Body Recycling

Kelly A Joyce & John B Williamson. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2: The Response to Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Ssage Reference, 2003.

Recycling bodies and body parts is an important social phenomenon that has received significant attention from social scientists, policymakers, and historians. This body of scholarship recognizes that the recycling of body parts after death is shaped by cultural beliefs and social institutions. As Anthony Synnott (1993) suggests, “The body is not a ‘given,’ but a social category with different meanings imposed and developed by every age, and by different sectors of the population” (p. 23). The literature that examines the reuse of bodies and body parts illuminates the social categories and meanings that influence how bodies are and have been recycled.

In this chapter, we examine six areas of body recycling—organ transplantation, medical school donations, the display of bodies in museums, war and the symbolic use of bodies, cannibalism, and cloning—that have been the focus of academic scholarship. Individuals working on these topics demonstrate how the reuse of bodies and body parts in medicine, scientific research, food consumption, and art are shaped by social norms, policies, and institutional practices. This body of work shows that there is nothing innate or natural about how bodies are viewed or employed after death. Culture and power intervene at every step of the way.

Organ Transplantation

One of the largest areas of literature on body recycling centers on organ transplantation. In the United States, the demand for organs far exceeds the number of organs available. In the year 2000, for example, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 people died while waiting for an organ (Fauber 2001). Recent estimates suggest that cadaveric donation rates in the United States remain steady at 4,500 to 5,000 per year while the number of patients on transplantation waiting lists continues to increase significantly. At the end of 1990, for example, there were 20,481 patients on waiting lists for organs (Lou 2001:1). By 2003, this number had grown to more than 80,000 (Villarosa 2003:A22). The escalating difference between supply and demand exists in other countries as well.

Anthropologists and sociologists have critically examined how scarce resources such as tissues and organs are allocated. These writers have demonstrated that social hierarchies such as class and race often influence the distribution of body parts (Fox and Swazey 1973, 1992; Kutner 1997; Spielman 1996; Veatch 2000). Despite efforts to make access to transplants equitable, significant barriers to transplantation surgery still exist.

Class status is a primary social factor that shapes the distribution of body parts. As sociologists Renee Fox and Judith Swazey (1992:75) note, a “green screen”—that is, ability to pay—influences who will receive organs and tissues in the United States. This bias toward wealthier individuals occurs because Medicare coverage does not reimburse all transplantation costs. This type of policy places a financial burden on the individual to cover the remaining costs—one that a low-income patient might not be able to meet. Similarly, health insurance policies may require patient contributions toward the total cost of transplantation and follow-up care. As with Medicare policies, this system of reimbursement is biased toward those who have the extra income to cover these expenses.

In addition to class, race is also a social factor that influences the distribution of organs and tissues. Kidney transplant data, for example, has shown that blacks are less likely than whites to be transplant recipients (Kutner 1997:366-67. Research by a federal Task Force on Organ Transplantation and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) as well as others has shown that “the primary source of the unequal access …appears to be…in the decisions about who will be admitted to the waiting list” (Childress 1989:108). This work suggests that racial bias affects who is referred to transplant waiting lists and who is not. Specifically, white patients are more likely than people of color to be recommended for organ replacement surgery.

This body of literature clearly shows that individuals do not have equal access to transplantation in the United States. It demonstrates how policies and referral practices reinforce social hierarchies, creating economic and racial barriers that limit access to organ replacement therapies.

In addition to examining the relationship between social inequities and the distribution of organs and tissues, other scholars have focused on the social factors that may limit donation rates among individuals (Grubesic 2000; Sanner 2001; Siminoff and Sturm 2000). Margareta Sanner’s (2001:1495) research, for example, demonstrates that individuals who perceive the body as a machine that may need new parts are more likely to donate organs than those who believe in reincarnation, nature’s will, or the idea that the personality of the donor will influence the receiver. Other research has shown that there are regional, ethnic, and religious differences in regard to rates of donation (Grubesic 2000; Siminoff and Sturm 2000; Yuen et al. 1998). African Americans tend, for instance, to have lower donation rates than white Americans. Studies suggest that this difference is related to a concern among African Americans that the distribution of organs is unfair. The perception among African Americans that most organs will go to wealthy, white individuals provides little incentive for these individuals to become donors (Siminoff and Sturm 2000: 64-65). Other work has explored why various regions in the United States have different degrees of donation (Evans, Orians, and Asher 1992; Grubesic 2000). Grubesic’s (2000:1204) research on Ohio suggests that class and education are factors that contribute to geographical variations in donation rates within that state. States that allow individuals to become potential donors at the department of motor vehicles also tend to have higher degrees of donation (p. 1208). This type of scholarship provides insight into the social beliefs and policies that may discourage individuals from donating their organs and tissues after death and may help policymakers and members of the medical community find ways to address these concerns so that the number of donations increases.

