ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


New immortalities: anthropological reflections on the procurement, transformation and use of human cadaveric tissue

Location Playfair Building, Main Hall
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


Bob Simpson (Durham University) email
Rachel Douglas-Jones (IT University Copenhagen) email
Mail All Convenors


We will explore emergent issues around ethics, value and recycling in relation to cadaveric materials and the drive to realise this-worldly potential in the bodies of the newly dead in a variety of ethnographic settings.

Long Abstract

In this panel we will explore emergent issues around ethics, value and recycling in relation to cadaveric materials. We set out to explore the drive to realise increasing this-worldly potential in the bodies of the newly dead and the way that this intersects with religion, culture, and kinship in a variety of ethnographic settings to produce 'new immortalities'.

In one sense, these questions are not new and are to be found in key enlightenment debates about medical research and its relation to prevailing ideas about death, immortality and religion. What is changing is the widening repertoire of materials that might now acquire moral, scientific and economic value as organs and tissue for transplantation, as a source of research specimens, and for use in medical education and training. From the perspective of those charged with immediate responsibility for the dead - kin, friends, community - existing regimes are typically cast in the idiom of donation, charity and the continuing agency of the dead as moral beings. However, the ethical and practical regimes to which the dead are subjected also increasingly overlap with instrumental and utilitarian approaches to the material body. These occur at the points where medicine and law as expressions of state and economic interests come into play.

We welcome papers that bring descriptive and analytical focus onto the ways in which the diverse values and sentiments that attach to the body at death in different communities are transformed into generalised notions of value and sentiment.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


New immortalities: reflections on value in the body after death

Author: Bob Simpson (Durham University)  email


This paper explores the ways in which tissue donation and powerful rhetorics of donation, altruism, giving and more recently the moral obligation to recycle become part of the process of making meaning when faced with the brute materiality of death.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the ways in which tissue donation and powerful rhetorics of donation, altruism, giving and more recently the moral obligation to recycle are impinging on the relationship between individual intention regarding ones own death, collective obligation with regard to the deaths of 'other people' and the profoundly human preoccupation of making meaning when faced with the brute materiality and finality of death. It brings together three key themes: cadaveric donation - the practice of intentionally offering and giving up one's body after death, as a whole or in parts, for secondary use in therapy, research or education; new regimes of value that begin to appear out of an extending repertoire of uses for the dead and, thirdly, the idea of immortality as a universal imaginary which continually takes on new forms [eg the memorialisation of donors]. The study of the intersections of these three themes tells much about the politics of life as well as the politics of death. The paper is exploratory in intent and brings together insights drawn from research in the UK and Sri Lanka as well secondary materials from the wider ethnographic record.

Godless people and dead bodies

Author: Jacob Copeman (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper explores body donation in India as a key instance of the material culture of atheism.

Long Abstract

Professed atheists are by no means the only people who donate their bodies, yet the practice is strikingly prevalent in a variety of atheist circles across time and geographical region. We concentrate here on the Indian case, exploring body donation as a key instance of the material culture of atheism. Recent moves to reinvigorate study of the material culture of religion are to be welcomed, but should be extended to irreligion as a means of addressing the longstanding irony that sees scholars represent materialism as an abstract doctrine and, hence, as immaterial. Body donation - an act both highly personal and with import for the atheist community as a whole in the contexts we explore - holds value as a bridge between 'positive' and 'negative' modes of atheist thought and action. It also provides a ready-made solution for atheist activists keen to circumvent the cadaver-centred death rituals they find so redundant. Moreover, body donation has come to form a key indicator of the morality of materialism, and as such has come to act as an important strategic component of atheist impression management, in India and elsewhere.

To treat dead bodies as living human beings: on the mysteries of immortality

Author: Arnar Árnason (University of Aberdeen)  email


This paper considers complementary yet conflicting changes in the treatment of dead bodies in Iceland. Drawing on Laurent Berlant's work it will be argued that these changes should be understood in the context of efforts locally to secure the immortality of the 'nation'.

Long Abstract

This paper considers recent changes in the treatment of dead bodies in Iceland. Within these changes two complimentary trends, which nonetheless are in tension with each other, will be identified. On one hand dead bodies are enlisted in efforts to understand processes of illness and dying. Here the need to dissect - literally and metaphorically - is paramount. On the other hand dead bodies are mobilised in efforts to encourage the successful grieving of bereaved relatives. Here the need to keep the body in tact is paramount. In analysing these changes brief references will be made to Foucault's notion of biopolitics. However, further inspiration will be drawn from the work of Lauren Berlant and it argued that changes in the treatment of dead bodies in Iceland, need to be placed in the context of ongoing efforts locally to secure the immortality of the 'nation'.

