Autopsy and coronial practices involving the removal and retention of ‘whole organs’ from the bodies of deceased people were the subject of controversy and scrutiny in the early years of the last decade. In Queensland, Australia, this resulted in the introduction of a regime whereby counsellors – predominately social workers – liaise directly with bereaved relatives to ensure they are fully informed about the autopsy and retention. This forms the practice context of the present research.
In-depth interviews were conducted with fifteen bereaved relatives and thematically analysed as a means of developing knowledge about their experiences and understandings of the nature and significance of the dead body. These were supplemented with textual analysis of key governing documents within the Queensland jurisdiction. A conceptualisation of the medico-legal domain and the place of the bereaved therein was developed, informed by a critical use of the framework developed by Pierre Bourdieu.
Interview participants shared a complex understanding of the dead body. It emerges as an apparently contradictory amalgamation of embodied, resilient subjectivity enabling the bereaved to enact and assert their ‘continuing bond’ with the deceased person and at the same time a mass of dead tissue which, through discursive objectification, may be examined as a means of determining the cause of death. Analysis emphasises the significance of both these understandings in the grief experience and emphasises also the co-existence of starkly contrasting understandings as an aspect of the non-positivist rationality of bereavement. This rationality is contrasted with the emphatic positivism of the medico-legal discourses underlying the coronial system. These issues are operationalised within the process of negotiating the retention of a whole organ at autopsy. In conclusion, the role of social work as mediating these contrasting rationalities is explored.