Implanting Art into the forensic sciences

Categories Research

This weekend there was an article on the BBC website about photographic student Harry Lloyd-Evans who photographs surgical implants that are recovered and recycled after cremation. On his website, Harry states that:

“Implanted is a project which presents images of discarded surgical implants at the end of life. Most of the implants have been recovered following cremation, the exception being the pacemakers which are removed prior to cremation.”

“On first viewing my images I found them unusual and strangely beautiful.  I decided to try to represent them in a different light by positioning and photographing them as art objects. This has the effect of changing the viewer’s perception of the nature of these objects.”

In my experience, people are often surprised that such artefacts can survive the cremation process. The reality, of course, is that the cremation process is not nearly as destructive as people assume. The human body, despite how soft and squishy it seems, is actually rather robust. A body placed in a crematorium and burned through that process will survive as recognisably human. Even when temperatures of around 900°C are reached. Obviously the soft tissues will be destroyed, but the hard tissues, the skeleton, will remain. It will have changed colour and the microscopic structure will have been irrevocably altered but it is not destroyed – a point that we have made repeatedly in our academic publications. The traditional term of ‘heat-induced destruction’ is misleading, and has helped to perpetuate a myth in osteology that burned and cremated bone cannot provide any useful information about identity or identification. Personally I prefer ‘heat-induced alteration‘ since it better represents what happens without that judgy term. With the skeleton largely intact, those working in the crematorium must then convert the bone into the ashes that are presented to the families and next of kin. This is done through the use of a cremulator, which crushes the bone into tiny fragments. A process of convenience perhaps, but also one which seeks to dehumanise the funerary process – a continuing theme in modern British funerals.

In the forensic context, the significance of surgical implants has a long history. Naturally these objects can suggest something important about identity. An implant such as these has implications for that person’s life experiences – how they lived their lives in the every day world, and how others treated and interacted with that person. The nature of the implant therefore has implications to the exact nature of that interaction. An invisible implant causes a different response to – and from – the world as compared to one which is very visible. The latter an increasingly common experience with the increased visibility on TV (see for example, the award-winning Channel 4 campaign for the 2016 Paralympic Games). Indeed there is an interesting narrative regarding these implants making people ‘super-human’.

Sticking with the forensic context, these implants also have identification significance. As Ubelaker and Jacobs noted in their case-study from 1995, surgical implants support the identification process by being both an identifier (that is, something that is used as a descriptor of the deceased or missing person – think Dr Richard Kimble’s assailant in The Fugitive) and by linking the deceased to their medical records. Oftentimes these implants will have some sort of code or serial number on them which can be linked to a specific hospital and then to the patient. Indeed, as Wilson et al argue in their paper in 2011:

“Orthopedic device manufacturers are required by the Safe Medical Devices Act of 1990 and the FDA Modernization Act of 1997 to track permanently implanted devices.”

This was a theme we revisited in one of the chapters in Forensic Human Identification: An Introduction which made similar points while noting the sheer range of surgical implants that can be placed inside a body. The caveat, of course, is that such surgical interventions need to be conducted in appropriate hospitals in order for these databases to be updated.

These points are just as relevant to those who have been cremated, such as in Lloyd-Evans’ work. Recent work by De Angelis et al showed that many types of devices could be successfully recovered and identified following cremation of a body and thus still hold forensic significance. Earlier work has tended to focus on the recovery of dental implants which, as with osteological implants, survive readily.

What Lloyd-Evans’ work presents then, is a tantalising glimpse into a person’s life, possibly a hidden part. The striking photos, especially when taken out of all context, allow the viewer to consider not just who that person was, but how their lived experience shaped them, their out-look, and their death. Here then is another example of the overlap between art and forensic practice, which equals that of recent efforts such as the State of Exception exhibition (the result of a project started at the University of Michigan by anthropologist Jason De Leon and expanded by artists Richard Barnes and Amanda Krugliak) and the collection Evidence (a Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence funded collaboration between visual artist Eric Fong and myself at Teesside). All of this physical evidence can be woven into a biography of the deceased which, when undertaken in the forensic context, can provide an additional layer of evidence to support our work.

Implanted – by Harry Lloyd-Evans.

I'm a Professor of Applied Biological Anthropology at Teesside University.

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