The legalization of the sale and purchase of body parts is a topic that continues to receive substantial attention by policymakers and social scientists. The 1984 National Organ Transplantation Act (Public Law 98-507) made it a federal crime in the United States to “knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human organ for valuable consideration for use in human transplantation if the transfer affects interstate commerce” (Fox and Swazey 1992:66). Despite this criminalization of the financial exchange of organs, scarcity of organs has caused social scientists and policymakers to return to the idea of using financial incentives to increase the number of body parts available. Proponents of legalization advocate a free market approach to organ donation, suggesting that provision of financial incentives would increase the number of organs available (Barnett, Blair, and Kaserman 1996). Opponents counter this position by raising concerns about the effects such a policy would have on particular groups of individuals. Opponents of legalization, for example, argue that such a policy would disproportionately affect the poor because it would create incentives for low-income individuals to sell organs as way to pay for day-to-day living costs. In addition, this type of policy would exacerbate unequal access to organ transplantation because low- and middle-income individuals would not be able to purchase organs. Still others express concern that the legalization of the sale of organs would further commodify the body and thus objectify relationships between individuals (Joralemon 1995, 2000; Sharp 2000). Although there have been no formal moves to change the law in the United States, the issue of legalization continues to be actively discussed and debated. It is possible that organ scarcity may cause policy-makers to more aggressively pursue legalizing the buying and selling of organs.

Other social scientists such as Margaret Lock (2001), Eric Feldman (1988), and Mita Giacomini (1997) have used organ transplantation as an example of the way definitions of death are social constructions. Giacomini, Feldman, and Lock have documented, for instance, how diagnoses of death shifted in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s from heart-based criteria to a brain-centered understanding of death. This shift benefited those interested in removing organs because these are still harvestable when the brain-death criteria are used. Lock’s work has also examined the resistance to a brain-death diagnosis of death that occurred in Japan throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Lock 1995, 1996, 2001). Her research demonstrated that religious beliefs about the body and its place in nature as well as a general concern that the increasing demand for organs would affect physicians’ ability to act ethically in determining whether a person is actually deceased have contributed to the social shaping of definitions of death in Japan.

This body of work shows that decisions about when death occurs, like discussions about when life begins, are shaped by different interest groups and cultural beliefs about the body as well as by presuppositions about the location of the border between living and nonliving. This literature shows that there is nothing straightforward about legal determinations of death and that those interested in promoting organ transplantation need to take these definitions into account when thinking about the current scarcity of organs and tissues. As Edgar Allen Poe writes in the story “Premature Burial,” “The boundaries which divide Life and Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” (Poe, quoted in Lock 1996:207). Those invested in increasing the supply of organs cannot leave the diagnoses of death out of the analysis of this social problem because particular definitions may hinder the practice of transplantation.

Finally, there is a growing interest in documenting the illegal international trade in body parts (Fox and Swazey 1992; Mufson 2001; Scheper-Hughes 2000; Smith 2001; Sung 2001). The increasing demand for organs has witnessed the escalation of the buying, selling, and brokering of body parts. Recent articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Straits Times, for example, have called attention to the illegal trafficking of human spare parts that is occurring around the globe. Reporter Grace Sung (2001) notes, “The Italian police believe that the Mafia and their foreign counterparts are behind numerous organ-transplant rackets which rake in hundreds of millions of dollars every year” (p. 6). Other journalists have reported on the use of executed prisoners’ bodies as sources of transplants in China (Mufson 2001; Smith 2001). Witnesses suggest that tissues and body parts are taken from these individuals without their consent.

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has been on the forefront of the documentation and study of this illegal trafficking in human body parts. Scheper-Hughes has studied and written about this topic for academic audiences and has become involved in actively documenting human rights violations in regard to the illegal harvesting of human body organs. She and colleagues Lawrence Cohen and David Rothman, for example, launched a 3-year project called Medicine, Markets, and Bodies/Organs Watch that will “investigate, document, publicize, and monitor human rights violations in the procurement and distribution of human organs” (Scheper-Hughes 2000:192). Projects such as these move the topic of illegal organ and tissue trade into the public sphere and raise awareness about the increasing black market exchange currently occurring.

Donation of Bodies to Medical Schools

Another aspect of body recycling that has been studied by scholars examines the donation of bodies to medical schools. Researchers estimate that 12,000 to 15,000 bodies are needed by medical schools each year in the United States. In recent years—unlike in the situation of organ transplantation—there has been no shortage of bodies for donation to medical schools (Corr, Nabe, and Corr 1997). The supply of bodies has met the demand.

Most of the literature on the topic of medical school body donation focuses on exploring the rules and policies used by schools to accept and transport bodies (Bullen and Crase 1998; Ladimer 1971). Examination of individuals’ motivations for donation has also been conducted. Research by Richardson and Hurwitz (1995), for example, has shown that the decision to donate bodies to medical schools is motivated by a desire to help others, to further medical knowledge, and to be useful after death. Although their study focuses on individuals in the United Kingdom, it is likely that such responses would be common in the United States as well.

