Saturday, 14 May 2011

Dead reckoning that puts a cash price on your body

THERE are lots of reasons to be queasy about the death of Osama Bin Laden. The no-doubt grisly photos are not, as it happens, among them.
The apparent fact that they were taken is one thing. (I say “apparent”, because what of this whole grimy business can we really take as fact?) That no photos have been released to public view is another.
Not to be used as propaganda? What else was the whole mission if not a gigantic exercise in US propaganda?
Too unpleasant to be seen (even if a child was there to witness the event itself)?
And then there is the haste with which Bin Laden’s body was (apparently) disposed of.
If Muslim sensibilities were really the reason, then why at sea?
Is it entirely irrelevant that that makes any post-mortem impossible – or even an indisputable identification?
If the Americans wanted to provide material for another batch of conspiracy theories to match those spawned by 9/11 they could hardly have gone about it better.
I made it clear last week why I thought the killing was wrong. I don’t want to add now to the welter of theories, or even ethical concerns.
But rather like another historically ambiguous episode, this whole story has put an extraordinary focus on a corpse. More specifically, a missing corpse.
What is it about dead bodies that we find so revolting – and at the same time so fascinating?
In our society there is nothing we like to look at more than human bodies. It’s only when the life goes from them that we whisk them out of sight.
The idea of killing is constantly in the news, constantly part of our entertainment.
Shoot-em-up games have moved on from the cowboys-n-injuns of my primary school playground to the slick graphics of the latest computer simulations.
But real bodies, real human meat, remain as absent from our everyday lives as they were from The Lone Ranger or Space Invaders.
Not just since medieval or Tudor times, when the physicality of death was a known reality to all, but since the Second World War, death has been sanitised. Swept up. Cleaned away.
Like those photos of Bin Laden’s remains, dead flesh has become something we’re not supposed to see.
Which perhaps goes some way to accounting for the inflation of graphic nastiness in horror movies. And the increasing obsession in detective fiction, on the page and on screen, with forensics and pathology.
Maybe it’s time we treated the shivery obsession with a healthy dose of realism.
After all, there’s nothing so certain as death and taxes. And taxes haven’t always been around.
So let’s consider the reality of dead bodies. Not shot-up celebrity corpses like Bin Laden’s, just ordinary everyday cadavers such as yours and mine will be one day.
Reality, in this cash-conscious capitalist world, is most commonly measured in monetary units.
For some reason, we usually make an exception to this when it comes to dying. Unless you’re talking about the will of someone wealthy. And even then the deceased’s physical remains are seldom considered.
Yet looked at as a collection of reusable scrap parts, a human body can be worth a good deal of money. Which almost makes it perverse that most of us pay simply to have the thing disposed of.
A full set of heart valves in good nick is supposed to be worth about £16,000. The corneas in your eyes, undamaged and with proper legal provenance, could fetch £3,600. Your brain only has a market value of about £350 – but a whole head can be worth ten times that to the right buyer and with all the paperwork in order.
Then there’s the skin, the hair, the other organs. All with potentially good trade-in value. Unlike your cremated ashes, which are worth less than the battery from your old mobile phone.
It’s just as well, I suppose, that law and taboo should restrict trade in human parts. And of course there’s always the question of ownership.
But there are plenty of valid reasons – medical, educational and experimental – why those parts might be better used than as food for worms or fishes.
And if you baulk at the idea of someone selling your bits after your demise, bequeathing them to medical science is an excellent option.
This is all assuming, of course – as I do – that once deceased your body stops caring what happens to it. Or, indeed, about anything else.
That should apply even if you ascribe to a belief in an after-life. Which seems to me to be wishful thinking of the oddest kind. Odd and misplaced.
The time before our birth does not scare, or even mystify, us much – so why should the time after our death? In both we are equally non-conscious, non-existent.
I find this not only more plausible, but also a more comforting idea than any imagined afterlife.
As Woody Allen put it: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

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