The afterlife of our body parts
In Iowa, November is the month of death and decay. It begins with the four-day “Day of the Dead” celebration and ends, without baseball or tomatoes, in a post-Apocalyptic landscape of leafless trees, brown grass, dead fruit, plowed under crops and frozen grounds. In Greek mythology, this is the time when Hades, god of the underworld, took precedence over his brothers Zeus and Poseidon, gods of the heavens and the oceans. It was the time of mystery when frightened people wondered what happens to things after they die.
The Greek storytellers comforted them with the Eleusinian mysteries and the story of Persephone’s capture by Hades and her temporary stay in the underworld. Hades’ name meant “the unseen one” in ancient Greek, so his entire realm was the premiere mystery of antiquedom. Later religions lost track of Hades but never of the mystery surrounding him. Christianity’s main event, Christmas, follows November and celebrates the birth of a man-god who, like Persephone, rises from the dead each spring.
Most praying, of all kinds, has been a reflection on human anxiety that Persephone/Jesus, etc. continues to return — that there is something after death. Secular prayer, like love poetry, employs the same fear that there might be nothing without a partner in the mystery. Romeo kills himself because he can’t bear the idea, however wrong, that Juliet is gone. After all, he could barely bear the idea that Rosalind loved him not.
In “The Thieves,” Robert Graves expressed this anxiety in quantum terms:
“After, when they disentwine
You from me and yours from mine,
Neither can be certain who
Was that I whose mine was you.”
Brian Holland in the 1960s wrote “Where Did Our Love Go?” for Diana Ross and the Supremes to wail with Romeo-class hopelessness.
So, what is the state of the Eleusinian mysteries today? Things have changed a lot since Homer first wrote about Persephone’s dilemma more than 2,600 years ago. Hell, they have changed a lot since Ross first sang “Where Did Our Love Go?” Science has some answers, or at least some serious speculations, about things that have troubled humans since their progenitors found enough protein to grow brains large enough to speculate, and worry.
Let’s start with answers to a mystery that many people don’t want to know the answer to. What happens to our body parts after surgeries and death? Most go into 30 gallon containers that are picked up, along with needles and other, more common microbiological waste, for transport to incinerators or autoclaves (steam cleaners). Happily, today some body parts have life after death. Transplants are common now. Some body parts even get reattached to their original units. Five years ago, a man in Alaska had his penis cut off and flushed down a toilet by an angry girlfriend. (An action now known as “Bobbitting” after Lorena Bobbitt perfected the technique on her husband in 1993.) A municipal worker recovered the organ, and surgeons reattached it by the next morning.
How long can body parts last on their own and still be effective for reattachment or transplant? If they are kept cold enough, appendages such as fingers, ears and penises can be reattached a day or two later. As many as four days are speculated on some medical websites. In case you need to know someday, penises should be placed in plastic bags and then placed on ice. Don’t put the ice in the bag, as direct contact can cause frostbite and make reattachment much trickier. It’s hard enough to go through the rest of life with a surgically reattached penis. Don’t complicate things further with frostbite. Fingers and ears are even more durable than penises, but the same precautions should be taken with keeping them chilled.
Many organs are intentionally removed for transplant in other bodies. Almost every nation on earth requires that the donor be voluntary and either dead or, preferably, brain dead. If kept chilled properly, donated organs can remain viable for transplant for a few to many hours, although it is best if they are transplanted as quickly as possible. Kidneys have the longest life span outside the body, typically 19 hours but as many as 30. Pancreases are second, 14 to 24 hours. Then come livers and intestines, eight to 12 hours. A recent episode of “The Good Doctor” was based on an eight-hour race to reuse a liver. Hearts and lungs are the most challenging with somewhere between four and six hours before they become dead tissue studies in medical research facilities. (These numbers come from University of Michigan Transplant Center. Others vary but only slightly.)
Why are brain-dead donors preferable to totally dead ones? Organs are more likely to be good transplant candidates if they are removed from a body that still has blood circulation, hence a beating heart. Brain-dead transplants only amount to a small percentage of donors, though, so most organs are transplanted from higher-risk patients who have completely finished the death process.
The whore stole my organ
This led to one of the biggest urban rumors of all time: That wealthy business travelers in foreign countries were being lured by hot women, drugged and later woke up in hotel bathtubs with missing organs. According to Snopes, the ultimate authority on all rumors, there is no truth to this legend. That doesn’t stop TV writers from continuing to spread it, though.
Another rumor seems to have considerably more credibility. As detailed in the Peabody Award winning documentary film “Human Harvest,” vast numbers of Falun Gong (a philosophical discipline based in Buddhism) in China have been arrested and executed without being convicted. Many have had their organs transplanted, without consent, before they were dead. Chinese military doctors testified before U.S. Congress that they participated in such harvests. Chinese government authorities denied this, but statistics suggest this story has legs. In 2005, Chinese Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu acknowledged that up to 95 percent of transplant organs in China came from executed prisoners. Five years later, he proudly said that the number was down to 90 percent. Since China leads the world in organ transplants and organ transplant tourism, that is a hell of a lot of dead prisoners.
