Death: What’s the Use of it?
*Graphic content warning.*
Today, I cut a man in half.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m usually pretty keen to get elbows deep into my Anatomy practicals. I like to take full advantage of the amazing privilege that the University of Melbourne Body Donor program brings to my education, but to be totally frank with you: today I really wasn’t feeling it.
I used a saw. It was a rusty.
To say the least; it was a confronting task. Our cadaver is a 72-year-old gentleman who died of cardiomegaly: his heart became so large that it killed him. I’m not even kidding; it was as big as his head. So, we nicknamed him Phar Lap.
We did a transverse section of the body at the level of the L3/L4 vertebra, just above the iliac crest. Then we did a sagittal section down the mid-line of the severed lower body. That means I cut Phar Lap in half at the waist, through his belly button, then again through the middle of his pelvis, through his groin, rectum, the whole works.
It was rough.
Sawing through the bones of the spine took a long time. The sound was… crunchy, and after a while my shoulders and arms started to ache. I won’t go into further detail.
The body donor program at the University of Melbourne is an educational game changer. However, part of the deal of student life is that sometimes you have bad days. Today was one of them. I was behind the eight-ball on lecture content, swamped by assignments, and didn’t have my head in the game. Combine that with a character-lacking poorly spoken demonstrator with a tendency to vanish from the face of the earth, and you get a group of disheartened directionless students struggling to grapple with the fact that they just spent three hours cutting a man into pieces without really learning anything.
The sense of waste I feel is the real trauma. I walked out of the lab today asking myself “what’s the use?” Phar Lap’s final wishes for his body were rooted in a deep faith that, with his contribution, future generations could do better for the world. He may or may not have consciously cared what would become of his frame beyond death, but the consent to donate your body to science is an active decision based off the belief that it will achieve something.
In the case of donating an organ it’s easy to see results but it’s much harder looking at today’s outcome. Walking away from doing something so confronting to a human body and not knowing what the use of it was feels like a heinous injustice to the man’s will.
I am obviously not the only anatomist to have felt this way; to see an incredible resource, a gift, squandered, and question how we can do better.
Doctor Gunther von Hagens, has done better. The media took fondly to calling him Doctor Death for his public autopsies and his famous Body Worlds exhibition, but the root of his work comes from enriching the knowledge of the living through wisdom of the dead.
Doctor von Hagens invented the process of plastination, where the fluids in every cell of the body are replaced with a unique and briefly malleable resin-like substance. Entire human bodies can be perfectly preserved in whatever pose von Hagens can imagine.
This means that, while I was roughly sawing through Phar Lap’s pelvic region, obliterating fragile soft tissue structures in my wake, Doctor von Hagens can use a table saw to produce perfectly preserved sections of what is normally very delicate tissues, then display and review them any time he needs.
Von hagens has an entire human body cut into thin slices so you can see every structure piece by piece, the whole way down. He has bodies standing open down the middle so that you can walk between the halves and see what’s going on inside. He has the entire human circulatory system free standing and perfectly preserved down to the smallest most fragile of capillaries, a red spiderweb framework of a person. And he’s not limited to humans, his 2015 Body Worlds tour featured an ‘anatomical safari’ with a 3.2 ton 6 meter long dissected elephant at its helm.
The things he can do with donated bodies are phenomenal, often choosing to pose them in athletic and theatrical positions that best display the anatomy and draw a crowd. These displays will never rot or grow mould. They will benefit medical students and curious minds long after von hagens himself has joined their number, which he fully intends to do. One of my favourite mad scientists, Doctor von Hagens is sadly dying of Parkinson’s disease. His brain child, the Body Worlds Museum, will continue for years to come and his many apprentices and staff will pose his body at the entrance hall, welcoming all to come and share in the great gift of knowledge for years to come.
Another science idol of mine – making more of the morbid – is Professor Shari Forbes. She is the director of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), Australia’s first body farm for the study of human decomposition.
Much like Doctor von Hagens’ work, on first glace it looks quite confronting, but the purpose behind the science is brilliant. Understanding how bodies decompose under different conditions is a valuable tool for solving violent crimes. That’s right, Shari Forbes is Ducky AND Abby from NCIS.
She works at a secret facility somewhere near Sydney with a small team all considering the different avenues of decomposition. By knowing the life cycles of insect lava in necrotic tissue or rate of tissue breakdown experts can trace the time of death of a body to aid investigations. Bodies break down in totally different ways depending on their age, diet, lifestyle, and the environment they’re in. One of the experiments currently running on the farm has a body rolled up in a rug sealed in a car to accurate simulate common body disposal conditions.
The creme of the crop of Professor Forbes’ work though has got to be the cadaver dogs. Part of her research is in isolating the chemical signals a body gives off when breaking down and finding which ones can be tracked by trained sniffer dogs. Your donation to science can not only employ you as an eternal crime fighter but you also get to work with puppies from the afterlife. Death goals.
The most inspiring aspect of these scientist’s work is by far the support they receive. The donor list for the Australian Body Farm was in the 40’s when it was first established in 2015 and Body Worlds has had numerous widely successful world tours with new donors arriving every week. People want to help. They want to donate. They want others to learn. The genius work of Professor Forbes and Doctor von Hagens redeems my faith that their donations aren’t wasted.
My time with Phar Lap has hugely enriched my education, regardless of the occasional bad days. I will always be grateful for great privilege he and his family have selflessly given me. If I’ve learnt anything from my experience with him in the lab, and the works of my two favourite scientists, it’s that next time I ask myself “what’s the use of death?” the answer is: whatever I can make of it, just keep learning.