How many uses are there for a dead body?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 2 2010 5:38 PM

Crash-Test Corpses

The many ways to donate your body to science.

Cadaver. Click image to expand.
The many versatile uses of cadavers

Car manufacturers sometimes use cadavers in crash tests, according to Wired magazine. Researchers claim that, despite advances in dummy technology, there's still nothing like good old flesh and bone to validate new safety features. Everyone knows that medical students rely on cadavers, too—but are there other unexpected uses for donated remains?

Yes. Under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which most states have adopted, the best way to direct the use of your remains is by using a state-issued organ-donor card. If you choose to donate your body to research and education, you'll likely end up being dissected by a medical student. But you could also elect to have your dead body help a student mortician learn his trade or spend a few months rotting away under the watchful eye of forensic scientists. As Mary Roach describes in her 2003 book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, researchers at the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center (colloquially referred to as the body farm) have been observing bodies decompose for nearly three decades. Professors and graduate students mimic the many ways a murderer might dispose of his victims—by burying them in a shallow grave, encasing them in concrete, stuffing them into car trunks, or wrapping them in plastic bags. They've discovered, among other stomach-turning things, that since bacteria release gas as they gorge on human flesh, you can sometimes determine time of death by measuring the cadaver's bloatedness.

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The military also relies on donated bodies. The Army, for example, occasionally uses cadavers to test safety equipment for soldiers. In 1999, researchers suspended corpses in full battle uniform above simulated minefields to find out which footwear would be best for minesweepers. (A specially designed boot won, but sandals turned out to be as good as the standard combat boot.) An Army doctor in 2002 wrapped corpses in new bulletproof vests and fired at them with an air cannon, which uses compressed air to fire bullets. (A few suffered rib fractures from the force of the impact, but no skin was broken.) As for arms-testing outside the military, the National Institute of Justice, a federal agency, has hired university researchers to test nonlethal weapons like rubber bullets on cadavers.

The original military tests weren't quite as focused on safety. In July 1892, U.S. Army Captain Louis LaGarde received orders to test a new .30-caliber Springfield rifle. In the Army's first-ever corpse experiment, LaGarde suspended naked cadavers from the ceiling and shot each of them a dozen times. Over the next decade or so, the military began to rely on these tests to calculate stopping power by measuring how far back the cadaver would swing when shot. This experiment was deemed scientifically unsound and abandoned in the 1920s.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.