Death Becomes Her: A Mortician’s Response

I call myself a ‘Mortician’ for want of a more succinct term in the UK for my profession, but the real job title is Anatomical Pathology Technologist. In my eight years assisting pathologists with autopsies (post-mortems) I saw every possible face of death, and  none could really be considered ‘beautiful’. I looked upon death every day: some days with grim determination and a sense of duty to grieving families, but other days with a sense of horror or outrage at man’s inhumanity to man, or just their sheer bad luck. Some days I’d be sated with a valuable sense of being needed at this last point in a patient’s journey, other days I’d shower long and hard to remove death’s cold touch from my flesh, drink wine to remove death’s bitter aftertaste and wash my clothes twice to remove death’s hideous, cloying presence. So when I read this recent Guardian article on the trend for female ‘corpses’ in fashion photo shoots, I couldn’t help pondering the realism of these pictures and how far removed from death, as a society, we have become: perhaps it is this complete and utter detachment from our ultimate end which has caused photographers and film directors to idealise the corpse as much as artists did before them. Some of these pictures are serene while others depict a brutal beauty – but the reality is very different.

The Marc Jacobs shoot which begins the debate shows several women in a cadaveric repose in a desert, pale and slightly windswept with eyes half open.

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Marc Jacobs shoot

In reality, within a few hours, these open eyes would be covered in wind-blown sand. The skin would start to dessicate (rather than putrefy) due to the dry heat , leaving behind an egyptian-mummy like appearance: brown and leathery. Mouths too would slacken and gape open, filling with sand, and delicate fingers would become twisted and gnarled like twigs, the fingernails eventually being indistinguishable from the hardened skin around them. Mummification of a corpse in dry heat can occur in around two weeks and is much more common in thin individuals – like fashion models.

The Fall 1997 Prada shoot by Luchford (omitted from the aforementioned Guardian article) chose to symbolically depict corpse-like women.

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Prada shoot

In this example,  the model floats, corpse like, in water.

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In reality her perfect lithe limbs would be bloated with gases which would pop under the fingers when pressed, rather like an extreme oedema – a phenomenon known as ‘crepitation’. She’d very probably be covered in an unsightly white substance known as ‘grave-wax’ or adipocere, which is formed when the fat of the body (not that she has much of it) becomes ‘saponified’ or turned into soap. The name comes from the Greek “adipose” meaning fat and “cera” meaning wax, and the process needs moisture to occur. Various creatures would have taken up residence in her orifices and the stench would be unbearable. My video on adipocere:

Perhaps the most graphic of the shoots mentioned is that created by collaborators on America’s Next Top Model. All the contestants were required to pose as though they’re suffered not just death, but violent death. Here’s a video of all images:

America's Next Top Model
America’s Next Top Model

Do I really need to go into the physical realities of the above strangulation? The burst red vessels in the eyes caused by petechial haemorrhages where the blood is forced into delicate tissues due to the strangulation and unable to leave, the tongue lolling out of the mouth just as much as the eyes protrude, the possible voiding of excrement onto the sheets?

And interestingly it’s not the only ‘death’ based shoot created by ANTM; they even used coffins and graves to depict the Seven Deadly Sins:

Death really isn’t pretty but the idealisation of it is nothing new. Fashion shoots are considered art and art has been around as long as we have. The Pre-Raphaelites in the Victorian era idealised tragic females such as The Lady of Shallot and Ophelia in a similar way to those in the recent VICE shoot. And I’ll never forget the serene and somehow sparkling and radiant image of the ill-fated Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks who only found release from a nightmarish existence through death.

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In fact if anyone was known to fetishise death it was the Victorians with their elaborate mourning attire and death-etiquette. But the difference seems to be that they didn’t glorify violent death, and men became objects to be mourned just as much as women did (unlike in this current trend). Ultimately the fetishization of the corpse is nothing new and I will be discussing some of the reasons why throughout the course of this blog. One of the many cultural factors does seem to be a desire for discussion of the realities of death. There is clearly a curiosity there, an obvious need for a cathartic release, and only open consideration of the topic will help to dispel the myths. These pictures aren’t real. In her study of death and femininity “Over Her Dead Body”, Elizabeth Bronfen argues that the beautiful, alluring dead are figures of fear and desire for death projected onto the body of the female other and that the “aestheticization and eroticization of the female corpse isn’t the rare product of an aberrant or minority perverse taste, but a privileged trope of Western art in the modern period”. Clearly a more complex issue than originally thought.