'Valued' matter: antigen-matching, translation and the politics of difference in organ transplantation

Author: Ciara Kierans (The University of Liverpool)  email


The body-in-transplantation is an important site for the production of cultural difference, a site where bodily ‘matter’ is classified and assigned value. Focusing on blood and antigen matching, this paper shows that this practice is not simply technical but has moral and political ramifications.

Long Abstract

Strategies employed in the procurement and allocation of cadaveric organs show the body-in-transplantation to be an important site for the production of cultural difference - a point where bodily 'matter' is classified and then differentially valued. The technical practice of blood and HLA (human leukocyte antigen) matching between organ donors and recipients, a practice dependent on the organisation and classification of such bodily matter by population (race and ethnic) difference, is one important locus of differential valuation within a context that links developments in the new genetics to the increasing problems of organ procurement, organ allocation and healthcare rationing.

However, with attention focused outwards on the wider social and institutional processes that connect suppliers and receivers of organs, the scientific and technical practices upon which this complex relationship depends can slip from view. This paper opens up this territory to show that matching blood and HLAs is not simply technical, but also moral and political, a distinct way of mapping of biology onto culture. It asks, in what ways do the processes of matching simultaneously function as forms of biopolitical practice and 'engines' for the production of difference?; how do blood groups and HLAs function as cultural objects?; and, in what ways are they taken up and serve to link the various scientific, clinical and social arenas that constitute the domain of transplant medicine? The classificatory problems underpinning these questions not only generate issues of ontological and epistemological significance but have real-life effects on those subject to its interventions.

Anatomising bodies: persons, materials and relations

Author: Elizabeth Hallam (University of Oxford)  email


Drawing on research in medical schools in Scotland, this paper analyses the anatomising of deceased bodies as a relational process. Human remains are valued as persons, educational materials, and gifts to medical science, with implications for the perceived affective potential of the dead.

Long Abstract

Drawing on anthropological research in medical school settings in Scotland, this paper examines the anatomising of bodies after death as a relational process. It considers three main aspects of this process: i) the social relations of the dead - that is, of the deceased who donate their bodies to medical education; ii) the relations between human bodies and the different media utilised in the teaching and learning of anatomy (e.g. MRI scans, x-rays, computer-based anatomy software and three-dimensional plastic models); and iii) the anatomical relations that are examined and visualised within bodies as students develop their knowledge of anatomy.

These relations are variously highlighted or, alternatively, de-emphasised and occluded, as each donor is constituted, over time, as deceased person, anonymous body or cadaver, and material for learning. With reference to practices at the University of Aberdeen in the last decade, this paper analyses the relational anatomising of bodies from the initial arrival of the recently deceased at the medical school, to their deployment in the dissecting room, and their subsequent memorialisation among family and friends when returned for burial or cremation.

Throughout this process, and depending on the particular relations that are entailed and foregrounded, bodies after death are valued as persons, as materials for the generation and communication of anatomical knowledge, and as gifts for the advancement of medical science. Such valuations have implications for the perceived affective potential of human remains and the responses they are seen to evoke in the living.

Whole body donation and dissection: the return of public anatomies as spectacles

Author: Claudia Merli (Durham University)  email


This paper presents a shift from a reflection on the ethical aspects of body donation to a reflection on the ethics of fruition. What shall we think of the fascination of a sudden historical plunge into the Renaissance-like anatomy for beginners broadcasted in mediated forms nowadays?

Long Abstract

Between the fifteenth and sixteenth century, public anatomies were organised in Bologna and Padua, as public events attracting attendees beyond the medical schools. This practice eventually spread to other countries. Progressively removed from public view and increasingly segregated to the anatomical theatres of universities with the advent of modern medicine, dissection became a practice reserved to an audience of medical students. Two specific events of the last decade brought back public anatomies to a wider non-medical audience, in both mediated and theatrical form. The first is the pair of computerised cadavers of the Visible Human Project (called 'shades' by Csordas), the second the broadcasting by British Channel 4oD of four dissections performed by Gunther von Hagens. Dissected cadavers on TV, public anatomies via screen, not fictional, for a curious audience.

With who's permission? Using human skeletal tissue to build identified skeletal collections

Author: Francisca Alves Cardoso (CRIA - Centre for Research in Anthropology)  email


Portuguese Human Identified Skeletal Collections (HISC) are build using human remains recovered from modern cemeteries, some of which containing individuals that died less than 10 years ago. It is therefore imperative to discuss ethico-legal issues associated with the Portuguese HISC.

