just as complex was inside me, taken utterly for granted. Natural selection simply hadn’t required that degree of self awareness.

As we continued through the exhibit a friend of mine repeated several times that he would like to donate his body to something like this when he dies. When I pressed him further he said it was appealing to be useful even after he died, to be a part of someone else’s learning, but he also alluded to the desire to be preserved so thoroughly. Wanting to be preserved after death had never exactly made sense to me. I’d always seen it, frankly, as clinging to an existence that has certainly fled through an arrangement of matter you happen to identify with. Considering this again, while standing in front of another corpse presented as art indicated an alternative motivation. The human body is simply beautiful and while I still don’t personally care if I am preserved, I understand why someone might think it a shame to let themselves rot.

I think that beauty is seated in the functional complexity of the body and staring fascinated at humble displays of the nervous and circulatory systems I had moments near worship. I study biology, but this reminded me why. Imagining or viewing an image of the human anatomy pales in comparison to the visceral understanding of seeing the real thing, knowing every nerve and artery was meticulously divorced from the surrounding flesh. Equally striking and immeasurably more disturbing was the exhibit on development. Separated by a wall of curtains and caked in thorough disclaimers lay a series of plexiglass cylinders illustrating the progression by weeks of embryo to infant. Another friend couldn’t help herself from blurting out something about magic every few seconds and I couldn’t blame her. To me it was strange how soon we started looking like a person, it quickly became apparent how politicized the issue of abortion has become. I had more or less unthinkingly supported the doctrine of “pro-choice” without having any real understanding of what a fetus even looked like. I wouldn’t say I altered my stance, but looking at a twenty-week-old fetus the issue suddenly seemed more ethically charged than it had a moment before.

The exhibit closed with a cadaver posed to be waving goodbye and a statement to the effect that it’s easy to go about our daily life, but critical to take time to ponder our origins. In fact, I found my mind making subtle adjustments to mental models. Organs I would have imagined to be bigger were smaller, structures I would have thought to be simpler were more intricate. Everything varied slightly, nothing was the same. Scientifically inclined or not I fell victim to subtle inaccuracy and assumption. More abstractly, we’ve designed a standardized system of education based on imperfect idealized models of reality and assumed that this is somehow more effective or efficient than tangible experience. I think we all have a fragment of faulty understanding that we can only correct by personally examining reality. But please — don’t take my word for it.

Valle de los caídos

One of my favorite aspects of my study abroad experience in Spain last spring was learning about the recent history of the country, mostly pertaining to Franco’s rule. Many Americans are not taught this history in school and I had little to no knowledge of Franco before I arrived in Spain. Francisco Franco or “el Generalissimo”  was head of state for Spain from the late 1930s until he died in 1975. He assumed power after the civil war in the 1930s between the Republicans and the Nationalists (a sect of fascism). Being a military man that fought for Spain in North Africa, he ruled the country with strict rules and regulations. Soon, his rule turned into a dictatorship. Franco’s nationalists were supported by Hitler and Mussolini, which demonstrates the oppression found in the country at the time of the civil war and at the early points of Franco’s reign. The country was closed off to the rest of the world for many years until a tourism boom in the 1950s exposed the country to the other European countries and even the U.S. The oppression and violence Franco used during his rule has had everlasting effects on the Spanish population, which is why his burial and gravesite continue to be so controversial.


photo by Jaume Escofet

photo by emercado90

photo by emercado90

With this quick background knowledge, I imagine you can believe that Franco is a sore spot in history for many of the Spanish. It seems unlikely that his grave would turn into a tourist site right? Well that is the opposite of the case. His funeral and open casket drew huge numbers of people to the cathedral in Madrid. Many people can be seen crying in the news coverage. Another large part of the population that attended his funeral were there to show their hatred and disdain for the dictator. While Franco was still alive, he had Republican prisoners start building his memorial site right outside of Madrid. He purposely chose the spot he did because it is close to the resting places of the Spanish kings at El Escorial. The building is massive. When driving between Madrid and Northwest Spain, you can easily see the Valley of the Fallen from the highway. It has a towering cross and a huge mausoleum complex buried in the hill. As I have heard, after Franco’s death and burial the monument was spun to represent the fallen during the Spanish Civil War. The building is extremely controversial and the Spanish are not sure what to do with the monument.

photo by Javier Lastras

photo by Javier Lastras

Do you allow a building to continue to stand that symbolizes so much oppression? Is it possible to repurpose this gravesite to mean something else? Spain has an intriguing law, la ley de la memoria, that has condemned Franco’s rule and has mandated that all street names and other references to Franco be changed. I believe it is difficult to change this monument because it pertains to death and may disrespect the dead if there are any changes to the monument. The law also prohibits political events to take place at the site of Franco’s grave. This demonstrates that there still are tensions in the community due to the dictatorship and the sight of the grave of a controversial leader can reignite these fractures in society. Because the Valley of the Fallen houses many other victims of the Civil War, it is almost impossible to know how to approach this issue without hurting the individuals involved.  Franco’s grave presents an example of how even after someone dies, their influence can continue and can be perpetuated by how they were buried.

Who’s the Real Pirate?

