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10 Things Your Body Can Do After You Die

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From getting hitched to saving the environment, here's proof you can still be a busybody long after you kick the bucket.

1. Get Married

Death is no obstacle when it comes to love in China. That's because ghost marriage—the practice of setting up deceased relatives with suitable spouses, dead or alive—is still an option.

Ghost marriage first appeared in Chinese legends 2,000 years ago, and it's been a staple of the culture ever since. At times, it was a way for spinsters to gain social acceptance after death. At other times, the ceremony honored dead sons by giving them living brides. In both cases, the marriages served a religious function by making the deceased happier in the afterlife.

While the practice of matchmaking for the dead waned during China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, officials report that ghost marriages are back on the rise. Today, the goal is often to give a deceased bachelor a wife—preferably one who has recently been laid to rest. But in a nation where men outnumber women in death as well as in life, the shortage of corpse brides has led to murder. In 2007, there were two widely reported cases of rural men killing prostitutes, housekeepers, and mentally ill women in order to sell their bodies as ghost wives. Worse, these crimes pay. According to The Washington Post and The London Times, one undertaker buys women's bodies for more than $2,000 and sells them to prospective "in-laws" for nearly $5,000.

2. Unwind with a Few Friends

Today, most of us think of mummies as rare and valuable artifacts, but to the ancient Egyptians, they were as common as iPhones. So, where have all those mummies gone? Basically, they've been used up. Europeans and Middle Easterners spent centuries raiding ancient Egyptian tombs and turning the bandaged bodies into cheap commodities. For instance, mummy-based panaceas were once popular as quack medicine. In the 16th century, French King Francis I took a daily pinch of mummy to build strength, sort of like a particularly offensive multivitamin. Other mummies, mainly those of animals, became kindling in homes and steam engines. Meanwhile, human mummies frequently fell victim to Victorian social events. During the late 19th century, it was popular for wealthy families to host mummy-unwrapping parties, where the desecration of the dead was followed by cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

3. Tour the Globe as a Scandalous Work of Art


Beginning in 1996 with the BODY WORLDS show in Japan, exhibits featuring artfully flayed human bodies have rocked the museum circuit. Almost 20 years later, more than 40 million people have visited BODY WORLDS, and this year, a permanent exhibition opened in Berlin. The problem is, it's not always clear where those bodies are coming from.

Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the man behind BODY WORLDS, has documented that his bodies were donated voluntarily to his organization. However, his largest competitor, Premier Entertainment, doesn't have a well-established donation system. Premier maintains that its cadavers are unclaimed bodies from mainland China. And therein lies the concern. Activists and journalists believe "unclaimed bodies" is a euphemism for "executed political prisoners."

The fear isn't unfounded. In 2006, Canada commissioned a human rights report that found Chinese political prisoners were being killed so that their organs could be "donated" to transplant patients. And in February 2008, ABC News ran an exposé featuring a former employee from one of the Chinese companies that supplied corpses to Premier Entertainment. In the interview, he claimed that one-third of the bodies he processed were political prisoners. Not surprisingly, governments have started to take notice. In January 2008, the California State Assembly passed legislation requiring body exhibits to prove that all their corpses were willfully donated.

4. Fuel a City

Cremating a body uses up a lot of energy—and a lot of nonrenewable resources. So how do you give Grandma the send-off she wanted and protect the planet at the same time? Multitask. Some European crematoriums have figured out a way to replace conventional boilers by harnessing the heat produced in their fires, which can reach temperatures in excess of 1,832 degrees F. In fact, starting in 1997, the Swedish city of Helsingborg used local crematoriums to supply 10 percent of the heat for its homes. In 2011, it was announced that a crematorium located in Durham, United Kingdom, would begin selling the energy it harnesses by burning bodies to the country's National Grid. 

5. Get Sold, Chop Shop-Style

Selling a stiff has always been a profitable venture. In the Middle Ages, grave robbers scoured cemeteries and sold whatever they could dig up to doctors and scientists. And while the business of selling cadavers and body parts in the United States is certainly cleaner now, it's no less dubious.

Today, the system runs like this: Willed-body donation programs, often run by universities, match cadavers with the researchers who need them. But because dead bodies and body parts can't be sold legally, the middlemen who supply these bodies charge large fees for "shipping and handling." Shipping a full cadaver can bring in as much as $1,000, but if you divvy up a body into its component parts, you can make a fortune. A head can cost as much as $500; a knee, $650; and a disembodied torso, $5,000.

