DEAD BODIES are a by-product of human life and the topic of John Troyer’s new book. Published just as the COVID-19 pandemic was escalating in April 2020, Technologies of the Human Corpse examines what we do with corpses, how we do it, and why it matters.
A few months before Troyer’s book came out, I was combing through National Archives records trying to figure out how the US military dealt with dead bodies during the Vietnam War. The backlog of war dead was a constant crisis. Weekly reports accounted for the increasing numbers of bodies that passed through “collection points” on their way to the mortuary. Photographs documented mounds of orphaned belongings to be sorted at the personal property depot. Mortuary staff memoirs detailed scenes of horror — rapidly decomposing bodies awaiting “processing,” Vietnamese remains grossly abused by US soldiers, body bags eerily empty except for a single rib. Dead soldiers arrived at double and triple the rate projected by those at logistics headquarters. Chronically short of trained (and willing) personnel, and lacking equipment to embalm and store remains, mortuary staff struggled to maintain dignity for the dead.
In a surreal turn, by April of last year, this crisis from the past was present again. The coronavirus pandemic, hastened by bureaucratic inefficiency, produced a plethora of dead bodies with nowhere to go. The chain of death care in the United States broke down in many places as hospital morgues, funeral homes, and crematoria were overwhelmed. Tents and rented refrigerated trucks were erected to manage the overflow, while city authorities lifted limits on the number of cremations permitted (normally curbed to protect air quality) and instructed cemeteries to set aside space for temporary interments. The pandemic exposed the complex logistics of after-death care that many prefer to ignore.
But Troyer has never ignored this. “Death,” he writes, “is all I have ever known.” Troyer turned his childhood familiarity with death — his father was a funeral director — into his livelihood as a scholar of death studies. He is currently director of the Centre for Death & Society (CDAS) and senior lecturer in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath. His doctoral dissertation on dead bodies later became this book, with a few notable additions.
Initially, Troyer set out to write a cultural study of corpses, an academic book that morphed into something “academic(ish)” after his sister, Julie, was diagnosed with and died from brain cancer in the span of a year. In both the preface and the coda, Troyer attempts to square this wrenching loss with his lifelong fellowship with death. “I was raised to understand that any person, especially the people we know and love, unexpectedly die all the time,” he explains. And yet, Troyer was “completely unprepared” for Julie’s death. He knew she was dying but struggled to make sure she knew. Was there anything she wanted her family to know? Did she have any wishes for her funeral?
Sixteen days before she died, they talked about it. When Troyer brought funeral planning worksheets to Julie’s bedside, he reports, “[s]he dryly asked me if I ever stopped working and then said no, she did not have any specific requests. Julie explained that she would be dead and didn’t really care because the funeral was for us.” Nevertheless, the same worksheets are included in the coda, inviting readers to take up a pen (or, preferably, a revision-friendly pencil) in service of a kind of managerial acknowledgment of their mortality.
In addition to the preface and the coda-cum-memoir, interleaved between chapters are 10 “prose pieces” about Julie’s death that read like poems. I found these intimate reflections jarring at first: they don’t illuminate the deeper meaning of the neighboring content, instead pulling me back repeatedly to the anguish of Troyer’s loss. But I came to appreciate the forced pauses. Set alongside polished scholarly prose, these short reflections reminded me that, as Julie said, “[d]ying sucks. It really sucks.” It is messy, intimate, and particular, and there is no tidy way to deal with it or its aftermath.
But death requires that we do something, and this something is what interests Troyer. As the book’s title indicates, technology is his focus, in a broad sense: the “physical machines, political concepts, human laws, and sovereign institutions that humans use to classify, organize, repurpose, and transform the human corpse.” Over seven somewhat disparate chapters, Troyer outlines a broad research agenda, demonstrating just how much there is to say about technology and corpses. The overarching lesson is that dead bodies are, for better or worse, a frontier of technological creativity.
Troyer’s starting point is the mid-to-late 19th century, when the rise of embalming, photography, and railroads together created the kind of dead body most American readers probably know best: an embalmed corpse. From the Civil War onward, family members who were geographically separated could once again see their loved ones — dead but appearing remarkably lifelike. The unfortunate realities of botched embalming and inadequate packing led baggage agents, health officers, and funeral directors to standardize corpses for transport. Accompanied by a chaperone and prepared by a certified embalmer, a properly packaged dead body with its own first-class ticket (marked “corpse”) could travel the railways in defiance of ordinary constraints. Troyer points out that these new “postmortem conditions” set the stage for the embalmed body to become “an unfettered source of capital.”
