I say that there is nothing more beautiful or natural than the alchemy of a decomposing body. Ask me and I will tell you: “if you truly loved me, you would dump me in a hole in the earth for the worms to redistribute as they see fit.”
Yet, if we are being honest- there is something crudely appealing about the attempt to stop the unstoppable march of decay for love.
One such crude attempt was the work of Dr. Carl Tanzler, a German radiologist working at a Florida hospital in the early 1930s.
One of the doctor’s patients was a young Cuban American girl, Maria Elena Milagro Helen de Hoyos. Once the rosy cheeked beauty, Hoyos was wracked with consumption and died when she was only 21. Prior to her death, Dr.Tanzler had already become desperately enamored with her- buying her jewelry, convincing her family to let him try crackpot consumption cures, and even paying for her funeral. Despite having his own wife and children, Tanzler was convinced that Hoyos had been prophesied for him in visions delivered by a long-dead relative. If such visions were true, how could Dr. Tanzler let a little thing like death keep them apart?
After Hoyos died, Tanzler bought her an above ground mausoleum, where he would visit her for the next two years, pumping her full of formaldehyde in an attempt to preserve her. He even had a telephone installed in the mausoleum so he could speak with her when he couldn’t be there.
After the two year mark, Dr. Tanzler made off with the body. He kept Hoyos in his home, dousing her with perfume to hide the grotesque scent. Through the long nights he would read to her and play organ dirges to her two year old corpse.
When things really began to come apart (literally- alas, Nature!), the Doctor filled Hoyos’ body with rags, tied her bones together with piano wire, and replaced her decomposed eyes with glass. The piece de resistance was his attention to her decayed skin, slowly replacing it with wax and plaster.
This went on for nine years before anyone found out and took Hoyos away to be buried in a secret location. Tanzler was judged fit to stand trial, but the statue of limitations on the grave robbing charge had expired. Tanzler lived the rest of his life with an effigy of Hoyos as his companion.
Why is it that sometimes, culturally, we accept this behavior– or even find it romantic? There is no doubt that the efforts of Tanzler were a fool’s errand. It simply cannot be done. Nature desperately wants those corpse-y atoms back in universal rotation and make no mistake- Nature will most certainly win. But there is something in that devotion. Like the cult of a saint, tending to the body like a sacred object. A Zen exercise, the Japanese sand gardens of human decomposition. Zen & the Art of Corpse Maintenance.
I shall ask all future lovers what they would do if I died that very day.
As you are well aware, most people are horridly mundane and would say, “uuhhh, maybe cremate you?” or, “like, call your Mom and ask her what she wants…?” But there is something to the answer of, “steal your corpse away and devote my life to the preservation of your remains, tending to you every day for the rest of my life, reading to you, talking to you, playing you music.”
New Order of the Good Death member Sarah Troop has her own take on the story of Dr. Tanzler. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll listen to her melodious voice talk about him here in her piece, “Isn’t It Necromantic.”