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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
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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