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Assume you have a culture that eats some or all of their dead at the funeral as a ritual, instead of burying the dead as we do. Assume somewhere between medieval and renaissance level of technology/science.

What is the risk of disease being spread through such a custom? Would the risk of disease lead to any interesting ritual or symbolic customs? For instance, would those that die of old age or disease be seen as unclean and thus unfit to be eaten, resulting in contempt of those that die in such ways, etc.?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you talking the ENTIRE body or just certain parts? Also this is a creepy...macabre and yet interesting question $\endgroup$ – James Jul 21 '15 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ I recall an anthropology class that discussed a culture that did this, but they ate the ashes of their ancestors. This should eliminate most of the danger of disease. $\endgroup$ – user2448131 Jul 21 '15 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ Well getting rid of certain parts would be tricky if you had to eat everything...the GI tract and bones in particular. I would include a funeral pyre for certain I'm not eating that portions of bob $\endgroup$ – James Jul 21 '15 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ I think cannibalism is common in certain tribes in Africa practiced by consuming one's immediate family usually parent to symbolize continuity of one legacy or to honor the dead by absorbing the deeds from the deceased, maybe it is to prove to other villagers that the victim is free of sickness and hence protect the family from disgraced as any sign of weakness cannot be condoned. This is how Ebola kills an entire town if left untreated and solution is providing education to debunk superstition. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jul 21 '15 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ We need a "this question should be closed because it's horribly disgusting" flag. $\endgroup$ – Tobia Tesan Jul 22 '15 at 11:46
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This kind of culture is not unheard of. The most well known (at least to me) is the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. As part of their funerary rights they eat the brains of the deceased.

This tradition led to Kuru, an endemic degenerative brain disease.

If this tradition were more wide spread there are ways it could (health wise) work and ways it would end very very poorly.

Disease is certainly a concern, humans are, in many ways...disgusting creatures and death makes us no prettier. Additionally as @TomLeek mentioned diseases in the human to be eaten are obviously communicable to other humans, which isn't nearly as large a concern when eating other animals, exceptions like bird and swine flu as well as ebola not withstanding.

@dsollen, in response to your question in the comments there are some portions that would be relatively safer than others. Muscle tissue and certain organs (the same organs that we eat from other animals, heart and liver for example) would be less inclined to promote disease than the nervous system, the GI tract and the respiratory system.

The kicker here is that human disease spreads in only so many ways, primarily you are talking about those portions mentioned above, blood borne diseases, diseases that are caught like the flu via the respiratory system, and lastly diseases that enter via the GI tract.

Avoiding the respiratory system and GI tract is easy enough but blood borne diseases would be virtually impossible to avoid if you didn't know it was present due to the fact that blood of course permeates every part of the body. And blood borne diseases are generally really not good. The list includes HIV, Hepatitis, Hemorrhagic Fever and while slightly different West Nile Virus and Malaria (these are, as the article mentions) vector based diseases generally caused by insects.

Some general notes to make this tradition safe(r)

  • Clean...really really well. Meaning both with soap and like a deer...avoid opening up the internal organs...
  • Cook. You've seen the warnings on meat before...cook Bob before you eat him.
  • Quick, don't wait a day...don't even wait 12 hours. The sooner it is done the better, decay is rapid.
  • Don't eat people that were sick or died of disease.

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Cultural impacts

Cultural traditions that could come from this are potentially there. Your idea of the old being unclean isn't difficult to imagine...when the body stops functioning fully things get gross.

The opposite could be true as well, maybe the young could confer a health bonus or revive those that are older from certain ailments and allowing the dead to live on in those that partake.

Eating hearts could give you courage, eyes wisdom, genitals erm...prowess, and so forth.

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    $\begingroup$ I love it when someone posts a question like, "Hey, I've got this fantasy world, it's kind of weird." and the answer is "oh, by the way, we actually do that!" The world is an amazing place! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jul 21 '15 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon Truth is stranger than fiction. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 21 '15 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ Another not for making cannibalism safer: don't eat the brain or the spinal column. Diseases like Kuru are prionic in nature, and can largely be avoided by not eating these parts of the body. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Jul 21 '15 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ In general, cannibalism is a health risk, because all the infectious diseases that the deceased human could have been afflicted with are, by definition, transmissible to humans. $\endgroup$ – Tom Leek Jul 21 '15 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ One thing here--Kuru is not a traditional type of infection. It's in the cells themselves, washing does nothing. Cooking does almost nothing--Kuru laughs at an autoclave. To destroy it with heat would also destroy all nutritional value of the meat. Time also doesn't matter--Kuru is not alive, the death of it's host doesn't make it grow unchecked. The only precaution you mention that works is not eating the sick--but Kuru was thought to be due to witchcraft, not illness. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Jul 22 '15 at 3:48
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According to the wikipedia article on Kuru there was a study on the populations that identified a prion-resistant version of the protein.

Imagine a population that grew genetically on this trait: individuals without it will suffer from a prion disease and die off, meanwhile the trait will become more common in the population. Fast forward several generations in a culture like this and we could see a generally healthy population with very little prion disease.

However those that do suffer from Kuru with shaking and bursts of laughter may be viewed as shamans or other spiritual members of that society. Perhaps having a percieved connection to the land of the dead.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that is a very interesting world building idea! As a reward I'll share some of this delicious brain I was saving for a special occasion with you... :P $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 21 '15 at 17:08
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Speaking as a chef who is certified in food safety, sanitation, and hygiene, I can tell you that there are a number of variables which would have bearing on the question of whether eating the dead would cause health problems. The safest way to conduct such rituals would be as follows:

  • Perform the eating ritual as soon as possible after death. The Jews have strict laws requiring that the dead be buried within 24 hours whenever possible. This would be a good idea for our fictional culture. It would be best to make exceptions for bodies which have been dead for longer than a day or so.

  • On a related note, butcher the corpse as quickly as possible, to prevent cross contamination. The nasty critters in the digestive tract begin to relocate shortly after death, spreading through the rest of the body. As soon as the person dies, his or her digestive tract should be removed and discarded.

  • It would be best to limit consumption to the muscle tissue, but at the very least, the most dangerous parts of the body should be disposed of. These include:

    • The brain
    • The digestive tract
    • The liver, lungs, and bladder (in some cases)
  • Cook the corpse thoroughly, to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This should kill most parasites and pathogens.

  • Consume the corpse as soon as possible after cooking, or cure the meat by smoking or salting.

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Very risky - especially if you eat the brains.

This was the main cause of the 'mad cow disease' epidemic. Firstly cattle were being fed with the remains of deceased cattle. Secondly this spread to humans.

The main risk is from nervous tissue - brain and spinal cord. These are now prohibited from the food chain in most first-world countries.

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Judging from actual rituals (of hunters, warriors, shamans etc.), which – except for symbolic communion – I only have anecdotal knowledge of, there are several parts of the body that would be more likely to be eaten than others. They all come with risks. It’s rather unlikely that human steak would be served at the wake. What to expect instead, also depending on who mourns, who died and how and when:

  • Brain for the wisdom → Kuru/prions, otherwise quite safe if prepared properly
  • Heart for the courage → relatively safe if cooked and prepared properly
  • Genitals for the strength, especially male (penis and testicles) → probably not as safe as the heart, but okay if cooked
  • Blood for the vitality → rather risky, especially in larger amounts and raw/liquid but not totally fresh
  • Cremated ashes for the preservation (‘lives on in us’) → quite safe in rare, small amounts in that it wouldn’t transmit most diseases, but maybe cause some (e.g. mercury poisoning)

PS: I am not a doctor.

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