Status of the medical school also plays a role in the decision to donate. It has been reported, for example, that Harvard Medical School has no problem getting the bodies needed for research, whereas other schools in the Boston area have to work harder to achieve this. As Willard Gaylin (1995) notes, “In Boston, evidently, the cachet of getting into Harvard extends even to the dissecting table” (p. 314). Status and power are thus at play in the decision to donate one’s body to medical school.

The Politics of Display: Museums and Bodies

Another important area of body recycling that has received consideration from academics is the issue of the display of bodies in museums. Writers have primarily focused on the roles that political and economic power play in the politics of body displays in exhibits, examining critically whose bodies are put on display and where. Anthropologists, sociologists, activists, and historians have questioned, for example, why African and Native American bodies are on display in American and European museums. These authors suggest that the lack of political power held by these groups contributes to this use of bodies in exhibitions (Bennett 1995; Clifford 1998; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Gilman 1985; Karp and Levine 1991; MacClancy 1997; Maseko 1998; Shea 2000).

Two cases in particular have received a lot of attention in the last decade. The first revolves around the remains of a Californian Yahi Native American named Ishi. Ishi was born around 1860 in northern California. In 1911, after the massacre of the remaining Yahi in that area, Ishi arrived in Oroville, a northern California town. Ishi was then introduced to anthropologist Thomas Waterman, who took Ishi to live at the University of California museum in San Francisco. Waterman and Arthur Kroeber, another anthropologist affiliated with UC Berkeley, subsequently developed personal relationships with Ishi, and these three individuals became known as friends. At the same time, Ishi was also exhibited at the museum. In the first 6 months of Ishi’s stay at the museum, over 24,000 individuals watched Ishi make arrows, build fires, and the like. Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916. After his death, Kroeber dissected Ishi’s body and sent Ishi’s brain to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. where it was stored until August 10, 2000. After a decade of discussion and debate, Ishi’s remains were returned to California and buried on that day.

The controversy over the location of Ishi’s body began in the late 1990s when Art Angle, a Maidu Native American activist, asked that the brain of Ishi be returned to Native Americans. This request reopened discussions about the politics of display as well as debates about the relationships between anthropologists and Native Americans. Many questioned why Kroeber dissected Ishi’s body when he knew that this violated Ishi’s religious beliefs about the body and the transition from life to death (Shea 2000). Others raised concerns about academic institutions and museums’ lack of response to the 1989 National Museum of American Indian Act and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, both of which require that Native American remains be returned to appropriately designated Native American groups. The question, “Why hadn’t Ishi’s brain as well as many other Native American bodily remains been repatriated?” was posed. Discussions of the repatriation of Ishi’s remains instigated in-depth discussions about the way Native American bodies and cultural artifacts are still controlled by white America. As Nancy Rockafellar, a medical historian, noted, “Ishi has become an icon of our guilt and regret about past mistreatment of Native Americans. He has been admired for his resilience and heroism, and now he’s a symbol of the repatriation struggle. There are many Ishis” (Rockafellar, quoted in Bower 2000). Although Ishi’s actual body was eventually returned to the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe in California, there are still many bodily remains of Native Americans in museums and universities. Native Americans continue to struggle to get these institutions to return remains to them (Harper 2000).

Another similar area of academic focus is the Sara Bartman case. Bartman’s situation highlights similar issues of power and control but does so within a global context. Sara Bartman, also known as Saartje Bartman, was a Khoisian woman born in the eastern Cape of present-day South Africa in the early 1790s. In 1810, she was brought to London, England, where she was exhibited to the general public in a sideshow. Her blackness and the perception that her buttocks were larger than white Europeans contributed to the exoticism projected onto Bartman by European audiences. In 1814, Bartman was moved to Paris, France, where she continued to be exhibited to the general public. French scientists were also fascinated by Bartman and conducted many series of measurements and observations of her body. Bartman died shortly after coming to France at approximately 28 years of age. After her death, her body was dissected by Baron Cuvier and Henri de Blainville. Her body is still on exhibit at the Musée de 1’Homme in Paris.

The current location of her body continues to be discussed and debated in academic literature (Abrahams 1996, 1998; Gilman 1985; Maseko 1998; Pierson and Chaudhuri 2000). The treatment of Sara Bartman during her lifetime and after her death allows individuals to think critically and carefully about both the historical and present perception and use of African bodies. As with the Ishi case, the location of Bartman’s body in a European museum remains actively contested by South Africans and others. Unlike Ishi’s bodily remains, Bartman has yet to be returned to her original home.

Although the bulk of academic work on the recycling of bodies in exhibitions has focused on the forced display of disempowered groups, other writers have turned the analytical gaze onto situations in which the display of one’s body in an exhibit becomes desirable (Hirschauer 2000). Dr. Gunther von Hagens’s controversial anatomical exhibition in particular has become the focal point for this discussion. Dr. von Hagens’s exhibit features skinless and dissected bodies that have been preserved through a special process he developed called “plastination.” The exhibition has been enormously popular in both Europe and Japan, often staying open 24 hours each day to accommodate the crowds. The exhibit has yet to travel to the United States.

