This I Believe
I believe the dead body matters – that its care is an expression of a culture’s most deeply held values of bodily worth and integrity. As the physical reminder and remainder of a life lived, the corpse is what’s left of our sentient relations, bodies once emotive and in motion.
For both visible and invisible reasons humans have always found the best ways to dispose of the dead with the former being a matter of sanitation and the latter a matter of haunting. But I worry about contemporary death practices like cremations without viewings and life celebrations in lieu of funerals that ignore the importance of the dead body all together.
And so I’ve become overly interested in the nitty gritty details of death care preferences. I probe people I hardly know at cocktail parties, acquaintances at intimate dinner gatherings and relatives of close friends at outdoor summer soirees, asking them: “what would you like done with your body upon your death?” “Do you want to be embalmed?” “Entombed?” “Buried?” “Cremated?” Their responses are often filled with a certain amount of indifference – something on the order of “I don’t care. It makes no difference to me. Don’t trouble yourself because when I ‘m dead it won’t matter anyway.”
Or as a good friend of mine often puts it to me “when you’re dead, you’re dead.”
I realize that the advent of embalming in this country was the historical catalyst for this “corpse apathy,” distancing the living from death by removing the corpse from the home for a process that could only be performed by a licensed funeral director. But it’s ironic, really, because embalming’s utility was, and still is, to bring the living in closer proximity to the dead by rendering a recognizable corpse.
But embalming isn’t environmentally friendly and frankly I find the idea of making the dead as lifelike as possible a little frightening. I am also wholly adverse to the consumerism at the heart of most funerals. And yet when a corpse is disposed of too quickly, when it is pushed readily, easily, and speedily into the side of death, or when I hear friends say that a funeral is not necessary, that a life is meant to be celebrated at the expense of a death recognized, I am left worrying for the care of the corpse. Because every corpses require care. Every last one.
What’s a mortal to do?
Freud warned long ago that what is ignored, repressed or shut out will never fully go away – that it will return with a vengeance more fierce and stark than before. Today, I see these warnings everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more than popular culture’s narratives of ghosts, zombies and psychic mediums, and of dead bodies regularly strewn across the screen in full forensic frenzy. I believe the dead body matters and I, for one, intend to heed its call – to face death in its full terms, dead bodies and all.
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