We tend to think of our body as an integrated whole that belongs to one person: the “I” that speaks whenever we open our mouth. But throughout history, people have been losing pieces of themselves — to war, disease, or accidents — and the fate of those missing parts is often decided on without the input of the original owner. In Aeon, Alice Dreger explores the strange afterlife of bodily leftovers, and the tension between our emotional connection to our body and the demands of science, ethics, and religion:
Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist ex-Catholic that I find it difficult to relate to people who are highly ritualistic and dogmatic about how remains are treated. I find it baffling that humans will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to recover the remains of people we know are dead at the bottom of the sea. I find it maddening that Theresa Stack was for 15 years denied a Catholic funeral mass for her late husband because there were no known remains of him. Fire Battalion Chief Lawrence T Stack had died at Ground Zero on 11 September 2001. Only this year, when his family realised there was still a blood sample from him — taken back when he had offered himself to a stranger as a possible bone-marrow donor — was the family able to provide just enough of him to a priest to have their mass.
Yet when I think of the being that once lived inside me, and now lives outside — when I look in on him after school and find him in some small variation of his daily ritual, headphones on, eating chips, reading his favourite web comic, listening to Beethoven — it is suddenly impossible to imagine every cell of his body not mattering to me, even into death. When he is away at summer camp, I sometimes visit the curls of his blond baby hair, stored in a folded piece of paper in a small cabinet of my desk.