Image Credit: Slate
The wet human hair looks opalescent through plastic. The man in the red flannel edges closer, bends down to get a better look, backs away. His hand trails the boulder by the shore of the bay, five ghostly fingers touching the stone for a second before the shot cuts.
She’s dead—wrapped in plastic. He says she like he knows, though in the timeline of the TV show, he doesn’t know yet who she is. The recognition won’t occur until the sheriff and the doctor arrive to roll her on her back, to pull the plastic encasing her body down.
I saw a girl once at a Halloween party in Los Angeles dressed as Laura Palmer. She wore layers of Saran Wrap around her head, her hair slicked with gel, her lips painted blue-purple and her skin pale. I told her I liked her costume. She winked at me, and the glitter symbolizing the small pebbles of the shore fell into her eyes. There are makeup tutorials on YouTube for this same look. I watch them. At the end I am always reminded to subscribe.
Often the story begins with a corpse. Its discovery, its unraveling, its state of decay a code to reverse engineer into a narrative. Twin Peaks is loosely the story of Laura, but it is more about the constellation of cruelties that turned her into the corpse we begin with and the traces of that cruelty that are left behind.
As the town mourns Laura, many rhapsodize about how beautiful she was in life and despair the cruelty it took to turn her into the corpse who is still, after all that torture, so beautiful. Her-corpse, herself.
The exquisite corpse.
We see Laura again in the sequel-that’s-actually-a-prequel, Fire Walk With Me, which backtracks to trace Laura’s spiral. I can’t stop watching Laura’s face, knowing that it will end up lifeless soon in relative fictive time. The face that launched a thousand tear-stained confessions, a thousand squad cars, a thousand collateral damages. Laura’s face occupies most of the screen time of Fire Walk With Me, through visions, dreams, abuse, pain, etc. I could only watch the movie once.
Several expressions I remember: Laura’s mouth covered in blood in the train car with the light of an angel making her blonde hair white and her blue eyes sky-colored. Laura in the red room with the black and white floors with a painted-on smile while her eyes drip. Laura’s whole iris visible and her whole mouth open as her father reaches down to grab her cheek and roll it between two fingers.
When the sheriff and the doctor find her on the beach, her face is blank and white as a shell rid of its grit by years of waves. She looks serene in its Latinate etymology of clear and fine, as in the sky. She doesn’t look like she’s sleeping.
Upon Fire Walk With Me’s release, critics panned the film’s laser-like focus on Laura and her suffering. Laura Palmer was described as not a very interesting or compelling character.
When I watched, all I saw was Laura. All I was meant to see. I couldn’t see Laura as anything but someone about to die, or rather, about to become a corpse. Etel Adnan says that we all are future corpses. A pre-dead woman walking and talking.
The living corpse.
Sometimes when I’m high or drunk late at night I hold the phone up and take pictures of myself with my eyes closed, so I have an idea what I’d look like dead under the best of circumstances. I wonder if I’ll experience a natural death, if anyone does.
The image of my face is pale and wide and lacking cheekbones in the unforgiving light of bathroom fluorescents. The image of my face almost dead always conjures in me the bell jar feeling described by Plath as blank and stopped as a dead baby.
When The Bell Jar was reviewed by The New Yorker in 1971, the review was titled “Dying: An Introduction.” My dead face looks like a close relation to the face I know. The summer Esther Greenwood first suicided was when she intended to write her thesis on twin imagery in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
Opening gambit: The story of a poet who tries to end her life written by a poet who did.
The dead, my doppelganger. Two tracks running parallel, or rather two rails of the same track, leading in the same direction.
I can’t stop looking at my deadface; the never-stop-lookingness breeds a mutation unable to be excised/exorcised. I can’t claw the desire to know, to see, to speak, out of me.
The reflexive corpse / The reflective corpse.
For several weeks some lyrics to the Mitski Miyawaki song “Last Words of a Shooting Star” echo in my head: I always wanted to die clean and pretty / But I’d be too busy on working days. In its dying words, the personified star admits it’s relieved that I’d left my room tidy, a final Goodbye echoing out across space like an untethered piece of space debris. If I don’t leave a will, to whom do the possessions in my room belong? Will those who sort through them recognize the effort I made to tidy up? Who gets to pick through them, who decides what is donated, what is kept, what is sold at a yard sale priced to move?
