Wednesday, March 07, 2007


By now you've probably seen the national story about the man whose wife was missing for three weeks and subsequently found dead. Her torso was found in their garage and other parts of her body were scattered around a nearby park. Her husband, guilty of the crime, ran away to a northern woods and was arrested there, suffering from frostbite and hypothermia after spending the night outside without a jacket or boots.

Several things struck me about the case. First of all, why is it such big news? I don't mean to sound macabre, but don't people kill their spouses all the time? The suburban woman was white and fairly good looking. I can't help but wonder how much attention would have been paid if she had been an inner city black, or even a less attractive woman.

But the part that most piqued my interest was the heading on one story that read something like "Her dismemberment worse than her death." Really? Is she more dead because her arms and legs were cut off following her murder? Do you think she cared that she was dismembered following her death?

Our culture is pretty picky about the care of corpses. If a body is handled improperly, the family can become very upset. I don't fully understand it. Don't get me wrong - I realize that mutilation and dismemberment of a corpse show significant pathology in the perpetrator, but why do other people care so much? I don't think there's much in religion that makes it important that a dead body is kept whole. If you're Christian and believe in the eventual resurrection of the dead, well, a God that can raise people from the dead is surely powerful enough to put a couple of arms and legs back on the body. If you're Hindu, for example, the body is cremated anyway. And if you're atheist, it's just a body, a mass of dead protoplasm.

We run into this attitude sometimes when requesting consent for an autopsy. I can understand parents feeling squeamish about the thought of their child's body being cut open and so on, but I also think that when you really think about it, people can realize that it doesn't matter to the dead child. Sometimes it's just too hard, though, or the death is too fresh. I've had parents say to me sometimes when declining permission for an autopsy, "He's been through enough already."

It sounds like the dismembering guy in the above story will spend the rest of his life in jail. If I'm not mistaken, his state does not have the death penalty. The woman's family will get over the body mutilation. A far greater tragedy is that the couple's two young children have suddenly lost both their parents.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I generally agree with what you're saying, but there are some religions that are a little stricter about autopsies and dismemberment and such. for example, observant Jews often have burial services for amputated limbs, and in general autopsies aren't done (partly because of prohibitions on defiling corpses, and partly because bodies can't be preserved and should be buried ASAP). However, there are exceptions allowed when it might save a life (like if the person had a rare condition that an autopsy might help find a cure for, or if organs are removed to transplant).

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you doc about the autopsies. My brother was murdered. He was shot at in back of the head at point blank range with a shotgun. So even tho all that was left of him was just a body....and I know that he is whole again in still bothered me that he didn't have a face. Just knowing he was laying there, bare, with out his face is really hard to grasp. I think thats why such a big deal is made about things such as dismemberment. It is just a disgusting thought to think of a loved one chopped to pieces or headless. Anyway, back to my point about the autopsies. Even tho the cause of death in my brother's case was obvious, in my state, when someone is murdered, autopsies are required (may be like that everywhere I dunno). I don't understand any parent not wanting to have an autopsy done on their child if the cause of death is even remotely questionable...unless of course religion says no....but if not, parents should go for it....the reason I say this? When my brother's autopsy was done, they found he had a heart disease. He had Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. After speaking with a heart doc, my mom found that he was in danger of dying at any moment....his heart was that bad off...and no one knew. We have had many people in our family die young with heart problem's, but no one has ever told us exactly what it could be until my brother's autopsy. I have 2 young children, and as they get older and are checked for this heart dead brother and his autopsy may have just saved their lives.

10:24 PM  
Anonymous Katherine said...

I'm an attorney and have a colleage who is handling a case for a family regarding the "mis-burial" of their family matriarch. All I can think about everytime she talks about the case is, "Who gives a flying flip what happened to this woman's body after she was dead?" The family is supposedly so upset over it they're seeking counseling, with the anticipation the counselor will be called as an expert witness to testify as to their emotional distress. Give me a break.

11:06 PM  
Blogger ostertaga said...

Just because a person is dead, doesn't mean that their body stops holding meaning for the family..or how that body is treated and handled isn't important to the family.
After my daughter died, I declined autopsy..I felt, like the parents you reference, that she had been through so much and that her little body (which was very precious to me) didn't need to be cut open. We knew why she died..we knew what would kill her long before it did. What would it serve to have her body autopsied?
I love her little frame, her hair, her sweet little body..and even though I knew her spirit no longer resided was all I had left.
I personally handed her over to the mortuary person, as I didn't feel I could handle her laying down in a cold morgue by herself.
I dressed her warmly and even put a clean, dry diaper on her for her burial.
It didn't have to do with my thought it was impacting her..I realized she was dead..but, as her mom, who had carried that little body in my womb and in my arms..I needed to wash her body and dress her and care for her even after her spirit had gone on.
I guess you only could understand if you've been there.

As for the dismemberment..shooting someone versus killing them and cutting their body into pieces and hacking through their sinew and scattering their body..well, yes of course the result is the same..they are both dead..but it seems more gruesome and personal or something to imagine. More "out there" in the realms of what we hear about from day-to-day..and therefore more attn is drawn to it.

