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The afterlife of corpses

Western cultures once were obsessed with dead bodies. Today we dispose of them with clinical efficiency. Are we missing something important?

Web Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons/public domain/Web Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Com

We don’t much tolerate corpses in the 21st century. Somewhere along the line, lingering over human remains came to be regarded as passé, perhaps even prurient. At age 37, I’ve never seen a dead body in the flesh. That’s in part because mortuaries dispose of cadavers with unsparing efficiency. They get whisked away and incinerated before prying eyes can get a glimpse. Cremation has been on the rise in recent years — it is the preferred method of bodily disposal for 57 percent of Americans. Burial plots in cemeteries have begun a slide into ill repute because they hog the land and harm it. The shift is even more dramatic in Japan, where more than 99 percent of bodies are now cremated and some localities ban burials altogether.

The pivot away from corpses goes beyond disposal practices. When COVID-19 drove deaths beyond what morgues could handle, media organizations withheld photographic evidence of the dead. Likewise, news coverage of the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, elided photos of the bodies, as is now standard in reporting on mass shootings. Grainy pictures depicting war crimes in Ukraine count among the rare examples of actual corpses represented in mainstream news outlets. In an age of squeamishness about disease, bodily decay, and death, corpses have become personae non gratae.

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It wasn’t always this way. In Europe and the United States in the 19th century, for example, bodies lay at the center of a vibrant culture of death, mourning, and remembrance. Mourning attire made grief inescapably visible and social. Bodily remains — locks of hair, teeth, organs — were commonly fashioned into jewelry or keepsakes. Dead bodies were cherished in ways that today would court disgust or suspicions of indecency.

It’s revealing to contrast today’s corpse-phobic culture with the age of British Romanticism. I point to the 19th century because the most iconic Romantic poems of the time — John Keats’s “Nightingale,” William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” — center on the imagination and spiritual matters, and yet the writers themselves attracted fascination by dint of their peculiar bodies and the corpses they turned into. Revisiting the stories of their lives and deaths makes me think that ignoring corpses is a way of whitewashing history.

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Stories revealed

Two hundred years ago this month, a squall slammed into a three-man schooner carrying poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as it sailed north from Leghorn, off the coast of Viareggio, which is today in Italy. Mercilessly battered, the ship foundered. Shelley’s corpse washed ashore 10 days later, his face and hands so badly decomposed that he was recognizable only by the contents of his jacket pocket: a book of poetry by Keats. Shelley’s body was immediately buried on the beach to satisfy local quarantine regulations, and then dug up again a month later — putrid and stinking, its flesh a dingy blue — and burned on a seaside pyre. His heart, however, even after an hour’s conflagration, wouldn’t combust — it was likely calcified due to a bout of tuberculosis — and so, after being pulled from the fire, it was handed over to his widow, Mary Shelley, famed author of “Frankenstein,” who for decades onward kept the shrunken organ wrapped in silk in her writing case. On her death, it was found nestled between the pages of “Adonais,” her husband’s elegy to Keats.

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Mary Shelley’s choice to cling to this charred keepsake is bound to strike us as unusual, if not grotesque. But how fitting it was for Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose most famous poem, “Ozymandias,” ruminates on the transience of mortals and the immortality of art. By holding on to the singed organ, Mary was rendering the most symbolically potent aspect of her dead husband — his love, his spirit, his passions — immortal.

Even this legacy of Shelley’s body is overshadowed by the titan of Regency England poetry: Lord Byron. The man born George Gordon became the sixth Baron Byron at the age of 10 and shot to fame in 1807 as the inventor of the “Byronic hero” — the brooding, tormented egoist. It’s the archetype that gave us today’s Batman, Aragorn, Jaime Lannister, and Edward Cullen. But literary fame was hardly unprecedented. What was utterly new was the way that his body became a fetishized image in the cultural imagination.

By all accounts, Byron’s physique beggared description. Portraits show us his translucent alabaster skin, which radiated ethereal beauty. Coleridge described his close-set, blue-gray eyes as “portals to the sun.” Nonetheless, Byron was tortured by his body. His right foot and lower leg were deformed, probably due to dysplasia, leaving him with a severely thin calf and inward-turning foot. In early adolescence, his leg was repeatedly rubbed in oil by servants, strapped into an iron leg brace, and left for hours, producing excruciating pain. He struggled with his body in other ways, too: binge eating, purging, or sometimes hewing to a skeletal diet of biscuits and soda water. The sight of women chewing food aroused a visceral disgust in him.