The song makes me remember the times when I wanted to die but didn’t want to reckon with the mess of killing myself. I couldn’t picture the material circumstances of my own corpse. I pictured outfits for the funeral, how family and friends would style my hair. If they’d put lipstick on my corpse, if that lipstick would smear my front teeth red, dead as alive.
I try to find out what percentage of men and women choose open-casket funerals, or have the choice made for them. Open caskets, the white cash cows of the mortuary industry yielding up their bellies.
When searching the terms “open casket gender” the first search result that comes up is the story of a transgender woman whose family chose to crop her hair short and dress her in a suit in her casket, to the disgust and dismay of the deceased’s friends. The funereal program mentioned nothing of the deceased’s transition, but it did mention his beloved black Miniature Schnauzer Mindy.
The political corpse.
I hear rumors that popular cosmetic procedures (tummy tucks, breast lifts, lip fills) are practiced by trainee plastic surgeons on recent corpses. I am unable to verify this information.
I read an article about the increasing prevalence of cosmetic surgeries post-mortem prior to wakes and funerals. People want to look good. They want their breasts to look perky when they’re dead. How much is pre-determined, how much is decided by a family that’s ashamed of their matriarch’s decay, a husband that doesn’t want to look at his wife’s frown lines for the last time.
The mortician has to work fast before the embalming fluid settles too deeply in the veins and makes the flesh turgid. Delicate work with filling liquid, with tiny stitches made of wax. Even Super Glue for the crude work, in cases of degradation and broken bones. The universal goal is a resting face. A sleeping face. A living idea of a corpseface.
I click on an article titled “The beauty products from the skin of executed Chinese prisoners” like a reflex. This reflexivity to engage with what horrifies me is nothing new. After prisoners are shot, their skin is harvested for its collagen to be injected into the lips of the European elite. Corpse within pre-corpse. It’s difficult to find out which Chinese companies use corpseskin in their collagen products as they are less-than-forthcoming about supplying that information.
apart from ethical concerns / nothing to make such a big fuss about / develop fillers /
skin from prisoners used to be even less expensive / protect patient safety through regulation
Nietzsche says that in all desire to know there is already a drop of cruelty.
Culturally inflected customs, religious beliefs, moral values, political expediencies, and social conventions accompany death and determine each steps of a corpse’s disposal.
It is the living individual that deals with the corpse, and their accompanying cloud of ghosts. Death serves a useful social purpose. The corpse serves a useful social purpose.
Zero in on fantasy. She’s sleeping. She’s in a higher place. She’s in a no-place. She would be happy to see us all, gathered here today, dearly beloved.
I’m going to spread my grief all over everyone. We’re going to demonstrate a postmortem desire on the part of the living to commemorate deaths by actualizing not the wishes of the grave’s occupants but more personal fantasies of the living.
One early memory I can’t verify as actually occurring: after my great-grandmother died, going to her small apartment to sort through her things. In my memory, I see her corpse there on the bed, though this is hardly possible. The significance of her presence manifesting the corpse itself. The guilt of picking like magpies through her jewelry enough to conjure the corpse.
Take corpse medicine, an eagerly sought therapeutic treatment marrying the living and the dead: mummia.
The practice of ingesting or applying to the skin the substances exuded from preserved bodies. The practice of ingesting or applying to the skin a corpse-portion.
After Egypt banned the shipment of mummia in the 16th century, unscrupulous European apothecaries began to sell fraudulent mummia prepared by embalming and desiccating fresh corpses. The cure thought to resemble the cause: ingesting powdered skull for frequent headaches. Pulverized bones for arthritis.
Mummia was offered for sale medicinally as late as 1924 in the price list of Merck & Co. Later, mummia became a pigment used in oil pants. Mixed with asphalt, mummia produced “mummy brown,” though the current pigment sold under that name is assured to be without a bit of corpse.
The useful corpse.
Corpses have a way of feminizing. The root of this femininity is vulnerability to harm, or the assumption that harm has already occurred.
When Petrarch’s huge marble tomb was reopened one last time on the seven-hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2004, a DNA study of the cranium found in the casket revealed it to be not that of a man, but of a woman. Yet no female cranium was present when the tomb had been officially opened last in 1873.
Scrape the skull for the soft tissue. Scrape the skull for the bone shavings. When I wonder how they’ll identify my corpse, I hope I still have teeth for the plumbing of dental records.
If you keep the corpse around, it still means something. Mrs. Bates, her black-and-white hair in a neat bun, sitting in the rocking chair staring at the wall. Upon reversal, the perfectly round empty eye sockets, the mouth open in laughter or scream, the teeth lined up neat and square as fence posts. The violins wail.