Just my 2 cents,

12:15 AM  
Anonymous Helen Harrison said...

When my mother died, a year ago, at age 86, my sister and I cleaned her and dressed her in her favorite outfit, the one she had told us she wanted to be cremated in. (She had also previously written her own obituary.)

We put family pictures and mementoes in her pockets. We cut strands of her hair as keepsakes.

We invited her closest friends to our house and we were all there when the doctor came to pronounce mom dead. We took pictures of mom during her dying and after her death. They are beautiful (to us).

All this was, strictly speaking, irrational. But it felt right.

There is a part of me that understands and appreciates the need for autopsies, and I try to talk people into them, but not too hard.

No one was clamoring to do an autopsy on mom, and I really don't know if we could have handled it.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Dream Mom said...

I guess it's big news because dismemberment is just plain creepy. You never seem to forget crimes like this and the people who did them.

If it were my child, I know that I would decline the autopsy. I would agree with the statement that my child had been through enough already. I think the difference for me is that even when my child is dead, it's still my son and not a corpse. I would treat him lovingly in death as I would in life. I also feel that by declining an autopsy, it would be a form of respect for him. For me, the "Rest in Peace" would begin the moment he died and include no autopsy.

And a couple of things about your post:

1) You asked if she would "care" that she was dismembered following her death. She may not care but I know I wouldn't want to that to happen to me.

2) "Don't people kill their spouses all the time?" Well, statistically we know they do however does that mean we shouldn't report it? I would hope that it doesn't become "normal" to expect that a husband would kill their spouse or vice versa that we no longer report it. (P.S. Hopefully, your wife won't read your column about the killing spouses all the time:)

1:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's pretty blase to say, "The woman's family will get over the body mutilation."

My father died when I was seven and I can tell you I remember EVERYTHING about what happened to his body after death. Those memories are a major reason why I want to be cremated before a memorial service. I don't want my relatives to have to look at this thing that looks like a bad version of me.

2:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

cjwtecremation is what personally i have requested.but my son is against that.recently there was a tv show on about turning cremated remains into a diamond-like stone.that would be my request,to be a blue diamond.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Lisak said...

I live in Michigan, where this crime took place. The man's wife was "missing" for five days before he reported it and the news coverage all kept saying he wasn't a suspect? Give me a break. The coverage of this story has been non-stop, to the point of ridiculousness. And you are right, if she had been a black woman from inner-city Detroit there would have been very, very little coverage. Instead since she was an apparently upper class white woman from the suburbs, it was watched in minute detail. I too feel for the children. I understand (thanks to the news!) that the two parents families are now fighting over who gets custody of the kids. My heart breaks for them. I don't think Michigan has capital punishment, either. I don't think it's a matter of rational thought when a family declines an autopsy. It's an emotional thing--and one more thing to endure.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lost my little baby girl due to cystic hygroma and other anomalies, my husband and I declined autopsy but did have a karyotype done. The autopsy would not have mattered anyway since the reasons were so blatantly obvious.

My reasons for declining the autopsy were the same as those Ostertaga expressed so beautifully. I realized she was gone but her sweet little body was all that was all I had left and I felt that I should in some way "protect" her.

That may sound silly to those who would make light that the person doesn't really care what happens to the body. I'm sure the dearly departed no longer care about their remains. However, for those left behind, the remains of a loved one can be very precious and a concept that is hard to grasp unless that person has actually been there.


2:30 PM  
Blogger Lori said...

What does that mean that her family will "get over" her mutilation? What would that look like? What would that feel like? Do you really think there will ever come a day that they won't remember and be pained by the brutal way in which their daughter/sister/mother/friend's life came to an end? I have my doubts. You learn to live with terrible losses, but you don't "get over" them.

I am glad so many others spoke up so eloquently about why the body can and does still matter to so many people after death. I just don't agree with you on this one.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Ariella said...

I agree with NeonatalDoc's premises in my rational mind -- yes, her family WILL get over her mutilation (or at least accept it), and yes it is very often the spouse that kills another spouse, and no a corpse won't care if its mutilated or not.

I think, however, that you're overlooking the emotional range that a dead body holds. My mother died when I was young (I was 24; she was 58) and it was totally unexpected. The opportunity to see her and touch her and hold her hand before she was cremated was incredibly important to me, and if the hospital had mishandled her remains I would have been very upset.

As for the coverage of the mutilation, I suspect people are upset by it because it seems a very hateful thing to do. It indicates that the husband must have really harbored a lot of enmity towards his wife, and I think that's what really gets people upset.

Funnily enough, this is the first I've heard about this case... probably because we don't own a TV!

8:51 AM  
Blogger buddhistmama said...

My medical/rational side thinks autopsies can serve valuable medical research. But my heart sides with the testimonies in these comments, in which the body is far more than the sum of its parts.

I was recently re-reading the medical records of my delivery and found a note about my placenta.

"Fetus papyraceus is identified, 4.5 cm from crown to rump."

I broke down in tears as I read those words. I had never mourned this 'fetus papyraceus'. Earlier in my pregnancy, I'd consented to a 'fetal reduction' in hopes of preventing a premature delivery. The result was hardly as hoped, but it seemed futile to mourn a missing fetus while my 26 week twins struggled in the NICU for three months after their birth.

