I have just finished reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1898 short story “The Brown Hand.” (Reprinted in The Captain of the Pole Star: Weird and Imaginative Fiction, a beautiful book by Ash-Tree Press, not to be confused with the less comprehensive collection published under the same name in Doyle’s lifetime.) The story concerns a retired doctor haunted by the apparition of a man whose hand he had amputated. If the idea of an Earth-bound spirit in search of a missing body part seems familiar, you’ve probably seen it elsewhere. The device was hardly new even in Conan Doyle’s time.
A century and a half earlier, before the idea of custodial punishment really caught on, the threat of dissection was used to deter crime in England and elsewhere. In the 1700’s, virtually everything was a hanging offence, including petty theft and adultery. The murder act of 1752 turned the remains of the most heinous criminals over to London’s anatomy schools, which had few legal ways to obtain specimens. (The illegal ones included grave robbing, and in one famous instance, murder.) Fights beneath the gallows between anatomists and families of the condemned were commonplace. What motivated the deceased’s defenders was not the nastiness of dissection, but a firm belief that the body had to be buried whole. In those days, Christians of all stripes believed in a physical resurrection on Judgment Day. Gabriel would blow his horn and we would all sit up in our graves. Your recently executed Uncle Steve would be needing his body again. All of it.
The notion raises all sorts of questions. Uncle Steve murdered someone, first of all. What are the odds of his getting past old Gabe? What’s a few missing organs compared to the Mark of Cain? Second, what does Gabe care what Steve looks like? Gabe’s not manning the velvet rope at a nightclub, after all. Third, surely somebody in Heaven can fix up Steve’s mutilated bits. What, is Jesus too busy? And hey, doesn’t everybody, you know, decompose anyway?
A quarter of a millennium later, in our more enlightened times, surely no one believes such nonsense.
Actually, Judaism requires that bodies be buried as quickly as possible, with all pieces present. (Cremation is frowned upon, as are tattoos, oddly.) The Muslim faith demands the same. So do many other Eastern religions, as in the Doyle story. Even the Catholic Church is surprisingly picky about body parts, especially those of its Popes. A recent traveling exhibition displayed papal reliquaries, essentially fancy jars housing bits various Popes lost during their lives. These would, in theory at least, be buried with the Pope when he died. When Pope John Paul the Second was shot, the length of intestine removed during surgery was preserved.
Popes aside, how do whole body purists fare in our modern world? Not so good, actually. The enemy is no longer anatomy schools, but proper sanitation. In the U.S. and other first world countries, all scrap tissue and other “medical waste” must be disposed of quickly and safely. In practice, the bits cut out of you during surgery are put in a little bin, the contents of which are later dumped into a bigger bin full of a bunch of other people’s leavings. These are incinerated, cremated essentially, either by the hospital itself or a medical waste disposal service.
What happens to these mixed ashes? I’ve never been able to find out. All the websites for medical waste disposal firms that I’ve visited, while they emphasize the thoroughness of their “inventory control,” pass without comment over this issue. No one who might know what happens to the ashes has ever been willing to speak to me about it. Still, one point is clear. Once something’s been cut out of you at the hospital, it’s gone.