By Lisa Flowers
It may seem shocking, but throughout history, humans have been using their deceased in unconventional ways. Though it’s no secret that bodies were once used in bizarre early medical practices, not many know that there are quite a few modern products as well. Contemporary medical science has proven that body parts can have healing properties – like cadaver skin, which can be (and frequently is) used to treat burns and ulcers in the form of skin grafts. But as it turns out, the departed are still an active part of non-medical industries that go way beyond the mortuary world and the “posthumous fame” phenomenon.
Take, for instance, Eau de Death, the innovative perfume that’s said to be partially distilled from corpse emissions. Or other macabre products like “Occult Jam,” made by London company Bompas & Parr, which is an edible rumored to contain the flavor of the hair of the late Princess Diana. We’ve hardly pried the lid off the coffin of commercial, medical, and artistic services the dearly departed can apparently provide. Read on to discover more about contemporary products you might wish you never knew about.
Forget your elegant buckskin or patent leather. Former UK company Human Leather is one up on both of the above. The company claimed to obtain their materials from “[p]eople who have bequeathed their skins to us prior to their [passing].” As the organization’s prior Human Leather website put it:
Just like animal leather products produced from lesser animals, our raw human skin is transformed into the finest grade leather by using a traditional tanning process. However, human leather is the finest grain leather that is obtainable. It is free from defects and has the smallest grain size, which makes it the smoothest, softest leather on earth.
Moreover, they hastened to assure buyers that the process is completely legal, not to mention ultra-discriminating: “[W]e have had to turn away some potential donors, as we can accept only the highest quality human skin.” Whose skin is anyone’s guess, as they can’t legally disclose donors.
Shows like The Walking Dead introduced us to myriad creative ways of warding off the un-dead (smearing guts on oneself to mask one’s scent, for example). But Eau de Death cologne represents a far more revolutionary approach than that. This intriguing concept comes to us from chemist Raychelle Burks of Doane College in Nebraska. According to Burks in the Daily Mail:
If we’re really trying to mimic a corpse, we have got to get the smell down to perfection. Nobody wants to be the guinea pig that spritzes on the death cologne and realizes it doesn’t quite work.
Dr. Burk further explains the chemical composition of how the perfume comes together:
Putrescine and cadaverine are the main ingredients, which are emitted early on in the decaying process. Both organic chemical compound are produced by the breakdown of amino acids in living and dead organisms and are toxic in large doses. They are largely responsible for the foul odor of putrefying flesh, but also contribute to bad breath, and can be found in semen. Methanethiol, which smells like rotten eggs, is also added to the ‘perfume’ to create its offensive bouquet.
As it turns out, the fountain of youth may actually spring from the departed. According to the Guardian, a Chinese company is developing cosmetic products made from the remains of prisoners – who have passed from natural causes or via execution – to market in Europe. In other words, your next collagen treatment, facial filler, or lip-pumping injection just might be composed of these prisoners’ fat.
Though this news has incited a predictable outcry, the firm’s agents insist that only “some” of the company’s products have been exported to the UK and that the whole thing is nothing to “make such a big fuss about.”
London-based company Bompas & Parr might be “globally recognized as the leading expert in multi-sensory experience design,” as its website states, but it is a pioneer in the imaginative use of the departed’s hair. In 2010, Bompas & Parr manufactured something called “Occult Jam,” which supposedly contained a few strands of the late Princess Diana’s hair.
No, the tresses didn’t come off the Princess’s remains. Co-founder Sam Bompas claims to have acquired them on e-Bay. Nevertheless, as CNN puts it: “What has started out as art itself has become a product with a lot of major retailers.”
The deceased don’t need their skin anymore, so why not donate it to those who do? That’s the logic that bioengineers at the University of Manchester are employing. And interestingly, they’ve found that skin taken from cadavers is actually more effective at healing wounds than living tissue is. The flesh (once it’s been de-contaminated by antibiotics, that is) is also specifically beneficial as a remedy for burns and ulcers.