Vera Miles, not Janet Leigh: the one who shrieks at the corpse. Vera Miles watching the bare lightbulb swing from the ceiling, the light it casts glinting off Anthony Perkins’s upraised knife. For the infamous shower scene in Psycho, Marion’s torso was not Marion’s torso spurting blood, but that of another actress whose name I don’t remember. Her audition was to stand naked in a room before several men.
I heard a story once. A composer travelled in Iraq with his young wife in the early seventeenth century. The young wife died unexpectedly. The composer couldn’t bear to leave her corpse along their path, as he wanted to be buried as close as possible to a part of her body, her heart. Instead of burying the corpse, he had it embalmed multiple times, insisting that a singular process would not suffice. The belief at the time was that the corpse would resurrect on the day of judgment in the physical location of either the head or heart. To transport the corpse of his young wife around, the composer had built a casket to guard against decay; he commissioned the manufacture of one hundred ninety nails to keep the casket closed against the air and sun. The composer traveled with the corpse of his young wife for the next five years until he reached Rome and buried the corpse in the place of his choosing.
consider this / traveler / bereaves / untimely / young wife / possible / her heart / either the head or the heart / the condition / ninety nails / safe-keeping / the dead and the living / travelled
The portable corpse.
There is a certain attraction to a woman’s corpse when its intellectual spark is extinguished. Adrienne Rich touches on this fascination by a different name with Emily Dickinson, claiming that the poet herself has been made into a sentimental object after her death. Rich refers to a remark made by fellow poet Archibald MacLeish, who admitted that Most of us are half in love with this dead girl. When she died, Emily Dickinson was fifty-five years old. Who is included in an us. Who is excluded. Whose corpse gets remembered enough to be infantilized.
On the day of Dickinson’s death, her brother wrote in his journal that She ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the whistles sounded for six in the evening. Never one entirely comfortable in the world, Dickinson was likely accustomed to the idea of death—the graveyard next to which she had lived sixteen years a daily reminder of it.
Over Dickinson’s body, Thomas Higginson read her poem “No coward soul is mine.” He recorded in his journals of her corpse that E.D.’s face a wondrous restoration of youth – she is 54  & looked 30, not a gray hair or wrinkle, & perfect peace on the beautiful brow. There was a little bunch of violets at the neck & one pink cypripedium; the sister Vinnie put in two heliotropes by her hand to take to Judge Lord.
The final stanza banishes death and allows it no power to render void a single atom in existence. The quatrain presupposes the existence of a thou who may never be destroyed, a fact I’ve never been able to rest in. What would Emily say if she could see her own body, covered in flowers, in the white coffin, in the parlor? I want her words, all the world ever wanted, really from her, despite Higginson’s description of her corpse as beautiful. To have a funeral, to put a corpse away prepares it to be rendered void through processes of degradation and decay. If there is anything that lives on, this, at least, is known to it.
The corpse is a vector. Is an open mouth expelling. Is metonymic for what’s happened to any body. What’s the condition of the corpse. How long has she been lying at the bottom of the ravine/the drain/the underpass/the child’s slide/the well/the dry riverbed/the wet riverbed/the ocean-lake-creek (the body in the body)/in the shallow grave which is really just a nicer word for the hole she was thrown in and the wind that moved the dirt over her face.
For missing women, suspicion falls first on the men close to them, with circles radiating outwards to the men in her close vicinity. Suspicion falls on those who discovered her corpse.
A woman is five times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner if there is a gun in the home they share. When I go on walks in the evenings in summer, I pass nice suburban houses and wonder if there are any guns in them. In this one. In this one.
I read about a case of a body found less than four miles away from my desk: a naked woman found in a field with her genitalia mutilated. The only arrestable suspect exonerated by DNA evidence after ten years in prison. The corpse is a sounding board. It speaks voluminous.
The Latin corpus referring not only to a body’s substance but also to a unit of knowledge.
When I type the phrase “legal definition of a corpse” in the search engine, the suggested searches are “legal definition of interfering with a corpse” and “legal definition of abuse of a corpse.” I sit with this information.
A corpse is usually described as a human corpse, to distinguish it from animal remains, and includes any portion of a human corpse (see Legal Definition of Human Remains).