China isn’t doing anything new. The Brits invented the practice of cutting up executed prisoners in medical schools in the 17th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, anatomy schools became popular in England and Scotland. Criminals who were executed for their crimes were used as the first cadavers. After the passage of the Anatomy Act in 1832, only executed murderers could be used as cadavers. Demand increased as supply was limited and the profession of grave robber filled the gap. Famous anatomist Thomas Sewall, the personal physician for three U.S. presidents, was convicted in 1818 of digging up a corpse for dissection.
In London, the body snatcher profession became particularly grave in the 19th century. Hangings had reduced since the previous century from around 500 a year to about 50, creating demand for cadavers. In one of the more notorious incidences, the trial of John Bishop and Thomas Williams in 1832 led to confessions that they had stolen and sold as many as 1,000 bodies in a dozen years. They progressed to murdering young men and were executed. In a strange take on the ideal of honor among thieves, Bishop confessed everything except the location of the graves he robbed. He said he would not want to get the custodians of those cemeteries into any trouble.
A second infamous case of those days was that of William Burke and William Hare, who ran a boarding house in Scotland and supplied cadavers to James Knox’s medical school. Then Williams decided that the profit (9 pounds sterling per body) was worth expanding into murder. They got caught when a tenant found a dead body in her bed. Hare turned evidence on Burke for leniency. Burke was hanged and, in a sweet twist of Scottish irony, publicly dissected. Famed filmmaker John Landis came out of a long retirement to make a very dark comedy titled “Burke & Hare” in 2009. I highly recommend it to anyone who is still reading this story.
Less controversial was the case of William Harvey, the same man who is credited with discovering much of what we know about human circulation. He advanced his studies by dissecting the bodies of his father and sister.
There is a growing movement now called transhumanism, the belief that humans can transcend their current biological forms like antique cars can function on new replacement parts. The front line of this movement is formed with nonhuman animal parts. There is a brave new word for this — xenotransplantation. The first animal-to-human organ transplants were performed in the 1960s, but many of the patients didn’t survive long because their immune systems rejected the organs. Pigs, with DNA most similar to humans, are now the preferred source of organs, and pig valves are widely used in humans. The next step is to find ways to remove animal cells from the organ (a process known as decellularization) and replace them with a human patient’s own cells. Decellularized tissues and organs have been used in a wide array of applications, most prominently in skin grafts and bone grafts. That’s the future though. The current norm has little changed over four centuries.
Decomposition begins with autolysis, a.k.a. self-digestion. This is the period when the body’s cells are destroyed through the action of their own digestive enzymes. Liquid is created that gets between the layers of skin and makes it peel off. Flies start to lay eggs in the openings of the body. Hatched eggs, maggots, subsequently get under the skin and start to eat the body. The second stage is bloating. Bacteria in the gut begin to break down the tissues of the body. This occurs largely in the abdomen and sometimes in the mouth and genitals. The tongue often swells. Gas accumulation and bloating continues until the body is decomposed sufficiently for the gas to escape. The third stage is putrefaction. Larger body parts break down and tissues liquefy. The stomach, intestines, brain and lungs are the first to disintegrate. Under normal conditions, the organs are unidentifiable after three weeks. The muscles can be absorbed by bacteria or devoured by animals, no matter how many hours you went to the gym to work out. Eventually, all that remains are the bones. In acid-rich soils, the skeleton will dissolve, too.
The rate of decomposition depends on temperature and environment. The warmer and more humid an environment, the faster the body is broken down. Modern science is amending that. Morticians halt decomposition with chemicals. Glutaraldehyde was the first main chemical used for embalming and preserving the body, although it left a yellow stain in the tissues, which interfered with observation and research. Formaldehyde is more popular now. It is a colorless solution that keeps the body well preserved for an extended period. (It is also sometimes used to soak drugs like marijuana, supposedly to extend the high, while raising risk of lung failure.)
Medical students and researchers have been using cadavers to study anatomy for a couple thousand years. After all, it’s best not to start practicing surgical skills on living patients. Simulated models are replacing them in some instances, but cadavers are still needed to learn skills like performing an appendectomy. Cadavers are also particularly useful today in conducting car safety tests. Real cadavers can be X-rayed; dummies cannot. Ford Motor Company credits cadaver research for leading to laminated windows and air bags.
The need to use bodies for research has created body farms. These are research facilities where decomposition can be studied in different settings. They were invented by an anthropologist named William Bass in 1972. Previously, pig remains were used to study decomposition. Body farms are mainly of interest in forensics for discovering time and circumstances of death.
Seven such facilities exist in the United States. The closest to Iowa is the Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, with pigs as human proxies. Some human cadavers now are used. Southern Illinois has, among the seven, the lowest average temperature, the second lowest elevation, the most acidic soil, and the worst soil drainage. The faculty and staff of CFAR participate in forensic anthropology consultations and provide training seminars for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Where does the soul go?
Some of the latest speculation about whether consciousness, and/or the soul, can exist after death comes from quantum mechanics. It has been posed that consciousness can be preserved outside the body as a Bose-Einstein condensate. That is something first predicted in 1923 by Satyendra Bose and Albert Einstein. In simplistic lay terms, it’s a gas that, at extremely low temperatures, reaches the first quantum state, where eternal things like wavelength are possible.
Mathematicians and quantum physicists like Dr. Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose are studying consciousness now presuming it is analogous to a computer, living within microtubules inside brain cells. Many scientists and most non-scientists dismiss this school of thought. But then, most once dismissed Bose and Einstein, too. ♦