The Civil Body Part 3: Where the Bodies Go
Part 3 of 3 is a series that explicitly discusses sex and death. Some readers might be offended or upset by its content. Proceed with caution.
Texas Penal Code 42.08 defines Abuse of a Corpse in a nicely alliterative way- a person abuses a corpse if they “disinter, disturb, damages, dissects” a body without legal authority. This includes “any portion of a corpse” and the law makes the selling, buying or trafficking of a corpse a felony. By this logic, I’ve been party to a criminal act- a past boyfriend of mine bought a section of human brain from a Facebook group. I believe it’s beyond a reasonable doubt that the brain slice, about 2” X 3” inches, came from a corpse. After receiving the specimen in the mail and removing it from its temporary packaging, we both touched it. Each placed our index finger directly on the most human of all human body parts. It was thrilling and electric, a feeling of both dark naughtiness and power over life. Presumably, he still has it in a plastic jar next to his record player.
Most of the Abuse of a Corpse code relies on the “abuse” being committed in an offensive manner. Offensive, like art, is incredibly subjective- it relies on religion, culture, and context. Unlike art or pornography, consent gets murky. Assuming the recently deceased left a will, a family member is obligated, but not really required, to inter the dead as they wanted- supposing that interment also meets the standard of the law and that the family member(s) can afford it. In the recent past, it’s been assumed that there are only two options, “traditional” burial or cremation. Traditional burial in many other cultures is obviously much different than our sanitized, corporate way of body disposal-generally it's much more personal and hands-on. Some indigenous Bolivians keep their ancestors and loved ones’ skulls around, and I think that’s a lovely way to remember someone. Skulls are so unique to the individual, artifacts of our eye shape, the cut of our cheekbones, and the shape of our smiles.
I find both our traditional burial and cremation body disposal system offensive. Traditional burial uses chemicals toxic to the environment, is extraordinarily expensive, and requires a plastic stopper to be shoved up your ass. Your eternal de facto butt plug exists so you won’t leak your coffin during your tasteful service. You do have the option of being frozen for a viewing and should my family wish to congregate around my meat slab for a moment after I take a permanent nap, I’d prefer that. Cremation is not a great alternative, as it’s a filthy practice. Terrible for the environment, the ashes it produces are chunky, grey, possibly still containing some teeth. Because neither option is exactly dignified nor cheap, many folks consider a third option: donating their body to medical research. While that sounds practical, if not noble- the reality of the body brokerage system is something akin to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That sounds melodramatic, but considering recent revelations, it’s not incorrect.
Stephen Gore’s surname is either an ominous portend or just delightfully ironic, depending on your sense of humor. In October of 2019, one month prior to this writing, a civil trial began against him. The plaintiffs are a collection of bereaved families who donated the corpses of their family members under the belief that their parts would be used in scientific research. Instead, Gore’s company, known as Biological Resource Center (BRC), was selling these bodies primarily to the military. One result of this practice is that a grandmother was strapped to a chair and blown up with an improvised explosive. Her son was lead to believe her brain would be studied for Alzheimer’s research. It gets much worse, in 2014 the BRC was raided by the FBI and what they found inside was horrific. I do envy the editors of news outlets that reported on this story, they had a field day with the headlines- using phrases like “Human Chop Shop” and dropping pop culture references like “Frankenstein”.
The FBI found literal buckets of heads, limbs, and disembodied genitalia. They also found a large torso with a much smaller person’s head sewn to it. I doubt any of the deceased, or their family members, would have knowingly consented to their parts being handled with such disregard. What fascinates me is how callous the dissecting employees must have become to find amusement in their corpse arts-and-crafts projects. One such employee, Sam Kazemi, made instructional videos on body dissections, including Stripped Cervical Spine! Perhaps I’m reading too much into the exclamation point in that title, but in this context, I find its use existentially dreadful. Generally, exclamation points exist in the realm of inter-office emails written by overly friendly older women. They are unprofessional, silly, and unnecessary. The lack of decorum in this title feels either extremely ignorant or mildly pornographic. It either stems from a deep lack of understanding of the gravity of the procedure or a deep disregard for it. Either way it reads like Left Over Birthday Cake in the Fridge! or Horny MILFs 3! I showed the title to my boyfriend, and his first comment was, “Is this Cannibal Corpse’s new album?”
When I die, I hope for two things. First, that any nudes of me left in a digital space be at least tasteful, if not artistic. The other is a natural burial- a new, old, trend in the death care industry. It’s just a chemical and butt-plug free you, your shroud, and maybe some flowers. Only three feet deep, you’re still in reach of the sun’s warmth. This biologically rich layer of soil efficiently eats you away- little creatures and plant roots wiggle through your flesh and leave behind your lovely, blameless, bones.