SMOKE: The Valuable Dead
Originally published: 13 September 2005
"Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse."
That line was never actually spoken by James Dean, as is widely believed - it was uttered by John Derek in the 1949 film Knock on Any Door.
But that's a technicality. Personally I prefer "Live slow, die old and who cares what your rotting corpse looks like?"
I'm not a mad fan of death.
I read an Associated Press report yesterday about how Austrian researchers who used human corpses as crash test dummies will not be prosecuted for doing so, as the statute of limitations has expired on the deed (no cadavers have been used by them in the last year).
Upon further investigation I discovered that in April an Austrian ethics commission ruled that researchers can use corpses for such tests provided they get permission from the deceased while they are still alive, or from the deceased's family.
Apparently the cadavers are used in crash tests to determine things like how the spine compacts upon impact and what it does to a person's back.
It's not just them wacky Austrians either - six universities in the United States use corpses for crash simulations, and no doubt a bunch of mad European countries as well.
My first reaction to it all was that if I die and my family gives permission for anything other than swift cremation or a prearranged cryonic suspension I'll return from the grave to haunt them all the way to hell.
The concept of having my dead bits strapped into cars I can't drive myself and being forced into yet more rear-end collisions does not sit well with me. It's not really the principle of it - it's more the distasteful concept of what would happen to my rotting bits upon impact.
And the fact that corpse-handlers have an innate disrespect of the dead - they have to. Were a mortician to be troubled by all the precious little lives so cruelly ended he'd be a madman in a week.
It's like paramedics who make jokes about human roadkill.
A good paramedic mate of mine narrates the tale of how he arrived at the scene of an accident on a highway to discover a pedestrian had tried to cross the road and had been hit by a truck travelling at well over 120km/h.
He'd been hit so hard his intestines had burst out and uncoiled for 500 metres straight down the centre line of the highway - perfectly straight. My mate had to spend his afternoon rolling up one huge string of intestine boerewors.
The jokes flew thick and fast. "Boy, he sure had guts to cross the highway", is one I can remember. There were plenty more.
Without that sense of humour you'd have to face the reality of the situation, which in my mate's case would be that he was rolling up some dead person's intestines - a person who not minutes before had been living and breathing.
Once you've done that for the thousandth time you'd better be having a laugh, or you'd be in a mental institution.
(Quick aside: what's with paramedics, huh? Or any other medical personnel? Sheer insanity, I tell you. It's like I always say: don't be a paramedic and you won't ever have to spend an afternoon cleaning up intestines.)
So I don't trust my dead bits with anyone other than the dude over there by the big bonfire, and it's a firm philosophy that carries across the board.
I would never, for example, permit any of my body parts to be used for science. Which I suppose is odd when you consider that A. I don't believe in life after death, B. I don't believe in the sanctity of the body, and C. I'm all for the advancement of science.
I believe in the whole "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" concept, which means I believe that when I die I cease to exist in any way, shape or form, other than as a pile of decaying dead matter.
So I should be the perfect candidate to give my rotting hulk over to science when I die. Yet I'm not.
When I had my back operation in 1997 it was a huge affair. They opened up the small of my back, cut out a disc that had compacted, sawed a piece of bone out of my hip and put it in the spot vacated by the disc, and used two huge bolts to screw the whole palaver together.
Then I had to lie on my stomach for a day or two before I was turned to my back, and there I lay - unable to move, with a catheter shoved all the way up my wotsit.
It was undignified. I felt like a piece of meat. As long as I'm alive I like to feel that I'm more than a piece of meat, and that feeling crosses over into the view I have of myself when I'm dead.
I don't want someone's last thought of me to be how blue and bloated I was, and how - when they carved my dead stomach open - I let out a long, slow release of gas in a farting noise, only for them to make some joke about how I should try less garlic on my pizza next time.
I understand humour from the perspective of those dealing with the dead, but I have no desire to be part of that humour. I want to be bagged and burned within the hour.
In much the same way I wouldn't want to be buried in the ground. Dead as I will be one day, right now I'm still alive - and thinking of those worms and maggots slowly chewing their way through my eyeballs.
And I would definitely never give permission to be used as a crash test dummy, for a bunch of tightarse Austrian researchers to poke and prod my corpse with teutonic, cold fingers, mumbling things like "Goot" and "Ja" upon seeing how my vertebrae snapped like a twig in their simulated accident.
I reckon my attitude to my remains is no different to funerals, really. They aren't for the dead - they're for those still living, and for your vision of your passing before you die.
I wouldn't want anyone I know or love to have to think about how my cadaver is being dismembered and ripped apart by wacky, barrel-of-fun technicians. I want them to say goodbye, and mean it.
By the same token I have no problem with anyone else who chooses to donate their remains to science or medicine or anything else that can further the cause of humankind. Either you're an organ donor or you're not, man.
All Smoked Out,