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
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.