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Body of Evidence

Climate affects culture in all sports of ways, from cuisine to sports. It also affects our attitude to corpses and places of burial. Take this instruction from the Old Testament of the Bible, for example: “And whosoever toucheth a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” (Book of Numbers 19:16)

In a hot climate like that of the Middle East, dead bodies decay quickly and can easily generate dangerous pathogens. It’s sensible to discourage people from touching them and to ensure that anyone who does so keeps their distance from others for a time. The concepts of clean and unclean – pure and contaminated – are very important parts of religions like Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, all of which evolved in hot climates.

So did Christianity, but the religion is based on the idea of someone who faced death and conquered it. In Christianity, the tomb of Jesus was first a place of lamentation, then a place of joy, because he rose from the dead. This means that Christians had a different attitude to the idea of death and burial, particularly after they moved to Europe. They didn’t regard the body of a saint as unclean, but as sacred and containing special spiritual power. That’s why churches often contain relics like the bones of saints and even phials of their blood, which were said to miraculously liquefy on their holy days.

However, although Christians might regard dead bodies and bones as sacred under certain circumstances, they didn’t regard them as suitable for scientific study. It took many centuries for taboos on the dissection corpses to be lifted and for doctors to be educated not simply from books, but also from real human bodies. The idea of cutting into a corpse was once regarded as revolting and even blasphemous, but now it’s taken for granted by many people and in some cases it’s a legal requirement.

It’s always useful to know exactly why someone has died, particularly when the death takes place in suspicious circumstances. In past centuries, many murderers must have escaped justice and many innocent people been wrongly accused of murder, simply because autopsies weren’t performed and evidence wasn’t collected on one side or another. Of course, when coroners and pathologists began routinely dissecting bodies, they still made mistakes and still overlooked evidence, but the situation had improved considerably.

Or had it? Because autopsies have some glaring disadvantages: they disfigure the body and they are literally invasive. Some people are understandably disturbed by the idea of a relative or friend being cut open and then sewn up. That’s why a new form of autopsy may become more and more popular. It’s called a “virtopsy”, or virtual autopsy, because it uses the same non-invasive techniques as a body scan. A virtopsy can actually provide much more information than a conventional autopsy, because it examines every cubic inch of a dead body – inside bones and internal organs from head to toe. In this way, it can detect much smaller injuries and bodily changes, enabling the cause of death to be assessed much more precisely and accurately.

And there is no cutting and no unslightly stitching in a virtopsy, making it much more acceptable to relatives and friends of the deceased. Of course, a conventional autopsy may still be necessary in some circumstances, because a virtopsy can’t assess the colour and smell of the internal organs, which can be important clues to the cause of death, but in time even those factors may be possible to assess without cutting into the body. Whether or not you’re religious, leaving the body intact is surely the best thing to do.