Power of One

A Corpse Is a Corpse, of Course, of Course Can someone please explain to me why anyone should be looking at eight years in prison for posing and photographing a corpse? Or why we must spend mill

Nov 1, 2001 at 2:06 pm

A Corpse Is a Corpse, of Course, of Course
Can someone please explain to me why anyone should be looking at eight years in prison for posing and photographing a corpse?

Or why we must spend millions to retrieve the bodies of six men and boys from that Japanese fishing trawler? How about why each scrap of flesh and bone from the thousands killed at the World Trade Center must be tagged, bagged, studied and identified?

Why is it so outrageous for the city of Hamilton to resort to cremation for its indigent dead in an effort to cut costs? It seems a perfectly logical and respectful solution, but apparently not to the good citizens of Hamilton.

As is usually the case with death, logic gives way to emotion.

For a society that purports to embrace life, it seems we have a long way to go toward accepting life's end. Except, of course, in our enthusiasm to legislate it out of vengeance.

I never cease to get a kick out of these people who call themselves "pro-life" and get rabid in support of the death penalty. But their hypocrisy is common. We love to talk about the value of life, but we seldom practice what we preach.

The value we accord to human life is left over from a time when human life was fragile and precious. Our philosophy, however, has failed to keep up with our overwhelming flood of the market. Far from being precious and rare, our very lives are cheapened by the way we litter the planet, poison our environment and destroy each other with common cruelty. Indeed, we accord more value to the care of our dead than we allot to most of the planet's living.

Dead bodies have no intrinsic value. We may like to think of them as our loved ones, but our loved ones have ceased to occupy their physical remains. What remains is an object of decay, a health hazard and a harbor of disease. It should be disposed of as quickly as possible by either burning or burial. If any good can come from a corpse, then let it be through science, through politics, as in war or assassination — or even, yes, through art.

What kind of art can come from a corpse? To be honest, I don't know. I don't know how brilliant an artist Thomas Condon might be; perhaps his only crime was bad taste. But let's not hamstring the artist with constraints on content. Let's at least see the product.

Even in the obscene emotional hype of Mapplethorpe, the photos were described in detail in the press, if not splashed around in public view. But in Condon's case, there was a presumption of guilt by our moralizing mainstream media, burying this body of work under an assumed sanctity of death.

When it comes to the "gross abuse of a corpse," think of the millions of "loved ones" that are stitched, stuffed, pickled, painted and posed in the name of dignity. These atrocities are advertised, gift wrapped, boxed and put on display for a gawking family, and even the public. It amounts to an epidemic of funereal disease. What about the dear departed, subjected to such treatment? Did they ever sign a model release?

If we want to accord a dignity to the death of our loved ones, then let's start by allowing them to return to the earth. Let's accept that we can no longer control every detail of their deaths, as we might have tried to do in their lives. Let's realize that someone lost at sea is lost and that those victims of mass catastrophe, though torn from their family bonds, are united by a greater bond of communal oblivion.

Probably my favorite scene from literature is the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, in which two half-wit diggers debate the religious and legal complications for the disposal of a corpse. Neither of them knows what the hell they're talking about, but the first gravedigger demonstrates a greater perspective. He has the sense to sing at his work:

"A pickaxe and a spade, a spade,
For and a shrouding sheet
A pit of clay for to be made,
For such a guest is meet."

A corpse is a corpse. Provide it what it needs, and no more.