This exhibit provides an interesting topic for critical analysis. In contrast to the previous discussion, individuals actively desire to be exhibited in this particular scene. Dr. von Hagens has had no problem obtaining bodies for display. Thousands of individuals have signed up to donate their corpses to him. More than 3,000 people have agreed to donate their bodies to von Hagens, and his institute receives a body every 10 days (“Series of Corpses in Exhibit Startle Visitors” 2001:A5). Anthropologists and sociologists find this wish to be exhibited culturally interesting and have begun to examine what beliefs and desires are accommodated in this practice of display. Stefan Hirschauer (2000) has made the argument, for example, that the exhibition of one’s body allows an individual to feel immortal. Other writers are beginning to explore why the public is drawn to this exhibit of preserved and recycled bodies.

Dr. von Hagens’s exhibit reverses the politics of display. In this situation, individuals desire to have their bodies viewed and visually consumed. The use of their bodies as objects of art becomes a form of prestige. There are other situations in which the exhibition of corpses becomes a symbol of status, not lack of power. The use of Lenin and Mao’s bodies as permanent exhibits as well as Jeremy Bentham’s preservation and display of his body, for instance, also provide sites in which the exhibition of the body becomes desirable. Similarly, the display of saints’ body parts is used to signify power and authority (Rufus 1999). The longing to be displayed and publicly viewed is one that should continue to be critically investigated. The exhibition of powerful figures also deserves further attention.

War and the Symbolic Use of Bodies

Symbolic use of bodies and body parts during wartime is another substantial area of literature on the topic of body recycling. The desecration of the dead in situations of war is a common occurrence that has been documented by many (Bryant 1979; Leckie 1957; Parks 1968; Turnbull 1977; Ward 1952).

The recycling of corpses during times of conflict takes many forms. Historically, it was normative in some cultures to eat the bodies of dead enemies. The Maori nation, for example, incorporated this practice into rituals of war. To eat the flesh of enemies prevented them from obtaining a proper burial, ensuring the Maori’s symbolic status as victors. The Maori also used body parts collected from enemy cadavers for practical day-to-day activities that were considered degrading for corpses. The Maori used, for example, enemy bones for flutes, fishhooks, and rings on the legs of parrots. In addition, skulls obtained from enemy bodies might be transformed into water carriers (Vayda 1967). All these instances of recycling bones and flesh reaffirm symbolically and materially the victory of the conquering group over the opposition.

The literature on this topic discusses the symbolic use of corpses in modern wars as well. David Parks and Robert Leckie have looked at how American soldiers collected the ears of dead Japanese soldiers in World War II as well as the ears of dead North Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam War (Parks 1968). Leckie (1957) has also documented the practice of some American marines in World War II who removed gold fillings and gold teeth from the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. The gold functioned for some of these individuals as souvenirs. For others, it represented a form of currency.

The use of body parts from the deceased during modern warfare is perhaps best exemplified in the Nazi use of Jewish skin and hair to produce lampshades and cloth in World War II. This use of hair and skin symbolizes how in the Nazi imagination Jewish bodies were considered objects to be reused and remade. This use removed the humanity from the individuals and reinforced feelings of Nazi superiority and supremacy. It became a materialization of the desire for control. As sociologist Clifton Bryant (1979) notes,

Although the dead feel no pain, practically all societies place great emphasis on treatment of the dead….To desecrate the dead is symbolically to attack the very fabric of society itself: it is a contravention of the component value system, and is the very embodiment of inhumanity. (P. 298)

Research on the desecration of bodies during wartime demonstrates how the mutilation of soldiers and victims’ corpses has both symbolic and economic meaning. Bodies are not simply neutral, material objects. They become sites of symbolic representation, representing fantasies of control and victory. Corpses also take on economic meaning as they are recycled into useful objects or used, in the case of the removal of gold from the deceased’s teeth, as actual capital. The literature on this topic documents the various ways in which corpses become embedded in systems of symbolic and economic exchange during times of crisis and war. This work reminds us that perceptions and use of the dead are always located with the realm of the social.

The Cannibal Scene

Two instances of cannibalism in particular have received a significant amount of attention in the popular culture. One case often mentioned occurred in 1972 when a group of rugby team members from Uruguay ate deceased team members to survive a plane crash that occurred in the Andes. In addition to being reported in the news, this scene of cannibalism was discussed in a best-seller called Alive: The Story of Andes Survivors (Read 1974). More recently, this case was reintroduced to the public in a 1992 movie called Alive!