In cases of women missing without a corpse, the question becomes if a murder conviction can be delivered without its presence. There are conditions in which this can occur, but usually where there are traces (blood on the shoes, blood on the clothes, hair in the trunk of the car.) A conviction can occur also in instances when the accused is known to be abusive, where there are instances of previous battering (blood in the eyes, blood on the nose, blood on the lips.)
We all saw it coming. He was edging the line. Necrophilic flirtation. What would it be like if she was a little less alive.
All desire is to know. Case law is eventually inconclusive on this issue.
The legal corpse.
The X Files offers a panoply of corpses.
There’s an X Files episode about a man-monster who locates women via an online chatroom for women who identify as overweight. His saliva dissolves their faces when they kiss. The man-monster secretes a substance which dissolves their fat to liquid to slurp up as sustenance. He leaves them in a semi-liquid mesh state, full of holes.
I think of this when staring at the puddle on the sidewalk at the bus stop—lacy with frost and holes and dirt. I recognize the similarity at the moment before the heel of my boot crush the thin ice, bringing dirty water splashing on my legs and seeping into my shoes.
When Scully pulls the man-monster’s latest victim out on the morgue tray the corpse slopped over the edge and splattered on the floor.
According to the legal definition of corpsehood, any portion of a corpse counts as the corpse entire.
The corpse is on the floor and the corpse is on the tray and the corpse is on the scale and the corpse is on the glass slide under the microscope and the corpse is in the beaker and the corpse is dripping from the tips of the latex gloves. Empty fingers hanging limp like chrysalis.
The forensic corpse.
…though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies
For Aristotle, viewing imitations is a part of learning, or gathering the meaning of things.
I’ve seen the real crime scene photos, but I’m unable to think of the hair smeared with blood, the splayed limbs, the disorder indicating a struggle as anything but a facsimile. A careful staging. A recreation.
In Maggie Nelson’s memoir The Red Parts, she describes the voir dire (jury selection) process for the trial of her aunt’s alleged murderer, finally brought to trial after decades of inaction. One of the selection questions concerns the juror’s ability to distinguish the difference between television—even reality television—and reality itself, in which we are presumably now mired. Most jurors assure the judge of their faith in their abilities to distinguish truth from fiction, except for one, who says that Actually, Your Honor, I admit it. I can’t tell the difference between representation and reality anymore. I’m very sorry.
In Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a man who runs an exploitation television channel is seeking something harder, something he finds in the torture-pornographic experience of the videodrome, a plotless and motiveless orgiastic superviolence stream. What attracts the man to the videodrome is that he cannot catch the falsehood. He cannot see the participants as willing actors, and then, they turn out not to be. This is precisely the attraction. The voice behind the videodrome, Dr. Brian O’Blivion, intones that the television is the battle ground for the mind of North America. The TV screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore the TV screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore whatever appears on the TV screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore TV is reality, and reality is less than TV.
In young adult literature, there is a derisive term among authors for what they term the dead girl genre. Novels that involve a girl-corpse, grief for a dead girl, the mystery of a dead girl. One critic deplores, how it is that ‘dead’ has come to be promoted as a viable sexual subject position for young women? and I want to laugh at him.
Women often give me the advice Never wear something out you wouldn’t mind dying in. There are variations to this: seeing your ex-boyfriend, your potential boss. The event is usually male and considered of grave import.
I castigate myself for assuming maleness when it’s not explicit. There is no good option here.
The podcast host jokes that Of all the dead girls, JonBenét Ramsey was the most dead. Death as a continuum from least to most, a scale. She died too soon. Prematurely dead. Pre-dead from the first time she stood on the stage and twirled. Pre-corpse. One end of the continuum weighted heavy, a blunt force object to do some damage. The corpse is only useful to the living.
Voir dire is a complex legal process that can have an enormous impact on the makeup of the jury and thus, the verdict. One of the common questions asked of potential jurors is Can you think of anything in your own life that reminds you of this case?, the assumption being that lack of experience is a more unbiased playing field. For cases involving violence against women, no woman could answer no to this question truthfully.
Voir dire is a phrase composed of two French infinitive verbs smashed together. Voir, to see, and dire, to say. The assumption of opening one’s mouth based on the contents of one’s sight. Compulsory speech. We would all do the same thing.
The representative corpse.
Women are their bodies to the world living or dead.