Head researcher Ardeshir Bayat explains how “decellularized dermis provides a scaffold that the body can try to populate with its own cells.” Essentially, it’s easier to use these cells than create them anew.
It’s been said that Hollywood is a meat market that chews up ingenues and spits them out. But macabre start-up BiteLabs is taking said cynicism to a whole new level. In 2014, the organization attempted (unsuccessfully) to convince certain celebrities to donate tissue samples that the company could process into “specialty meats.” The website delineates the process:
Isolating muscle stem cells, we grow celebrity meat in our proprietary bioreactors. In the tradition of Italian cured meats, we dry, age, and spice our product into fine charcuterie.
Though company spokespeople insist that this is not a hoax, they obviously have wicked senses of humor. Of their proposed James Franco salami, for example, the website says:
[It] must be smoky, sexy, and smooth […] sharp Tellicherry peppercorns and caramelized onions provide Franco’s underlying flavors, complemented by a charming hint of lavender. The Franco salami’s taste will be arrogant, distinctive, and completely undeniable.
Gelatin, it turns out, is a hugely popular ingredient in the culinary world – a fact that doesn’t sit well with those who disapprove of animal products. But a few researchers at Beijing University’s College of Life Science and Technology have a controversial idea that might, if not satisfy, at least perplex vegans around the world. According to Engadget, they are pioneering a Soylent Green-type method for revolutionizing gelatin production.
The plan? To take “human genes [and insert them] into a strain of yeast [producing] gelatin with controllable features.”
The word “features” definitely conjures up disturbing images of human parts solidified in Cherry Jell-O. Another purpose of the new method is to reduce the risk of diseases like Mad Cow, which may be present in the bones and cartilage that gelatin is made of.
The idea of diamonds made from the cremains of loved ones could be considered a poetic homage. And the Chicago-area based LifeGem is only one of the companies offering this innovative service. According to their website:
From just 8 ounces (200 grams) of cremated remains, we can extract enough carbon to make multiple diamonds […] typically all the diamonds that a family wants. We store any unused carbon free for the family after their order is completed. This is great protection in case their LifeGem diamonds are ever lost or stolen.
A novel idea, and one with many variations. A company based in Arlington, Vermont, Cremation Solutions, also offers crystals that resemble “peridot, citrine, aquamarine, onyx, jade and chocolate diamonds.”
He may not be as creative as Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, but US artist Andrew Krasnow is nonetheless making a splash with his human skin art and sculptures, which he’s been crafting for 20 years. In 2009, Krasnow had his first exhibit in London’s GV Art Gallery.
Krasnow explains that all of his skins are gleaned from bodies that have been donated to medical science. According to The Independent, Krasnow’s work – far from being mere shock art – is intended to be “a commentary on human cruelty.”
In a way, using bits and pieces of actual bodies in photo albums makes perfect sense. After all, people do routinely save their children’s baby teeth and paste locks of hair into scrapbooks. That’s the logic Vermont-based artist Linda Jones applies to her abstract art pieces. Her exhibit at Burlington’s Firehouse Gallery reportedly included X-rays, stitches from real surgical procedures, and even human teeth, hair, and flesh preserved in formaldehyde.
However, the work is not intended to be Frankenstein-grotesque but, rather, deeply personal. Jones claims that said medical waste is “from procedures treating her and her family” and adds that “injuries and sickness are major events that affect people in profound ways.”
In China, the deceased’s hair isn’t just a novelty, it’s a tradition. Rumor has it that the Miao people from the village of Suojia in Liupanshui City in the Guizhou province regularly don wigs fashioned from the hair of their departed. As the Daily Mail explains it:
Every wig is passed down from mother to daughter and includes not just yarn and twine but also the hair from a line of female ancestors, which the owners of the headdresses claim go back hundreds of years.
Said hair is apparently routinely harvested from combing and brushing, and it’s more common for women to partake in this custom.