“When is death?” may seem like a simple question to answer, but an academic conference, with this question as its title, set out to explore why this is only partly true.
The University of Leicester event, organised by Shane McCorristine, Wellcome Trust postdoctoral fellow, and Sarah Tarlow, professor of archaeology, explored everything from organ donation and grave reuse to “survival” on the internet and reported post-mortem “sightings” of leading Nazis.
Keynote speakers offered broad perspectives. Reflecting on “Death’s impossible date”, Douglas Davies, professor in the department of theology and religion at Durham University, noted that different body parts can continue to function for different periods of time and that many religious traditions believe people’s souls or “enduring identities” are immortal. Yet if “death has many dates, even when dealing with biological bodies”, this was even truer for “social bodies”.
Elizabeth Hurren, reader in medical humanities at Leicester, agreed that, at least for early modern murderers subjected to capital punishment, “becoming really dead…takes time”. This was not only because many survived the gallows and had to be killed “again” in the dissection room. There was also a carefully choreographed process whereby social death (conviction for homicide) was followed by legal death (hanging), medical death (absence of signs of life) and the deliberate infliction of “harm” through dissection and dismemberment.
Dr McCorristine’s paper applied this argument to the specific case of William Corder, who killed his lover Maria Marten in the notorious “Red Barn” murder of 1827.
His body was “dissected for public view”, anatomised before an audience of surgeons and medical students and then “disassembled into distinct parts for posterity”. His articulated skeleton, for example, was displayed as “a focal point for visitors and donors” at the West Suffolk Hospital, used for teaching anatomy and “even occasionally brought to dances by the nurses”.
“Although Corder died in August 1828,” concluded Dr McCorristine, “the exact ‘when’ of his death was made uncertain by the post-mortem journeys of his corpse”.