Who Owns Me Once I’m Dead?

Somehow, the last week came together in a nice neat epiphany last night. I think you would call it an epiphany anyways, or at least I had one of those ‘this is all connected!’ moments that forced a big grin on my face and I knew I had to write about it. As you may know, I went to the AAPT Consent Training day last Friday, and Monday I attended a talk by Sarah Wise on grave robbing in London. I happened to find myself chirping in with the discussion after the talk on Monday with my two pence about the Human Tissue Act and the relevance between the modern day issues and the grave robbing issues. Then yesterday I had booked to see a talk by Dr. Ruth Richardson at the Old Operating Theatre and little did I know it would nicely tie all of my thoughts and feelings together in a big ball of understanding and new found enlightenment. Sounds dramatic I know, but it certainly felt that way so bear with me while I explain.

Dr. Ruth Richardson is the author of many books, but arguably her most important publication is the 1987 ‘Death, Dissection and the Destitute’ which although over thirty years old is an incredibly relevant and thought provoking book. As she discussed in her talk yesterday, Ruth neatly tied together the impacts of the grave robbers, the later introduced Anatomy Act and the arguments against involuntary dissection taking place and heavily influenced the introduction of the Human Tissue Act and the HTA. A lot of what has taken place in the past would make people shudder, knowing that we went from an illegal trade in body snatching and selling to the anatomy schools, to a law being passed whereby if a body remained unclaimed and no relatives objected it could be dissected by an anatomist at a licensed institute.

My signed copy I will treasure for a long time!

My thoughts and feelings here turn to the fact that ever since the days of the early anatomy schools there has been debate around who owns a human body once the person is deceased. It had come down to money and to progression in science and healthcare for a long time. This is, however, very much a debate that still burns brightly today, as Ruth highlighted in her talk, with the moving forward of the opt-out organ donation scheme. Luckily we stand at a place now where you will not have anything happen to your body without you or your family’s consent. Briefly I will mention that people feel strongly about the fact the opt-out organ donation movement would feasibly take away this consent process and could consequently end up with someone who is against their organs being donated having them taken for this purpose had they not let their feelings known and opted out as required. I tend to stand on the side of that if you are strongly against your organs being taken you are given the opportunity to opt out and I would assume that you would do so. However, I also accept that this could not happen for reasons unknown and ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. From my previous discussions of organ donation, I know there are strong thoughts and feelings around this and I can very much see both sides of the discussion.

Back to my original point, who does own a body when the person has died? Grave robbers clearly thought it was whoever literally had it in their possession, whether this came through digging it up or buying it from those who did. The Anatomy Act legislated that if you had enough money and we’re claimed your family owned it, but if you were poor and no one came forward then wherever you died owned it whether that be a hospital, prison or workhouse. Obviously a slight progression from the grave robbing days but still very abhorrent to our modern minds. The Human Tissue Act dictates that consent must be given for human tissue to be retained or used in all scenarios (apart from Coronial matters) whether that be from the deceased prior to death or from their family once deceased. In no situation can tissue be retained indefinitely without this permission. It is still not clear who ‘owns’ a deceased person as such, I would suggest that we have only moved forward to a point where nobody does. People look after and care for them until they are safe in a state where they are no longer disturbed, or they remain in an institute for research purposes with complete permission. No one owns them as such and they still have a real sense of agency of their own continuing into death. Is this the peak of post-mortem progression or do we still have a way to go? I’d be interested to hear thoughts on this because I have a lot rumbling around in my head!

Huge thanks to the Old Operating Theatre Staff and to Ruth for the great evening last night. Thanks to you too for reading and please do get in contact if you have any thoughts on this.

MG x

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