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.

 

81 Comments

  1. This was a fascinating article. I shake my head at announcements like those of the pictures referenced in this article – while I can sort of wrap my head around WHY one would go about romantisicising the idea in order to be able to consider it, talk about it, deal with it, I do not see the practicality behind it… because it, like airbrushed models, completely skews the idea of the reality of the situation. A wonderful article nonetheless, however, and yet another reason to shake our heads at the millions of stupid ways people come up with to make money.

  2. I absolutely agree – it was heroin chic before this so they’re just going one further now for no reason other to sell clothes! But as you said, it does flag up the need for a discussion.

  3. I had no idea such things existed. Yikes! It seems like people have taken the fascination with the “The Most Beautiful Suicide” and taken it up a notch. Thank you for this article. It is most profound and enlightening.

  4. Yeah, I really don’t get why they’re making death seem romantic, especially since these magazines pride themselves on being the highest of mainstream fashion. Maybe it’s got something to do with the vampire craze, or maybe they’re just misguided. I’ll go with the latter.

  5. This is incredibly shocking. I was never aware of this trend. I live in South Africa, and considering our crime and rape statistics any photo shoot approaching this sort of cavalier attitude toward death and violence would spark outrage. What exactly is the angle they’re trying for with this?

  6. Such a fascinating post and interesting to read the reality following this ridiculous article – I cannot understand why fashion brands/lines would want to romanticise death, particularly the brutal and aggressive forms – what’s next, making rape seem sexy?

  7. Great article and interesting insights into the science of death as well as a spot-on comment on fashion. What a disturbing trend – I have worked with pathologists and been to the morgue plenty times and seen many faces and like you say, there is nothing seductive or beautiful about it.
    If anything it says alot about fashion houses and how they treat the models – like a piece of meat, dead or alive.

  8. Great post. I’m going to be a little controversial here and suggest a counter argument :s
    I would agree that glamourisation of death is not healthy, and especially violence with a disturbing trend towards women – but, to me, some of these shots transcend fashion and cross over into art.
    I would argue that this is not because they are trying to be beautiful but because they are highlighting an issue.
    The preraphaelite image you allude to has always been a favourite of mine because it’s haunting, sad, lonely… it draws you in on a number of levels. Maybe this is what they hope to achieve with these images? (Or I could be wrong and they could just be being controversial to be contrary!! Perfectly possible!)

  9. Very interesting article, and from an expert in the field. It is true that this society has become so removed from death that fashion now deems it cute or beautiful. Probably happened around the time that advances in science and technology removed the body from the home before the family could do their deathly ritual of watching over the body to ensure rodents didn’t gnaw at it until the undertaker came with the pine box. We need to be examining these trends of delusion that saturate our culture. Great post.

  10. This trivializes and glamorizes something tragic. To make a young woman’s death appear beautiful and desirable could have a devastating effect to someone with a fragile psyche and suicidal tendencies. Life is to be celebrated and death should be mourned. The fashion industry is shallow and has sunk to a new low.

  11. Well written, it truly astonishes me today’s obsession with the “celebrity” factor of death and not the finality of it. It is a very gruesome horrifying experience for some, but yet fashion mags boast it as a work of art. Glad to have someone speak on this subject in such a profound and respectful manner!

  12. Doesn’t surprise me a bit, frankly. Today’s cadaverous models are just a gag reflex away from flat-lining, anyway, it can’t be that far of a stretch to imagine them tumbling all the way into the grave. I’ve seen post mortem photos more perky and fresh looking than many full-page glossies in Vogue. Sad in a Six Feet Under kinda way, what is considered beautiful in the end, no pun intended.

    The philosophy of all this is fascinating to me, but then I frequent a memorial garden and funeral home for kicks. I know everybody who works there, even the grave diggers. I’ve talked my way into the off-limits areas, seen the freezers and the retorts, and shared a laugh with these people for whom gross humor is a lifeline in a business otherwise dripping with death.

    I cringe at the slimy and the stinky but pretty much all else titillates. I’ve seen many a grave dug, visited some famous (and secret) cemeteries, and have, shall we say, an intimate understanding of “the afterlife” that most cannot comprehend. I consider myself lucky to have been raised non-religiously so that I can approach everything from my own perspective. Still, the burial rituals I’ve seen range from hysterical to uplifting. Humans be weird.

    To sum up, it baffles me how eagerly society dances with the romance of death these days. Vampires, zombies, stiff models–why is everyone in such a hurry to decompose?

    PS: Have you been to the Mutter Museum?

