A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
Bring out your dead, bring out your dead!!—Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Controversy, always feared and usually ill-famed controversy, is brewing along with the tea in the United Kingdom. This is not necessarily a bad thing; a little controversy now and again, like exercise, enlivens the body politic, enriches the mind, and gives media types something to do besides run up their expense accounts. There are those who dislike controversy, of course, but these are the same sort of people who keep lima bean farmers and cream soda manufacturers in business and so we may safely discount their objections in the same way that any sane person would discount the inchoate ravings of the mentally unbalanced, conspiracy theorists of all stripes, and the vast majority of, if not all, Red Sox fans. There is simply not enough time in any normal person’s day to deal with such deranged people for very long.
In any case, the controversy across Mr. Joyce’s bowl of bitter tears revolves around the British government’s intention to right an ancient wrong, that of hanging Mr. Burke, of the firm of Burke & Hare, Ltd some 180 years ago, and then of allowing the National Health Service to summarily expropriate, under the color of law, that firm’s business. Messrs. Burke and Hare, for those of you who may not have heard of them, were a pair of early 19th century Scottish entrepreneurs who made their fortune supplying Edinburgh medical schools with cadavers for the schools’ anatomy classes, it being imperative then, as now, for doctors to know where vital and non-vital organs alike are located within the human body so that they may have a better sense for what to charge the unsuspecting patient for removing them. I should point out here that your average Scottish citizen of that period was an unimaginative cuss much given to declaiming the poetry of Robert Burns, drinking whiskey, and eating haggis, a dish so utterly vile and disgusting that it defies the descriptive power of any known adjective in the English language and is best eaten after the consumption of large amounts of the country’s semi-eponymous liquor, the better to wash the stuff down with, and therefore said average Scot was not in any way the sort of person to part with his nearest and dearest in any manner save the unimaginative way the Church of Scotland approved of, i.e., burial in the local churchyard, followed by the consumption of more haggis and whiskey. It was in this primitive era that our two heroes served the advance of medical knowledge by waiting until nightfall and then digging up the deceased and carting them off to the medical colleges.
This might have been an extremely lucrative line of endeavor—the demand was certainly there; the medical colleges were voracious in their hunger for fresh stiffs to cut up—but the supply, unfortunately, was more than a little tenuous. In a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, the government’s reform of the death penalty laws, which had once prescribed death as punishment for almost two hundred separate crimes, to only a few crimes like murder, had nearly eliminated the medical schools’ of fresh dead bodies to dissect. Without the government stepping in to execute felons left, right, and center for everything from picking pockets to walking on the grass without a permit, people then, as now, simply refused to die in sufficient numbers to keep the corpse traffic economically viable.
It is true, of course, that with war, pestilence, and famine being constants in human affairs, the supply of bodies should not have been the problem that it was at the time, but one should remember that war, pestilence, and famine, like Bedouin, impecunious relatives, and embezzlers, are a fairly peripatetic crew, much given to wandering hither and yon at a moment’s notice, except in the Middle East, which tends to irritate the inhabitants of that region no end and makes transporting bodies from there to would be doctors in 19th century Scotland something of a problem. The other problem here is that war, pestilence, and famine, together and separately as well, tends to indicate a certain breakdown in the social and political fabric, a fact that often signals a concomitant lack of widespread interest in medical education on many people’s parts. There is, I think, a certain medical irony in the fact that one does not often find a desire to study human anatomy in places where there are large numbers of fresh corpses. But we digress.
Faced with inexorable demand and a finite and even dwindling supply, our two hardy capitalists put their brains together (not literally, of course; you have to point these things out in discussions like this one) and, as their fellow Scot Adam Smith could have predicted, found a free market method of supplying the need. The British government of that time was not nearly as broadminded as the current government, unfortunately, and in a fit of regulatory oversight gone stark raving bonkers, hanged Mr. Burke by the neck until he was dead, yet another martyr to ill-planned governmental interference in the workings of a market economy.
