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To a 21st-century homeowner, it is an inexplicable choice to leave a building standing for the express purpose of reveling in its slow decay. But in the late 18th century, whole swaths of Europe were obsessed with ruins. When there weren't enough legitimate ruins to go around, they created them. Ruins of gothic castles were built where no gothic castles had ever stood. European society was what writer Brian Dillon calls, "a cult of melancholy collapse and picturesque rot."
Less desirable throughout history has been the "picturesque rot" of our own bodies. For many, beauty ideals put us on a never-ending quest to prevent self-decay. Recent studies tell us that we spend more on prescriptions to fight the effects of aging — sexual dysfunctions, hair loss, sagging skin — than we do on medication to treat chronic disease. Based on those numbers, it would appear we'd rather die than grow old.
We spend more on prescriptions to fight the effects of aging than we do on medication to treat chronic disease.
But it is prevention of decay even after death that is, in the modern era, a uniquely American pursuit. Embalming, the temporary preservation of the corpse with chemicals, was popularized for practical reasons during the Civil War to transfer fallen soldiers back up north without severe decomposition.
Those practical reasons soon fell by the wayside, but embalming went on to become the cornerstone of an industry that depends financially on the preservation and beautification of the corpse. It is often claimed that embalming protects the public health, which is false, and helps to create a final "memory picture" for the family, which suggests that the visual of the corpse in its natural state must be covered up, made up, and mediated in some way.
In her 1963 bestseller The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford describes the bewildering array of products used on the dead in the form of, "fluids, sprays, pastes, oils, powders, creams, to fix or soften tissue, shrink or distend it as needed, dry it here, restore the moisture there. There are cosmetics, waxes, and paints to fill and cover features, even plaster of Paris to replace entire limbs."
There was a time that I was one of those funeral workers with their needles, creams, and chemicals. From 2009 to 2010, I attended Cypress College of Mortuary Science, a school for embalming and funeral directing in southern California. To learn the trade of embalming, we received unclaimed bodies from the Los Angeles county morgue. We would trundle into the lab in our sickly blue protective apparel — death couture that included booties, gown, gloves, face mask, hair cover, and splatter shield. We gathered around the silver table to unzip the white plastic body bag that held our corpse, usually someone who had died without any family or friends to pay their funeral expenses.
I pulled the zipper down, revealing a body like I had never seen. It was Mother Earth, severely decomposed and glorious.
On one particular day, according to the notes found in the morgue's paperwork, the woman we'd find inside the bag had been dead for just under a month and kept refrigerated. I pulled the zipper down, revealing a body like I had never seen. She appeared as if emerging from the primordial goo at the beginning of time. It was Mother Earth, severely decomposed and glorious.
The mystery of how she came to look like this was solved soon enough. An administrative mix-up meant the information claiming she had been dead for mere weeks was untrue. She had been dead for well over a year. In that time the plastic body bag had acted as a terrarium, growing and creating an ecosystem, morphing what was once a woman into this wondrous thing. Even refrigeration and a casing of thick plastic could not stop nature's alchemy. What emerged on our table was part human, part earth. She didn't seem dead because she was still so alive, a mass of growth and bacteria and fungus.
By this time I had worked in the funeral industry for two years and was used to the colors of decomposition. But these hues! They were incredibly vivid, from the blackest black to taupe to green to brown. Her abdomen was a mass of black and orange bloat. Crazed patches of thick mold hardened like protective carapaces all down her neck and torso, while her hands and feet were mummified, brown, and shriveled like a transplant from ancient Egypt. Her eyes shrank back into her head and her mouth twisted into a soundless scream, as if begging to be let out of her death-bag and back into nature.
The embalming instructor was at a loss as to how to handle this discovery. She was our only donor body, and the entire premise of the day's lab was to utilize her. "OK, let's just embalm as we can," he said. It was a blasphemous premise. One student went to work trying to raise an artery to pump in the formaldehyde solution, even though the artery had long since decomposed. Another tended to the nails on the mummified hands, as if just a little buff and polish would do the trick. I used a scalpel to chisel away at the mold covering her chest, not sure why I should be trying to make this long-dead woman conform to standards of human beauty. Five students in our ridiculous bio-hazard outfits attempted to restore order to something so necessarily, brilliantly chaotic.
The more we are able to accept the decay of the body after death, the easier it becomes to accept the decay of the body before death.
In my eight-year career in death, I have never again seen anything like this woman. But this and other similarly farcical experiences in the industry have changed the work I do. In my funeral home we don't preserve bodies; embalming is not available even if you wanted it, though we're always happy to refer customers to other funeral homes that provide such services. Instead, we ask you to consider burying a body straight into the soil, to see the natural decay of the human body as a wonderful thing, a return to nature from whence you came.
The more we are able to accept the decay of the body after death, the easier it becomes to accept the decay of the body before death. Such confrontation with reality eases the fears that drive the rampant sale of anti-aging potions, creams, and injections — a $262 billion global industry. It isn't my desire to police anyone's aesthetic desires, even if they are on a quest to preserve youth and achieve a socially sanctioned ideal of beauty. The problem comes when a person maintains the lie that death is not real and will not come to their door — as though fewer wrinkles will stave off the reaper.
There is nothing wrong with taking a page from Edward Hussey III and meditating on decay. In fact, there is much to learn from him. To look at decay is to catch a glimpse of an ultimate truth. As the novelist Mary Shelley, a contemporary of Hussey, wrote in her introduction to Frankenstein, "worms, vermin, everything that swarms in the dark depths of burial vaults and tombs, is a source of life. There is an undeniable correlation between corruption and life." In choosing to embrace a little corruption, you may find that life is sweeter and death less scary than you imagined.
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician, funeral home owner, and death acceptance advocate in Los Angeles.