One of the most controversial attractions to have entered and taken root in Atlanta is the BODIES Exhibition. A science based exhibit, the museum of sorts has numerous real human bodies in various poses on display while other sections analyze specific parts or components of the human body and systems such as the brain. Aside from the arguments surrounding the acquirement of the bodies themselves, many drew conflict with the concept of placing someone’s remains on public display. Those arguments have diminished over the years as the angle of the exhibit is pushed to encourage scientific learning and medical education for all levels. BODIES, however, is certainly not the first (or likely last) tourist attraction that has used the human corpse as a means of revenue.

Looking at an earlier, less ominous example brings us to the amusement park Disneyland. Built in the mid-60s, the popular ride attraction “Pirates of the Caribbean” draws in numbers of park visitors. Sitting in a boat, visitors are taken through a bayou-like environment passing many ‘piratical’ scenes. Use of sculptures, audio effects, and animatronics, all bring the pirates and their rambunctious natures alive for guests. Our society today tries to achieve realism in games, films, and other media forms in order to enrapture the viewer in an experience. This same drive was present back in 1967 when Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers (Disney imagine engineers) created the attraction. After having spent so much time and money on the rest of the attraction in terms of props and wardrobes, the fake skeletons of the time paled in comparison to the rest of the environment’s realism. The inclusion of fake, full skeletons and skull cross and bones throughout the ride did not fit and by general consent, the team agreed to put in real human remains in their place. Taking remains from the UCLA Medical Center’s anatomy department, the Disney Imagineers placed skeletons throughout and profited from the parks’ visitors who essentially entered a highly decorated morgue, likely not knowing of the ‘props’ realism.

Disney claims they have fully removed the real human remains and replaced them with actual props (now more easily crafted to look realistic) but some viewers are still skeptical, leading to investigations of the ride. Analysis has shown a couple of skeletal remains were in fact still present in the ride and there are a few more that are still suspected. It’s surprising that once those pieces were found, they were not instantly removed and returned to their proper countries of origin and laid to rest in a proper burial as the others were. Granted, that claim also leads one to question how the remains were identified to belong to a certain country or family if they were previously donated from the medical center.

Regardless of whether Disney has or has not removed all previously living skeletal remains, it’s still disturbing that one not only took the remains of humans who donated their bodies for science but instead put them in a children’s amusement park propped up to look like discarded pirates. At this point, it also does not matter if the bodies were properly returned because the damage is already done. Disney will continue to profit off of the real human remains and it’s lingering legacy as long as people continue to propagate the idea that there are still real skeletons among the fake in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

BODIES: The Exhibit Atlanta website:

Link to Disney Article:

Halloween and the Dead

coffin netherworld

Last weekend, a friend and I went to the Netherword Haunted House event on Halloween. We went around 6pm, in hopes of avoiding large lines, but we still waited 40 minutes before entering the house. Some people were in costumes and most, like myself, were in casual attire with a terrified facial expression. It was my first and last time going inside a haunted house.

In class we’ve discussed how funerary practices and mortuary services often require some financial contribution, which supports the idea that associating with the dead creates a profit. In regards to Halloween, stores are able to raise their prices of candy, costumes, and pumpkins, which further  commercialize the holiday. According to various pieces of literature, Halloween is believed to be a time where the veil between the living and the dead is lifted. But the holiday can easily be associated with the fall season. Which is marked by the end of the harvest, leaves falling, and animals entering a state of hibernation, as we approach the “dead” of winter.

Halloween serves as a holiday influenced by the event of death itself. Throughout the haunted house, there were many images and props of the “living dead.” There were also individuals in each corner wearing some form of costume that represented zombies and famous killers such as Michael Myers. I found it interesting how relaxed people seemed to be with such gruesome images of the dead. I was somewhat uncomfortable throughout the entire time, especially when I stepped inside the fake coffin. I felt as if I was mocking the dead.

Is it ethical to make money off the dead and their image?

“I Had To Eat a Piece of My Friend to Survive”

On October 13th, 1972, the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes mountain range in South America. There was a total of 45 passengers on the flight, and only 27 passengers survived the initial crash. Rescue parties searched extensively and after 10 days, the passengers were presumed dead and the search ceased.

Survivors desperately began to search for resources. These efforts soon became fruitless, as they continued to search on the snow covered mountain that lacked any natural vegetation or livestock. Under harsh weather conditions, the survivors were soon faced with a difficult and unforgiving choice. As a group, they made the collective decision to eat the flesh of their dead friends. Nando Parrado, one of the survivors states, “again and again I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing here but aluminum, plastic, ice, and rock” (Miracle In the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home). 

"Survivors: Passengers shelter near the tail of the Uruguayan plane which hit a mountain shrouded in mist as it flew from Santiago to Montevideo."

“Survivors: Passengers shelter near the tail of the Uruguayan plane which hit a mountain shrouded in mist as it flew from Santiago to Montevideo.”

What I found interesting was that the surviving passengers were all Roman Catholics, and initially, they were against the act of cannibalism,  but soon realized it was their only means of survival. They began to justify their actions with bible verses and compared the act of eating their dead friends to the rituals present in the Holy Communion. By using religious context to condone their behavior, it decreased their levels of guilt and humiliation. Many argued that the pain experienced by their loved ones would be more severe than the act of dying itself.

One of the survivors of the crash was a second year medical student, Roberto Canessa, who had successfully managed to objectify the deceased loved ones into sources of protein and fat. My question is, at what point do your friends and colleagues transform into simple cadavers, despite extreme conditions? Every individual has the right to be buried with dignity and in accordance with their personal beliefs, because even in death, they still maintain their identity as a human being.