Day 2 of the 31 Days of Myths, Magic, Mayhem, and more…
I will be your host for the evening, and tonight we going to talk about a medical mystery of an unusual type. The use of the dead to cure the living!
Humans have always been drawn to the idea of life after death or extending life. But what happens when the treatment defies medical necessity and borders on the strange and unusual?
Imagine with me going to the doctor for something small, maybe stomach pains or a headache that just won’t go away. The doctor patiently listens to your complaints, smiles knowingly, and tells you he can cure you. The treatment is a little different. New research proves that the medical field has found the cure for almost everything. It’s something so revolutionary that it’s been around for ages. Nothing more than a homeopathic cure, he assures you. No need to worry.
Seems too good to be true, and you have a twinge of doubt. But he’s a doctor, so you put yourself in his hands and pray for the best.
What you didn’t know was that it wasn’t necessarily him that was saving you.
It was the dead.
The dead can still be useful.
Fresh from a recently discovered Egyptian tomb, a mummy has been sold to the highest bidder- bindings included free of charge. If a patient suffers from internal bleeding, soak the mummy in alcohol or vinegar, ground it up, and sprinkle a touch of it into the body.
A skull found in a shallow grave in Ireland has been ground up into a fine powder and stored in a waterproof bag. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century brain science pioneer, claimed that mixing it with chocolate could cure apoplexy or bleeding. Or combine it with molasses and you can cure epilepsy.
A recently deceased woman has had the fat off her body rendered, made into an ointment, and packaged in a lovely tin can. Use it liberally for wounds or gout; cherries are no longer needed and too expensive.
A group of people waits hungrily at the gallows’ steps, cups in hand. The executioner has promised them fresh blood; everyone knows it’s easier to swallow when it’s still warm. The 16th-century German-Swiss physician Paracelsus believed it was good for the body and the soul. If you weren’t keen on drinking straight, you could always follow the 1679 Franciscan apothecary recipe to turn it into marmalade.
Or you could follow King Charles II of England’s favorite- ‘The King’s Drops’ liberally added to a glass of alcohol, and depression would flitter away. No matter that it contained pieces of Egyptian mummy skulls, everyone knows they don’t need it anymore.
Teeth and fingers could be used to cure toothaches. Just place the teeth in a bag around your neck, but remember to periodically touch it to your infected tooth for added precaution. If that doesn’t work- take the finger of a corpse and rub it along the afflicted gum.
It wasn’t a new concept.
The Roman’s believed that the blood of a fallen Gladiator could cure epilepsy.
Ancient Babylonians believed that illnesses resulted from demonic forces or punishment by the gods. If you ground your teeth at night, it was obviously the dead trying to communicate with you. Easy enough fix- just sleep with a skull for a week, and the spirit will disappear. But remember to kiss it at least seven times each night.
Up to and during the Tang Dynasty in China, it was believed that consuming human flesh was a highly effective medical treatment. There are even cases up to the 1980s where the younger generation willingly offered pieces of their flesh to their ill parents for consumption. Don’t worry- they would only cut up thighs, upper arms, or livers.
The practice is a still used today.
Body brokers are still a multi-million-dollar operation and can be found worldwide. Every year alone in the U.S., thousands of people donate their bodies to science. But they don’t realize their bodies are traded as raw material in a highly unregulated market.
Only the organ and tissue transplant industry have oversight by the federal government. The rest of the body?
They go to the highest bidder. And in most states- anyone can legally purchase body parts.
Sick to your stomach yet?
Don’t be. According to Armand Krikorian, a past president of the American Federation for Medical Research- “The need for human bodies is absolutely vital.” Researchers use the body to develop new surgical instruments, techniques, and implants. Cadavers are used to train medical students, dentists, and nurses.
Generally, a broker can sell a donated human body for about $3,000 to $5,000, though prices sometimes top $10,000. But a broker will typically divide a cadaver into six parts to meet customer needs. Internal documents from seven brokers show a range of prices for body parts: $3,575 for a torso with legs; $500 for a head; $350 for a foot; $300 for a spine.Reuters Investigates
The moral of the story, as nauseating as it might be, is that the dead have long been considered essential to life. From ancient times to today- bodies have been used to treat, cure, and extend the life of the living.
The question remains- is it ethical?
I will leave you to decide.
If you want to learn more about the ancient practice- I invite you to pick up a copy of Louise Noble’s, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, or Richard Sugg’s, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians,
“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”Edgar Allen Poe
If tales of legend, myth and fantasy topped with a nice cup of coffee interest you, I suggest taking a look at my book The Writer and the Librarian. It’s a historical fantasy about a middle-aged woman faced with a decision: accept what is written in books or find out for herself the truth behind the stories. Now available on
And on any of your favorite Indie Book Store website!