The Anti-Body “Harvesting” of Dead People’s Tattoos

The latest fad of "harvesting" the tattoos of dead people is another sign of our culture's disrespect for the human body.

PUBLISHED ON

June 1, 2023

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Postmortem disregard of the body goes on. The Church officially prefers burial, on the principle that a Christian should, even in death, model Christ, who lay three days in a tomb. The Church tolerates cremation, as long as it is not undertaken for the “wrong” reasons (i.e., in denial of the resurrection of the dead), the cremains (the product remaining after cremation) remain intact, and the remains are buried.  

In the name of “environmentalism,” secular circles now hawk processes intended to destroy the body to generate a recyclable “product.” Alkaline hydrolysis dissolves flesh and bone into an effluent; “recomposting” (just approved in California as the fifth state to allow it) uses heat and other elements to support bacteria growth, accelerating the reduction of a human body to reusable “top soil” in about 45 days.

Just when you thought there was nothing new under the mortuary sun, the New York Times now reports the latest fad: harvesting tattoos.  

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Save My Ink Forever is a business launched by morticians in Northwood, Ohio, just south of Toledo. According to the Times, for $1,700-$120,000 (based on tattoo size, from 5 inches by 5 inches to full body), Save My Ink Forever will work with your local undertaker to “recover” a tattoo, which the Ohio firm will then immortalize—usually in a picture frame for your wall—in about three to four months.  

The stated motives behind tattoo “recovery” are to give family and friends a tangible memory of a deceased love one while preserving a “work of art.” The growing investment people make into their body ink and the growing popularity of tattooing in general appear to have created a market for such keepsakes.

Save My Ink Forever treats “artistic” tattoo recovery as more than just tanning human hide. While not divulging techniques to the Times, the process was described as correcting “imperfections” in the harvested skin; returning a “tattoo back to its original glory”; sewing the tattoo to canvas; and packaging the entire “product” in museum-quality, UV-blocking glass, nitrogen preserving frames. (Your hide is practically as well-preserved as the lambskin on which the Declaration of Independence was written!)

The Times notes that cremains are now often turned into “jewelry or infused into glass-blown sculptures—all in the name of keeping a loved one close.”

But ashes don’t necessarily remind one of Papa, and making the association between Mama and the pendant on one’s neck requires a mental effort. Tattoo recovery makes the bodily and physical much more tangible by keeping a familiar tattoo behind, albeit on a piece of the loved one’s skin.

Tattoo recovery is legal, according to the Times, in every state except Washington—which is paradoxical, given Washington was among the first states explicitly to legalize alkaline hydrolysis in 2020.

Where does one start to comment?

The human body, even of a dead person, is a sacramental. It pulsed with the “breath of God,” i.e., life. This is true of every human being, even if he did not believe in Christ or God. One does not cease being a creature of God because one does not believe one is.

In the case of a Christian, that sacramental body was a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” At the very least, it welcomed God’s grace and was conformed to the Resurrected Christ in Baptism. Some of those Christians also enhanced their being “temples of the Holy Spirit” in the sacrament of Confirmation and welcomed the very flesh and blood of Jesus Christ into themselves in the Holy Eucharist. 

The body is sacred because it is a human body in which a human person lived. It does not lose that sacredness or become something less because of death. The body is sacred because it is a human body in which a human person lived. It does not lose that sacredness or become something less because of death.Tweet This

It is not a piece of garbage that we can just dispose of as “biological waste.” (Though that is what Planned Parenthood demands we do with the remains of unborn children, lest we start thinking of them as human.) It is precisely for this reason that I have strenuously argued that cremation undermines that notion of the dignity of the human body. We know, at an atavistic, subconscious, and instinctual level that we bury what we treasure and we incinerate garbage. Our mental gymnastics to justify cremation—especially because it comes with a cheaper price tag—cannot overcome what we know in our gut we are doing.  

Burying a body and allowing natural decomposition to occur respects that human body. Actively destroying that body and/or artificially accelerating the decomposition process treats that body as a worthless thing that needs to be turned into (or “recycled” or “recomposted”) into a product that is useful.  

These processes turn what was a person into a thing. They treat the body as a valueless object to be repurposed into something else.

A slogan in defense of the proliferation of tattooing is “my body is my canvas.” But tattoo recovery treats the human body as nothing more than canvas or—more precisely—parchment. Except traditional parchment came from calves, goats, or sheep (hence the term—likely frequently heard in May—“sheepskin”). Tattoo recovery collapses the distinction between sheepskin and human skin.  

That is what the Church tries to avoid when it opposes the scattering of ashes, their non-burial (e.g., retention on the fireplace mantle), or their “transformation” into a thing, (e.g., jewelry or “glass-blown sculptures”).  Save My Ink likewise reifies the person: it literally turns human skin into essentially tanned parchment displaying “art.” The person is both reduced to an ink stain and his flesh sacrificed as the medium on which that ink stain is preserved.  

I know that there will be those who insist that this is a way of “remembering” one’s loved one. But memory also presupposes respect for the qualitative dignity of a human person, including his bodily incarnation. Where are we now, as a civilization, when instead of having a painting of our dearly departed on our wall, we hang a piece of his hide instead?

The BBC, which also reported on the tattoo recovery phenomenon, displayed “framed back and arm tattoos.” That literally represents the removal of a swath of skin from elbow to elbow across and including half one’s back. Has our notion of death and mourning become so privatized and individualized that we think skinning a corpse of his upper back and framing it is just another “choice”?  

Can we diversify into other household products through anthropodermia?  Why not bind Uncle Joe’s favorite books with Uncle Joe? Or keep Uncle Joe’s full back tattoo close to his favorite reading chair by making him into a lampshade? Perhaps you might want to sit down in that light to study in detail Jaume Huguet’s painting about the flailing of St. Bartholomew, on which I once commented. 

When I was a child, a silly song for kids was “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” It spoke of the passing of an Australian stockman by detailing his last requests. The last verse (at 2:07 on the video) was thought to be an absolute joke back in the day. Today, it’s a business:

Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred
Tan me hide when I’m dead
So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde
And that’s it hangin’ on the shed!

Or the living room wall. 

Author

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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