• Prepare for Death and Follow Me…into Outer Space

    Death In Space
    Mary Roach, Boing Boing (September 02, 2010)

    Wherever living humans go, the possibility of dead human bodies follows. It is the fullest expression of mortality’s inherent fragility.

    So, when humans finally travel into space for extended periods of time without the luxury of a quickish return to Earth, dead body contingencies need to be thought through.This is especially true for any eventual trips to Mars, which may or may not involve establishing colonies.

    Here’s the rub: NASA does not appear to have plans on what to do if an astronaut dies during a mission. Or the plans, if they exist, are not available to the public. I came across some news articles on this apparent planning gap, and it appears that NASA planners haven’t really taken seriously the possibility of an astronaut’s death during an extended voyage or what to do with a dead body during a mission.

    This is not a minor point. Returning the dead body and its remnants to next of kin is standard procedure for US governmental operations; NASA space missions are no different. Yet during long or arduous expeditions dead bodies are often left behind, if for any reason, bringing the corpse back is too difficult and/or actually endangers fellow team members. Climbers who die on Mt. Everest are routinely left behind where they fall, not out of malice but out of necessity.

    Enter into all of this, then, Mary Roach. Many of you will know Roach from her books Stiff, Spook, and Boink. She has also just written a new book entitled Packing for Mars, on exploring the red planet. Earlier this month, she wrote a short piece for Boing Boing about death in space and what might be done with a dead body. Oddly, Mary Roach’s work has popped up in a few different places the last few weeks.

    Here is the lead from Mary Roach’s essay for Boing Boing:

    The U.S. has plans for a manned visit to Mars by the mid-2030s. The ESA and Russia have sketched out a similar joint mission, and it is claimed that China’s space program has the same objective. Apart from their destination, all these plans share something in common: extraordinary danger for the explorers. What happens if someone dies out there, months away from Earth?

    Roach discusses a plan developed by the Swedish environmentalist/burial innovator Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and collaborator Peter Mäsak. Many readers of Stiff will remember Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and her innovation called Promession. In a nutshell, the proposed system would reduce the dead body’s size and volume, thereby making it simpler to transport back to Earth. The full proposal (which is being developed with NASA) should be read to fully glean how this system would work.

    What Wiigh-Mäsak and NASA are proposing is fine…but leaving the body in space would still be simpler. Indeed, the main reason to keep a body on hand after death would be for a postmortem examination to determine the Cause of Death and to see if the other astronauts were at risk for some previously unknown pathogen. That said, if an autopsy is not possible because of weaker gravitational pull and/or after a successful postmortem exam takes place, then the body is best given a respectful burial in space. I would rather see NASA develop plans for final disposition in space than a spaceship’s crew trying to make room for a dead colleague.

    Besides, I have a hunch that any person who dies in space will probably want to stay in the ether.

    Per usual, science fiction has already offered up one example of what a proper burial in outer space could resemble (see the vid at top).

    Death In Space Mary Roach, Boing Boing (September 02, 2010) Wherever living humans go, the possibility of dead human bodies follows. It is the fullest…

  • 91 Year Old’s Pennsylvania Corpse Abuse Case is Complicated

    Widow Lives with Corpses of Husband, Twin
    Michael Rubinkam, The Associated Press (July 05, 2010)


    DA: Woman can Keep Corpses in Crypt
    Michael Rubinkam, The Associated Press (July 07, 2010)
    No charges yet for disinterring her kin

    I am going to guess that more than a few people saw this story earlier in the week. It’s a classic dead-bodies-are-so-creepy narrative, which is made all the better because the story involves a totally normal, lovely old woman who kept said corpses in her home.

    In this particular case, it was 91-year-old Jean Stevens keeping her dead husband in the garage and her dead sister in the spare bedroom. Here is the real shocker: these situations are not uncommon. They pop up from time-to-time with the usual macabre sense of horror and fascination. Indeed, when I was a child in Cincinnati, OH an older woman who lived in my neighborhood kept her dead father in the house for months. A whole army of children watched as the police went into the house and eventually wheeled out the dead man on a gurney (covered in a sheet), coughing from the smell.

    What is slightly different about this Pennsylvania case is this: the dead bodies in question were embalmed, buried in their graves, and then exhumed for Jean Stevens. Who or whom did the exhuming has not been revealed. She then placed the bodies above ground.


    corpses-300x225I give Stevens credit for keeping both bodies undiscovered for a number of years. It also looks like Stevens was/is next-of-kin for both her husband and sister, which means that she had/has the legal right to determine final disposition for the dead bodies. She was fine until she had the bodies disinterred and moved to her home. This would be why the District Attorney is saying that Stevens can build a crypt on her property which could then be used for the husband and sister.

    The DA is in a tight spot here, too, because he is talking about using Pennsylvania’s Abuse of Corpse law to charge Stevens with a misdemeanor. Here is that law:

    Pennsylvania Statute: 5510. Abuse of Corpse.
    Except as authorized by law, a person who treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.

    In case you are wondering, this is the same law used to charge people with necrophilia related crimes.

    Which brings me to the following point. Without a doubt, Stevens improperly exhumed two different dead bodies and then improperly kept both bodies above ground. What I’m not so clear on is whether she outraged ordinary family sensibilities. I say this because it is clear that Jean Stevens committed these incomprehensible acts out of both love and grief. Furthermore, if she’s the last family member on the planet then whose ‘family’ is being outraged? These are philosophical arguments that don’t necessarily stand firm before the law.

    That said, I expect that the DA won’t actually pursue misdemeanor charges. If he’s smart, he’ll help Stevens raise money for the crypt.

    Macabre as this story initially sounds, it’s a useful lesson on how the law sees death in contradistinction to how family members do the same. Besides it not nearly as gruesome as this other Pennsylvania corpse story.

    Alas, and unfortunately, most of the reporting uses the easiest hooks and angles. The WNET-TV nightly news video at the top is a perfect example.

    Widow Lives with Corpses of Husband, Twin Michael Rubinkam, The Associated Press (July 05, 2010)   DA: Woman can Keep Corpses in Crypt Michael Rubinkam,…

  • Bodies Misidentified at Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC

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