I wonder if my coroner will be a man or a woman. I’m presupposing the need for an autopsy in this hypothetical, which the TV tells me is only necessary in the case of suspicious, indeterminate, or wrongful death. How that will affect the aspects of my corpse which catch their gaze. [Woman: unshaved legs. Chipped blue toenails. Hangnails.] [Man: tiny unevenness of breasts. Freckle inside the belly button. Chapped lips.]
Even in the grave, a woman’s body equals vulnerability to the desire of others, especially those others who must hide that desire in anonymous message boards on the internet.
Some of the first-page search engine results for “female corpse” have to do with necrophilia. I click anyway, like giving myself a vaccine. Inoculation of the worst. The never stopping lookingness. It is not necessarily that these men that populate the spaces prefer their women still, cold, and lifeless, though that interpretation has a logical basis. They’re aroused by the gulf of difference between what used to be and what remains, aroused by a gap.
In 2013 Vice Magazine decided to illustrate their Women in Fiction issue with a fashion shoot depicting a range of well-known writers in the throes of killing themselves or trying to: Sylvia Plath kneeling in front of an oven; Virginia Woolf standing in a stream, clutching a large stone; Dorothy Parker bleeding heavily into a sink. The fashion credits were included in full, down to the pair of tights used as a noose. The corpse as tabula rasa for capitalism to write on.
According to Kristeva, the corpse is frightening because it troubles the boundaries of the discrete self. What keeps us from seeping outside ourselves? I think I could write about corpses forever, could write myself into the corpse but never outside its shadow. Abjection draws the subject out of their selfhood into a vortex of summons and repulsion. I feel summoned to corpse knowledge and equally repulsed. The abject is opposed to I, but in the case of the corpse, it is the eventual I itself. The corpse turns me inside out.
The corpse is a body of knowledge and the corpse is a way of knowing. The post-mortem is a heuristic practice, an origin hermeneutics.
The public’s corpse.
I am fascinated with the phenomenon of “incorruption” of the corpse in Catholicism. For certain saints and blessed ones, their bodies marred and abused in life become resistant to degradation in death.
Though incorruptness is no longer recognized by the Vatican as a legitimate miracle, thousands still flock to see the preserved corpses, or portions of corpses, of those they consider holier than them. Other systems of value don’t need such legitimation: Lenin’s corpse has been displayed for over ninety years at an annual cost of around $200,000. Lenin’s coterie of embalmers in Soviet years were known as The Commission for the Immortalization of Lenin’s Memory and were charged by the state with maintaining the corpse’s external form by manipulating its internal makeup.
A woman named Joan Carroll Cruz made it her life’s work to catalogue the profusion of incorrupt saint-corpses around the world and wrote a book in 1977 called The Incorruptibles doing just that. According to the website of her publisher. Cruz lists 102 saints as incorrupt, including stalwarts like Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila.
However, the incorrupt corpse is difficult to quantify. It can affect just one body part, lending extra significance to a heart, tongue, or hand. Of all the parts of you, which is the most holy? the least? The slowest to rot? the fastest?
From The Incorruptibles: Many remained fresh and flexible for years, or even centuries. After explaining both natural and artificial mummification, the author shows that the incorruption of the saints’ bodies fits neither category but rather constitutes a much greater phenomenon that is unexplained by modern science to this day.
I read a Slate article about the phenomenon, and my heart leaps at the serene smile of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, her white curls peeping from under a white bonnet. I felt elated until I read the caption (wax portraiture over bone) and felt immediately foolish.
Incorruption has the appeal of infallibility, but the methods of applying the label are fallible. St. Francesca Romana earned the name incorrupt only a few short months after her death in the fifteenth century; this was amended, however, when her tomb was reopened to reveal only a skeleton in a habit. It’s just biology, the disruption of microclimates inside the coffin.
I want to be incorruptible. I want to believe in incorruptible women.
Besides the incorrupt saints, the most famous female corpse I can think of is the Black Dahlia (nee Elizabeth Short, rechristened), bisected and thrown in a field. Of course I’ve seen the photos.
The incorrupt corpse.
I always wanted to die
clean and pretty. Past tense
tensing up in the mouth. Wired
shut for the funeral if there is one.
I can show you violence glistening
and splendid. What we call a body
is always just a corpse.
Let’s talk. You can tell me the worst thing
you’ve ever seen. Inure myself
for the very worst. Ever seen. You’ll ever see.
Tell me. I want to know.
Emma Hyche is currently an MFA candidate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. A winner of the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Prize, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in TIMBER, Permafrost, The Tampa Review, and elsewhere.