 

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81 thoughts on “Death Becomes Her: A Mortician’s Response

  1. I look forward to reading what you post on this blog coming up, I thought this was a very interesting response to the illustration of death as glamorous? But more than natural death, violent death? I’m a storyteller so I agree there are times when you must give language to something in the landscape of death, even dress it up to speak of something underlying, but polishing it up and presenting it for it’s own sake is….well…I don’t know what it is accept it doesn’t interest in the least. In fact it turns me off. Enjoyed your perspective though, nice catch.

  2. I remember seeing The Death of Chatterton for the first time, thinking it was such a beautiful painting and certainly some of these fashion shoots are ‘beautiful’ too. I think your comment about lack of backstory is really the crucial thing here. Nowadays it is so easy to access images with little or no context – a kind of pornography of the everyday world (hence hashtags like #travelporn and #foodporn) which is not necessarily sexualised, but just dislocated from any meaningful reality.

  3. I don’t understand the whole “fetishizing death” thing, but I do think that most people are just very fascinated, to a degree, by death. I think it is because everyone knows that they themselves will die someday, and though nobody knows for sure what happens to our consciousness after we die, we do know what happens to our bodies. I don’t think these pictures were supposed to be realistic. Although I do find the “Top Model” album to be disrespectful. I have seen death captured in a somewhat “beautiful” way in reality before, by viewing a victorian photograph called a “momento mori”. These were usually very peaceful looking and did not show all the “skin rotting” and “emptying of bowels” side of death, but a more serene side of death that somewhat resembled sleep. Everyone knows that in reality, the corpse would have been stinking and discolored, however they did the best they could to cover it up in the pictures in order to create a momento for the deceased’s family.

  4. I appreciate your input and perspective on this piece. If I may be so bold as to add my own two cents to your comment about us being utterly detached from the reality of death, I think it can be measured in the fact that we no longer even have a connection to our food and it’s death let alone where it came from or how it was raised.

    As to objectification or fetishizing of death, well, isn’t it really the one thing that nobody can discuss having experienced it? Is it not possible that people are doing this, out of some desire to perhaps come up with their own answers to questions that simply cannot be asked of the dead? What is it like? What did it truly feel like? Are you at peace? Was your life worth it? Were the promises made to you regarding an afterlife made good on?

  5. Reblogged this on zeroBelief and commented:
    Have you ever thought of what it might truly be like to be dead? The social and relational impacts? What it might feel like? What might become of you?

    I for one am not afraid of death. I am not a religious person. Put a gun to my head, force me to cough up a decision, and it would be that I am buddhist. As I grow older, the more and more I read about buddhism, the more it simply makes sense to me. But it is really not a belief, IMHO, rather, a philosophy. It makes no real promises. Not in the “immediate gratification” sense. Nor in the sense that if you do “X” your afterlife will be “Y”. It actually goes on to say that if you do “X” your NEXT life will be “Y”. Not that we’ll be removed from this existence, no, rather…that we’ll be re-enrolled.

    Until we get it “right”.

  6. I have yet to understand the detachment our society has with death or how we tend to see it as something that happens to other people. There are even those who see it as beautiful when in reality it is far from that. As a little girl, living in remote area in a country where, at the time, there wasn’t much “preparation” of the bodies before giving them burial, I witnessed some of the early signs of decay first hand. But rather than scare me, it developed in me somewhat of a curiosity, sort of an unhealthy infatuation, about what happens to our bodies after we die. I am intrigued by this article and will follow your blog so that I can keep reading! Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    -Mari

  7. Now that I have read this I do recall many fashion magazines or make-up tutorials that use death as inspiration. Some portrayals are more macabre than others but it does make me think of the psychology behind it all. As humans I think we’ve always had both a sense of horror and morbid curiosity in regards to death and dying.

  8. Reblogged this on Cupcake. and commented:
    Women’s bodies are often manipulated to please. We see this in popular media where famous women are constantly getting plastic surgery or alterations to their bodies to become more appealing- in whatever way desired. The desire often comes from others around them, not their own. We also see this in fashion. Lately, violence against women has become popularly fetishistic. Silent, corpse-like, pale women can often be spotted in fashion advertisements. Notice that all of these women have similar body types, and skin color.

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