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.
Posted in cadaver
Tagged abortion, anatomy, biology, bodies, Body World, bone, cadaver, circulatory, corpse, curiosity, development, education, ethic, exhibit, muscle, museum, nervous, nervous system, organ, preservation, preserve, science
With such importance placed on rituals and disposal of the body, we think we have taken care of the body and given it a final resting place. But what if someone was to come along and dig it up? We would be outraged, demanding the return of the body and punishment for the perpetrator right?
Saxon Burial (Photo from Wessex Archaeology http://www.flickr.com/photos/wessexarchaeology/8469631615/sizes/m/in/photostream/)
Well, this is exactly what archaeologists do when they encounter ancient burials. They methodically remove the contents of the grave (including the body) and scientifically examine the remains. An Anglo-Saxon sarcophagus, for instance, has just been opened for examination:
Is this ethical? Usually, no one makes a fuss when it’s a pagan burial, such as one from Druid culture or ancient Greek culture, but what if it was a Christian burial? Archaeologists will excavate relatively recent remains (in their viewpoint) from only a couple centuries ago. A field school in Italy explicitly excavates in a churchyard cemetery:
How recent is too recent though? When a body must be exhumed nowadays, it is very traumatic for the family and many people say that it is disrespectful to the deceased person. Is excavating a grave the same thing? Is it okay since there is no living family or community connected with corpse? An article from the Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/1056932) discusses how ethics come into play in burial archaeology. When dealing with human remains, archaeologist must be respectful of how the cultures would want their remains to be handled and they often come into conflict with native people (such as the conflict with Native American tribes as mentioned in the article).
We must weigh the benefits against the damage that burial archaeology entails. I think that what we learn by excavating these graves outweighs the damage that excavation causes. We learn about the culture of the deceased person as well as general trends of how humans deal with death. Just like exhuming a body for forensic analysis in a criminal case will be worth the emotional pain for the valuable evidence it provides.
Eating your way out of your grave sounds like something from an old kooky horror television show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; in renaissance Venice, it was a terrifying reality. According to folklore, a corpse-turned-vampire would chew its way through its funerary shroud and emerge from the grave as a fully-fledged “traditional” vampire. The only way to defeat the vampire was to wedge a brick in the corpse’s mouth to prevent it from chewing. This particular myth of the vampire was perpetuated by the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries. Plague victims were buried in mass graves; when another person died, the grave was reopened to add their body and once opened, the gravediggers met with a very unfortunate surprise. The corpses already inside the grave seemed to have already attempted to eat themselves out; the shroud covering the mouth had been worn through and stained very dark. The terrified grave diggers would shove a brick into the “vampire’s” mouth to make it unable to chew and then re-bury it. Had the shroud been stained by the draining blood that the vampires had drunk before being buried?
Skull of an “exorcised” vampire
Not really. This dark stain was caused by a fluid created from the decay of the gastrointestinal tract contents and lining that had then poured out through the nose and mouth. The worn cloth was the result of putrid gases and moisture produced by the decaying corpse. Even the gaping mouth is natural. Everything that made the corpses “vampires” was really just the normal process of decomposition.
You can read more about the Venetian vampires here: http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/halloween/plague.html
The superstition surrounding these particular vampires resulted from a misunderstanding of the process of decay. In whatever time you live in, digging up a grave and exposing a bloated corpse with a black gaping chasm in place of its mouth would be terrifying, but at least now we have the medical knowledge to understand that the corpse has only undergone natural processes of decomposition. Without our modern information though, how would you possibly explain this horrible discovery?
People had to come up with a reason of why this corpse was so terrifying. Postmortem changes such as algor mortis (the cooling of the body) and rigor mortis (the temporary stiffening of the muscles) were known at this time but the corpse was usually interred in the ground while they were still in effect, especially if it was the body of a plague victim. Naturally then, the corpse had to be alive to move.
The fear of these “vampires” embodies our fear of the corpse. As a quasi-object, nothing is really definite about the corpse, except that it is dead. So when a corpse comes back to life, our world turns on its head because now we don’t know anything for certain at all. That death was apparently not permanent prompted thoughts of evil or Satanic involvement. Since 16th century Italians were strongly Christian, the Devil’s interferences in the human world were real and terrifying.
Vampire folklore is not peculiar to 16th century Venice. Other “vampire burials” have been discovered by archaeologists in places like Bulgaria, Poland, and even the Greek islands. Many of the old cultures of Europe as well as around the world have their own version of the vampire. They all also had their own ways of dealing with them. Bulgaria, for instance, buried their vampires with iron stakes through their chests (read more here: http://archive.archaeology.org/1209/trenches/sozopol_bulgaria_black_sea_burial_skeletons.html). Did all of these cultures come up with the idea of a vampire based on the misunderstood decomposition of the corpse? Or is it simply our imagination running away with the personification of our fear of death?