The Dead Amongst Us

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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.

Life and death behind perfect doors

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When my family was living in Evanston, IL, our apartment was on the outskirts of a neighborhood of beautiful historic homes.  Walking to the beach, to the university, to one of four nearby playgrounds, would take us past these gorgeous, multi-million dollar houses.  It was strange, living in such close proximity to these homes that we will never be able to afford (I’m an author, my husband is an astrophysicist, I harbor no delusions about our chances of ever becoming rich).  With a couple notable exceptions (one being a hulking brick structure buried in ivy, with peeling white columns and dark shuttered windows) the homes were meticulously cared for, beautifully detailed with finely maintained lawns and gardens of flowers and even the occasional vegetables, tomatoes and cucumbers and snap peas.  Perfect.

All the more shocking when I found out about the bodies.

One of the houses that we’d pass by while taking the kids to the park belonged to a 90 year old woman.  I believe we saw her once or twice, out in the yard, tending her plants.  When her name hit the papers, her neighbors said the things that neighbors always say in such instances.  She was sweet and friendly, liked to give away cuttings from her plants.  Entirely normal.  There were no indications that anything was wrong.  And when they didn’t see her for a couple days, the neighbors got worried, and called the police to check in on her.  They found her inside, weak and malnourished and dehydrated.

And they found the bodies of her brother and two sisters.

They died of natural causes, the police said.  Time of death was unclear, but according to neighbors, the brother had last been seen earlier that year.  One of the sisters had last been seen five years before.  And the other sister?  Last seen in the 1980’s.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for these siblings.  None of them ever married, and after their parents died, all they had was each other. When the one sister died in the eighties, was there a fight among the remaining three?  Did one sibling want to report the death, bury their sister properly, and was talked down by the other two?  Or was there a silent agreement that they must stay together, no matter what, even in death?

What was it like, having their sister lying dead in one of the rooms of the house.  Did they visit her every day, washing her body, washing her hair, caring for her in death as they had in life?  Or did they close the door, go about life as if her corpse wasn’t there, even when the stench of decay was overpowering?

When the other sister died, they had already had the body of the first sister in the house for fifteen years, so keeping the body of the second must have been a matter of course.  And when her brother died, what was the remaining sibling to do but keep them together as the last bastion of the family?  Did she object when the police came in to take her away, to take the bodies of her brother and sisters away?  Did she want to die in that house, her brother and sisters close, like they had died?  Did it feel like a defeat when she could not defend their unity, keep them from being broken up at last?  She had been living that way for over two decades.  Whether by conviction or inertia, she had chosen that way of living.  Having it wrested from her much have been a terrible blow.  I do not know what happened to her after she was “rescued,” but somehow I doubt she lasted long, being alone for the first time in her life.

The house was surrounded in yellow police tape for a week.  When it was taken down, it was hard to remember which house it had been.  It was just one beautiful house in a neighborhood of beautiful houses.  A perfect exterior that hid the rottenness inside.