Two Beheadings and a Funeral

Or “Salome vs Isabella” or “Class V Necrophilia vs Class II”

Salome Lyda Borelli

I’ve been fascinated by the stories of Salome and Isabella since I began reading Wilde and Keats in my very early teens. The stories focus on two women, both responsible for the decapitation of a significant male figure, yet both with different motivations. In a recent paper, Dr Anil Aggrawal split necrophilia into ten distinct categories [1], as opposed to the previous three types put forward in Rosman and Resnick’s earlier paper.[2] I’d like to explore the categories of Class II and Class V necrophilia in relation to these tales using the criteria suggested by Dr Aggrawal as well as case histories.

Salome by Leopold Schmutzler

Salome is a Biblical story, mentioned briefly in the books of Matthew and Mark. (Records by Flavius Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian, put the tale into historical context.) The story existed simply as a skeletal framework in the Bible but the play of the same name, penned by Oscar Wilde in 1891 and published with the provocative drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in 1893, sensuously fleshed out the bones of the verse into a tale of dangerous lust incarnate.

“The Climax” by Aubrey Beardsley

The halting, repetitive language of the play interspersed with depictions of evil omens creates an atmosphere of foreboding which slowly, achingly builds to a climax. There is no mistaking the importance of death throughout; it even appears in the opening paragraph, “Look at the moon – she is like a a woman rising from a  tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.” During the few short acts we are taken on a dark journey of tragic portents: beautiful, pale feet dance on pools of blood, and the beating of the wings of the angel of death is in the air. The atmosphere is oppressive, pregnant with the weight of impure thoughts unspoken; there is a feeling of greed, lust and entitlement; the air is electric.

Salome (2) by Leopold Schmutzler
Salome (2) by Leopold Schmutzler

We accompany Salome as she bears the burden of her stepfather’s inappropriate sexual advances with spiteful strength and ultimately manipulates his feelings expertly, using them to her own advantage and demonstrating she is more of a monster even than he is. He is incestuously attracted to her and begs her to dance for him. She resists until he promises to give her “anything she desires” in payment. She immediately asks “Anything?” She already knows exactly what she wants. The charged, sensual mood of the play is indicative of the motivation of Salome; the dance itself a trope of female sexuality and abandon. She requires the head of the dead John the Baptist (Jokanaan) to exert sexual power over it, and him, saying “It is for mine own pleasure that I ask the head of Jokanaan..”. There is no other reason. When she finally receives the head, she speaks to it passionately yet mockingly: “You would not suffer me to kiss thy mouth…I will kiss it now” and “Well I still live but thou art dead, and thy head belongs to me.”

She could have chosen to lie on top of the fresh corpse of Jokanaan and mock him, kissing his head as it was attached to his shoulders, had she so desired, but it is the removal of the head, the derisive action of holding it aloft, which illustrates her need to have this particular object in her grasp for her total gratification:  And there is no mistaking that it is sexual gratification she feels at her proximity to the head. She says directly to it,  “I love thee yet, Jokanaan…I’m athirst for they beauty, I am hungry for thy body…” Her sexual desire is not yet sated.  According to Dr Aggrawal Class V Fetishistic necrophiles do not engage in any copulatory activity with the dead. Instead, if the chance arose, they would cut up some portion of the body for later fetishistic activities, such as the breasts [1] This is exactly what Salome does. It’s interesting to note that it’s not the act of mutilation itself which causes sexual release in Class V’s (that is reserved for Class VI necrophiles, also called necromutilomaniacs) which is why I don’t class Salome as such, and this is evidenced by the fact she has someone else remove Jokanaan’s head.

Salome - Pierre Bonnaud
Salome – Pierre Bonnaud

However, there is also a reverence of the head, indicated by the fact she desired it to be brought to her “on a silver charger” like a sacred relic. She is in awe of this head as she was in awe of Jokanaan – a prophet who considered her to be too filthy to even look upon – and it is the fact she owns and can manipulate this potent object which is affording her such satisfaction. She is the figure of the perverse, desiring body – he, the symbol of utter transcendence. Regina Janes (in her book Losing Our Heads) describes the decapitated head as representing “a spiritual ideal that torments and infuriates the earthly Salome.” The acquisition of this head is, for her, absolutely crucial to enable her to reach a pinnacle of such ecstasy that she touches the face of God.