Our request to keep the placenta had been denied on the grounds that it might be needed for further testing. I have read every single one of the three thousand pages of medical records for my twins and have yet to find any mention of the placenta.

So what happened to my placenta---which the medical records coldly state was sectioned into ten pieces---three of which included remnants of the fetus papyraceus?

Maybe it was shipped to a pharmaceutical company like those I'd read about in the UK, where the hospitals in question had received a few jacuzzis for their labor ward in exchange. In a similar case involving placentas from South Africa the hospital spokesman defended the practice noting that the women had signed a disclaimer allowing the hospital to remove 'waste material' as it sees fit.

I don't recall signing such a disclaimer in my New Hampshire hospital, nor do I recall seeing any explanation that my placenta would be classified as 'waste material'.

Agreed, the dismemberment of my fetus papyraceus hardly compares with the cases mentioned in these comments. But if I can feel such ambivalence about the sectioning of a long dead fetal fragment, I can sympathize with those who can't face an autopsy, no matter how much they may support the science behind it.

10:13 AM  
Blogger neonataldoc said...

Thanks for all the comments. Ostertaga and others do a nice job of explaining their feelings.

I don't really mind when people decline consent for autopsies. I understand that when someone was just alive, the thought of cutting them up is just too hard.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My reasons for declining the autopsy were the same as those Ostertaga expressed so beautifully. I realized she was gone but her sweet little body was all that I had left and I felt that I should in some way "protect" her.

I agree!

I am also an atheist. (When I say this, I'm confessing, not boasting.) I don't think a body after death releases a soul into heaven. So for me (I guess), the body is NOT just a vessel. It IS. It is everything. It is what we are, in combination with our mind, which also gives us our personality. (Just to offer a different perspective than your conjecture. Hey, at least you said "protoplasm" instead of worm food.)

I could argue that it is precisely my atheism which gives me more "sensitivity" to the dead body, but that's a bunch of crap. I'm just thinking what most people are: "That's my little baby, that's my dad, that's my sister. They deserve so much more than to be cut open on a cold table under the bright lights by an unfeeling stranger who never knew them." I don't even like the idea of sending my loved ones to the morgue, and everything they do there.

It's just human. It takes months if not years to get over a loved one's death. In the timeframe that an autopsy would occur ... the parent hasn't even accepted the death yet. The body is still very much alive, in the mind of the bereaved. It's not just squeamishness, it's outright horror and inconsolability.

You haven't said what you would do if it were your own child (God forbid---is there no atheistic version of this?), but since you haven't confessed any cognitive dissonance on this, I'll assume that you would. I'm surprised. Maybe it's a mom/dad thing? I can't speak for everyone, but it seems moms see the very newborn baby much more as a potential human than men do. (I am a parent.)

Maybe you're not bothered by it because you're a doctor. You see bodies cut into and intubated and wracked by medicine all the time. I don't mean that in a bad way. You save lives. But, the off-shoot of that may be, unfortunately (or not?), you are a little desensitized to the whole ... post-mortem ... flesh-cutting business?

Most of us just aren't desensitized to it. Just accept it. If you don't understand it, just accept it. :) It's not rational. It's human.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Lump of soulless protoplasm said...


I agree with you. This shouldn't be news. It isn't anyone's business. The woman's murder has no bearing on how we should live our lives. It does not teach us anything of value. It is a car accident on the side of the road and we are slowing down to watch as we pass by hoping to get a glimpse of suffering so we might feel better about the fact that we aren't in that car accident on the side of the road.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's a greater tragedy that they learned their father is a murderer. Of the woman who bore them. Think of the therapy!

8:17 AM  
Blogger Visionary & Medium Extraordinaire said...

I can assure you that the spirit of the person who inhabited that body couldn't care less. It is us humans, remaining that care, why? That is up to each individual. Once she's dead, she's not concerned about herself anymore, rather the living, such as her children. The sad thing is that once she is deceased, there is little she can do, about the fate of her children.
Excellent point!

One thing that I would like to bring up, is why does it seem like crime in America seems so much more extreme and violent, and more frequent? Compare it to the rest of the 'Civilized' World such as Europe/Australia etc.
They don't commit such outrageous crimes over there. Why is it?

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little late with my question... but how is it exactly that you know a deceased person doesn't care about what happens to their body? Not trying to be a smartie, just caught up in the idea that maybe we don't really know everything about what happens to us after death.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

My daughter died this summer at a teaching hospital. She had meant to participate in a research project, but died before she could.

As an alternative to the research project she missed, I offered her doctor the chance to do an autopsy and take tissue samples to educate the younger doctors. She was born with a heart defect, and it was never repaired. Many of them have never seen an adult heart with an AVSD. Since she had an echo done several months before she died, the young doctors will be able to see that too. I sincerely hope the autopsy was videotaped, so successive classes of med students can see exactly why it is so important to repair a CHD early.

She always wanted to help people, and I figured this would be her last chance to do so.

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2:06 AM  

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