  13. It’s like you said, this form of death portrayal has always existed. Though there are some films that give a better sense of the reality of it, there will always likely be that sort of glamourous death famous in tragedies. Death has always had its romantic side due to the artists that portray it and you make a good point about how it has become even more romanticized since we are more closed off from the realities of it. Very interesting read.

  14. This article is very well written and I can see how making death so ‘ordinary’ can be a concern and even put-off people. Some of the words used to describe such actions are:

    Objectify: A person or thing with reference to the impression made on the mind or the feeling or emotion elicited in an observer.

    Romanticize: To indulge in fanciful or extravagant stories or daydreams; Idealize

    Idealize: Any system or theory that maintains that the real is of the nature of thought or that the object of external perception consists of ideas.

    I am by no means ignorant to the reality of death. I watched my grandmother die a slow, painful death. Saw the aftermath of two friends in a car wreck and found a friend’s father after he committed suicide. Death, in any realistic form, is sickening.

    That being said, I am also one who appreciates the beautification of death. By making death beautiful, by eliciting a reaction, by externalizing or vocalizing a tame view of death; We make it okay to talk about. It’s not a taboo to be hush-hush over. By makiing it less frightening, Its palatable – We can see more than the horrific. bloody, bloated gore. We acknowledge death and that there is something beyond the pain.

    That’s how I see it.

  15. This is actually my ideal job. It was something that always appealed to me, I guess the puzzle and maybe being able to bring peace to the families of the deceased. I’m not particularly au fait with fashion, but I’m disappointed. Not only do they make being bony fashionable, but now being brutally murdered is ‘cool’? They really need to look at the impact they’re having on society. Very interesting read, and I can’t wait to read more.

  16. I have been an undertaker for about a year and a half and it would be a fascinating concept but I can understand why people would find it a bit out there

  17. It is shocking, maybe due to my lack of fashion knowledge, that the industry would use such a concept to reinforce their brand. What are they trying to say? How can someone think that by looking at dead women (is it always women?), people will make an informed decision on what to wear for a gala event? When I get over the shock, maybe I will write a comment that makes sense…

  18. Reblogged this on The Inner Collective and commented:
    A fascinating read. I had actually been noticing this trend of death in fashion and inanimate “doll” like models but had never thought about what death would be in reality. I too, don’t quite understand that practicality but really enjoyed the article

  19. Thank you so much for this. Honestly,having a person who has chosen this career,lives it daily,educated is so refreshing. I have been sickend by these ad’s,as well as the recent rape-esque/violence against woman used in ads.

  20. I’m horrified by this. Like everything else in the world, we need to see the truth, not some fake but comforting fiction. But I guess since it’s more comfortable to do about it in this way, people are gonna do it anyways.

  21. DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
    For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
    Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
    From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
    Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
    Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
    Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
    And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
    And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
    One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
    And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

  22. I’ll eagerly await new posts.
    I think our obsession with death is a part of how we cope with knowing that we’re eventually going to die. All religions have a thought of an afterlife, which goes to show how much we care of death.

  23. I’m only surprised by all the shock that this is happening in fashion. It’s not a new trend. In the United States we are bombarded by non-stop forensic television shows and lawyer shows, cop shows, mystery shows, as well as supernatural vampire shows all of which glorify rape and killing beautiful women. It’s the “norm”. Global misogyny has only ever been growing. It’s a backlash against women gaining in power.

  24. I fear ad campaigns like this desensitize the public to death and suffering. What once was shocking and heart-wrenching is now just another glossy photo-shoot in a fashion magazine. How can we expect people to be compassionate in the real world when they’ve seen it all played out in the fake?

  25. Interesting, albeit a little bit disgusting during some descriptions, but completely insightful and a good jab at the fashion industry for what I believe is a ridiculous set of photo shoots. Death should never be seen as “attractive” in my opinion.

  26. Such an interesting and well written piece 😊. Being a nurse, I agree with you on the realities of deaths and the far removed idea society now has of it. Glamourisation I guess.

  27. I can’t tell you how amazing it has been to read all your comments and have all your opinions on this! There is certainly the obvious point that these shoots do cross over into ‘art’ and we wouldn’t necessarily moan at the Pre-Raphaelites for painting a picture of The Lady of Shallot or Ophelia – but there is a difference and the difference is the context/back story being illustrated. In the case of these shoots there isn’t really any context. Our current public perception of death (particularly how it pertains to romance and sex) is what I’ll be focussing on dthroughout this blog and there’ll be a new post coming on Valentine’s day,
    -C

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