Monday, December 20, 2010

After We Die
A Book Review

After We Die, The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver is a recently published book by Norman L Cantor who is a law professor at Rutgers University.  The book is an extremely thorough look at a rarely explored subject.   This review is a partial departure for this blog.  Although privacy concerns are not the main topic of the book they are implicit throughout the book and directly addressed in other sections.  If you are interested in respectful post mortem treatment of yourself and your loved ones, this book will explain all there is to know.

The book is part legal treatise and part an entertaining look at customs surrounding death and burial.  It starts at the very beginning with definitions of death, a topic that has become more complicated as modern medicine has learned how to extend life by artificial means such as ventilators and heart lung machines.  The author who has a special interest in bioethics among other topics has an impressive command of medical knowledge.  I could not once fault him for his understanding of medicine which is unusual for a person without any apparent medical training.

The book then delves into the legal status of a cadaver, a topic I have never considered.  But a corpse retains certain legal rights and is never considered inert property.  Thus a cadaver has a presumption that  its premortem wishes will be carried out and respected.   This includes the ability to specify the terms of burial even though it has no ability to enforce its wishes against the desires of next of kin.

Much attention is given to the process of burial starting with how a body is handled in the funeral home.  This includes details which vary from country to country, religion to religion as to how a corpse is processed, the body cleaned and prepared for burial.  Embalming is done in some religions but not all.  I was surprised at how soon decomposition starts no matter the process used.  The differences between below ground and above ground burial are given as well as attention to cremation.

Cadavers are also a commodity, surprisingly enough.  They can be used to supply medical parts thru organ donation programs.  Programs to donate corneas have been in place for decades.  Now many other organs such as hearts, kidneys, lungs and liver can also be donated.  These are usually premortem voluntary donations.  Another major use of cadavers is for teaching.  This includes autopsies which can be either voluntary or mandated by law when the cause of death may involve criminal activity.  Bodies can also be donated for dissection in medical schools.  Nowadays this usually happens by the premortem wishes of the person involved.

The book also contains several sections documenting the abuses that have occurred over the centuries to cadavers.  The most common one was body snatching wherein corpses were illegally dug up to be used for dissection.   In medieval times it was common for the bodies of executed criminals to be publicly displayed and abused, a practice now universally abhorred and forbidden.

Lastly the book also has a section exploring ways bodies have been put on public display in present times for both commercial and educational reasons.  This includes the technique of plastination wherein bodies are preserved in a complex process which turns them into a type of plastic.  There are several traveling shows which display bodies which have been preserved like this for so called educational purposes though much of this serves commercial voyeurism. 

After We Die is thus an exhaustive look at a topic we are all concerned with, but many of us choose to ignore.  The book ends with a plea for readers to plan their own disposition so as not to put the burden on family.  Make your wishes known.  

I found the book to be a surprisingly enjoyable read on a subject most of us have little knowledge of.  Some parts of the book are overly legalistic and difficult to read through, but most of the volume easily retained my interest.  I recommend the book to anyone who is concerned with burial rites in general and personally planning for your own disposition and legacy.