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After We Die

The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver

Norman L. Cantor

Publication Year: 2010

What will become of our earthly remains? What happens to our bodies during and after the various forms of cadaver disposal available? Who controls the fate of human remains? What legal and moral constraints apply? Legal scholar Norman Cantor provides a graphic, informative, and entertaining exploration of these questions. After We Die chronicles not only a corpse's physical state but also its legal and moral status, including what rights, if any, the corpse possesses.

In a claim sure to be controversial, Cantor argues that a corpse maintains a "quasi-human status" granting it certain protected rights -- both legal and moral. One of a corpse's purported rights is to have its predecessor's disposal choices upheld. After We Die reviews unconventional ways in which a person can extend a personal legacy via their corpse's role in medical education, scientific research, or tissue transplantation. This underlines the importance of leaving instructions directing post-mortem disposal. Another cadaveric right is to be treated with respect and dignity. After We Die outlines the limits that "post-mortem human dignity" poses upon disposal options, particularly the use of a cadaver or its parts in educational or artistic displays.

Contemporary illustrations of these complex issues abound. In 2007, the well-publicized death of Anna Nicole Smith highlighted the passions and disputes surrounding the handling of human remains. Similarly, following the 2003 death of baseball great Ted Williams, the family in-fighting and legal proceedings surrounding the corpse's proposed cryogenic disposal also raised contentious questions about the physical, legal, and ethical issues that emerge after we die. In the tradition of Sherwin Nuland's How We Die, Cantor carefully and sensitively addresses the post-mortem handling of human remains.

Published by: Georgetown University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-x

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pp. 1-8

My stepbrother died in 1973 at age thirty-nine. He was a flamboyant criminal trial lawyer and, true to his character, he left unusual instructions for his funeral arrangements. He wanted a New Orleans–style funeral in Trenton, New Jersey. His widow was to wear white. ...

Part I: Status and Rights of the Cadaver

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1. When Does a Person Become a Corpse?

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pp. 11-27

Important consequences hinge on when a person becomes dead, that is, reaches the point at which a moribund human officially qualifies as a corpse. The first impact is upon potential medical or quasi-medical intervenors. Doctors, nurses, and emergency personnel must decide...

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2. The Human Nature of a Cadaver

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pp. 28-44

Some people say that they don’t care what is done with their corpse. After all, it is just inanimate waste—crow bait or fly bait, depending on how much shelter is provided to the cadaver.1 Tell those people that their corpse will be tied to a jeep and dragged naked through the streets with...

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3. The Legal Status of the Postliving: Do Corpses Have Rights?

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pp. 45-71

Multiple decisions have to be made about the disposition of a corpse. Most immediately, will the body or body parts be made available for use before final disposal—for autopsy, for use in research or education, or for transplantation to live persons with critical needs? ...

Part II: Disposition of Human Remains

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4. Decomposition of the Body and Efforts to Slow Its Disintegration

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pp. 75-90

The first clue that the human body is highly degradable comes from terminology. The word “cadaver” is, at least according to court opinions, derived from the Latin words caro data vermibus, meaning flesh (or carrion) given to worms. That derivation is sometimes contested. ...

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5. Final Disposal of Human Remains

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pp. 91-118

Without proper disposal, a corpse not only gives sensory offense, it poses some danger of contagion to the living. Decent disposal also signifies respect and fidelity to the deceased, consistent with the hope and expectation of the vast majority of people that their remains will be...

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6. Eternal Preservation of the Deceased: Literally and Figuratively

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pp. 119-140

The common forms of cadaver disposal leave few remains in the end. Cremation reduces a corpse to about seven pounds of nonorganic dust. A buried corpse gradually decomposes into a dark, moldy, undifferentiated mass. Contrary to popular belief, typical modern embalming postpones...

Part III: The Multiple Roles of a Cadaver

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7. The Cadaver as Supplier of Used Body Parts

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pp. 143-176

A host of uses can be made of a human cadaver. Some of them are utilitarian, such as using ground-up human remains for crop fertilizer or for filler in artificial reefs. Other uses are more humanitarian, as in education and research for the advancement of medicine and science. ...

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8. The Cadaver as Teacher, Research Subject, or Forensic Witness

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pp. 177-210

Most people assume that death ends their period of service to fellow human beings and seek to implement their historic entitlement to quiet repose. They contemplate a final disposition that allows their remains to rest in peace. They worry only about the comparative dignity of various...

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9. The Cadaver as Parent

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pp. 211-236

It is not easy for cadavers either to become or to function as parents. Though necrophiliacs may try all sorts of sexual stimulation, the inert cadaver will not respond. Normal means of sexual reproduction are out. Nor can cadavers serve as the nurturing, directive parents that child...

Part IV: Abuses of the Cadaver: What Does Decency Demand?

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10. Body Snatching, Then and Now

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pp. 239-253

The archetype of cadaver abuse is grave robbing. Purloining a human body or its parts is a serious offense to all interests associated with human remains. While the corpse may not physically sense disturbance to its sepulcher, “rest in peace” has always been considered an...

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11. Desecration of Human Remains

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pp. 254-275

Since time immemorial, the human cadaver has been regarded as a sacrosanct entity entitled to dignity and respect. Because of the human aspects of cadavers—whether due to their human origin or to the continuation of a deceased’s memories in survivors—the concept of dignity has...

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12. Public Display and the Dignity of Human Remains

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pp. 276-294

Since Gunther von Hagens started the Body Worlds traveling exhibitions of plastinated corpses and body parts in 1995, over twenty-five million people worldwide have viewed these displays of the marvels of human body systems. (The plastination process for extracting liquids from cadavers...

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13. Don't Neglect the Fate of Your Remains

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pp. 295-301

Now that we have examined the nature, duration, and utility of the human cadaver, it is time to consider the implications of this study. How might the fate of your cadaveric remains be affected by this book’s findings? ...


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pp. 303-332


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pp. 333-350


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pp. 351-353


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pp. 355-372

E-ISBN-13: 9781589017139
E-ISBN-10: 1589017137
Print-ISBN-13: 9781589016958
Print-ISBN-10: 1589016955

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 699513541
MUSE Marc Record: Download for After We Die

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Human body -- Law and legislation.
  • Dead bodies (Law).
  • Burial laws.
  • Offenses against the person.
  • Sacrilege.
  • Dead -- Legal status, laws, etc.
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