A Call for Bedside Sociology in Cadaveric Dissection

Suhad Daher-Nashif narrates the ethnography of forensic medicine and calls for the inclusion of social science perspectives in cadaveric dissection

I am Muna. Not Mona but Muna.

Mona is an Italian name and means “aristocratic,” but Muna in Arabic has two meanings. One is wish; the other is death. Well, everyone has a share of their name.   

I was born and killed in Al-Khalil, one of the big Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

I’m 32 years young as a living person, but two weeks old as dead.

A man who was walking in the fields found my dead body. After expressing his honest disgust from the way I look and smell, he called the police, who arrived after 30 minutes. They transferred me to the governmental hospital, and the next day to the morgue at the forensic medicine centre in Abu-Dies, another Palestinian city nearby Jerusalem. This centre is one of three that belong to the Palestinian National Authority but was the first to establish in 1994 after Oslo. We have three centres for autopsy, but we don’t have a state or even a fracture of authority. What an irony!

When we arrived at the centre, they moved me from the ambulance to the autopsy bed, a cold metal bed; they weighted me, made some paperwork, and moved me to the autopsy room.

Many people were there waiting for me. It is the first time in my whole life, so many people stood waiting for my arrival. Now I feel a VIP! Now I feel an Italian Mona!

Slowly I realised that most of these are medical students, who were invited to come and watch the autopsy and learn on the body organs. I’m happy my body will teach students. I am honoured to contribute to medical education in Palestine. We need it! They need me! They need us, the dead, to learn better.

Before they began, the doctor who seemed to be the ‘boss’ there, said:

“This is a body of a woman who was found yesterday in Al-Khalil. The pathologist in the governmental hospital could not decide upon the cause of death, and there are signs of violence. Therefore, the corpse was brought here.”

My name is Muna; Mona if you wish, but not corpse.

I think he wants to assure confidentiality. But he should’ve explained that to them! I can speak on behalf of the dead who teach students. We want names! 

One student asked:

“Why she was not brought here yesterday?”

My dear, if we have a social scientist here, they would explain it the best. But briefly, Palestine’s cultural and political reality cause delays in transferring bodies to the morgue.

Another student asked: “Are we allowed to dissect dead people in Islam?”

The doctor said: “Of course! Look at the fatwa behind you!”

Well, if there was a social scientist with the students, they would explain this the best.  

They would provide a well detailed explanation about society, religion and medicine, especially in the Arab region where religion and state are inseparable. They will explain the discourse of that fatwa for the students and will explain the need and history of fatwas on autopsies in the Muslim countries. If there was a social scientist in the room, students would understand why some social groups reject autopsy, why students in Abu-Dies don’t have dead bodies for dissection in their medical school! They will understand why they come to the forensic centre to learn anatomy. They will understand why people don’t donate their bodies to science, and even reject to donate their organs after they die. They will understand so many things that only a social scientist can explain.

Can anyone call a social scientist please?!

One student jumped and asked: “what is her story?”

The doctor answered: “We still don’t know, but the autopsy might tell us what happened?”

Another student asked: “Was she killed because of family honour issues?”

This is unfair my dear. If a social scientist was here, they would comment on that properly. To say the least, don’t judge the dead please.

If you don’t have a proper name for me, then you don’t deserve knowing my story. You might know my biological story or how my body became a dead body, but not my social one! For that, you need a social scientist here.

This will benefit the students when they work with their patients and their families. Don’t you want them to be culturally competent? Don’t you want them to be inclusive and avoid preconceptions and prejudice? Well, I can understand that their social, cultural backgrounds have an impact. I know for sure that their religion has an impact, but if they had a social scientist around, they might be more objective and less judgmental. They might understand that there are different aspects and possibilities in life and death.

I feel a psychologist must be around too. The moment the doctor opened the bag, within few seconds two students fainted, some turned their heads and moved back, some could not bear the smell and put their hands on their masks, and most of them expressed disgust. Thank you! This is really kind of you. Can’t you hold your emotions? It’s an essential skill for you doctors to be!

The doctor smiled and said, “Come on, you are going to be doctors very soon.”

With all due respect, if you had a psychologist here, they would explain how the first encounter with death and cadavers can be traumatising for these very young adults. Actually, should they be exposed in their first year? Has any psychologist had a say on that?

Can someone call a psychologist please?

Yes. We need both a sociologist and a psychologist.

Did any psychologist prepare these kids? Has anyone talked to them about what they might see and how they should cope?

It is not only for students, but for the staff. Is there any psychologist in the morgue to help the staff’s emotions?

Instead of dealing with students’ reactions, the doctor was busy in covering my breasts and genitals. If we had a social scientist here, they would explain to students, how gender issues continue their trajectories inside the morgue, and why it is important to apply this.

Soon the doctor said we will open the body using the Y shape incision from both neck sides. We will not use the I that begins at the middle of the lower jaw.

One curious student asked: “Why use the Y incision not the I?”

A social scientist will explain how beauty values outside continue inside the dissection room. A psychologist will explain to you how family might react if they notice the opening scars that easily appear with the I, but less likely with the Y.  

After the Y incision the doctor began his work from my right side.

A student whispered to her colleague and asked: “Why does he always begin from the right side?”

Again. A social scientist will tell you that this is related to religion not science. Muslims believe beginnings of actions should be always with the right side of the body. Even when they enter their homes, they believe it has to be with the right leg first. They prefer to eat and write in their right hands.

The doctor later announced: “We begin from top to bottom, because sometimes things happen in the top and have implications in the bottom.” Okay. This is science. I have no say.

At the end of the autopsy, I was surprised by the doctor making a check on my virginity. He said: “For women we check the hymen for virginity, and for men we check the anus size for homosexuality check.”


Students were shocked.

Where is the science here? Where is the justice here? The fatwa says for science and justice. Why are you doing that?

A social scientist will be the best to explain why culture continues inside the morgue.

Can anyone call social scientist please? Please!

The doctor continued and said: “We have to do that because this is the protocol. We take samples from both. We also take sample of every organ.”

While I understand the science behind taking samples of all organs, I don’t accept looking into my vagina.

If there was a psychologist here, they would explain to the doctor and the team how this might affect students and traumatise them, especially females.  

After closing my body, the doctor called the ambulance driver and asked him: “Have you talked to the family? Who will wash her?”

The driver answered: “We still don’t know the family. She did not carry any ID on her.”

The driver and another technician began to wash my body and whisper Quranic verses.

I know why they do that, but social scientist will explain it better than I do to students.

What next?!

My body will continue to inspire medical students, because I doubt that my family will come and bury me. I’ll continue to be the dead who teaches medical students. My family who was not proud of me in life, might be now.

About the author

Suhad Daher Nashif is a Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology of Health at Keele University. She is Programme Director for Global Healthcare Leadership in the School of Medicine. Suhad is trained in health sciences (B.OT; MSc) and social sciences (PhD). This fictional work is inspired by one of the women’s stories that she has documented through her ethnography in the Forensic Medicine Institute in Abu-Dies. Postmortem practices are among her research interests, through which she’s passionate to explore intersectionality of society, culture, politics, medicine, and bureaucracy. Suhad dismantles this intersectionality also in the fields of mental health mainly dementia, and medical education. She is also passionate and active in developing and integrating social sciences and humanities in health professions and medical education curricula in different regions. More on Suhad’s work can be found on Google Scholar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.