For any medical student, there’s something quite hard to forget about walking into the anatomy lab for the very first time. My shoes squeaked against the blue linoleum floor as I wove my way through rows of grey body bags lying on stainless steel trolleys under that harsh fluorescent white light. What I found challenging about my first encounter with a corpse was that it was so undeniably and certainly human. Structurally there was not much difference between me and the body that lay on the trolley.
Nevertheless, although the body felt so similar to me, so human, the fact of death was so stark, so confronting and so permanent. Even as we all stood around for the introduction, the body seemed more like an object on display than a person.
Death, dying, and the dead body are considered taboo by many cultures. The word “taboo” refers to restrictions based on cultural norms. These restrictions are associated with an object, place, or practice either because it is considered “sacred” or because it is considered “profane” – dirty or polluted in some way, either morally or physically or both. Both aspects of taboo apply to death, since death is often associated with disease, but many religions also focus on death as a “gate” to the afterlife (with rituals to do with the body assisting this journey). Hence it is possible for death to be considered both sacred and polluted. In contemporary New Zealand, feelings of distaste, uncertainty, shock or fear about death and the dead body are fairly standard, reflecting our society’s cultural norms. There can be a lot of emotional sensitivity around talking about death in the contemporary Western world, leading to restrictions on how we think, talk and act around it.
Psychiatric nurse Dr. Lisa Rosenberg hypothesised that:
the act of producing humour, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress”.
I believe that working in the dissection room, an environment so outside of the cultural norm, where you are crossing every unspoken line, every societal taboo around the dead, can cause extreme and overwhelming stress. Our group discussions as we dissected always seemed to dwell on ordinary things: lunch, friends, weekends. These conversations were not conducted with hushed reverence, as in a chapel or funeral home. This realisation alone made me aware how we were more comfortable if we could create a space between the body we were dissecting and the human identity behind it. Humour was a tool that we used to do this.
I remember one of the members of my lab group would always compare different tissues to different foods. This would always get a laugh and groan from all around, and helped make time pass more swiftly. This ‘bad taste’ or ‘black humour’ helped us to objectify the body so that we could complete the given task. The jokes provided momentary ‘superiority’ and also punctured tension and provided relief (both ‘superiority’ and ‘relief’ being key theories about why humour works).
Freidrich Neitzche once said:
Laughter represents an acceptance of paradox and purposelessness, as well as an embrace of the smallness of human beings”.
For us, humour was certainly a coping mechanism in the weighty task of human dissection. It helped us to be unified in the struggle to do something so otherwise unnatural. Perhaps also, though, by laughing we were also accepting our fate as aimless human beings and the paradox of learning to save lives when all lives, ultimately, end. Our laughter may have been a surrender to the fact of the inevitability of death, an inevitability that became so obvious during those labs. It might also have represented a refusal to be beaten down by the emotional strain of the task, so that we could carry on regardless.
Human dissection is a unique biomedical learning activity, filled with taboo. All medical students at the University of Otago must face it. I think humour in that situation is a tool to bond with other students in the lab, a means of coping with the task, and a way to separate ourselves from the body that we dissect… and perhaps also to separate ourselves from death itself.
Nicole Walters is a third year student at the Otago School of Medicine. This piece was written as part of the ‘Humour, Culture, & Media’ Humanities Selective (in the Early Learning in Medicine programme) and supervised/edited by Dr. Susan Wardell, Dept. Anthropology & Archaeology.
- Froese K. (2017). Why Can’t Philosophers Laugh?. Palgrave.
- Rosenberg, L. (1993). “Sick Jokes, Health Workers: Paramedics use dark humour to relieve stress. It could work for you too.” Psychology Today. Available here
See also Our cadaver is male by Isabelle Lomax-Sawyers and This funny old thing called life by Sue Wootton. Find other articles that discuss these themes through categories like Humour and Death in the sidebar on the Corpus home page.