Death Stories: Slice, Part 6

Go to the beginning of this story

The interior of the corpse became an object of public curiosity.  In 1632 the surgeons’ guild responsible for the public dissection of a petty criminal commissioned Rembrandt to paint the event.  The result was his group portrait Doctor Nicolaes Tulp Demonstrating the Anatomy of the Arm.  It was roughly the equivalent of putting an Elk’s Club fund-raiser in the newspaper today.  This was not Rembrandt’s only painting of a dissection, nor was he the only artist to incorporate graphic autopsies in his work.  The dissection became, in fact, a minor subgenre spanning periods and styles, attempted by a range of artists familiar (Eakins, Hogarth) and otherwise.


About two hundred years ago, dissection went underground--or, at least, into the academy and the hospital, rarely to be seen by the layman. This circumstance was part of a general cultural trend toward hiding life’s unpleasantries; it presaged the rise of the funeral industry, which obviated the necessity for most people to handle the dead. The secrecy varnished dissection with a fresh coat of the sinister, as evidenced by such fictional horrors as Frankenstein.  This novel, published in 1818, resurrects the Faust myth in anatomical terms. 

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

 His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

 Mary Shelley

Another indicator of public unease on anatomical matters was the case of Burke and Hare.  These resourceful men made money by supplying corpses, often stolen from graves, to medical students.  Burke and Hare weren’t the only “resurrection men” of their day. What set them apart was their eminently logical shortcut of murdering people instead of digging them up.  This method was not only more efficient than scouting out and disenterring the recently dead, but it also, in an unforeseen benefit for their possibly unwitting buyers, produced fresher specimens.  Burke even developed the habit of killing by suffocation so as to leave the corpses undamaged.  Robert Louis Stevenson fictionalized their case in “The Body Snatchers.”

The Resurrection Man--to use a by-name of the period--was not to be deterred by any of the sanctities of customary piety. It was part of his trade to despise and desecrate the scrolls and trumpets of old tombs, the paths worn by the feet of worshippers and mourners, and the offerings and the inscriptions of bereaved affection. To rustic neighbourhoods, where love is more than commonly tenacious, and where some bonds of blood or fellowship unite the entire society of a parish, the body-snatcher, far from being repelled by natural respect, was attracted by the ease and safety of the task. To bodies that had been laid in earth, in joyful expectation of a far different awakening, there came that hasty, lamp-lit, terror-haunted resurrection of the spade and mattock. The coffin was forced, the cerements torn, and the melancholy relics, clad in sackcloth, after being rattled for hours on moonless byways, were at length exposed to uttermost indignities before a class of gaping boys.

 Somewhat as two vultures may swoop upon a dying lamb, Fettes and Macfarlane were to be let loose upon a grave in that green and quiet resting-place. The wife of a farmer, a woman who had lived for sixty years, and been known for nothing but good butter and a godly conversation, was to be rooted from her grave at midnight and carried, dead and naked to that far-away city that she had always honoured with her Sunday's best; the place beside her family was to be empty till the crack of doom; her innocent and almost venerable members to be exposed to that last curiosity of the anatomist.

 Robert Louis Stevenson

The scandal that resulted from the Burke and Hare case stirred up that near-supernatural dread of the medical profession which seems to be always potential in our culture.  It’s also a revealing indicator of our attitudes toward the bodies of the dead.  Even though being buried in the ground is a sure way to destroy a body through rot (even if it’s embalmed), we find it uniquely objectionable if someone steals a corpse or its parts, destroying the body in some other way. On the whole, though, the Western world was silent about dissection until the end of the 20th century, when new technologies suddenly made anatomy more available to the average person than it ever had been. Now surgeries could be viewed on cable TV or on the internet.

The paradoxical power of the internet to both democratize and depersonalize has never been clearer than in the case of the Visible Humans.  Jernigan and his anonymous female counterpart are the most intensely known human bodies in the world.  But, because they have been converted to data, their bodies don’t seem to invoke the taboo against dealing with corpses; they’ve been dehumanized.  When they first announced the Visible Human Project to the public, the scientists involved prepared carefully for the press conference; they feared the whole idea would come across as macabre.  They needn’t have worried; many of the reporters who had come to the press conference left before it even began to cover a breaking story, the jail-house murder of amateur anatomist Jeffrey Dahmer.  Those who remained handled it with equanimity.

Jernigan willed his body to medical science.  He never knew he would become an object of public scrutiny.  In the eyes of some observers, he has been violated on the largest scale imaginable.  But if the promise of the Visible Human Project is realized, his violation will soon obviate the need for other human corpses to be cut open after death.

Human corpses, no matter how well preserved, will always lose the battle with decomposition, fungi, scavengers, and insects, even if it takes thousands of years.  Even mummies that survive for millenia undergo drastic chemical and physical changes.  But because Paul Jernigan and the virtual people to follow him have passed from the physical to the virtual, they may survive as long as human technology does.

Which brings us to another innovation in anatomy. But let’s save that for the next installment.



Show more