Hey, Vsauce. Michael here.
And when you die, what happens to your body?
It can be buried or cremated or donated to science, but are those your only options?
I mean, what if I wanted to be taxidermied, like my friend here? What if I requested to have my body
stuffed and mounted in some hilarious position, like a permanent high five, so people could high five my actual skin forever? Well, it turns out to be quite complicated. So let’s begin with an easier and more flexible solution. Cremation and ashes.
Twelve humans have walked on the Moon.
But 300 humans have been buried in outer space. With the right connections and budget
you can have a portion of your ashes launched into space.
The very first space burial occurred in 1997, when a rocket deposited the ashes of 24 people into orbit around Earth. In 1999, human remains were first buried on the Moon.
A lunar prospector probe dropped some scientific instruments and some of the cremated
remains of Eugene Shoemaker, co-discoverer of the comet Shoemaker–Levy 9. But the first human to have their remains leave our solar system will be Clyde Tombaugh, the guy who discovered Pluto. In 2006, some of his ashes were launched
aboard the New Horizons probe, which will arrive near Pluto in 2015, take some recordings and pictures and
then continue on beyond our solar system.
You don’t need to get all outer spacey to have fun with you ashes.
Right here on earth there are companies that will take carbon
from your remains and expose them to extreme heat and pressure long enough that you wind up with a diamond made out of you. It can be cut and
polished. One woman even had it done with the ashes of “Meowy,” her cat. The point here is that you can be quite creative with cremated remains.
But ashes don’t look like you did when you were alive, so let’s revisit taxidermy. The shapes and combinations
that animals have been taxidermied into are quite creative.
For instance, an actual pig turned into an actual piggy bank. A bird light fixture.
A goat that’s also a bagpipe. Doves turned into shoes.
And, of course, the guy who taxidermied his cat into a remote-controlled quadcopter. Taxidermy doesn’t preserve every part of your body.
It is taxi dermy – the arrangement of skin, which is okay.
I mean, taxidermy won’t bother to preserve all of your internal organs, but your skin is your largest organ.
Your skin comprises anywhere from 12 to 15 percent of your total body weight plus it’s an
organ that people see and recognize you by.
But here’s one of the problems. When animals are taxidermied,
their skin is removed and then mounted on a mannequin.
A shape that resembles the animal, but is made of wood or wall and wire or foam. That’s fine for museums.
But the use of a generic mannequin can lead to an animal that looks generic. All of the tiny, subtle, but very important
features of the animals’ cartilage, fat, muscles are more difficult to recreate after it’s dead and all you have is its skin. That’s why many taxidermists hesitate to taxidermy a person’s beloved pet. Because in order to satisfy the client,
an immense amount of specificity is required. Even more so if you were trying to recreate a person. So, taxidermy may not be the best way to
preserve yourself or your daddy or your mummy…
Mummies. What about them?
Well, let’s go back to the 19th century and Jeremy Bentham. When he died, the
philosopher requested that his body be mummified as best as technology would allow
and his body dressed up in clothes and displayed at the University College
of London. It periodically still is, but the mummification didn’t turn
out perfectl, so he’s really just a skeleton dressed up in clothes and stuffed. The head wound up looking a bit too
wrinkled and the color was off and so a wax head was made.
You can check out a 3D photograph of Jeremy Bentham online.
And who could forget the dried out mummified middle finger of Galileo? We still have it and it’s on display in Florence. It’s a great thing to visit if you want
a pivotal historical figure to flip you off.
But we’re looking for a way to preserve ourselves realistically, as we appear while living. So, let’s take a look at embalming.
Not all corpses are embalmed before they’re
buried, but embalming is a great technique for preserving a body, slowing down decomposition,
so it can stay above ground and be displayed a little bit longer.
Now, if a body is embalmed really really well
it can be preserved longer than you might think.
Abraham Lincoln was embalmed so well that even though his coffin has been moved 17 times since he was buried and the casket opened five times, on each of those occasions,
including the most recent in 1901, people said “yeah, still looks like Lincoln.” On an even more extreme scale are the
bodies of people like Mao and Lenin, which continue to be on display to this day. The bodies require special
treatments multiple times a week. The exact techniques and embalming fluids
used to preserve Lenin are kept secret,
but they’ve kept him preserved for more than 80 years.
Well embalmed bodies can be displayed before being buried in more positions than just lying down in a coffin.
For instance, leaned up against a wall or riding a motorcycle. Wow.
But embalming doesn’t last for ever,
and if you try to make it last forever be prepared to spend a lot of money and time. One method that could be used on humans
and has become popular with pets is similar to instant coffee.
Freeze-drying. The process involves freezing the animal, so that all of its water solidifies.
And then using a partial vacuum with the pressure so low that the solid water instantly turns into vapor and escapes away, leaving a much much lighter freeze-dried pet. Unfortunately, when it comes to preserving a human body, as realistically as possible after death, these methods – freeze-drying, mummification, taxidermy, long-term embalming are either unsatisfactory or impractical. With the exception possibly of a slightly newer method – plastination.
It’s the method used to prepare bodies for exhibits like Body Worlds.
Essentially plastination involves a specimen soaked in a volatile solvent and then placed in a polymer solution.
In a low-pressure environment the volatile solvent leaves the specimen and the empty space is filled with the polymer solution. The specimen is flexible and can be put into a pose and then the polymer hardened by using special gases. Human bodies that have been plastinated
last a very long time, even at room temperature.
But here’s the crazy thing. It’s free.
You can quite easily donate your body to the Institute for Plastination.
It counts as donating your body to science. But here’s the thing: you won’t necessarily have control over what’s done with your body, because at the end of the day corpses are legally not property.
No one owns a corpse.
Because a corpse is not legally a piece of property,
no one can just do whatever they want with it.
Your options are severely limited and even if you you specifically have requested, say, that your body be taxidermied and
all of your surviving can agree and want it to happen, it’s very unlikely that a mortuary would
allow that to happen, and, historically, the law sides with the mortuary.
For example, in 1994, David Eugene Russell
requested that when he died his body be skinned,
his skin tanned in the leather and that leather used to bind a book of his writings. He wanted this to happen, as did his surviving widow. But the mortuary refused to do it and
the court sided with the mortuary. So, even if you have a really cool idea for
how your body could be embalmed forever and displayed in a funny, weird or bizarre way, you’re not going to get permission to do so. Plastination winds up being one of
your only options, but you won’t have a lot of control over what happens to you once plastinated. But hold on a second.
In 1998, Anthony-Noel Kelly was arrested for
stealing anatomical specimens from the Royal College of Surgeons.
Now, he claimed that he was not guilty of theft, because a corpse is not a piece of property.
He was merely guilty of the mistreatment of a corpse.
But the judge ruled that because these anatomical specimens
had been especially prepared by licensed and skilled workers at the college, they had become property.
So here’s something really strange. If you found a way to get your body taxidermied, for the benefit of medical science, in doing so you may actually become a piece of ownable property.
So, in a way, bean taxidermied may be the best way to allow your survivors, your loved ones, to legally and literally have you forever. And as always, thanks for watching.