How the dead work: from DNA to bodies

On 28 February 1953 James D Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA, setting in motion a phenomenon that would change the way people view human history and the story of human life. Thirteen years later, the Beaumont children went missing from Glenelg Beach in Adelaide. The children’s parents, Nancy and Jim Beaumont, remained at their home on Harding Street, hoping that they would eventually return. They have since separated and are now in their nineties. In recent years in particular, the hope that at least the bodies of the children would be discovered have been repeatedly raised and dashed by DNA forensics.

As more and more forensic technologies incorporated DNA – radically transforming the way crimes were solved and the dead were granted justice – the technology appeared to give a clearer picture than ever before about crimes, behaviour and the self. We began to rely on DNA for insights into complex factors about determinism and our futures. However, contrary to the myths of total closure that it is seen to offer, DNA only provides certain kinds of information and we take it too often at face value.

The popularity of forensic crime shows has led to the so-called ‘CSI effect’, whereby – as Jeffrey Toobin wrote in The New Yorker back in 2007 – the profession of forensics ‘acquired an air of glamour, and its practitioners an aura of infallibility.’ In his book Forensic Media, Greg Siegel notes that we too often rely on forensic technologies to offer ‘a tidy narrative of physical causation.’ He argues that we have become seduced by the assumed ‘infallibility’ of forensic technologies to tell us about events and ourselves.

In the popular imaginary, DNA can tell us not only where we came from, but also who we are. In the process, we place impossible expectations on DNA to perform history for us. Scholar Jerome de Groot has argued that DNA promulgates a ‘discourse of revelation’, and the revelations that we are apparently most interested in are those that concern our own search for personal identity.’s recent slogan – ‘Now I know why I am like I am’ – attests not only to the central role the individual plays in these genetic narratives, but also a rather harmful link to biological determinism.

Ros Page, among others, has written about some the issues with ancestry DNA tests: ‘Some scientists and geneticists say the tests are essentially meaningless in terms of showing reliable links to ancestral origins. The results are probabilities and aren’t conclusive.’ These sites are problematic because the databases often rely on assumptions that can be inaccurate, she says. ‘Each individual has a set of genes derived from thousands of ancestors, and these tests can skew the picture by looking too far back into the past.’

What emerges, then, is an ideological use of the past whereby the dead are made to work for us, and are being reanimated as a commodity in our journey of self-exploration. By placing an emphasis on a sense of genealogical ‘belonging’, these discourses and technologies force the dead to participate in our attempts at self-revelation, where genetic inheritance is used as a method of autobiographical indulgence. The dead, therefore, are never truly put to rest, because we exploit their labours on an ideological level not for their preservation, but for our own illumination.

Rebecca Scott Bray has criticised the use of DNA on similar grounds for trivialising not only the dead, but also the stories we tell about them. Bray discusses the violence of excavation, describing it as being akin to an exhumation. Our age, she says, is one of ‘death scrutiny’, in which death occupies a much larger aspect of public space, culminating in the redesign of our rituals around death and effectively the constant resurrection of the dead.

The dead have literally become valuable commodities in the art and science world. The ‘Body Worlds Vital’ exhibition – which recently came to Australia – is an example of how dead bodies are turned not just into objects of anatomical study but also for public entertainment. Artist Gunther von Hagens uses a technique of his own design called ‘plastination’, a macabre version of taxidermy where the insides are put on display. The effect is as unsettling as it is informative, and illustrates how valuable bodies have become to artists, scientists and the medical profession. With their skin removed, baring their organs, bones, and bodily tissue, these specimens have their intestines laid bare for viewers to gawk upon. Only their eyes are synthetic. Von Hagens is said to leave donor forms at many of his exhibitions, encouraging more people to donate their bodies—not to science, but for this posthumous performance.

As Mary Roach remarks upon the exhibition in her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, the majority of von Hagens’ bodies are made in a factory in China, employing two-hundred Chinese workers. The operation, which Roach describes as ‘a sort of cadaver sweat shop,’ is ‘extremely labour-intensive and time-consuming—it takes over a year to plastinate one individual’. As is the case with most commodities, viewers are unaware of the process that goes into making such objects, a phenomenon known in Marxist philosophy as ‘commodity fetishism’. We value the commodity without thinking about the exploitative processes that go into making it.

‘When does a person become an object?’ asks Britain’s Science Museum in a section titled Using the Dead. ‘Many would argue that this takes place when a body becomes so valuable that it might be traded, sold or used as a gift.’ Von Hagens’ exhibitions generate huge income, something that these exhibitions share with ancestry media.

While ancestral media exploits our elusive past as a descendant, plastination exploits our inevitable future as corpses. The dead are not merely inert entities that are gone from our lives, but continue to serve for the ostensible enlightenment of the living. We have come to rely on the dead to offer clarity about who we are and what we will become, and we make them work overtime to sate our curiosities and pacify our fears.

Image: Body Worlds Vital exhibition, Flickr

Siobhan Lyons

Siobhan Lyons is a writer and media scholar in media and cultural studies, having earned by PhD from Macquarie University in 2017. Her My work has appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, The Conversation and New Philosopher, among others.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Focusing on the ancestry DNA tests I agree that the ethnicity analysis is the weakest element and the least reliable component of their DNA assessments, yet it is promoted as self defining. Recent adverts have started enticing potential customers to see their family history in the context of utilizing both DNA and historical document databases. Used together to build a family tree the DNA highlights shared family and identifies a very rich understanding of history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *