From Body Snatching to Ecoburials: storing, reusing and recycling waste

We’ve come a long way from the 19th century body snatching. Or have we?

Back then, a legitimate career choice, body snatching was done in the name of scientific advancements: facilitating the dissection of bodies in medical schools and anatomy labs. A noble cause, yes?

Because of the stigma surrounding acts like illegal body snatching, it is a highly negated issue, and if not linked to anatomy is linked to even more contentious motivations involving the selling of human bodies for illicit purposes.

However, with the growing scepticism involving the burial of human waste on a much larger scale, perhaps the concept of body snatching is not so horrifying after all.  The storage of human waste is indeed becoming a problem. Shrouded in religious sentiment, human burial is something so intrinsic in our society norms that the repercussions are only just being fully realised. The repercussions fall into two categories: the first is the space problem. With the trend of a vastly growing population, with burial remaining a highly utilised form of waste disposal, at some point it going to be difficult to find the space to continue burying bodies. With the advent of embalming, this becomes even more difficult when we have to take into consideration the toxicity that is produced (for instance, a gravesite with embalmed bodies could not easily be converted into something else). The second category is based more on the potential missed-trick when it comes to burying human bodies. Everybody can appreciate the spirituality involved in burial, but in practical terms, it is extremely wasteful. If throwing consumer waste onto a landfill is considered uneconomical and environmentally unfriendly, then surely burying bodies in enclosed caskets is similarly short-sighted?

In this way, is not body snatching, the illegitimate occupation of the 19th century, the first form of real body recycling? Perhaps we should be championing such ingenuity (if it had not been for purely monetary purposes). What I mean by this is: is there really much difference between this, and some of the ways in which our contemporary society is encouraging ‘body recycling’?

Recycling the human body comes in different forms. It can be done with living bodies, with or without a detrimental effect on the body (blood donation, organ donation, tissue transplants etc). Is this very different from the anatomist stealing bodies from the graveyard? Okay, don’t answer that. But it can also come in the form of donating the body to science after death, or to a body farm like in Tennessee Medical Centre or even to an artistic project, like Gunther von Hagens BodyWorks that are popping up all over the world (the last one I visited was Amsterdam, which had a ‘love’ theme and was deliciously disturbing. It featured male and female corpses arranged in undignified poses, with what I can only assume were complete corpse-strangers). We would consider all of these (perhaps with the exception of BodyWorks) to be venerable causes and no doubt examples of ways we can recycle our bodies, to do some good, but also help alleviate the waste crisis. After all, why let the body rot underground when it can go to some medical, educational or even artistic, purpose?

On the flipside, if burial is still at the forefront of our minds, there are now really cool ways that we can ‘have the best of both worlds’ as it were, and “enjoy” a burial, but also make sure we are not contributing to underground overcrowding. I want to share two examples which I think are particularly fascinating. The first is ecoburial – sounds great, doesn’t it? The idea is that who needs fancy caskets and impenetrable coffins? LET THE BUGS IN. Companies like Promessa are specialising in Ecological burials. They bravely say:

We all die. That’s just how life goes.

What happens to you in the afterlife depends on your beliefs.

What happens to your body after life depends on your choice.

How brilliant. This is persuasive on so many levels: reduce your carbon footprint (even after you die), allow your body to be food for the earth, and, on an economic level, reduce the huge financial burden that traditional funerals can cost. Other companies take this idea even further by providing the extra incentive of a modernised gravestone. Gravestones are cumbersome and ugly. If you are going to have an ecoburial, why not be transformed into a tree? Can you imagine? Gone are the days of graveyards; instead let there be human-forests. This is the future.

Another option is something even more cutting edge, and it’s called the Afterlife Project, conducted in 2009. It involves actually getting energy from a corpse – retrieving actual energy from a dead body and converting it into usable fuel in the form of charging a battery using a microbial fuel cell. Very cool.

The more I research about recycling the human body, the more excited I am at the prospect of a life after death in the most literal form. What can be done with my body after I die? I am spoilt for choice. I hope that the traditional funeral business, and particularly the embalming business, continues to be named and shamed as an ineffective, unnecessary and highly damaging way to dispose of human waste. I would much rather my relatives visit a tree than having the so-called Memory Picture of my corpse injected with toxins, prodded and plucked and altered until it resembles an uncanny version of my better days. No thanks.

Layla Hendow

PhD researcher at University of Hull


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