Another popularly known case of cannibalism occurred in the winter of 1846-47 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California when weather conditions trapped a group of emigrants led by George and Jacob Donner and James Reed in the mountain range. To survive the harsh winter, these individuals—who are now known as the Donner Party—consumed other members of the party. Of the 87 original members of the group, 46 survived and completed the journey to California (Burns 1997). The practice of cannibalism by these emigrants received extensive newspaper coverage in the late 1840s after details of their experience became known. The Donner Party continues to be a site of fascination and is the central focus of recent television documentaries and texts (Burns 1997; King 1992; Sequin 2001).

Although filmmakers and journalists have primarily focused on the Donner case and the Andes survivors, sustained analysis of the practice of cannibalism has generally been the subject matter of anthropologists. Indeed, cannibalism has been the focus of a significant body of anthropological research. The study of cannibalism has not been a static practice, however, within this discipline. The types of questions posed by anthropologists have undergone significant shifts and turns throughout the 20th century.

Early work on cannibalism tended to focus on the symbolic and economic dimensions of cannibalism. Following Claude Levi-Strauss, Edward Evans-Pritchard, and Marshall Sahlins, anthropologists throughout most of the 20th century concentrated on explaining the “function (or cultural meaning)” of cannibalism among particular societies (Goldman 1999:42).

This way of studying cannibalism was challenged in 1979 with the publishing of William Arens’s text (1979) The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. This important and influential book questioned the way anthropologists studied this particular form of body recycling. Arens’s work in particular challenged the assumption made by many anthropologists that cannibalism actually occurred among the groups studied. His research demonstrated that many of the published studies did not have sound empirical evidence to support the belief that cannibalism was indeed practiced by the various groups claimed to have done so. This finding led Arens to ask, “Did cannibalism exist to the extent claimed by anthropologists or did anthropologists make it up?” He concluded that “the ever-present cannibals on the horizon of the Western world are the result of intellectual conjuring,” not actual evidence (Arens 1998:40).

Arens’s (1979) claims in The Man-Eating Myth stunned individuals working in this field, causing much discussion and debates among them. Arens’ interpretation of anthropologists and their relationship to cannibalism scandalized many, such as Marshall Sahlins and Shirley Lindenbaum. Anthropologists in this camp spent many pages responding to Arens’s assertions, often resorting to phrases such as “dangerous,” “a scandal,” and “offensive” to describe his work (Arens 1979:44). Others, however, were inspired by Arens’ ideas and began to write about cannibalism from a different perspective. Suddenly, the anthropologist’s gaze was turned back on the discipline itself as well as on the practice and beliefs of Europeans in general.

As part of this reflexive project, scholars have explored the types of knowledge created by the literature on cannibalism as well as examined how this knowledge was used to support imperialist policies and programs. This body of critical work suggests that the attribution of cannibalism to different societies helped maintain the European belief that these groups of people were primitive and barbaric. In doing this, it also assisted and justified the conquest of these individuals by Europeans. As Lawrence Goldman (1999) notes,

Attributions of anthropophagy have invariable perpetuated agendas that proclaim difference is dangerous. The literary history reveals the manner in which cannibal claims were embedded within colonial myths variously employed to rationalize subjugation, land aggrandizement, and forms of marginalization. (P. 4)

In these narratives, the study of cannibalism becomes part of a colonial discourse that demonizes non-Europeans, thus aiding imperialist expansion and conquest.

Following this shift in perspective, other writers have studied the attribution of cannibalism to Europeans by different ethnic groups in colonial contexts. Importantly, this body of work shows that individuals in the New World were not the only “cannibals” found in the 19th and 20th century. Europeans themselves were often understood to be “cannibals” by the groups they encountered. The Ku Wari people of Highland New Guinea, for example, told stories that suggested the Europeans consumed other human beings (Rumsey 1999:105). Unlike the Europeans, however, these narratives were used to construct a sense of connection to Europeans instead of a sense of complete and categorical difference (Rumsey 1999:117). Other authors have also studied instances in which the Europeans were thought to be flesh eaters (Wormsley 1993). This literature documents the imputations of cannibalism as well as investigates how they functioned as ways to understand and negotiate the new relationships with Europeans in a rapidly changing social context.

Studies by European and North American anthropologists that examine the social and economic functions of cannibalism in Third World countries also continue to be produced. Despite an initial backlash against this type of scholarship after the publication of Arens’s (1979) text, this kind of analysis of cannibalism remains active. Two works in particular have received significant attention in the past two decades. Peggy Sanday’s (1986) Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System and Beth Conklin’s (2001) Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Societyare both frequently cited contemporary studies that examine the practice and meaning of anthropophagy.

In Divine Hunger, Sanday (1986) provides a rich overview of the use and meaning of cannibalism in 37 societies located throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and North America. Her discussion of these diverse communities demonstrates that “cannibalism is clearly not a unitary phenomenon but varies with respect to both cultural context and meaning” (p. x). Her work shows that there is no one interpretation of cannibalism that can be used to explain its role in all societies. Sanday’s review instead illustrates that cannibalism takes on different meanings and serves varied purposes in different social worlds.