It probably would have ended in this tragic manner, no matter what. The fundamental problem with Burke and Hare’s idea was that it was well ahead of its time. In a world without refrigeration, Burke and Hare could not maintain a supply of cadavers against inevitable downturns in the market nor could they exploit the various niche markets available to them; like all primary commodity producers, they were at the mercy of speculators and middlemen. For Burke and Hare, one cadaver represented one sale, nothing more and nothing less. While certain cadavers brought more money than others; the corpse of one young harlot was especially remunerative and also very popular with the students, who hated to part the young woman in the end, no business plan then extant could get around the technological limitations of the period.
Of the firm of Burke & Hare, Ltd, there is little more to say. As with the long line of Wall Street masters of the universe brought low after them, the prosecutors flipped one partner against the other. Mr. Hare cut a deal and testified against his erstwhile friend and partner, and consequently the government hanged Mr. Burke in December of 1828, government oversight being a bit more stringent then than it is today. Following his execution, Mr. Burke, in an apotheosis most capitalists can only dream of, became his own product and eventually wound up in book binding, of all trades. Mr. Hare, on the other hand, simply vanished after the Crown released him in 1829. Where he went, no one knows.
Today’s British government, by contrast, need never worry about technological limitations or the legal technicalities that made life so difficult for Burke and Hare. The government can, after all, provide both refrigerators for the deceased and the ability to move the legal line between life and death at will. So, in a tribute to his fellow Scots, who, as the title of the recent book would have it, invented the modern world, what Prime Minister Brown’s government is proposing is basically this: that the British government owns your dead body. This is a strange notion, to be sure, but according to the government, a necessary one; the people of Great Britain are not donating their organs in anywhere near the numbers required to sustain a national organ transplantation program and so the National Health Service is seeking to rectify this situation by nationalizing the dead. Not all of the dead, mind you; one assumes that Henry V, Florence Nightingale, and Field Marshal Montgomery are exempt from the program and need not lose a moment of their eternal sleep worrying about having to perform some further service for their country; but only the very recently deceased, as organ transplants must be du jour to be of any use to the recipient.
This wholesale conscription of Britain’s freshly dead into posthumous government service is not as popular an idea in the United Kingdom as it might be. A good many British citizens think that while the government might, through the use of the power of eminent domain, take for public use the river and woods one travels over and through to Grandmother’s house we go, and perhaps even take Grandmother’s house should the need be urgent enough, extending the concept of eminent domain to Grandmother herself is something of a stretch, if not actually presumptuous. And if the government can summarily draft the dead into service, the critics charge, who else is safe from the powerful reach of anatomical socialism? It does not take a dystopian imagination to think the government may, having lined up the dead, will turn next to nationalizing the nation’s wombs. Not all of them, naturally—there would hardly be any point to that—but rather the wombs of unwed economically deprived teenage mothers, as part of some far-reaching government plan to move into the booming surrogate motherhood market. By nationalizing these wombs in particular, the government can remove these girls from the unemployment lines and the welfare rolls, reducing poverty throughout Great Britain. The government will also save billions in unnecessary educational expenditure, as school buildings and teachers become the newest victims of the onward rush of technology; surrogacy as an occupation being open to the unskilled as well as the skilled laborer, extensive education beyond the ability to sign one’s name on the dotted line is not a requirement. The government will, no doubt, ignore the critics, convinced of their own righteousness and of the brave new world of opportunity they are opening for the previously unemployed dead and previously unemployable teenaged mothers. Governments are prone to this type of thinking, especially socialist ones, which view the expansion of government power over the populace as a good thing in and of itself, whether or not specific proposals for the expansion of that power makes the government in question look like a howling mob of gibbering baboons. Governments don’t think much about that sort of thing; it gives them heartburn.
A robber of grave-worms. One who supplies the young physicians with that with which the old physicians have supplied the undertaker. The hyena.—Ambrose Bierce.