Recommended Essay

“Man vs. Corpse,” by Zadie Smith, at New York Review of Books:

It’s argued that the gap between this local care and distant indifference is a natural instinct. Natural or not, the indifference grows, until we approach a point at which the conceptual gap between the local and the distant corpse is almost as large as the one that exists between the living and the dead.

 

Oddest of all is the unequal distribution of corpses. We seem to come from a land where people, generally speaking, live. But those other people (often brown, often poor) come from a death-dealing place. What a misfortune to have been born in such a place! Why did they choose it?

Speaking personally, I think my relationship to the idea of corpses changed when I was around 10-11, when my father and then my grandfather died.  Both times, I was urged by distant relatives to look upon their dead faces, and both times, my mother stopped me.  But I remember finding a photograph in our basement that I put away so quickly I don’t even remember the photo except that there was a body in a white bed.  I also never went looking through photographs in the basement ever again.  

After this, I became obsessed with speaking truth to power about death: death is real, death will come for you, death is eternal.  The body you think is infallible will fail.  I deeply resented stories that tried to mask this truth with Heavenly Ever Afters.  It (further) soured me on religion.  Reading graphic novels that dwelled on bodily injury intensified this crusade, since the sanitized bloodless versions really annoyed me.  But I’m still very, very averse to looking at real death.  And I think that comes from a fear of disrespecting the concluded life and the disembodied soul, not a failure of memento mori.  

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