The Birth of Death

When I was a child I was engrossed with death, not the existential what-happens-when-we-die crisis, but the very viscera of it. My uncle would spin me tales of medieval execution methods and my grandparents let my tween self consume episode after episode of CSI. Perhaps something about the extremes the body can endure before giving way, or maybe I was just a weird kid. Fortunately I have grown into a happy, healthy young woman and not a homicidal maniac, thank God for societal pressure!

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A photo of me, aged 8

But of course everyone has a natural intrigue in death, we spend such a short time living but an eternity dead. The notion of the corporeal body as ephemeral is so engrained in our society that it is unsettling, yet captivating, to be confronted with an enduring figure. Take Ginger, one of the British Museum’s most famous and treasured Egyptian mummies, with those characteristic tufts of hair burnt amber through time he lays encased in a glass box, millennia after his passing, unaware that he would evolve to become the embodiment of his era. The very fact that we refer to Ginger as ‘he’ (and that we have gone to the trouble of naming him) details that very human quality of being unable to detach the, however charred, mutilated, or unrecognisable of, remains as being one of us and capable of personification, narrative and history. Even culture’s obsession with zombies denotes our fear of death, and our eminent seduction by it. The binaries of the living and the dead are so distinct that it’s unsettling when they intersect. But for all his radiant auburn hair, Ginger isn’t so much skin as he is bone. Skin is the integral instrument of the body, encasing the messiness of biological fact and keeping us together. It is the living, pulsating thing that renews and regenerates and then we die and it stops… but what happens when skin becomes archival? When it becomes preserved and imperishable?

‘As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.’

– The Grauballe Man by Seamus Heaney

bogman

The Grauballe Man

Bog bodies are perfect emblems of time and the body’s capability to render itself immortal, in a sense. Above is the Grauballe Man, a bog body found in a peat bog near the town of Grauballe, Denmark. The lack of oxidisation and the peat’s organic acids and aldehydes are able to preserve the body, which illustrates why many bog bodies are mistaken for recent murder victims – the Grauballe Man lived in the 55th century… B.C.

NMI 2003:14 Old Croghan Man

The fingers and nails of Oldcroghan Man, Ireland

Such well preserved bodies give way for a new birth – the peaceful expressions of faces, the delicate drape of skin over fragile bone, the bodies become very real and intimate and out is born life. What lives did these people live? What did they like and dislike? How did they come to be in this bog? In dark times it becomes romantic to imagine these bodies not as dead, but as people and real living, breathing things. The Tollund Man is one of the most well preserved bog bodies discovered, his face as if he is in peaceful eternal slumber.

tollund

The Big Sleep, 400 B.C

It feels overly intimate, to the point of voyeurism, to gaze at these bodies, they didn’t consent to being looked at. Yet they are thousands of years old, their lives etched so far back in time that if they were to suddenly wake they would struggle to say hello. Consented corpse observation is very much a reality today with exhibitions such as Bodyworlds enjoying monumental success worldwide. Gunther Von Hagens’ intricate method of being able to strip the body of flesh is not only peculiarly entertaining, but inherently educational. Being able to see inside the body, the muscles and sinews that make us, allows us to become acquainted with parts of us that are very much integral but rarely seen. Hagens’ plastination, a process which unites ‘subtle anatomy and modern polymer chemistry’, delays the natural decaying of the body and essentially ceases time. Although I have spoken about the human need to personify the dead Hagens very literally does it, posing his specimens in dynamic and animate poses. The specimens also look as if they have briefly taken their skin off to enjoy a game of chess, or play the sax with the full intention of putting it back on again and going about their day.

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Natural…

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Very natural…

“Very well done! It made me very hungry.”

– Danny DeVito, US actor (an actual quote)

Bodyworlds is an incredible case of how far science has come, instead of throwing yourself in a peat bog or enduring mummification you are very welcome to donate your own body and be forever cast riding an exceptionally majestic horse.

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Fuck.

Both Hagen’s specimens and bog bodies are ‘safe,’ and very much dead, having undergone myriad chemical processes to preserve their vitality, they are not likely to be knocking on your door at 3AM threatening to eat your brains. Zombies tread the line of not-quite-dead, but not-quite-alive either. They’re in a state of moving narcosis where their only motive is human flesh! Though many a cinematic depiction portrays the zombie as a slow beast I still wouldn’t want to be chased by something that actively identifies as a cannibal. Imagine a pleasant vegetarian zombie, it’s not so scary – the fact that not only are zombies both living and dead, but also threaten our livelihoods is what’s so terrifying. Zombies, like many fictive archetypes, are deeply embedded in history. Like most tropes of historic origin zombies have become obscured, reimagined and remoulded through time, like an elaborate Chinese whisper. Their roots lay within the practice of Haitian vodou and African scholars allege that the word ‘zombie’ comes from the Kongo word for soul, ‘nzambi’. When slaves were bought from West Africa to Haiti vodou endured, with the amalgamation of African tradition and the harsh realities of slavery giving rise to the ‘zonbi’. The concept of the zombie was reignited and escalated in the wake of WWII where horrors such as the Holocaust, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki kindled a fascination with the end of world.

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Inconvenient.

But what do zombies have to do with skin? It’s flesh. Markedly their consumption of it. Zombies are inherent cannibals, human flesh is what makes them get out of bed in the morning, or so to speak. Zombies challenge cultural relativism by redefining acceptable human behaviour, the fact that they are still human and desire something that is so innately such is unnerving. Zombies force us to reflect upon ourselves and reevaluate acceptability when we’re pushed to our utter limits – cannibalism is rife during times of extreme famine and zombies are just the fictional embellished edition. Relentless in their desire for flesh it makes us acutely aware of our own. For all the gruesome depictions of death, there is beauty. Languid and supple, brimming with dormant erotism is the Anatomical Venus. Their romantic, idealised forms allow one to virtually dissect the body without having to think about death. The role of the skin is to encase the Venus and assent the lifelike quality it beholds. Furthermore, the skin can be taken away to reveal the anatomically correct layers within. Her sumptuous, empty expression invites the user, as if to say, ‘It’s ok, remove my flesh and discover what’s inside.’ The wax flesh and real human hair channel the doll’s humanity. Though women are torn apart and put back together again by childbirth therein lacks the graceful quality of erotically divulging flesh. In its realism the Venus unveils parts of herself that real women otherwise cannot – ‘everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden has come into the open‘.

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An Anatomical Venus


Exploration.vanderbilt.edu. (n.d.). Exploring News & Features – Brief history of cannibal controversies. [online] Available at: http://exploration.vanderbilt.edu/news/news_cannibalism_pt2.htm [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

YouTube. (2009). Exquisite Bodies: historical anatomy models. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nNvjA2eW2k [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Nematode.unl.edu. (n.d.). Grauballe Man of Denmark. [online] Available at: http://nematode.unl.edu/fensgrauballe.htm [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Umich.edu. (n.d.). Haiti & the Truth About Zombies. [online] Available at: http://www.umich.edu/~uncanny/zombies.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Stanford University. (n.d.). Stanford scholar explains why zombie fascination is very much alive. [online] Available at: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/february/why-zombie-fascination-022013.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Williams, Z. (2016). Cadavers in pearls: meet the Anatomical Venus. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/may/17/anatomical-venus-anatomy-human-biology-joanna-ebenstein-books [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].


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