In contrast to Sanday’s research, which surveys the symbolic role of cannibalism in a range of societies, Beth Conklin’s (2001) work examines the meaning and function of cannibalism among one social group—the Wari in western Brazil. Although no longer practiced, older individuals remember when the practice of eating the bodies of the dead was still performed and relay these experiences and the meaning of them to Conklin. Through her fieldwork and interviews, Conklin suggests that the Wari did not “eat their dead because they liked the taste of human flesh, nor because they needed meat. Rather they ate out a sense of respect and compassion for the dead person and the dead person’s family” (p. xvi). For the Wari, to put the body of a loved one in the “cold, wet, and polluting” ground was disrespectful and degrading. As Conklin explains, “For dying individuals, the thought of disappearing into tribe members’ bodies apparently was considerably more appealing than being left to rot in the ground” (p. xvii). By relocating cannibalism within the context of mourning, Conklin shows that the consumption of flesh can be about intimacy, love, and grief. Her work is provocative because it demonstrates how the practice of burial can be perceived as cold, unfeeling, and barbaric.

The literature on anthropophagy clearly locates cannibalism within social practices and beliefs. It reminds readers that “cannibalism is never just about eating but is primarily a medium of nongustatory messages—messages having to do with the maintenance, regeneration, and, in some cases, the foundation of the cultural order” (Sanday 1986:3). Furthermore, it offers insight into both the group interested in writing about this way of recycling bodies and those who engage in the actual practice, suggesting that the practice of and fascination with cannibalism provides knowledge about the mythic dimensions of the worldviews of all the individuals involved in this project.

Clones and Genes

Finally, three growing areas of research address how science and medicine currently recycle bodies. This work focuses in particular on the reuse of DNA and cells in projects such as cloning, stem cell research, and the mapping of genes.

The practice of cloning has been the center of academic attention since the late 1990s. In general, the word clone refers to “a precise genetic copy of a molecule, cell, plant, animal, or human being” (Nussbaum and Sunstein 1998:29). Although scientists have been making identical cells and recombinant DNA for decades, it was the cloning of an animal—specifically, a sheep named Dolly—in July 1996 that captured the attention of the press and academics alike. Since the announcement of Dolly’s birth, there has been a flurry of publishing by sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and philosophers that address the social and political implications of cloning.

The academic literature on cloning raises three central issues. First, this scholarship critically examines the questions, “Why is there a desire to clone and who will decide which traits should be reproduced?” Sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman is one of many social scientists who suggest that the desire to clone is related to issues of control and predictability. Rothman (1998b) notes, “Cloning may eventually—and eventually isn’t as long a time as it used to be—be offered to us as a way of inserting predictability and control earlier in the process [of reproduction]. Placing order in procreation: Placing our orders” (p. 287). For Rothman, the wish to clone humans is about a desire to control reproduction and the types of bodies produced.

Many social scientists express concern that social beliefs and inequalities will influence the types of traits and identities considered desirable to clone. As historian Wendy Doniger (1998b) puts it, cloning is “a way to produce desired stock, but desirable for whom?” (p. 117). Authors such as Doniger and Rothman suggest that social norms and access to power may lead to a preference for qualities such as whiteness and heterosexuality—qualities that are dominant in American society. These authors warn that cloning could foster a modern form of eugenics and that we need to be vigilant about the way power and cloning intersect.

Another key issue addressed by the literature is the way the contemporary emphasis on biological determinism shapes understandings of and debates about cloning. Work by scholars such as Stephen Jay Gould (1998), Barbara Katz Rothman (1998b), Richard Lewontin (2000), and Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee (2001), for example, illuminates how the current tendency to reduce behavior, disease, and identity to biological causes erases the role the environment would play in the development of clones. As these authors point out, the belief that the duplication of DNA leads to the production of an identical human being relies on a cultural tendency to reduce identity and behavior to biological causes. This biological determinism, or what Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee (2001:83-84) call “biological essentialism,” so permeates American discourse that the role the environment plays in the production of identity becomes obscured. For these scholars, this belief system ignores the fact that clones would never actually be identical to the donors of DNA. Both environment and biology always contribute to the behaviors and identity of an individual. A person is never simply the sum of his or her genes. As Richard Lewontin (2000) explains:

The fallacy of genetic determinism is to suppose that the genes make the organism. It is a basic principle of developmental biology that organisms undergo a continuous development from conception to death, a development that is the unique consequence of the interaction of the genes in their cells, the temporal sequence of environments through which the organisms pass, and random cellular processes that determine the life, death, and transformation of cells. (P. 278)

Contemporary discourses on cloning render the influence of the environment on identity invisible, thereby contributing to the erroneous assumption that cloning would produce human beings identical to the individual who provided the original biological material. This body of scholarship actively challenges the way biological determinism influences popular perceptions of cloning, deconstructing the myth that cloning would create identical human beings.

