Cadaver Disposal: How to Avoid a Moldering Mess

Cadaver Disposal: Avoiding a Moldering Mess

Norman L. Cantor*

            Disposal of human remains does not generally leave aesthetically pleasing remnants.  Morticians employing arterial embalming and cosmetic interventions can delay putrefaction and decomposition long enough to preserve appearances pending final disposition, usually by burial.  But the fate of a buried corpse is still a repulsive decomposition into a dark, moldy, undifferentiated mass and ultimately a blackened skeleton.

A variety of techniques exist for preserving the physical integrity of human remains, as I learned in researching and writing “After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver.”  But each approach has its limitations.

Extreme cold can arrest the decomposition of a cadaver.  Yet there is little interest in maintaining frozen stiffs except for the few people who believe in cryonic suspension – preservation of frozen remains until science is able to restore the functioning and health of the late departed human.  Though cryonics facilities have existed for decades, only a few hundred people have opted to have their remains turned into corpsicles.  The technical obstacles to revivifying corpses are so daunting that the process has been likened to turning hamburger back into a cow.  Even in the futuristic event of success in regenerating frozen human corpses, hard questions would remain about how much memory and character restoration is necessary to reconstitute the same person.  In other words, even an ultimately successful corpsicle may not be restoring the same person as the preexisting persona.

Mummification, meaning preservation by drying out, anointing, and wrapping remains, is an option for Americans as it was for Egyptians thousands of years ago.  Summum Corporation, of Salt Lake City, will make a mummy of your corpse by immersion in a chemical bath followed by wrapping in multiple layers of gauze and sealing in polyurethane and plaster.   Summum’s founder, Corky Ra, asks “Why spend thousands of dollars in health club fees while you’re alive, then let everything go to pot just because you’ve died?”  A better question is what real benefit does a mummy provide?  The end-product indefinitely preserved is likely to be desiccated and shriveled with little likeness to the departed one.  And the mummy still needs a final resting place.  Summum offers a mountain sanctuary in Utah, but a mausoleum vault seems like a more convenient refuge.  The Egyptians at least believed that mummy storage was temporary, as the physical remains would reunite with a returning spirit and depart from the storage facility.  I, for one, don’t share that expectation.

Plastination is another way to avoid a moldering mess.  Plastination involves an immersion process through which a cadaver’s liquids are replaced by polymers and the remains formed into an odorless, flexible, indefinitely enduring specimen.  The cadaver is converted to a faceless, skinless manikin-like figure looking more like a fiberglass replica than a human cadaver.  Disposal of the plastinated figure is still necessary.  Burial and above-ground entombment are options.  For the altruistic person, plastination offers an opportunity for post-mortem public service.  Plastinated figures are useful in educational displays like Body Worlds exhibits and as models in medical education contexts.

In terms of preserving a natural, life-like appearance, no better results exist than those of saints and martyrs whose remains are contained in various European cathedrals.  These religious figures, collectively known as “the incorruptibles,” have miraculously retained a suppleness and lifelike appearance for extraordinary periods, sometimes centuries.  Saint Zita has lain in a basilica in Lucca, Italy, for over 700 years without decaying.  Yet the sainthood route to eternal bodily integrity is so arduous as to be attainable by only an infinitesimal percentage of the population.  The average Joe or Josephine cannot plan on becoming an eternal object of veneration and pilgrimage.

A different way to avoid a moldering mess from cadaveric disintegration is to accelerate the decomposition process.  Cremation reduces a cadaver to 6 or 7 pounds of powder within a few hours.  The result is a compact package of cremains suitable to be stored in some kind of urn (usually in a cemetery or columbarium) or to be scattered at some locale previously dear to the decedent.  Not everyone is a fan of cremation.  Jerry Seinfeld commented: “It’s kind of like covering up a crime – burn the body, scatter the ashes around.  As far as anyone is concerned, the whole thing never happened.”  And some sources claim that cremation increases air pollution by expelling carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury (from tooth fillings).

Having thought hard about cadaver disposal while writing “After We Die,” I’m leaning toward cremation as the way to avoid the moldering mess of decomposition.  I will fulfill my public service inclinations by leaving organs and tissue for transplant.  Modern cremation technology largely solves the air pollution problem.  I’m giving up the goal of maintaining bodily integrity after I die.  I’m no saint and hence ineligible to be an incorruptible.  Mummification or plastination could preserve my corporeal form, but only after an arduous post-mortem process.  And I would still have to worry about housing for the preserved remains.  No storage problem exists if my cremains are scattered in a pleasant locale.  Or perhaps my alma mater will adopt the practice of a few colleges who now sell on-campus columbarium space to alumni.  The ultimate college reunion.


*Emeritus Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, Newark, and author of After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver (Georgetown University Press 2010).