What To Do With A Cadaver: Our Relationship With The Dead

Have you ever seen a dead human body?  Some day, we will all become one.

What will your body look like when you are dead?  How will it feel?

Real dead bodies are all around us.  Everyone we know dies.  Everyone.  That face we see in the mirror, the hand we hold in the movies, the coworker we beat or who beats us for a promotion, the person serving your coffee as you read this – we will all die.  Our bodies will lie still and the energy systems of chemical bonds, electricity, gravity, heat, motion and momentum will no longer constitute themselves together as a person bearing our name.  It will all dissipate into other forms which themselves will be no more or less noble until they too give way to forms that follow.

Hiding from dead bodies is basically a luxury item (and a privileged one, at that).

Whether or not someone actually sees a corpse depends largely upon the society that person lives in.

In a society where people have no health care or hospitals, people die out in the open a lot more.  On the side of the road, in their home, waiting for a bus, in a store, out in the woods.  Poorer countries are often ravaged by war and brutality, which create corpses en masse.

All in a day’s work.

In affluent societies, we take great efforts to keep dying and dead bodies in the hospitals, away from public exposure.  If someone dies out in public, an emergency vehicle comes immediately to remove the body.  Any mess is cleaned up right away, leaving no trace or indication that someone – a person came to that place and died.  In our anonymous societies it is very difficult to leave any trace that we ever existed at all and our death is no exception.

Any bystanders who witness a public death in such societies are encouraged to move along, forget that we saw anything and pretend as if it never happened.  But we do not forget death.

There are no zombies.

The dead do not come back to life, seeking brains and bearing the disease of death.  For the most part, we humans do not like to think about ourselves as a lifeless mass of rotting cells.  People talk about an afterlife, ad nauseam but rare indeed is the conversation about our decomposing tissue, skin and bones.

But, we do have a fascination for death.  We read about it in the news, watch movies about it, romanticizing death by telling tales of loving vampires and fearful zombies.  Death registers in our minds and we do not soon forget it.  Whether one witnesses the wholesale slaughter of massacres, famine, starvation, cruelty and malicious death or the occasional glimpse of a home death or accident on the side of a road – we carry that experience of death with us through our lives.

In our deepest unconsciousness, we know of death.  We don’t tend to look it right in the eye – unless we are forced to.  In our affluent societies,  we romanticize it, fear it, cry about it, parade it as tool to manipulate others and sometimes even fuck it.  In the poor cultures where death is everywhere, we walk in it, play in it, eat, drink and work knee-deep in death, all the live long day.

Life with death.

My own experiences in encountering the dead have ranged from the curious to the clinical.  My father’s mother died in our house.  My 8 y/o sister found her lying on the hallway floor one morning.  I found a dead body once in a motel room.  A woman had committed suicide after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.  She took pills and died on the bathroom floor.  Her skin was blue-green.  I dissected cadavers while in medical training.  I have assisted in an autopsy of an MP who crashed his car into a brick wall.  The pathologist showed us how to find the injuries and determine the cause of death.  His heart had been crushed when his chest hit the steering wheel.

A friend of mine told me of another kind of death story – one that is much more traditional.  When his father died, the family chose to wash and prepare his body for burial.  They are not a religious family, but they looked to a traditional means for honoring, accepting and embracing a death.

They went to the funeral home with a clean set of his clothing.  The family then took to cleaning and dressing the body of this family member.  He described an experience of reverence, love, care, appreciation and bonding.  There they were, a whole family working away on the last moments that any of them would have him.  They shared laughter, tears, silence and conversation in the tasks of preparing this person for burial.  The funeral director told them that it was one of the most special things he had ever been part of and thanked them for choosing his funeral home for this event.

Oh, about that afterlife…

You may believe in an afterlife.  I don’t know if there is such a thing.  If I could earn money for my daughter’s college fund, I’d lay heavy cash against it though.  No one living knows and that’s just the way it is for now.

One thing I will comment on is how human fear tends to drive behavior.  We humans talk about the afterlife right and left.  The religion business is marketed around the idea.  But it strikes me as not just odd that people freely discuss the afterlife while simultaneously avoiding the topic of our own death.  Go ahead, sit someone down and ask them about the afterlife.   Ask them what they will look like and what they will be doing.  See how long you can stretch the conversation.  Stop after one hour.  Then, ask them about their own death.  Ask the same questions.  Send me an email if you make it past 10 minutes.

What does that say about our relationship to death? I cannot say for certain that this behavior is delusional and fearful – but the resemblance is uncanny.

So, what is available to us all if we look at death, accept it, understand it and allow ourselves to knowingly be identified by it?  Our human form and the lives we live are precious and special because of death.  We are beautiful in all our varieties of individuality and culture.  Each human being is amazing and living against all the odds of disease and hardship that make life so very fragile.  Birth, life and death are the sum total of our human experience.

Why not look at the dead forms of each of us as a last chance to appreciate the fading remains of a brilliant corner of the universe?  The eyes that once beamed.  The lips that once uttered the words of that will only issue from one person in this entire universe.  The heart that began in a mother’s womb and ran its race until the final day.  The muscles, sinew and bone that carried this mass of flesh as far as they could conspire to go.

What is so frightful about that?

The world’s best looking corpse for 86 consecutive years.  Only the Cubs have been this dead for longer.

P.S. This is Arvan’s weekly post. For some reason the author name isn’t showing, so I thought of making the distinction.

 

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