Finally, scholarship on cloning makes visible ethical issues that have been erased by popular discourse on the topic. Science critic Richard Lewontin (2000:287), for example, points out that of 277 sheep embryos, only one survived to become Dolly. The rest of the 276 embryos died at various stages of development, primarily because of abnormalities produced by the cloning process. Lewontin ponders the implication of this success rate for human cloning, asking, “How many human embryos are to be sacrificed, and at what stage of their development?… What kinds of developmental abnormalities would be acceptable? [And] acceptable to whom?” (pp. 287-88). By concentrating on the actual success of this technology, Lewontin pushes discussions of cloning to address ethical issues that hitherto have been ignored.

The use of stem cells in scientific research is another area of body recycling that has recently received a lot of attention by academics. Stem cells are cells that have the potential to develop into any type of cell or tissue. A stem cell, for example, can be transformed into insulin-producing cells that might be used to treat diabetes. Stem cells could also potentially be used to create organs and tissues needed for transplantation surgery. The literature on stem cell research suggests that it is the source of these cells—human embryos—that causes this particular form of body recycling to become entangled in public debate and legislation. This scholarship shows how contemporary debates about abortion and women’s rights influence public perceptions of this type of body recycling (Cohen 2000; Harris 2000; Nora and Mahowald 1996; Steinbock 2000; Ryan 2000). This work demonstrates that without this larger social context, stem cells might not attract the same degree of attention as they currently receive.

The mapping of the human genome is the third area of recent body recycling in science that has become the focus of academic scholarship. This body of work primarily centers on issues raised by the Human Genome Diversity Project. It also addresses concerns about the patenting of genetic material.

The Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) was first formulated in the spring of 1991. The goal of the project was to sample human genetic diversity from a variety of indigenous populations, thus complementing the work of the Human Genome Project, which primarily mapped the genes of individuals of European descent. The HGDP was almost immediately contested by the groups to be sampled and nonprofit organizations such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International (Cunningham 1998). These groups questioned the politics that informed the project, suggesting it represented a form of exploitation in which biological materials are taken from indigenous people for the financial and social gain of individuals and corporations in powerful nations like the United States.

Social scientists have critically examined the debates that surround the Human Genome Diversity Project. Science studies scholar Jenny Reardon (2001), for example, has used the case to demonstrate that scientific knowledge is always coproduced by scientists and other actors. Scientists who ignore this facet of scientific knowledge are bound to run into blocks and resistances. As Reardon notes,

No matter how foreign the ideas and practices of indigenous and Native groups might have seemed to these scientists and lawyers, they could not be merely dismissed by deeming them scientifically incorrect, or not part of the definition of the “Diversity Project.” (P. 380)

To ignore the ideas and agendas of these other groups, as Reardon points out, could and did result in the failure of the project to actually sample genetic material from these individuals.

Sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman (1998a) also analyzes the limitations and problems of the HGDP. Her work flags the bias of a system that is willing to pay 25 to 30 million dollars—the anticipated cost of the project—to sample biological material from groups of people who are often poor and lack basic social services. Rothman writes, “To spend millions of dollars sampling the genes of poor people so that they can be preserved for future study, while the people themselves are not being preserved, raises obvious concerns” (p. 99). For Rothman, the larger issue of “Who benefits?” needs to be addressed when thinking about recycling genes.

Finally, anthropologist Hilary Cunningham (1998) also poses questions about the ethics of the HGDP. Her work focuses primarily on issues of patenting and ownership of the biological material that would be obtained through this research. For Cunningham, the HGDP represents “a new form of colonialism—a colonialism in which wealthy corporate interests (aligned with powerful national governments) [seek] to control the very molecular basis of life by exploiting the most vulnerable and poorest members of the human family” (p. 211). As Cunningham points out, the project would have transferred ownership of the genes obtained to the scientists and groups sponsoring this research. This move would have taken the control of this resource away from the actual bodies being sampled. Cunningham is critical of this pattern of ownership, noting that it helps maintain divisions between the poor and the rich as well as between the First and the Third Worlds. She cautions anthropologists to be aware of their own participation in such projects and suggests that “they develop a politicized perspective in relation to Third World concerns” (p. 228) so that they do not unwittingly contribute to the exploitation of these individuals.

