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More than the sum of our parts: why dismemberment of the dead irks

Autopsies and anatomical dissections are the only exceptions to the social prohibition against dismembering bodies. t magnum/Flickr

Spiegel Online reported earlier this year that hundreds of human body parts had been found in a disused cellar of the University of Cologne’s Anatomy Institute. Apparently, irregularities of procedure led to the parts being misplaced for ten years or more.

The tone of the German article, and its subsequent re-telling in The Guardian, is one of scandal and disgust. Indeed, one worker was reported as saying it was like a “scene from a horror film.” Preliminary investigations indicated the body parts came from cadavers donated for teaching purposes and that no crime had been committed.

So what is the “scandal” here? Would the reaction have been as strong if a donated collection of intact bodies had been re-discovered in a back room? I suspect not.

Something in our psyche generates a deep-seated sense of abhorrence at the thought of dead bodies being dismembered. As bad as it is for a person to be murdered, it’s so much worse if the corpse is then cut into pieces and dispersed in some way. But, to put it bluntly, if the victim is already dead, why should subsequent damage to the body increase the perceived magnitude of the crime?

Dealing with the dead

Almost all societies have prohibitions against interfering with corpses. Customs of dealing with the dead involve not only diverse grieving and memorial rites, but also standardised procedures for physically handling and disposing the mortal remains of the deceased. Such procedures generally have an obvious public health benefit, minimising risk of infection of the living from the decomposition of the dead.

In modern western society, there are two clear exceptions to the prohibition on the post-mortem dismemberment of bodies – autopsies and anatomical dissections. Autopsies may be ordered by the coroner or relevant minister, if circumstances warrant such action. In contrast, anatomical dissections may only be carried in authorised “schools of anatomy” on bodies freely bequeathed by their donors after full informed consent.

But historically, this distinction has not been so sharp: the term “autopsy” means “with one’s own eyes”, whereby one gains information on the cause of death by direct anatomical observation.

Something in our psyche generates a deep-seated sense of abhorrence at the thought of dead bodies being dismembered. Hugovk/Flickr

Disgust, dismemberment & neuroscience

In recent years, neuroscience has tried to explain why we react so badly to the dismemberment of bodies. It takes considerable brain power to build up our conscious perception of our own body. The feeling of existing in an intact body that moves predictably through space and time is a construct our brain makes using a vast array of sensory inputs from our muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and skin.

The brain matches these inputs with internal models of how we move the very same parts, and all of this is calibrated against information provided by our other senses (vision, hearing, balance) of our place in the world.

When we observe another living body, our brain quickly recognises it for what it is (another human), what it is doing now, and predicts what it will do next. A dismembered body clearly is an abnormal situation, almost certainly resulting from extreme violence, which signals potential danger to ourselves via brain circuitry that barely reaches consciousness.

So we are disgusted (literally, “experience bad taste”) yet drawn between turning away and morbid fascination to know more about the circumstances leading to the dire situation.

Anatomy for life

Importantly, disgust and revulsion are not features of a modern anatomy teaching laboratory. The students know why they and the bodies they will dissect came to be there: the donors bequeathed their physical remains so that a new generation of students can learn about this marvellous construction, the human body.

Neuroscience tells us that the knowledge students obtain from hands-on exploration of the internal organisation of the body cannot be obtained from books or computer programs, no matter how sophisticated. Students embody this knowledge and carry it into their professional careers as health practitioners.

The modern anatomy teaching laboratory celebrates life and the power of giving beyond mere mortal existence. In this context, the scandal of the German anatomy department is not that the donors’ bodies were dismembered; rather, it was that the immense value of these gifts had been locked away, unused, for so long.

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