It’s hard to remember what real human bodies look like anymore. Dodai Stewart at Jezebel has a great piece on how boring the bodies of female pop stars are:
“Call it Naked Hot Body Fatigue. We’re surrounded by images of the flawless female form: Porn, Terry Richardson-shot gym ad campaigns, Victoria’s Secret, Carl’s Jr. commercials, fashion week shows, men’s magazines, women’s magazines. What Miley, Ke$ha and Rihanna are showing off — young, thin, sculpted, low-body fat physiques — are everywhere. The internet is made of them. YOU SEE IT ALL THE TIME. There’s no longer anything remotely “new” about a 20-year-old ass in a thong, about an under-educated twenty-something showing us she has slender inner thighs and no pubic hair. SEEN IT.”
Hey, Ruben’s Three Graces, PUT IT AWAY, ladies. No one wants to see that natural female body being all reality in my face, c’mon.
The same could be said about the dead human body. The modern medical and funeral industries have essentially removed the dead body from daily life. So, if you want to see a real corpse, your only exposure is likely to be images filtered down through popular culture.
Popular culture images of death fall on the extreme edges of the spectrum: either the prettied-up dead (that is to say, OBVIOUSLY living actors in TV crime shows) or the grotesque horror living-dead types.
That’s why it was wonderful to come across these portraits of real dead humans, shot in the Rhode Island morgue, largely in the 1970s, by photographer Jeffrey Silverthorne. They may not be the most fun thing in the world to look at and, like, maybe don’t bust them out at the office Christmas party? BUT–if you live in a world where death is hidden, it’s a wise idea to check in with some real corpses every once and awhile to recalibrate your place in the world.
This is where we are all heading. It may not be immediately “beautiful” to you, but in so many ways beauty is a matter of perception. If we saw real dead bodies more often we would learn to see the beauty in their stillness. The way they remind us to live while we still have a life.
Claire lives in the house next door. Over the last 20 years, we’ve launched ourselves through all that life has offered – travel, marriage, birth, death and all the goodies in between. We share a brain, a passion for good wine, obits, and running (though she’ll debate the last point). I love her to bits. Claire is also married to my brother. While I could have simply stated that Claire is my sister-in-law, you’d be missing some of the essential details about her that aren’t explicit in that label. Sharing our story is more truthful, and I’d argue, more interesting.
OK, more about Claire. A few years ago, her dad, Mike, died. Mike was a chatty Australian who worked for years in the high Arctic and knew something about almost everything. Although he’d been ill for a while, it didn’t dull our shock and grief when he died. So, you can see from my description that Mike’s life and death, though significant to our family, was not something outrageous or provocative. OK, I left out some essential details here too: Mike could make a kick-ass pavlova, he hunted seal from an igloo and he committed suicide.
When it came time for Claire to write her dad’s obituary, she approached it with the same matter-of-fact attitude. She simply stated that Mike “died from depression,” because that was the disease that lead to his death. No scandal, no shame, just truthfulness.
Suicide sucks. It means someone has died before we were expecting it – the worst kind of surprise. But when it comes to someone’s life story, this is purely an ending: no different than a stillbirth, a tumor, or an accident. Regardless of how much we rage, wail, disengage or deny, suicide may be the cause of death, but it doesn’t define the life. We live a lifetime and we die in an instant. A person who chooses to die still has a life story to tell, and their obituary should reflect that balance: all those years of living, and yes, an ending. Like Mike.
Holding back essential details, like say, that someone committed suicide, changes their story. It’s not a true story, and it smells a bit like shame lives there. However, when you read about Mike, knowing he chose to die doesn’t change the significance of his life. It’s more of a footnote. What freedom we offer – to everyone – when we write the truth! People can feel comfortable sharing their condolences, dropping off muffins or commiserating about the good times. So much better that than the alternative of veiled whispers and awkward encounters. Our communities can handle it, I promise, people want to offer compassion.