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Perhaps because of his vexed body, Byron was obsessed with mortality and gathered relics of the dead. When his gardeners at Newstead Abbey dug up a large human skull, he sent it to London to have it mounted in silver as a morbid cup. From then on, he served claret from the cranial goblet whenever he had company at the abbey. He later made morose pilgrimages to battlefields, including Waterloo, where he gathered fighting implements and bones of the slaughtered. He was likewise enthralled by the golden chamber of the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, with its meticulously arranged skulls and bones of 11,000 virgins.

Byron’s most talked-about use of his body — his sexual exploits — threatened to eclipse his literary achievements. He hurtled through torrid affairs with women — some 200 in Venice, another 200 in Athens, he reckoned — sometimes exchanging bodily tokens of remembrance. Lady Caroline Lamb, the same lover who immortalized Byron as “mad — bad — and dangerous to know,” once sent Byron an envelope containing some of her pubic hair. In the summer of 1813, he took up an incestuous romance with his half sister, Augusta Leigh. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” exposed the affair in an 1869 article in The Atlantic Monthly. That said, the now-unredacted epistolary evidence confirms that his primary sexual interests were adolescent boys at a time when Britons convicted of sodomy were subject to execution by hanging. The terror of discovery and prosecution must have lurked always within him.

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By the age of 30, Byron was inhabiting a deeply marred body. His teeth were loose, his hair grayed, his countenance pale, bloated, and sallow. Rheumatism sent jabs through his limbs. A succession of maladies — scarlet fever, malarial fever, kidney stones, a nasty concussion from a sailing accident, and festering gonorrheal disturbances — had exacted a punishing physical toll. He would die in 1824, fighting for the cause of Greek independence, though the immediate battlefield was his own body. Sick with tickborne fever, Byron was tended to by doctors with enemas, vomit-inducing castor oil, glass domes to blister his left leg, a potent mixture containing laudanum, and, most devastatingly, bloodletting. At one point, 12 leeches feasted, hitting his temporal artery. The loss of almost half his blood, compounded by dehydration, closed the curtain on his bodily drama.

Then the race to preserve or pillage Byron’s body was on. To protect his embalmed corpse for seafaring travel, it was submerged in 180 gallons of spirits. Four urns containing extracted heart, brain, and sections of intestines accompanied it, though the urn containing his lungs and larynx was purloined from a church in Missolonghi, Greece.

For all the controversy about his life, Byron’s body would prove irrepressible. In 1826, Belgian artist Joseph-Denis Odevaere painted a breathtaking memorial canvas, “The Death of Byron,” depicting a flawless corpse draped over an altar-like deathbed. By century’s end, Oscar Wilde was replicating Byron’s persona by lounging on Oriental rugs in knee breeches and a black velvet jacket. In death, Byron lived on.

The upshot is that Byron’s body, both in life and as a corpse, tells a complex history of disability, imperial struggle, sexual persecution, body dysmorphia, medical blunders, and — as Wilde perceived — queer identity formation. Hindsight is hindered if we jettison or overlook the body.

Oscar Wilde in 1882.©APIC

Severed connections

So what killed the fascination with bodily remains? Deborah Lutz, a professor of English at the University of Louisville and an expert on 19th-century death relics, says the increasingly medicalized attitude toward the body devalued the corpse.

“Our secular era has come to treat death as a failure of modern medicine to rid the body of contagion or to fend off decay,” she says. “That curdled the celebratory mood.”

War and photographic technology, Lutz says, were the final nails in the coffin. The advent of modern warfare technology obliterated bodies en masse, reducing them to pulverized carcasses in the Great War. In addition, the growing early-20th-century availability of celluloid film meant that families could preserve their loved ones in photographs, without holding on to bodily remains or death relics.

However, our collective lack of interest in brooding over dead bodies is an Achilles’ heel, because that reluctance has a way of severing our connections to the past. Corpses force us to confront truths we might otherwise bury. The image of Emmett Till — murdered, mutilated, and placed in an open casket to be viewed by tens of thousands of people — rallied Black resolve and white sympathy in the fight for civil rights. Some 60 years later, footage of George Floyd’s murder helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, George Washington’s dentures — a death relic in the sense that they seem to have been assembled in part from the extracted teeth of Black slaves — have helped to surface cruelties sedimented in America’s past.

Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, wept at her son's funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. She had insisted that her son's body be displayed in an open casket to force the nation to see the brutality of what had happened to him.Anonymous/Associated Press

Our corpse-averse age, it turns out, still has a lot to learn from what it seems desperate to bury or incinerate.

William Faulkner’s novel “Requiem for a Nun” delivered a memorable aphorism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He might have added, given the history-shaping afterlife of corpses, that the dead aren’t really dead either.

Tom Joudrey is a Pennsylvania-based writer who covers politics and culture. Follow him on Twitter @TomJoudrey.