Dead Matter(s)



Humans: We’re the brains of this operation.  We’re the subjects in this subject-object equation.  But what happens when we’re not?  How do humans become the object?  The dead body/human cadaver, seems to be the ultimate example of Bill Brown’s reasoning–that we are most aware of the thingness of things when they break down.  As Brown states, “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls. . .” (Brown 2001:4). When the human body “breaks down” by dying, we are able to view it in a different way; we are able to objectify it.  This corpse does not talk like us- the living humans.  It does not think, eat, dance, etc.  It does not have a say on what happens to it.  In fact, we are able to talk about the cadaver as an “it,” rather than “he” or “she,” and not feel guilty because the cadaver will never know.  This type of objectification concerning dead bodies is crucial for some people, mostly the researchers and doctors who spend their time around cadavers, performing tasks that would be unthinkable upon living bodies.  The research on cadavers may be gross (literally), but it has had many contributions to the society of living people and is a necessity. 


This topic is prominent in the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.  Roach examines different fields that use cadavers as study objects, from surgeons to safety inspectors.  The author adds humor to her writing in hopes of lessoning the shock of the experiments done to the cadavers, to help the reader transition into the objectification of the human body.  This is evident in the headings of the chapters of the book, which include:

A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing surgery on the dead

Dead Man Driving: Human crash test dummies and the ghastly, necessary science of impact tolerance

Beyond the Black Box: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash

The Cadaver Who Joined the Army: The sticky ethics of bullets and bombs

Holy Cadaver: The crucifixion experiments

Eat Me: Medicinal cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings

Out of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin: And other new ways to end up


While collecting research for her book, Roach interviewed the living people who do the gruesome, smelly, and often times weird work with cadavers, frequently asking them how they are able to perform their jobs with a dead person sitting in the room.  From the chapter “A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing Surgery on the Dead,” the author observes a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course for “face-lifters”.  The heads of cadavers have been cut off directly below the chin and placed in aluminum trays, similar to those used for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.  The trays are laid on long rows of tables covered with lavender table cloths.  When a cadaver is dissected, the head and genitals are usually covered to help the dissector focus on the task at hand.  When the head IS the part of the body being dissected, how do the medical professionals react?  The woman who sets the heads upon the tables responds “What I do is, I think of them as wax” (21). 

The chapter “Life after Death: On human decay and what can be done about it” features the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee where anthropologists study the rate of decay of human bodies under various conditions.  Roach asked one employee what it is like to conduct his research at the farm.

 “What do you mean? You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?  I don’t really focus on that.  I try to focus on the value of the work.  It takes the edge off the grotesqueness.” (63)

As the bodies decay, they become discolored, bloated, eaten by insects, foul-smelling, and messy, to name a few characteristics.  Despite this change in appearance, a worker must still overcome the fact that these were once living humans, to get over their “humanness.”  Although the worker at the Body Farm did not admit it at first, he later commented that he used to turn the bodies over onto their stomachs so that he would not have to think about the fact that they were humans. 

There are several of those types of coping mechanisms throughout the book that allow people to saw bodies apart, shot them, place them in crashing vehicles, and study them.  People imagined the cadaver as something different, something fake, found humor in the situation, such as picturing the dead body as a cartoon, and focused on the importance of the work at hand, in order to ignore the fact that the cadaver could have been a friend of yours if you had meet a few months prior.

Roach points out these workers are

“practicing a time-honored coping method: objectification.  For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier (and, I suppose, more accurate) to think of them as objects, not people.  For most physicians, objectification is mastered their first year of medical school, in the gross anatomy lab, or “gross lab,” as it is casually and somewhat aptly known.  To help depersonalize the human form that students will be expected to sink knives into and eviscerate, anatomy lab personnel often swathe the cadavers in gauze and encourage students to unwrap as they go, part by part.” (21)

Objectification is so necessary because cadavers

“look so much like people.  When dealing with our meat selection, we don’t say we’d like a slice of pig, but we say we’d like a slice of pork.  Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.  Physicians and anatomy students must learn to think of cadavers as wholly unrelated to the people they once were.  Dissection requires in its practitioners the effective suspension or suppression of many normal physical and emotional responses to the willful mutilation of the body of another human being.” (21)