The truth is, there are never enough of these willed bodies to meet demand. And with that kind of money on the mortician's table, corruption abounds. In the past few years, coroners have been busted stealing corneas, crematorium technicians have been caught lifting heads off bodies before they're burned, and university employees at body donation programs have been found stealing cadavers. After UCLA's willed-body program director was arrested for selling body parts in 2004, the State of California recommended outfitting corpses with bar code tattoos or tracking chips, like the kinds injected into dogs and cats. The hope is to make cadavers easier to inventory and track down when they disappear.

6. Become a Soviet Tourist Attraction



Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wanted to be buried in his family plot. But when Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin insisted on putting his corpse on public display in Red Square, creating a secular, Communist relic. Consequently, an organization called the Research Institute for Biological Structures was formed to keep Lenin's body from decay. The Institute was no joke, as some of the Soviet Union's most brilliant minds spent more than 25 years working and living on site to perfect the Soviet system of corpse preservation. Scientists today still use their method, which involves a carefully controlled climate, a twice-weekly regimen of dusting and lubrication, and semi-annual dips in a secret blend of 11 herbs and chemicals. Unlike bodies, however, fame can't last forever. The popularity of the tomb is dwindling, and the Russian government is now considering giving Lenin the burial he always wanted.

7. Snuggle Up with Your Stalker

When a beautiful young woman named Elena Hoyos died from tuberculosis in Florida in 1931, her life as a misused object of desire began. Her admirer, a local X-ray technician who called himself Count Carl von Cosel, paid for Hoyos to be embalmed and buried in a mausoleum above ground. Then, in 1933, the crafty Count stole Elena's body and hid it in his home. During the next seven years, he worked to preserve her corpse, replacing her flesh as it decayed with hanger wires, molded wax, and plaster of Paris. He even slept beside Elena's body in bed—that is, until her family discovered her there. In the ensuing media circus, more than 6,000 people filed through the funeral home to view Elena before she was put to rest. Her family buried her in an unmarked grave so that von Cosel couldn't find her, but that didn't stop his obsession. Von Cosel wrote about Elena for pulp fiction magazines and sold postcards of her likeness until he was found dead in his home in 1952. Near his body was a life-size wax dummy made to look just like Elena.

8. Not Spread an Epidemic

In the aftermath of natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods, and hurricanes, it's common for the bodies of victims to be buried or burned en masse as soon as possible. Supposedly, this prevents the spread of disease. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), dead bodies have been getting a bad rap. It turns out that the victims of natural disasters are no more likely to harbor infectious diseases than the general population. Plus, most pathogens can't survive long in a corpse. Taken together, the WHO says there's no way that cadavers are to blame for post-disaster outbreaks. So what is? The fault seems to lie with the living or, more specifically, their living conditions. After a disaster, people often end up in crowded refugee camps with poor sanitation. For epidemic diseases, that's akin to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

9. Stand Trial

In 897 CE, Pope Stephen VI accused former Pope Formosus of perjury and violation of church canon. The problem was that Pope Formosus had died nine months earlier. Stephen worked around this little detail by exhuming the dead pope's body, dressing it in full papal regalia, and putting it on trial. He then proceeded to serve as chief prosecutor as he angrily cross-examined the corpse. The spectacle was about as ludicrous as you'd imagine. In fact, Pope Stephen appeared so thoroughly insane that a group of concerned citizens launched a successful assassination plot against him. The next year, one of Pope Stephen's successors reversed Formosus' conviction, ordering his body reburied with full honors.

10. Stave Off Freezer Burn

At cryonics facilities around the globe, the dead aren't frozen anymore. The reason? Freezer burn. As with steaks and green beans, freezing a human body damages tissues, largely because cells burst as the water in them solidifies and expands. In the early days of cryonics, the theory was that future medical technology would be able to fix this damage, along with curing whatever illness killed the patient in the first place.

Realizing that straight freezing isn't the best option, today's scientists have made significant advances in cryonics. Using a process called vitrification, the water in the body is now replaced with an anti-freezing agent. The body is then stored at cold temperatures, but no ice forms. In 2005, researchers vitrified a rabbit kidney and successfully brought it back to complete functionality—a big step in cryonics research. (It may help in organ transplants someday, too.) But science has yet to prove that an entire body can be revived. Even worse, some vitrified bodies have developed large cracks in places where cracks don't belong. Until those kinks get worked out, the hope of being revived in the future will remain a dream.

This article originally appeared in a 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine. Maggie Koerth-Baker is now a big deal!

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History
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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Big Questions
Do Media Outlets Write Obituaries for Old or Ill Celebrities in Advance?
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Archie D'Cruz:

Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).

They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.

Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”

With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.

This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.

The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.

Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.

A (mistaken) CNN obituary for Gerald Ford

Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.

In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”

On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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