We've Surrendered the Dignity of Man
How we treat our dead shows who we are as a people.
The Portland Marriott Waterfront ballroom might be where you can imagine holding a wedding reception, but in late October, it was used instead for an autopsy. The hospital wasn’t over-booked, rather the bed shortage is largely fictitious. Instead, a crowd of green-haired eccentrics and fascinated onlookers packed in, mere inches from the dissection, which they watched for entertainment. They had each paid $500 per ticket for the experience. They weren’t budding new surgeons, learning required knowledge that they could later use to save lives. They were merely bored and curious.
The man who they watched get mutilated was David Saunders, of Baton Rouge in Louisiana. He was a 98-year-old WW2 veteran who had donated his body to science in an attempted final act of charity to the world that he was leaving behind. That world reduced his body and his dignity to a sideshow. It left his wife traumatized.
Elsie Saunders, his 92-year-old widow, was horrified. She was rightly aghast that the man to whom she had dedicated her life had been “treated like a piece of meat in front of a paying audience.” It’s certainly true, but how did this happen?
To answer that pragmatically, David Saunders’ body was donated to for-profit firm Med Ed Labs, which then sold the corpse to “macabre artist” and Death Science founder Jeremy Ciliberto. The autopsy was then advertised as part of his “Oddities and Curiosities Expo”.
But when we ask, “How did this happen?”, I should hope that most readers would not be satisfied by the technicalities. Can we now look at the dissection of a man, done without cause, and say that it fulfills our curiosities, our whims? Is going to the dissection of a World War 2 veteran really the same as a night at the karaoke bar? Is it morally equivocal? Those who paid $500 to watch a man’s flesh be sliced open and his organs raised before their amused grins must have thought so.
The problem isn’t that this event happened in one American city (and a corresponding event was planned in Seattle), but rather that the ability to fill the seats was done with ease. Death Science paid over $10,000 for the body, knowing that recouping the cost wouldn’t be a problem.
I posit that our society has passed the point where it saw value in a man, beyond a mere collection of bones and flesh. Not too long has passed since we could at least agree that there is a sense of duty toward the body that can no longer speak, or at least that dealing with that body commands a degree of respect for his family members’ sake. David Saunders was not just a body. He was a man. He sacrificed, risked his life for a cause he thought worthy, and in concert with all of us, experienced great suffering, tragedy, and was loved.
I’m reminded of a Mythbusters episode that I watched some years ago, wherein lead actors Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman crushed a human skull in a vice while “investigating” whether a James Bond scene could have happened as it had in the movies. Again, the body from whence the skull originated was almost certainly “donated to science”, but is this what was meant? Savage and Hyneman aren’t what ought to bother us, but rather, that the episode was released without the expectation of condemnation or even question.
The concept of treating a body with dignity is very much ingrained into the Christian ethos. Throughout the history of Christendom, we were unwilling to even burn our dead, insisting on a more tedious, yet reverent, burial. Modern Christian denominations have begun to accept cremations, but secular society is never to be outdone by the slipping standards of the church. Now, there are actual movements dedicated to the normalization of human composting and melting bodies with chemicals (“alkaline hydrolysis”).
I’m not convinced that this direction is one that society ought to travel. If our culture is merely “progressing beyond mysticism and superstition” as some proclaim, then even moreso should we be alert to what this means, for more of it will be expected in the years and decades that follow. If the abandonment of Christendom is mired with the devaluation of man and the reckless disregard of his sanctity, then perhaps we ought to consider what we’re surrendering.