Salome by Lucien Levi Dhurmer

The above is in stark contrast to the chaste Isabella’s recovery of Lorenzo’s head after his death, not least because she wasn’t responsible for his death directly as Salome was, and also because she was involved with Lorenzo romantically long before his death. In this tale, originally relayed in Bocaccio’s Decameron and then by Keats in the poem The Pot of Basil, Isabella clearly exhibits traits of a Class II or Romantic necrophile. These people are simply bereaved to the point of minor psychosis: they “…cannot bear separation from their deceased loved ones.” and keep or preserve “…parts of their recently dead loved one in order to fill up a psychosexual vacuum…” [1]

Isabella by Holman-Hunt

After she falls in love with Lorenzo and they begin a relationship, much to her brothers’ dismay, Isabella becomes aggrieved when he disappears one day without trace. She is unaware that her brothers, disapproving as much as they do about her relationship, have actually murdered and buried him. Isabella pines for Lorenzo: she barely eats and barely sleeps until, wasted and exhausted, she fitfully loses consciousness. That is when Lorenzo visits her in a dream  explaining that he is dead and describing where to find him buried.

The Pot Of Basil by Henriatte Rae
The Pot Of Basil by Henriatte Rae

Isabella, with her heart shattered into a million red splinters, leaves the house at dawn. She arrives at the described burial place and proceeds to dig until she finally lays her hands on the corpse of her murdered lover. Interestingly her findings are related in the Decameron in this way: “Nor had she dug long before she found the body of her hapless lover, wherein as yet there was no trace of corruption or decay.” This incorruptible aspect of her discovery is a common thread in romantic necrophilia, similarly alluded to by Romeo to his beloved Juliet (“Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.”) In literature it can be a trope to symbolise the incorruptibility of a love which will endure, everlastingly, but it can also be a genuine psychological symptom. It is this inability to ‘see’ the decay which is a common characteristic of romantic necrophiles and it was illustrated well in a case from November 2013 in which a Belgian woman had been sleeping next to the decomposing corpse of her husband for a year.  I believe this is what separates romantic necrophiles from other necrophiles: they aren’t sexually aroused by ‘death’ or decay – they simply cannot see it.

Isabella by John William-Waterhouse
Isabella by John William-Waterhouse

The inconsolable Isabella decapitates Lorenzo in order to have some memento of him which, given her grief, makes sense in that context:

“…and then the prize was all for Isabel: she calmed its wild hair with golden comb, and all around each eye’s sepulchral cell pointed each fringed lash. The smeared loam, with tears as chilly as a dripping well, she drenched away. And still she combed, and kep’t sighing all day, and still she kiss’d, and wept.”

She buries the head in a pot of basil in order to keep it with her, watering it with her tears, neither eating nor drinking, until she dies. This is bereavement; this is loss which Isabella is unable to bear, and therefore her necrophilia is simply a manifestation of it. There are many cases of such grief like the case of Le Van from Vietnam also mentioned by Aggrawal, and even to an extent the sad recent case of Hans and Eva Rausing which illustrates the aspect of denial involved in this condition.

Basil Vogue
Saoirse Ronan as Isabella in a recent Vogue shoot

To conclude, these two stories indicate the obvious differences between Class II and Class V necrophilia, something clearly noted by the artists above because depictions of Salome show her gratuitously grasping the head whereas chaste Isabella’s prize is innocuously hidden by a pot. But what is unclear is where the point of death is perceived by Class II necrophiles (and whether the same can be said for the rest of us). Recently I have been involved in several discourses regarding the border of death and how it is relative in terms of culture. For example, Dr Paul Koudounaris’ Death Salon lecture on the strangers’ skulls kept by Bolivian families as extra members and perceived to take part in daily life opened up a discussion about death not being fixed and instead occupying a liminal space which shifts, like the tide, dependant on your perception. This was seen to be a positive thing, an indication that our sterile culture isn’t the only way to consider death and that a continuing relationship – or continuing bonds, as they’re known – can be beneficial. But if this is the case, and we are rallying for a shift in attitudes towards death, why are stories like those of Marcel H and Le Van (above) still so shocking?


[1] “A New Classifcation of Necrophilia” Aggrawal A.

[2] “Sexual Attraction to Corpses: A Psychiatric review” Rosman JP. Resnick PJ.

[3] “An Exceptional Case of Necrophila” Bauer M. Tatschner T. and Patzelt D.