Dealing with Toxic Necro-waste

Dealing with Toxic Necro-waste

Daniel Robins

After four months, the coroner’s inquest into the serial killer Ian Brady’s death has now been held. This marks the end of Brady’s body sitting in limbo inside what some have termed the ‘monster morgue’. This seemingly endless gatekeeping of Brady’s body illustrates it as something akin to toxic waste. It’s something to be closely controlled for fear of the harm that it could cause. So, I’ve been asking myself; ‘as a society, how should we deal with toxic necro-waste’?

What is toxic necro-waste?
Necro-waste is a recent idea in academia by Philip Olson. It’s a concept that categorises corpse materials as waste. Toxic necro-waste is a way of contextualising the most harmful and poisonous aspects of this waste. In this article, it is the idea that the corpse materials of mass murderers can be categorised as a poison waste. These materials can be physically poisonous in the sense that they can be dangerous to the labour that handles them. For example, a crematorium technician can breathe in cremated remains, causing breathing difficulties. Yet, these remains also cause severe social harm through the meaning attached to them. They echo the depravities that were committed by the living ‘monster’. The corpse waste of the mass murderer socially poisons society because it is still the vessel that enacted depravity. But, since death, there is nobody commanding it. That responsibility now falls to society.

The case of what to do with Ian Brady’s corpse demonstrates this well. It was not long after Brady’s death that the media reports turned to the question of what would happen to his remains. Christopher Sumner, the coroner that handled the corpse, stated that it would not be released until two assurances had been made. First, there would need to be a funeral director and crematorium staff willing to work with it. Second, Brady’s cremated remains were not to be spread on Saddleworth Moor, where three of his victims were found. Further, it was believed that Brady wanted his cremated remains to be scattered in Glasgow as he was born and raised there. However, Glasgow council were quick to state that his remains were not to be scattered on their lands. It is clear then that early on there was already a tight control over where Brady’s remains could and could not be disposed of.

This control exhibited in the management of Brady’s corpse is not unusual. Myra Hindley, Ian Brady’s accomplice in the killings, died in 2002 and there was a similar reluctance from funeral directors to work with her body. In the end, the final resting place of her remains was kept secret from the public and the funeral director that carried out the ceremony was never named for fear of their reputation being tarnished. There was also secrecy in disposing of Thomas Hamilton’s remains. Hamilton perpetrated the Dunblane massacre, which left 18 people dead, 16 of whom were five year old children. Nobody knows where his remains were disposed of. It was only stated that the location was far away from Dunblane.

In a sense, these mechanisms of control demarcate the remains of these mass murderers as poisonous. There’s a reluctance to house the remains and the public must not know where they have been disposed of as the meaning of the location will change. Indeed, the management of Brady’s remains is comparable to the management of barrelled radioactive waste, in that they are tightly controlled to prevent poisoning the environment. At its core, this is toxic necro-waste.

How do we dispose of something toxic?
According to Mary Douglas, disposal is the act of putting something beyond a threshold. Drawing on the concept of dirt, she understands disposal as a way of creating boundaries and order. Categorising Brady’s remains as abject waste pulls these questions of dirt and the unclean to the forefront. As such, disposing of his remains would be a way of restructuring social boundaries and order. Brady’s body had previously been locked inside Ashworth hospital since 1985. It had been disposed of from society during this period as it was barred from the public, and was suitably pacified. But, now that he’s dead, his corpse sits in an uncertain space. It has not yet been disposed of and, thus, not yet repositioned in the social order.

However, disposal is a process in itself. Disposing of necro-waste does not solely involve dispersing of the materiality of corpse waste, but also includes disposing of its entire meaning. The disposal of both Hindley and Hamilton’s corpses show that the material aspects of toxic necro-waste can be disposed of. The secrecy over where the materials have been placed accomplishes this. Yet, the meaning of those materials is a more difficult thing to dispose of. The disposal of the meaning – the social poison – of the necro-waste is incompatible with physical disposal. In short, the concept of toxic necro-waste problematizes the process of disposal. While the materials may no longer be present, their meaning rarely disperses.

So, what is the disposal site for the meaning of these corpse materials? To me, this site exists on a cultural level. These questions of disposal appear to circulate around the public fascinations with the morbid and the seemingly endless commodification of the brutal. Mark Seltzer puts it well when he suggests that we live in a ‘wound culture’. There is an obsession with violence and the torn open body. This is evident in murder documentaries, films, and television shows. These recreate and share the symbolic meaning of Brady’s crimes, which are embodied in his corpse.

In the past couple of decades, arguments have been made that an obsession with the morbid serves to pacify the threat of death. The incorporation of dark themes in popular culture, and the consumption of these themes, reintroduces death back into public life (Durkin, 2003). It also appears that this is a way of coming to terms with the depravities committed by the ‘monster’. Through a Chinese whispers style mechanism, the sharing and re-establishing of this meaning may be a way of disposing of it. As the story is told and retold through an increasing number of formats, the toxicity of the original meaning begins to dry out. It becomes re-established as something consumable. This, I think, is how society disposes of the toxic. First, the process of materially disposing of the remains is undertaken. We are still yet to get to this point with Ian Brady. Though, the disposal of the meaning has clearly started decades prior, but it’s not until long after the material disposal that this process is anywhere close to being complete. In some cases, it may never be.

How should we deal with toxic necro-waste?
It’s clearly a difficult task to dispose of toxic necro-waste. Ian Brady’s case demonstrates that its material disposal can be a costly, drawn out process. This is underpinned by the social poison that it exudes, which takes even longer to dispose of. I’m not convinced that society is disposing of this social toxicity. It appears that it’s only being made more consumable. In the end, it’s clear that cases like Ian Brady’s bring questions of disposal to the forefront. Moving forward, the concept of disposal is going to become an increasingly important one. For, it underpins how society operates.


Daniel Robins is currently study for a PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of York.

Image: Caution Tape by Eugene Zemylyanskly. CC BY 2.0.