What’s your dust worth?

Steven Shapin

  • After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver by Norman Cantor
    Georgetown, 372 pp, £18.75, December 2010, ISBN 978 1 58901 695 8

When I was a boy – on this evidence, a miserable, maudlin sort of child – I used to kill time by calculating the value of a human life. Not the value of your soul or your contribution to civilisation or your lifetime earnings or your insurable value or the sums your heirs might realise in a wrongful death suit. I was interested in what a life’s worth when broken down into the stuff it’s made of, its bits and pieces, when to dust it hath returned. What’s your dust worth?

The answer depends on what counts as your mortal remains. The notional value of the chemical elements making up a living, or recently deceased, body was, as I recall from the 1950s, 75 cents. Now it’s said to be $4 or $5 – one of the many ways in which the value of human life hasn’t kept pace with inflation. You’re mostly oxygen, carbon and hydrogen: those three make up about 83 per cent of your body-and-soul mass. Nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus come to another 5.5 per cent; then there are smaller amounts of potassium, sulphur, sodium, on down to tiny quantities of boron, manganese, arsenic and uranium, with traces of tin and zinc. For an average-sized adult, cremated ashes – basically, the residue of the hard bits – weigh about five pounds, and seem not to have any market value at all. (Titanium implants and precious metal tooth fillings may be returned to the family after cremation or, under certain circumstances, sold off as scrap metal.) In the past, ‘resurrectionists’ used to dig up newly buried bodies to sell on to medical schools for anatomy classes, but the corpse’s next of kin never gained any material benefit from that. Burke and Hare didn’t wait for nature to do her work when they supplied fresh bodies to the anatomists; the tariff then was £8 to £10 each.

You can increase your yield significantly by selling off entire body parts. A website called Cadaver Calculator tells you what your different components are theoretically worth on the open market. Before being given your personal valuation, you fill in a survey that asks your age (wear and tear?), your smoking and drinking habits, whether you’re bald (useless for wigs?), and whether your appendix has been removed (no idea why). I’m valued at $4415, which, I gather from online forums, is well below average. An edition of Horizon a few years ago was more generous in its appraisal. Heart valves in good nick fetch $7000 each, and you’ve got four of them; tendons are worth $1000; corneas can fetch $6000 the pair. Heads – which are apparently in demand for trauma testing – make $6000, and I was interested to learn that brains were worth just a tenth of the heads that contain them. Wired has a more entrepreneurial slant, setting a higher value on your parts, specifying the difference between legal and illegal markets, and noting global variation in the trade: hearts go for close to a million dollars, livers more than half a million, skin $10 a square inch. Towards the end of our lives, there’s a good chance we’re more valuable dead than alive, and many people around the world are worth more in scrap value than they ever realised in their working lives.

It’s illegal to buy or sell human organs in most developed countries, but it happens anyway. Poor countries cater for what’s become known as transplant tourism, and several years ago bones from Alistair Cooke’s cancer-ridden corpse were illegally taken in the US and sold for about $6000. There have been scandals in the States in which bodies ‘willed to science’ were chopped up and the more valuable parts trafficked by brokers: ‘A lot of money is changing hands,’ one anatomy professor has said. ‘It’s easier to bring a crate of heads into California than a crate of apples. If it’s produce, the authorities want to know all about it.’

So one kind of answer to the question ‘What’s a body worth?’ yields a range between several dollars and several million. It’s an answer that can be traced back to Jeremy Bentham’s spectacularly hard-headed directions for the use of his own corpse. In a modern secular idiom, the dead human body is just rapidly decaying meat, gristle, bone, fat and fluid. It has no consciousness of its circumstances, no feelings, and can have no interest in its fate. The corpse can’t be gratified or embarrassed, whatever happens to it. Bereft of life, it’s an ex-person, but has no more awareness of its decay or of the rituals focused on it than the ashes in your fireplace, which you can think of as ex-coal. Nothing immaterial has freed itself from mysterious connection to the meat; there is no non-meaty entity enjoying or suffering an afterlife; nothing, under any circumstances, eventually to be reunited with the meat. The only value to be assigned to the corpse is its break-up value.

But those who affect this hard-headedness are rarely consistent in maintaining it, and its occurrence in modern society is limited. In one version of soft-headedness, we seem to set a zero or even negative value on the corpse, since few try to realise its cash potential and most of us set aside significant sums just to dispose of it. In another variant, we bridle at the very idea of turning human flesh into money, and we may expend both resources and emotional energy in ensuring that no commercial use is ever made of the cadaver, our own or that of anyone close to us. Mortal remains, by that reckoning, are priceless; they are not, and must not be, marketable commodities.

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[*] Allen Lane, 288 pp., £18.99, January, 978 1 84614 219 2.