When someone dies, regardless of the cause, everyone could do with a reminder about the life that came before. An obituary offers the chance to shine the spotlight back on the accomplishments, quirks, and the soul that was the person and now is their memory. We can give them their curtain call. As much as we’d rather that suicide wasn’t the end of the story, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good story.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is pretty terrifying. It is an incurable brain disease that is invariably fatal. Tiny prions (infectious proteins) infect the brain and cause it to take on a spongy texture. Progressively worsening symptoms include dementia, hallucinations, depression, paranoia, and seizures. Its effects have been compared to a human version of mad cow disease. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.
Just when you think there is nothing worse than having a loved one contract and die from this rare disease, turns out you have one more thing to worry about — not being able to bury or cremate the body. According to this report by NBC, “across the country, funeral homes and crematoriums are routinely refusing to accept the bodies of CJD patients out of fear of infection, despite health guidelines that say that — with standard precautions — embalming and burial is perfectly safe.”
Oh, it gets worse. Listen to this: “Some families report that their loved ones who died from CJD were removed from the hospital, placed in double body bags and taken directly to a crematorium with no warning. Others tell NBC News that funeral workers forced pallbearers to wear medical gloves and told mourners to stand far back from the gravesite and to disperse quickly after the ceremony.”
That’s some Grade-A time-of-that-plague ignorance on display. “Hear ye, hear ye, stay back from thy plague-ridden bodyie! The clouds of death doth float from it.”
One family featured by NBC told the story of how their father’s body was rejected by four funeral homes in Salt Lake City. Outright rejected. Refused service. Not only did the funeral homes refuse to handle the body so they wouldn’t “risk their health,” they also refused to even cremate the body, “worried that the spores would become airborne.” WHAT. Spores?! That’s like a science-fiction movie. There are no Creutzfeldt-Jakob spores, that’s NOT A THING.
Just in case you weren’t convinced yet, what do you have to say about this, neurology professor at Johns Hopkins? “There’s no known actual risk. Morticians are in no more danger at all than anyone else,” said Dr. Richard T. Johnson, a CJD expert and a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in Baltimore, Maryland.
If you’re an Ask a Mortician person (follower, deathling, whatever) you will remember that I recently did a video on why dead bodies are not dangerous.
Maybe I should have screamed or enunciated or something? If funeral homes want to be taken seriously as professional facilities, trained in the art of death, not spouting weirdo pseudo-science about spore-spurtin’ danger-corpses would be an excellent place to start.
No big deal. Just a rosary bead carved in bone, from 1741, informing us that we, too, will die.
There are multiple elements presented here. One side is the face of a young man. The other side is half an older version of the man, half skull. So not only does the man have to face aging, but death as well.
Oh, and by THE MAN, I mean YOU, mortal human.
So many reminders for one bead. Can the bead even handle the pressure of all it represents? You’re only an inch tall! Way to hold it together for the past 250 years, bead.
This piece sold at auction for about €2,000. Not to me. Shame.
You’re hanging out in your local churchyard cemetery (as one does) and you stumble upon a strange headstone.
Michael Murricane, died 1977, “in a road accident on the morning of his intended wedding in this church.”
At first, this sounds like the most urban legend-y crap ever. File alongside: summer camp murderer who lives in the woods and has knives for hands.
But as one Reddit user discovered, the story is totally true. Michael and his betrothed, Sally, had their the wedding set for the morning of May 28th. “Tragically Michael was killed in a car crash early on the morning of their wedding and he was later buried in Dewsall Church where they had been due to be married.”
This is where it gets even more interesting. Buried next to Michael in the churchyard is none other than his fiancée, Sally, who died in 2011. Her headstone says “Betrothed to Michael Murricane,” even though she died 34 years after Michael.
From her obituary we learn that Sally, devastated by Michael’s death, moved from Canada to London and became the technical director of the Royal Opera House. She spent her later years traveling all over the world, trekking the Himalayas and the Andes, and, while sailing around Antarctica, survived a 98-foot rogue wave that knocked out the ship’s navigation equipment.
She was buried, “as she had always wished, in a grave beside Michael in the church down the road from the house she had always loved so much.”