The topic of ownership of biological material is one that has been the object of a burst of academic scholarship in recent years. In addition to examining this subject in relation to the HGDP, other writers have examined the way this issue has been addressed more generally in the United States. Hannah Landecker and E. Richard Gold, for example, both analyze the implications of the key Moore v. Regents of the University of California case, decided by the California courts in 1990 (Landecker 1999, 2000; Gold 1996). In this case, John Moore challenged the University of California’s claim to own Moore’s cells. His cells had been obtained by the university during his treatment there for leukemia in the 1970s. The physician supervising the case, Dr. David Golde, realized that Moore’s body was overproducing certain important parts of the human immune system called lymphokines and turned Moore’s tissue into a cell line that can be reproduced indefinitely as well as sold to other researchers. The sale of this cell line and related products was estimated to have generated approximately $3 billion in revenue as of 1990. Moore sued the University of California, Golde, and the pharmaceutical companies involved in this project for a percentage of the profits created by the sale of his cells but lost this case in the California Supreme Court. The court decided Moore had “no proprietary interest in his removed cells” (Gold 1996:24). Both Landecker and Gold’s work challenge the assumptions of this case, which legitimized the distribution of profits to scientists and institutions. Each shows that the case could have been argued differently, resulting in an alternative understanding of who has property rights over Moore’s cells.

The issue of property rights in relation to biological materials is an important one. The patenting and sale of cellular materials represent enormous potential financial gains for those who control this resource. A U.S. consulting firm, Frost and Sullivan, estimated, for example, that sale of cell lines and tissue cultures yielded $427.6 million in 1996 alone (Cunningham 1998:217). The literature on ownership of genetic material pushes readers to be cognizant of the financial aspect of patenting and demonstrates that thus far decisions about ownership have privileged large institutions and corporations. The actual persons from which the material has been taken have not been the recipients of the profit accrued. By calling attention to this issue, this body of work raises awareness about the unequal distribution of capital in this realm. It also makes visible the amount of money that can be generated from this particular form of body recycling.

Concluding Remarks: Where Do We Go From Here?

The literature on the varied ways bodies are recycled and reused currently and historically demonstrates that uses of the dead are influenced by the larger social context. The practice of recycling bodies is thus always being reshaped and reconstituted as these contexts change. Keeping this in mind, it is important to try to imagine the different directions body recycling could take in the future. Author Willard Gaylin (1995) offers a cautionary tale about the future of body recycling in the essay “Harvesting the Dead.” In this piece, Gaylin suggests that the recent tendency to use brain death as the criteria for diagnosing death means that cadavers could

be warm, respiring, pulsating, evacuating, and excreting bodies requiring nursing, dietary, and general grooming attention—and could probably be maintained so for a period of years. If we choose to, we could, with the technology already at hand, legally avail ourselves of these new cadavers to serve science and mankind in dramatically useful ways….We could develop hospitals (an inappropriate word because it suggest the presence of living human beings), banks, or farms of cadavers which require feeding and maintenance, in order to be harvested. (P. 312)

Gaylin (1995) expresses concern that the current emphasis on cost-benefit analyses could make these types of cadaver farms, or “bioemporiums” as he calls them, make sense. These cadaver bioemporiums could be used to provide hormones, organs, tissues, and blood for other “living” individuals, thus creating an important and needed resource. But Gaylin pauses here and asks readers to consider the potential psychic price of maintaining farms of warm, breathing bodies from which body parts are harvested. Will the result of such a practice be a lack of sympathy or regard for humanity? Will this objectification of the body “destroy the very qualities that make life worth living?” (p. 319).

Novelist and poet Marge Piercy (1985) offers a different view of the direction body recycling could take. In the poem “What Remains,” Piercy suggests bodies can be recycled in a way that enriches the soil and air rather than simply becoming a commodity for sale. Speaking about her mother, who has been cremated, she writes:

  • These ashes are not the fine dust I imagined
  • The undertaker brings them out from the back in a plastic baggie, like supermarket produce.
  • I try not to grab, but my need shocks me,
  • How I hunger to seize this officially labeled garbage and carry you off….
  • My longest, oldest love, I have brought you home to the land I am dug into.
  • I promise a path laid right to you, roses to spring from you, herbs nearby, the company of dead cats whose language you already know…
  • Yet just as I knew when you really died, you know I have brought you home.
  • Now you want to be roses.

In this poem, Piercy stresses the importance of reintegrating the ashes of her mother into the landscape of her home. By doing this, Piercy offers another vision of the direction body recycling could take—perhaps one that reintegrates the humanity evoked by Gaylin (1995).

The existing literature on the range of ways bodies are currently recycled and reused—from organ transplantation to clones and stem cell research—demonstrates some of the social and political issues that influence perceptions and uses of various body parts. Similarly, scholars who study the symbolic and material use of the deceased can clarify the contexts and policies that affect how we recycle our dead in the future. Will we end up creating bioemporiums that harvest parts from the living dead? Will we change the definition of when death occurs so that we can remove organs and tissues sooner from bodies? Will we create policies that make it easier for individuals to be buried on their own land? Following Piercy, will we create roses from the ashes of those we care for?

Academic scholarship can play an important role in how future decisions about the dead are perceived and construed. It can clarify the relationship between laws, beliefs, and uses of the deceased, making individuals more aware of the way context influences choices about the recycling and reusing of bodies. Scholarship on the topic of body recycling can demonstrate what is at stake in these struggles, contributing to active discussion and debate on how and why we recycle bodies.