'End Of' or 'Start Of' Life? Visual Technology and The Transformation of Traditional Post-Mortem

Picture of an MRI scanner

For many years the practice of post-mortem has relied on use of the five senses to determine cause of death (e.g. smell of the body and touch of skin). However, with the development of optics in the nineteenth century and in particular microscopy, visual technology has since become central to the practice of pathology. Today, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is starting to be applied to certain areas of pathology such as early life loss (pre and neonatal death), which falls at the very intersections of both the start and the end of life. In fact, unlike other visual technology, MRI is used both in life (in pregnancy) and death (in post-mortem). Some argue that MRI has the potential to transform traditional post-mortem practice in this context through the development of less invasive autopsy, where the baby’s body can be examined via images avoiding dissection.

About the project

The ‘End of or Start of Life’ project is examining the impact of this visual technology (particularly MRI) on traditional foetal and neonatal autopsy. The study started in September 2015 and will be completed in early 2018. It has two main aims. The first is to understand how parents and families who have experienced early life loss feel about and experience the post-mortem process. Secondly, it will explore the impact of this new MRI technology on professional practice and relationships between professionals from a variety of different fields, including radiology, pathology and chaplaincy services.

This study comes at a critical time. With increasing investment of private and NHS funds in visual technologies, it offers a much needed contribution to broader debates on the ability of technology to redefine the boundaries between life and death and between humans and machines. As the title suggests, this project, ''End' of' or 'start of' life?' will address the practical and emerging questions of how visual technologies inform, or advance, the practice and policy of health care professionals. It will also ask what they can contribute to the parents' experiences of loss, life and memory.

How we are doing the research

The initial project months will be spent developing a map of the field site, where a hospital mortuary will be the key starting place. We will immerse ourselves in these sites to gain an in-depth understanding of the contexts in which post-mortem imaging is taking place. This process will involve:

  • Conducting in-depth interviews with a range of different professionals including pathologists and radiologists as well as individuals involved in supporting families at the time of their bereavement;
  • Conducting observations of key sites where imaging or actions involving MRI images takes place.

Once the mapping process is well underway, we will also conduct in-depth interviews with bereaved parents and family members. We hope to speak to a range of individuals, and this may include different family members (not just parents) and individuals that have direct experience of MRI as part of a post-mortem process and those who do not.

Why it matters

We think this research is important for a number of reasons:

  • It will benefit bereaved parents by providing information about potential choices they may have over foetal and infant autopsy;
  • It will raise general public awareness around prenatal and neonatal loss and contribute to reducing the silence and taboo which many parents who experience early life loss experience;
  • It will contribute to the ongoing professional development of pathologists and related professionals through informing professional guidelines and educational materials on visual technology use in autopsy;
  • It will provide information about how parents and other professionals feel about the use of this technology and therefore help to ensure that UK policy on autopsy is developed and applied in a way that is sensitive to practitioners and parents.

About our funder

The ‘End of or Start of Life’ project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector.