Tuesday, November 13

When are dead bodies sacrosanct?

My sister sent me this article. The article asks where the dignity in the display of this corpse is? The mummy does look strange and rather sad. I have to admit, the presence of the puffed up slimy popinjay, Indiana Jones wannabe Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Director of the Giza Pyramids Excavation, really detracted from the whole thing. But I digress!

But what about publicly displayed bodies in general? What is the feeling? Was it bad? horrible? disgusting? undignified? People have very strong reactions when they see dead bodies. And these reactions span the entire spectrum from utter distaste to satisfaction to nostalgia to glee or Schadenfreude to pity or compassion, all the way to actual love as we will see.

See this picture of King Tut which has sparked off this debate.

I can see why he can look scary to some, but that was not what the commentator was complaining about. He was complaining about the fact that dead people should have their dignity and should be buried or cremated and generally kept out of sight post death and have their peace.

But I found it curiously sad and tender. Here is a man who died in his youth, had a very very torrid family history, and lived through turbulent times and his mummy with the fine tapestry of cracks on the chin, the slightly squished nose, the sunken eyes, all raise a feeling of pity and tenderness inside me towards Boy King Tut.

How about this one? The hanging body of Former President Mohammed Najibullah of Afghanistan displayed in Kabul publicly?

What about the bodies of American Contractors in Falluja?

How about the pictures distributed by the Americans of the dead bodies of Qusay and Uday Saddam Hussein?

No? how about this one of IL duce of Italy, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci?

This photo is coming from the civilised Christian west, which was responsible for the Holocaust and then this very barbaric hanging of the two bodies after Italy was liberated. It was a scene of ferocious joy, of revenge even, celebrating a monster getting what he justly deserves. Same with Najibullah, who was a monster by all accounts in Afghanistan. What about the American Contractors? They are also monsters in the eyes of the Iraqi's, so that is why they hung up those dead bodies and danced around the remains. The fact that they could do that to dead bodies and break the natural taboo of respect to the dead, means that the feeling of hatred and wanting revenge was extra-ordinarily high. And in the case of the Hussein brothers it was mainly cold hard political calculation. Curious, no? The lengths one can go to mistreat- even already dead - bodies?

But to go back to old geezers. The mummy of Ramses II and other mummies in Cairo Museum?

Ramses II is one of my heroes. I look at this shriveled body and think about the man who strode the world like a colossus. The man who fathered hundreds of children, and whose exploits were written down in stone and have come down to us thousands of years later. The man who was celebrated by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his immortal poem, Ozymandias.

I look upon his patrician visage, that hooked nose, that pointed chin and I do not see the wisps of red hennaed hair, nor the blackened skin or the thin neck. I see a Pharaoh. A Pharaoh striding down Thebes, in his white linen skirt, in his majesty, ruling over most of the then known universe. Now that dead body - to me - is simply a reminder for us to think about the greatness of his reign, not the shriveled body left behind.

Or the Iceman?

Or the Inca Mummy?

The above are prehistoric people. They are almost like museum exhibits or almost like they are like art objects, so you can look upon them without flinching. But what about people who become Gods after death? They were scientifically embalmed, with guards around them, modern mausoleums built for them and pilgrimages made to see their bodies after deaths. What about the man called Lenin?

Or Chairman Mao?

But then both were rather 'godless', no? So what about the 'godful'? Here's something/someone that I have seen personally in Prague. The Sedlec Ossuary. It is a church made out of the bones of 40,000 people. A church!!!!!!

And you see the same with Buddhist Monks.

If you think this public display of dead bodies is horrible, how about pets? Here is a selection of dead pets embalmed for life after death:

How cute, you say, no? So you can embalm your pets post death and find it nostalgic or just a bit strange. Its even comedic as evidenced in the Comedy series Scrubs.

If you do not like the display of bodies after death, can you use the bodies after death, for example for organ donation? or anatomy classes? or for use in testing Improvised Explosive Devices? Here's some very interesting advice on what to do if you find a dead body. I liked this part:

3: Do not - Do not set your camera on auto-timer, lie down next to the body and make rabbit-fingers behind the remnants of the victim's bloodied head as you have your picture taken. I'm not sure if this is illegal or not but it's in very poor taste.

But I understand there are certain type / classes of people who love, erm, making love to dead people, a condition called as Necrophilia. Here's Anthony Merino who was caught having sex with a corpse of a 92 year old woman inside a NY Morgue.

I do not really have an issue with the display of dead bodies. After you are dead, you are just some chemical components. You do not / cannot really care about what happens to your body after you are dead. It is not you, but other people who get all squeamish about your dead body or dead bodies in general. The distaste about dead bodies was burnt out of me when I was exposed to the Bhopal Gas Disaster. Here are two very famous images from that tragedy.

So I don't think that King Tut would mind his body being put on display. Dead bodies are not sacrosanct at all.

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Anonymous said...

I allowed for my family member to be viewd at the funeral home and church. At first I was afraid but then they appeared more similar and I wanted to be with them because I felt they were alive in a way.

Kim said...

Ever heard of the exhibition Korpenwelten? Dead bodies are dried up then the body water is replaced by transparent plastic so the body gets its volume back. Extraordinary anatomic lesson but... quite discussable from an ethic point of view.