(OBLIGATORY TRIGGER WARNING AND AN APOLOGY OR TWO: This blog entry contains content that may disturb some readers, including but not limited to surgery and some violent imagery. I apologize if this bothers you and implore you to stop reading now and look at these puppies and kittens instead, unless baby animals also offend you, in which case go bang your head against a wall until that part of your brain gets jumbled back into place. If you or a loved one is an amputee, I apologize for my utter ignorance and possible insensitivity, I tried to be as clinical and factual as possible, but this is also an opinion piece above all else since it’s posted on a blog, not a medical journal. I hope anyone who is still reading, enjoys what I wrote and finds it interesting and informative. Hugs and kisses -Rachel)
Okay, so sometimes a question plagues my brain, and I don’t know where it comes from, but once it’s up there, it won’t fucking leave. So that being said, the question I had was: what happens to amputated limbs?
I think it may have started with my recent addiction to audiobooks because I’ve listened to Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson like three times and in one chapter she described her experience with a fucked up gall bladder. She mentioned wanting to keep her gall stones to “make a necklace out of them,” but the doctor told her that regulations forbid it. But I seemed to remember William Shatner keeping and selling his kidney stone (which totally happened in 2006, when I was 11). He sold it for charity for $25,000, (who is in the market for celebrity kidney stones anyways?) but I’m getting ahead of myself. My base question before I started looking into it, was what happens to removed parts after surgery?
It had been bouncing around and around in my head, so I asked my best friend, Haleigh, who is studying pre med and works in a hospital as a scribe. According to her, things that are removed from the body are sent to pathology, then either incinerated or if the patient so desires, sent to their funeral home to be buried with them when they die.
So, that got me wondering, what if someone wanted to keep it? Like just keep it themselves, at their house, to do whatever with? Is that possible? Is that legal? What would they do with it? Taxidermy? Just a ton of new questions to plague my brain, so I did some research.
So, first, are you legally allowed to keep yours or any body parts? The answer is yes! According to this PBS article, “there is no U.S. federal law preventing the ownership of body parts, unless they’re Native American” (so then what if you’re an amputee Cherokee? Hmmm…). A few states, including Louisiana, Georgia, and Missouri, have some state laws restricting it, but in general it is not against the law in the United States.
Haleigh was completely correct, as usual, about what happens to removed body parts. Once something is removed from the body, it is sent to pathology for a number of reasons, one, to have samples taken for hospital records. Another reason is to verify the doctors were correct in their assessment of what was wrong and what was removed (if they are proven wrong what happens? Like “whoops, we accidentally removed the wrong organ, our bad, please don’t sue us?”) and another to test for pathogens. Removed body parts are then considered medical waste and usually incinerated. However, some people, because of religion or just preference, have their part sent to their funeral home so they can be buried as one whole person when they eventually bite the big one. For example, many Orthodox Jews believe they need to be buried wholly (Does that include foreskin? A question best left for another time.). There are also accounts in history of removed limbs being buried separately with their own little headstones and everything, the last half of this article documents some such cases.
Some hospitals though, have internal rules forbidding the return of body parts. Also, when pathology takes samples, the process can destroy whatever was removed. Even the surgery itself can damage it, especially with endoscopic surgery, where the organ or stone is removed in pieces without cutting open the patient (if you need more explanation, Google it or something, I’m not a doctor). Then, even if they aren’t damaged or destroyed, if they contain any dangerous pathogens or communicable diseases, they need to be destroyed or at the very least contained.
Haleigh asked a doctor while she was at work about it, and the answer she got corresponds with much of what I’ve read. Haleigh was told that a limb is too big to take home because you couldn’t preserve it in a jar or seal it off completely (implying that smaller remover body parts like a finger or an ear wouldn’t be a problem, right?) so it would get gross, decomposing or whatever. Also, breathing all the chemicals like formaldehyde would be unhealthy so that’s a moral no-no in the least for a hospital. It’s different than like a gallstone which would just be a gallstone regardless of where it was. Also, they are hesitant to give back organs so people can’t sell them on the black market. However, if you have a foreign body (like a screw or something) taken out that isn’t inherently “human tissue” you can get that back. Most of the time they say no to questions about keeping limbs unless it’s for religious or legal reasons (at least at the hospital where she works) because the paperwork is a pain in the ass, but not necessarily illegal.
But like I said, assuming someone could manage to take their bigger body part home with them, I got to wondering if some people just wanted to take their removed part home, just for fun or to use as a prosthetic or halloween decoration. I don’t know, would someone want to taxidermize their removed limb?