Long Abstract

As a bioanthropologist I have worked in the past two decades with Human Identified Skeletal Collections (HISC) from Portugal, studying past populations' health and behavior. However, recently I have experienced a growing concern with the absence of discussion over ethico-legal issues associated with the building of HISC, some of which composed of people that died as recently as the last decade. Individuals are incorporated into HISC based on the premise that they have been abandoned by relatives, according to cemetery regulations. These state that if individuals buried in temporary graves are unclaimed after a legally stipulated period of occupation, they have been abandoned. The premise is highly questionable as although the vacancy of the grave is made public at local cemeteries' notice boards (sometimes in newspapers), this information may not reach living relatives or they may simply be unable to afford the costs of perpetual graves. Important is also the fact that communities are never engaged, and to date people are unaware that they may have their skeleton incorporated into a HISC without their permission. In order to bring this closer to communities, interviews will be conducted to assess their knowledge, opinion on the subject, and if they agree with this practice. A minimum of 50 exploratory interviews will be conducted which will be useful to build the discussion around ethico-legal of using human skeletal tissue to construct HISC.

Silent mentors: donation, education and bodies in Taiwan

Author: Rachel Douglas-Jones (IT University Copenhagen)  email


Explores the relationship between cadaver donation and medical education in a Buddhist hospital in Taiwan when the cadaver is socially known and this knowledge is made part of the ethical training of the student doctor.

Long Abstract

In the mid 1990s, teaching hospitals in Taiwan suffered a severe shortage of cadavers for the education of students in anatomy. When a woman from Hualien, a small town on the mountainous east coast of Taiwan, donated her body to the Buddhist Tzu Chi hospital so that it could be used to teach the students, her donation began a movement that to date has collected over 26,000 pledges. In this paper, I explore some of the reasons why people choose to donate their bodies for young medics to train on, and why they hesitate over the decision. Through comparison with the treatment of training-cadavers in other settings, such as the UK and USA, I explore Tzu Chi's 'hidden curriculum' which, through the Silent Mentors program, fosters radically different relationships between students and cadavers. The discussion leads me to ask questions about ideals in the formation of professional medical subjectivities, particularly the roles of empathy, distance and compassion.

Bodies, persons, cadavers: how body donors and medical students ponder and practice anatomical dissection in Denmark

Author: Maria Olejaz (University of Copenhagen)  email


Based on anthropological fieldwork in dissection labs in Denmark and on interviews with body donors, this paper explores and contrasts the meanings and values of the medical cadaver among donors and medical students.

Long Abstract

Bodies of the dead continue in many universities to serve as pedagogical tools in the education of medical doctors. These endeavors with cadavers depend on people's willingness to donate their body post mortem. The paper is based on fieldwork at anatomical dissection classes in 3 Danish medical schools; interviews with instructors and students at these classes; fieldwork at 2 surgical courses using cadavers; as well as on in-depth interviews with 33 Danish citizens, of which some where whole body donors (14 people), organ donors or had decided not to donate post mortem. The paper explores how notions of body and person are imagined and practiced when dead bodies become medical resources. Through juxtaposing those who donate and those who make use of dead bodies, it is shown how different ideas and values such as autonomy, utility, dignity, anonymity and respect are expressed and reworked in and through words and practices that depend on but also bring into being the medical cadaver as an ambiguous and flexible entity. The paper thus argues for an understanding of dead bodies that goes beyond either object or subject and instead brings into light the unstableness and multiplicity of dead bodies as resources.

Environmentally friendly dead: death and environmental ideologies in early 21st century societies

Author: Elisabeth Anstett (CNRS)  email


This paper aims at questioning the birth of new burial technologies claimed as “eco friendly”, involving the freezing of corpses in nitrogen and their transformation in "organic" powder, raising the issue of the impact of environmental ideologies on nowadays representations of death and dead bodies.

Long Abstract

In 2001, Swedish biologist born in 1956, Suzanne Wiigh-Masäk, patented a process named Promession, involving the freezing of human remains in liquid nitrogen before their mechanical shattering and drying in order to transform them in an "organic" powder, explicitly claiming for a new and "environmentally friendly" form of burial with "human beings fully integrated with the natural ecological cycle […] instead of being a burden to the planet". Mrs Wiigh-Masäk has since then created a company promoting and commercializing the process all over the world, with customer costs considered as "equivalent to cremation and less than traditional burial".

Although Promession technology hasn't been fully implemented yet (both for technical and legal issues), it has been rapidly and favorably received in various countries such as Sweden, Switzerland or more recently South Korea, all contexts simultaneously framed by long lasting tradition of cremation but also spirits of capitalism and Protestantism.

Both this invention and its worldwide reception ask to anthropologists new questions about the social legacy of "environmental ideologies" in the field of burial practices, as much as about representations of dead bodies in nowadays societies. Legal and ethical issues raised by the mechanical treatment of corpses, as much as by their conversion into an "ecological resource", challenge indeed the very status given to human remains and forced us to pay close attention to the transformation occurring in the collective viewing of death.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.