The Dead Amongst Us


I’ve long been fascinated with how societies treat their dead. From the mummies in Egypt to the mummies in Peru, the funerals held in the home to those held in funeral homes, how we treat our dead says interesting things about our relationship with death. Recently I’ve read three articles about how we treat dead bodies that were fascinating windows into three different views on death.

The first is this article from National Geographic on the close relationship between the living and the dead in Toraja, Indonesia. When a family member dies, they are kept in the house for an extended period of time, sometimes years, and treated as a sick person. The family will bring them food, talk to them, touch them, and wash them. When they eventually hold a funeral, it’s a huge and elaborate affair, complete with animal sacrifice of a number of buffalo to help the spirit on its way into the afterlife. The body is then interred in a crypt or a nearby cave, next to other family and community members. But even then the physical relationship between the living and the dead isn’t over; periodically the bodies are disinterred, washed, dressed, and greeted with joy by family and friends.

The second article is from the Guardian about how medieval villagers smashed skeletons to keep them from rising from the dead. Societies in many places and at many times have been known to mutilate the dead to prevent them from becoming the undead. From the New England vampire panic, where 19th century Americans burned the organs of suspected vampire corpses to end a tuberculosis epidemic, to the Tibetan practice of sky burial, where corpses are hacked up and offered to the vultures so the dead body cannot be inhabited again, humanity has often feared what happens after death. To these people, bodies represent a very real threat, and if the corpses were in any way still their loved ones, then those loved ones were now evil.

The third article is this one from Hyperallergenic, about photographer Robert Shults’s series of photographs of decomposing bodies at the body farm at Texas State University. A body farm is a facility where donated corpses are laid out in various environments and then monitored to see how specific circumstances affect decomposition. The data is then used by forensic scientists to assist in determining time of death in cases where a victim has been dead for a while before being found. While most people in our society would likely have a visceral aversion to actually viewing these bodies, for the most part there is no fear that they will reanimate, or that they pose any true danger. Indeed, Shults’s photographs are beautiful, despite their morbid subjects. He, along with those in search of this knowledge and those who donate their bodies, see death as an opportunity for learning, and decomposing bodies as tools for science and justice.

I will admit that all three of these views of death and corpses evoke a certain sense of discomfort. But that in itself is indicative of the society I am part of. Death in the majority of modern day America is hidden away, the contact with corpses severely minimized. So we have a strong reaction against anything that has to do with death, and we cannot abide even the thought of dead bodies. And I think it’s important to challenge that innate cultural belief. We have much to learn from how human beings, now and throughout history, faced mortality and related to our dear departed.

Our Rejection of Death

mother in mourning

Once upon a time, post-mortem photography was very common.  Photographs were expensive, so often these images were the only ones families had of their lost loved ones.  Infant mortality rates were very high, so a lot of these pictures, like the one above, are of babies or young children.  I find this image to be particularly striking because of the look on the mother’s face.  The living portrayed usually have neutral expressions, a necessity for producing a good picture since the exposure time needed was so long that movement would blur the image.  This woman’s palpable sorrow is rare, and deeply moving.  You can feel her grief.

Nowadays, many people react to these images with revulsion, finding them ghoulish, even disgusting.  And I think that says far more about us than it does about our predecessors.  Time was, the care of the dead was an intimate family affair.  The family would wash and clothe the body, and lay it out for viewing within their own home, often in the parlor.  Nowadays, the dead are whisked away, embalmed in cold sterile rooms by strangers, and  laid out in “parlors” devoid of any warmth or personality.  When I worked for a funeral home some years ago, I noticed that the funeral directors would lay the bodies out in the designated rooms sometimes as much as a day ahead of time.  The dead weren’t people, they were props; filled with chemicals to delay decay, injected with silicone to plump out faces made gaunt by sickness, painted to look pretty, to look like the photographs the families supplied. Ironic, the modifications made in a vain attempt to make the deceased look like “themselves.”

We want to distance ourselves from death, to tuck the dying away in hospitals, to sculpt our dead and our rituals in such a way that keeps the dead as “other.”  Why would we take pictures of the dead?  That’s not our grandmother/mother/child.  It’s “disrespectful,” I suspect because we aren’t supposed to remember people in death, we’re supposed to remember them in life, to photograph them in life.

If we can keep death within its boundaries and out of our everyday lives, then maybe, just maybe, we won’t die.

And yet we will.  Sterilizing our lives, shooting it full of chemicals, plumping our features in a vain attempt to chase our lost youth…ultimately none of this will keep our decomposition at bay.  And when we treat death as a horror to be shoved away instead of a reality to be ultimately embraced, we rob ourselves of fully embracing, and being fully embraced by, our loved ones, even in death.