The first public autopsy in Britain for 170 years was greeted with reactions almost as predictable as the process of the postmortem itself.
Much of the medical establishment and the media disapprove of Professor Gunther von Hagens' dissection of a German man for a paying crowd and television. Medicine is, after all, a profession that benefits as much from ignorance of the general population as from the rigour of the training involved. And medics for the most part are not scientists, interested in advancing the sum of human knowledge, so much as overeducated technicians seeking to advance their own careers through the accumulation of patients and professional memberships.
Consider, for instance, a recent issue of the Forensic Science Society's Science and Justice in which noted forensic toxicologist ARW Forrest refers to efforts to ensure quality control among the few (about 35) forensic pathologists in the UK as "herding cats." It's a well-known adage that pathologists do not go into their dotage, but into their anecdotage. I've seen respected members of the pathology community present cases at conferences - often the same talks, again and again, with no new insight. As if the knowledge they held, simply because they held it and others do not, was cause enough for publication and accolades.
There was, when it came to it, nothing new about the autopsy performance. Nothing at all. A man who ate to excess and smoked and drank heavily died. But like other acts of revealing simple truths - one thinks of Galileo dropping balls - something that occurs thousands of times a day is proving unpalatable to a society that prides itself on its enlightenment and dedication to full disclosure.
Not very long ago, perhaps about the time of the last public autopsy, death was the natural end of life. If you wanted meat, you had to kill, bleed and butcher it. If a family member died, you had to wash, dress and bury it. The inevitable end was a source of grief, yes - but it was met with acceptance.
To what end is our modern habit of denying the brutality and carnality of life? What do we gain? Widespread animal cruelty in the name of convenient food, for one. Foreign policy that refuses to acknowledge and intervene in even the clearest cases of genocide. The increasing paternalism of those who, simply by having access to knowledge that should be free, erect a wall between the public and the NHS, military and the government. Groups created as servants of society are instead gatekeepers in a paradigm of information transfer where the only way to gain influence is to renounce idealism. Of all the medical students I've met, only one actually wanted to become a GP past her third year. The vast majority view that option as a poor second to the financial possibilities of specialisation and consultancy. Frankly, I'm surprised more of them don't train in cosmetic dentistry.
If this event is as titillating as some claim, surely there is no better way to strip death of its power than to confront people with the banal reality (bread knives, a junior hacksaw) of their fantasies and fears. Death is no bearded lady. And if this spectacle has the power to twist and jade the masses, why are mortuary assisitants the happiest, funniest people I know?
Show me someone who is fascinated with the idea of his own death and I'll show you someone who has never touched a dead body. For thoughts and actions of self-harm are the byproducts of natural curiosity coupled with growing up in a society that has allowed ignorance to be codified in tradition and law.
The first time I visited Bodyworlds, it was with someone who not only had never seen human musculature and viscera exposed, but had never seen a corpse at all. We bent over the cabinets of aortic aneurysms and secretly fingered the ligaments of the knees. We walked away hungry, as one usually is after seeing the dead, past the sweet shops on Brick Lane with row on row of glazed doughy desserts. He was struck with the realisation that the body is not a balloon with hair, face and clothes painted on the outside. Douglas Adams did not need to invent the Total Perspective Vortex from a crumb of fairy cake. It's everywhere.
If you recorded the autopsy, watch it again. You have a liver, a spleen, lungs. You are your brain and it looks like a grey walnut. Claim the knowledge that should belong to you, and after that, look around for what else is being hidden out of your sight.
Brooke Magnanti [E-mail]
- BBC Q&A: Public autopsies
- Barbelith: The Autopsy
- The Forensic Science Society
- Science it wasn't, but what an anecdote...
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