When I googled “amputated limb taxidermy” a result came up called “The 5 Most Disturbing Things Ever Done With Taxidermy” and even that list did not include anything human, which I know would surely be horrifying, but hey, I’m curious, and the question is stuck in my brain, man. Even if someone wanted to, say, taxidermize their leg, apparently it’s nigh impossible, since human skin, to put it gently, does not go through the process of tanning and all very well, according to Katie Innamorato, professionally trained, award-winning taxidermist in answer to this question on Hopes and Fears. There are a few examples like “El Negro” and English Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which are the most famous cases of human taxidermy. Other than that, I didn’t find many examples of amputees wanting to do this exactly (though some did similar things, but we’ll get to that). I did find my same question on Yahoo Answers from 2010, which proves I’m not crazy (because people asking weird questions on Yahoo Answers are the epitome of very, very normal).
So, do people keep their amputated body parts? And what do they do with them? Fret not, I have done some research (Okay, so it’s nothing super academic, and I only have a few examples, but this isn’t a fucking term paper or something.).
I already mentioned, Shatner sold his kidney stone for charity. Jenny Lawson wanted to make gall stone jewelry. What about amputees? Who has been successful and how did they do it and what have they done with their limbs once they’ve brought them home?
One woman from Oklahoma was simply persistent and “told everyone involved in handling [her] leg to not throw it away.” After pathology studied her removed leg and took samples, they sent it back to her. She then sent it to Skulls Unlimited, a company that cleans skeletons, which defleshed it, whitened it, and attached all the bones together. So, now she has a part of her own skeleton, which I personally think is like the awesomest thing. You can read more about her here.
A man in the UK had his club foot removed and wanted simply to donate it to science, but was denied because it wasn’t “perfect.” After that, he decided to hold a charity fundraiser competition to have people guess the weight of it. Then, he had it cremated and spread the ashes himself. His story is in this article (the same one with all the foot graves).
A man from the Netherlands wanted to turn his amputated leg into a lamp a la A Christmas Story. He had trouble at first, but eventually got in contact with a pathologist who was willing to help safely preserve his leg in a large glass jar and return it to him. Then, a designer heard about his desire to make a lamp, and reached out to help. It’s very different from how he envisioned it, as the leg is in a jar surrounded by metal bars with the light atop it (think less A Christmas Story and more Frankenstein’s Laboratory). He planned to sell the lamp (for a whopping €100,000, ~$108,000) to pay for a prosthetic, but eBay took down his offer after just two days since they don’t allow the sale of body parts. As of this article in 2014, he kept the lamp in his home, waiting for the highest bidder to find him.
All this, somehow led me to another fucking question: if a person were to donate their body part or even their body after death to be eaten, could that be considered sort of vegan of sorts? I just mean because part of the moral dilemma of eating meat, for some people, I certainly can’t speak for all vegans or any really because I’m not one, but the moral dilemma as I see it is the fact that cows or chickens or whatever can’t consent to you eating them, we can’t communicate with them or anything (also, terrible living conditions, and chemicals, and a litany of other horrible things I’d rather not think about in the meat industry, perhaps another time). BUT, if I, having had my leg removed, said, “If you’d like to eat this, you can, I give you my consent,” then it’s free game (game? Get it?), right? As a note, I read somewhere that it is not illegal to eat human parts, namely your own, but in theory anyone’s so long as you have their permission, IF it is not medically/procedurally removed, e.g. in the hypothetical situation above, my leg was somehow accidentally taken off because I dropped a chainsaw on it or something (is that too graphic? Sorry). I seem to remember a news story of someone eating like their own big toe or something after it was accidentally removed, but when I started googling things like “person eats own body part after accidental removal,” the results got a little disturbing (yes more disturbing than this entire blog post, shut up).
Whew. You should know this is way more than I ever thought I’d write about this subject, and honestly I could probably go on, but I’ve been thinking about this and writing for about a month and a half and I should probably stop before one of my family members punches me for asking them for the fourth time what they would want to do with their limb if it had to be removed. So, I guess I’ll leave you with this, what would/did you want to happen to your removed body part (be it if you been shot or had your spleen removed or you arm or your toe or your leg)?
Linked Sources (in no particular order, ‘cause I’m lazy and most, if not all, of them are linked in my post anyway):
(Also, my original draft referenced an article called “Woman Has Husband’s Penis Stuffed By Taxidermist After Untimely Death” but then, looking at it again, I realized it’s from one of those literal fake news sites, like the Onion, that are “for entertainment purposes only.” I was disappointed. Still a fun read though)