Cadavers must turn from the human subject to the nonhuman object.  They must lose their humanness.  Just as Roach stated in her book, it is important for medical students to go through this transition, to see bodies as objects.  The use of technological equipment is quickly replacing the use of cadavers, but many in the field recognize the importance of the real thing.  In a New York Times opinion article on the topic, the writer Christine Montross recognizes that the issue deserves the attention.  She discusses:

“But what kind of doctors will they be, these students who have never experienced human dissection? They would have been denied a safe and more gradual initiation into the emotional strain that doctoring demands.  Someday, they’ll need to keep their cool when a baby is lodged wrong in a mother’s birth canal; when a bone breaks through a patient’s skin; when someone’s face is burned beyond recognition. Doctors do have normal reactions to these situations; the composure that we strive to keep under stressful circumstances is not innate. It has to be learned. The discomfort of taking a blade to a dead man’s skin helps doctors-in-training figure out how to cope, without the risk of intruding on a live patient’s feelings — or worse, his health. We learn to heal the living by first dismantling the dead.” (“Dead Body of Knowledge”)

When a person dies, it is easier to regard them as something else, such as the hull of the former person, because the body becomes inanimate.  The cadaver loses the agency it once had as a living person; it can no longer defend itself when someone wants to dissect it, no longer has a say in the decision to include it in crash tests.  With medical students, forensic anthropologists, and other professionals examining the cadaver, the materiality of the human becomes even more apparent.  Once able to talk or gesture, the cadaver is now only able to relate to others through its materiality.  The agency of the human takes another form when dead, similar to the agency given to other inanimate objects.  The agency is there, even if it cannot be explicitly observed.

As Peter Pels points out in his article “The Spirit of Matter,” “the fetish functions to question the boundaries between things and the distinctions they are held to delineate” (92).  When a human cadaver is objectified, it is able to be viewed as a fetish. Like a fetish, the dead human body blurs the line between subject and object.  The human form reminds the living of the subject, but the materiality of the dead and the fact that its agency is no longer explicit makes the body more like an object. 

Even after death, the agency of the person may be enacted by following of their will.  Perhaps the family members do not want the body of their loved one to be cremated, but carry out wishes anyway to please the person (who may or may not even know that their wishes are being enacted, depending upon your beliefs of the afterlife).  Such was the case for Roach’s father, who requested to be cremated and placed in a white pine box.  Her mother complied, but felt guilty for not burying him, and was even chastised by members of the community who wanted a memorial service. Leaving requests for what happens to your body after you are dead is a way of asserting control and influence over the living.

Organ donation is another way dead bodies may have agency, as Roach editorializes upon her in book.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position of organ donor H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot.  We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life.  H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.” (195)

Using human cadavers as the ultimate example of Bill Brown’s definition of a thing only works depending upon one’s belief of the spiritual world and what happens after death.  However, as Roach’s research shows, professionals working with dead bodies typically had to objectify the bodies in order to perform their tasks.  The cadavers lost their explicit agency they held as living humans and blurred the line between subject and object. The fact that living family members carried out the transformed agency of the cadaver through wills and organ donation places the cadavers in the realm of the fetish; the human is the object.   



Brown, Bill.  2001.  “Thing Theory.” In Critical Inquiry.  Vol. 28, no. 1. Pp. 1-22.

Montross, Christine.  “Dead Body of Knowledge.”  In The New York Times.  March 26, 2009.  On-line.  <;

 Pels, Peter.  1998.  “The Spirit of Matter.” In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces.  Ed. Patricia Spyer. New York: Routledge.

Roach, Mary.  2003. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Cadaver photographs from:

One Response to “Dead Matter(s)”

  1. Full File Says:

    You’re so interesting! I do not think I’ve read a single thing like this before.
    So great to find somebody with a few unique thoughts on this subject.
    Really.. many thanks for starting this up. This website is something that is required on the web,
    someone with a bit of originality!

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