Thoughts on Post Mortem Live

This is a long post with only the one picture for reasons that will become apparent

This weekend I attended the Post-Mortem live event.  It was a hard decision, but it is talked about a lot in my research and some people who have never seen it have views about it.  In the same stretched logic that led me to read the infamous 50 shades of grey before voicing an opinion, I thought I should go and see it.

(It should be noted that I was not neutral about the event before seeing it.  I am an anatomist.  I did my training in the dissection rooms of UK medical schools.  I am not a pathologist.  I have never attended a post-mortem and my experience in that area is confined to Dame Prof Sue Black’s books, Carla Valentine documentaries and TV.  I am not an entomologist, I have not studied forensics and I have not conducted mass spec or gas chromatography.  I very much doubt any one person has.)

The event was 4 hours long, although the doors did not open until it was meant to start, and it had a 35 minute break so it was closer to 3 hours.

I help run the anatomy night events where we run dissections which are usually just over an hour.  In that time the anatomists cover one organ.  We are currently submitting a manuscript on the educational value of those events. 

This event covered crime scene analysis – 2 separate potential crime scenes, collection of swabs, kidney dissection, soil analysis, DNA analysis including the explanation of exons, introns and small tandem repeats, soil analysis, entomological study of fly larvae to estimate time of death, viewing the body under UV light to identify sperm samples, craniotomy and removal of the brain, dissection of the larynx, bronchi and lungs, and heart.

To be fair, in the one page programme which the majority of the audience did not appear to have – it cost extra, there were QR codes to all of these techniques and a paragraph that said that the show depicted something that was very far from the normal post mortem process but this had been driven by feedback from2021 where guests said they wanted more grit and forensics and to find out what happened.

The issue with this event is the pretend use of human remains.  In this case a body sitting at the front of the stage that had supposedly been dead for around 16 days.  You might think – who would be fooled by a synthetic model, but the vast majority of the population have not seen a dead body – they have no comparator and when the remains are there with pig intestines added to the abdomen you could see some people thinking this was real.

In the queue outside, the person behind me talked about the fact that he was a registered body donor. ‘This could be me in a few year’s time – still it’s the learning that is important.’  He said he was surprised the event wasn’t taking place in a hospital or a university. He did approach the presenter during one of the activates and I did overhear them say that it was not a real body as that would be illegal, but no room wide announcement was given. The potential donor standing a few feet from the model had to be told it wasn’t real. I can’t see anything in the programme that explains the origins of the body.

There were a number of people in the room who were there for the same reason as me.  There were several students who were there because this was their only access to dissection.  There were some people there who were thinking of going into forensics (this misrepresentation of the role of a single forensics person feeds the forensics frenzy), some thinking of going into medicine and a bunch who were just interested. The audience covered a wide age range but was probably more towards the 20-30 year age group.  There were a total of 112 people with tickets costing around £50-£80.

The presenter had spent 5 years studying anatomy and had worked at the Royal College of Surgeons. (I had previously tried to find out the qualifications of the staff at these events and was told by the company that it could not be disclosed because of data protection). Their anatomy was only challenged by the limits of the show.  They cut the cranium off with a scalpel, they mentioned a bone saw but obviously didn’t use it.  They removed the cranium and the model brain literally fell out – it wasn’t connected to anything.  When it came to the digestive tract – which was stained blue due to an attempted poisoning, they had to explain the lack of an appendix – why on earth they didn’t just say the victim had had an appendectomy I don’t know – I guess saying the same thing twice a day for several months was wearing a bit thin, but they suggested that the appendix often just falls off or explodes.

Except for the two points above, there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with the anatomy.  I can’t comment on the fly larvae each group had to go up and collect from the corpse to work out the timeline and sticking a pH metre into the soil sample to differentiate between the two crime scenes was a time filler.  Even having qualifications in medical microbiology and anatomy I found the speed at which they went from ‘this is a kidney’ to loops of henle, to mass spectrometry to DNA profiles startling and some of the slides of the power point were flashed up so quickly it was impossible to read then.  The room was dimly lit with spot lights at the front facing the audience which made it hard to see although they had no issues with people crowding around their pretend human remains and taking pictures. They had a camera operator who zoomed in on certain thing that were projected on to two big screens.

Each table had a bucket and a tray and got to dissect a kidney, identify fake larvae, open by a larynx, trachea and lungs and a heart as well as take the pH of a soil sample.  Several swabs were taken and sent off to a lab with results coming back during the event. Dissection instructions were given verbally, and we were provided with scissors. The one presenter toured the room to check that people were getting on OK.  The trachea had had a black substance (possibly charcoal solution) placed in it to suggest particulate matter that had been breathed in.

If the event has been called who killed Miss Piggy then I would not have any problems with it.  It would have been quite entertaining although maybe not as marketable. The event could even have run without the pretend rotting corpse at the front of the room.  I would have liked a big sign up telling everyone that they were dissecting pigs remains.  Some of the audience even commented on the amount of pig remains that were being used and speculated that they were probably been thrown away afterwards – maybe they were going back to dog food – I don’t know.

I left fairly unimpressed.  Unimpressed with human kind in general that we find the idea of paying to look at dead bodies acceptable, and unimpressed that there are business people out there prepared to exploit it.  The programme claims that the company supplies over 40 UK universities and a dozen NHS trusts although this applies to the ITAE event management and production company, maybe not the post mortem section of the company. Disappointed that there are body donors out there who think this is what might happen to their bodies and also slightly worried that it didn’t actually seem to concern them.

Next month I am booked into the Living Autopsy.  An event being run by Dr Suzy Lishman CBE as part of the 60th anniversary of the Royal College of Pathologists.  It will be interesting to see the difference.

Author: Anatomy Fundamentals

Janet Philp has spent a lifetime exploring fitness and wellbeing. Starting in group exercise, travelling through rugby to representing the UK at martial arts before including Yoga, meditation, Budokon and personal instruction. Her passion is anatomical function and educating people to use their bodies to their full potential.

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