Arts and Crafts with the Human Corpse

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

The human body is 14% bone.

Human bones have been used to construct chapels and places of worship, most notably sites like the Sedlec Ossuary a Catholic chapel in the Czech Republic dating from the 16th century. Legends say that a half-blind monk was tasked with exhuming the skeletons of plague victims and beginning to stack the ribs and skulls that would form the ghastly structure. The remains of around 50,000 people are housed there (both being housed and being the house) and the site is visited by over 200,000 people every year.

Jewelry made by humans from bone in the Stone Age is commonly determined to be animal bone. But one-third of the time, the bones worn by humans came from the bodies of other humans. Whether humans wore each other’s bones out of affection, out of the triumph of having killed them, ritual significance or indifference to the human animal, we may never know.

Humans still make jewelry out of the bones of other humans, today. Etsy and other independent crafts outlets are full of the solemn avowals of artists that these bones are not stolen, nor sourced unethically. Donations, particularly of teeth, sustain these artists who seek to satisfy our species’ hunger for beautiful bones.

The human body’s fat content is widely variant across sex, body type, age, ethnicity, and a variety of other factors, ranging from 7% at the lowest to 42% at the highest. Human fat has been made into candles, both out of convenience and to make what some occultists call the “thieves’ candle,” lending invisibility or undetectability for unsavory errands in the near-dark.

During the Nuremberg Trials, testimony from scientists and assistants was given that human fat from people murdered in Nazi concentration camps was rendered for soap. Dark-humored Jewish people living in those times made sport of this unimaginable inhumanity, joking that one should eat less, so that the Germans might enjoy less soap.

David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club drew its bizarre hero of exaggerated masculinity, Tyler Durden, from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name. Among a myriad of unusual vocations and avocations, Durden makes and sells soap derived from human fat he has stolen from a local liposuction clinic’s biohazardous waste dumpster. “To make soap, first we render fat. The salt balance has to be just right…so the best fat comes from humans. Richest, creamiest fat in the world. Fat of the land!” Durden’s soap sells in the fanciest boutiques in town, and the narrator reminds us that he is selling rich women their own fat back to them, transformed.

Witches have been accused of making their flying ointment using soporific or psychoactive herbs in a suspension of fat rendered from unbaptized infants as far back as the Malleus Maleficarum, a detail that made it into Robert Eggers’ 2015 film about Puritan suffering, The VVitch, and so persists even today.

While most of the human body is famously water, only 8% of that is blood.

Married from 2000 to 2003, the union of actors Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton was largely an unremarkable pop culture event, except for one thing. Appearing on several red carpets as their films premiered, the lovers wore strange pendants containing a preserved liquid. When pressed, the couple explained that they were wearing one another’s blood. Variously reported as a “vial” of blood or a “sample” of blood, the two later clarified that it had been a small pressed dot of the liquid, like a preserved flower. Kits are available all over the internet to make a romantic gesture of one’s very own.

Artists have painted and using blood in all kinds of works for centuries, including Lil Nas X’s “Satan Shoes” with a liquid core of blood. Francois Girard’s 1998 film The Red Violin charts the course in life a 300 year old violin originally lacquered with (spoiler alert) the blood of the master creator’s young wife, dead in childbirth.

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    Humans are mammals, and mammals are hairy. However, we are less hirsute than even our nearest relatives: the human body is .03% hair.

    Hair jewelry has been used as a way to remember and honor the dead, as well as keep a piece of someone we have lost with us. Many different cultures make wearable keepsakes from human hair, and hair cutting is a common component of stories involving romantic loss.

    Skin is the largest organ of the human body, with a heavier hide than many might expect. The human body is 15% skin, and this is the thing with which we are most familiar. Forming both our boundary from and our largest sensory organ for understanding the outside world, skin fascinates us, on and off the body.

    Making something from human skin has been phenomenon enough to receive its own Greek name: anthropodermia. To bring up the Nazis once again, Buchenwald Commendant Karl-Otto Koch and wife Elsa owned a lampshade made from human skin. Serial Killer Ed Gein made a lampshade from the buttocks of one of his cannibalized murder victims. Books bound in tanned human leather exist in libraries around the world, as objects of curiosity and disgust alike.

    The whole human body has been subjected to bizarre treatments over the centuries, including an inexplicable history of grinding and eating mummified corpses among the Europeans of the 17th-20th centuries. The whole human body can be many things, including art (though very good facsimiles are also available and should be considered.) The whole human body is an ethical war zone between ideas of ownership, inhabitation, propriety, and infectious waste.

    The human body is 100% governed by consent, even in death.

    [The book in the featured image is derived from a photograph in the Wellcome Collection and is used here under a CC 4.0 license.]