But how lucrative can a corpse be? The answer, it turns out, is very. According to Troyer, today’s market in dead bodies is brisk. Individuals, organizations, and corporations operate as “body brokers,” raking in millions of dollars. Biomaterials are the moneymakers: the tissues, bones, and other body parts used to create biomedical products for the living — bone chip implants and skin grafts, for example. Technically, it is illegal in the United States to profit from the sale of human body parts. But, by exploiting the murky legal landscape and “sociocultural value distinctions” between noble transplantable organs and more humble biomaterials like cadaveric skin, body brokers are able to turn a profit by charging handling fees. And it’s not just them. Medical schools, university hospitals, medical device manufacturers, and organ procurement organizations all participate in what Troyer calls a “necroeconomy.”
Funeral directors — or, more fittingly, “deathcare providers” — are well positioned to be the next body brokers, according to Troyer. For those who struggle to afford a funeral (about $9,000 on average), funeral directors might recommend that they donate their tissues in exchange for free or discounted services. The directors would then receive a referral fee for entering the corpse into the “tissue economy” and, presumably, for handling the body. Families would receive a dignified funeral for their loved one, whose body parts would be separated and sold for amounts ranging from $15 for each fingernail to $1,500 for their spine (and these are 2006 prices). Biomedical corporations would turn these materials into products and sell them for much, much more.
Troyer sounds a note of caution about the possibility of predatory practices in this arrangement. Nevertheless, he is curiously optimistic (perhaps because of his father’s occupation) about the potential for the funeral industry to become the central distribution system for dismantled cadavers. Funeral professionals, he argues, will “legitimize and moderately regulate” the trade in human body parts, bringing respectability to the market and, in turn, creating a stable supply of repurposable bodies. There’s an air of inevitability here. The funeral industry is expanding, and biomaterials are the future. Placing the collection and distribution of biomaterials in funeral directors’ hands makes “good business sense.” But two further insights are relevant.
First, the funeral industry has an uneven reputation. In her landmark 1963 exposé The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford revealed the funeral industry as fundamentally exploitative. Funeral directors are, in the end, salespeople. Mitford’s follow-up, published in 2000, demonstrated that not much had changed in the intervening years. Indeed, Troyer’s own thought-provoking third chapter illustrates the questionable ethics of some funeral directors in the 1980s and 1990s. Early in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, caught between avarice and “anti-AIDS sentiments,” many funeral directors rejected bodies infected with the virus; others added a surcharge, while some only offered direct cremation. Some honored their “professional obligation” to serve anyone who needed a funeral. None of this means that all funeral directors are profiteers or otherwise unethical, but it does mean that we should question who controls the distribution of biomaterials and for what purposes.
Second, the history of American medicine is rooted in cadaveric exploitation, a fact Troyer never mentions. As historian Daina Ramey Berry documents in her 2017 book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, slaveholders sold the bodies of dead enslaved people to physicians, “extend[ing] the profits of slavery beyond the grave.” More widely known are the “night doctors” who illegally seized the corpses of the underclasses from their graves. These were most often enslaved, Black, and poor people whose bodies were dissected and displayed for public titillation, financial gain, and medical training. Persistent racial and ethnic inequalities in medicine and society at large demonstrate that the legacy of the “domestic cadaver trade” is still unfolding. That some bodies are exploited as resources for a privileged few is an enduring reality. How funeral directors will initiate a radical departure from long-standing patterns of injustice is never addressed in Troyer’s text. Yet reckoning with this history is crucial for assessing the past and potential harms of necroeconomic configurations.
This history of bodily exploitation is relevant to other chapters as well. In chapter four, Troyer takes readers behind the scenes of Body Worlds, the international exhibition of dead bodies preserved via plastination and posed dynamically. (“Take an eye-opening journey under the skin!” the website proclaims.) Troyer suggests that its creator, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, has “reinvented the dead body,” taking ownership of thousands of corpses, putting them to work, and upending taxonomic norms. While a non-decomposing corpse is, indeed, difficult to classify, for centuries anatomists and museum officials have asserted interminable ownership over human remains and placed them on display. Rather than being new concerns, claiming ownership of the dead and extracting labor from them (which Berry calls “ghost values”) forcefully call up the past.
The book’s concluding chapters draw on social and political theory to contemplate the future of after-death technologies. Death and decomposition have always nurtured new life. As scientists refine technologies for repurposing dead body parts, how will this impact prevailing cultural attitudes toward death? Will life-extension technologies — corporeal or virtual — make death optional? In addition to Troyer’s provocative questions, I have a lingering question of my own. Whose dead bodies will restore the health of the living, and might some bodies be more valuable dead than alive?
Whether you consider corpse technologies innovative, exploitative, or both, what humans do with their dead tells us something about what we believe — about our identities, our bodies, our place in the world, and about the definition and limits of life itself. Troyer’s book “asks readers to think about death, dying, and dead bodies in radically different ways,” and, despite its historical limitations, it succeeds.
Deborah Streahle writes about the relationship between medicine, technology, and care in American life. Her current project investigates end-of-life care advocacy and alternative death practices. Ask her about the history of psychedelics in hospice, DIY funerals, or launching your ashes into space.