Looking the Dead in the Face

In December, 1960, a detachment of French Foreign Legion paratroopers killed three FLN rebels thought to be former harkis, or colonial soldiers, who had deserted to the enemy. To help military intelligence identify the dead men, Legionnaires beheaded the corpses — with a pen knife — and presented the heads to an officer, who photographed them. Once emptied of strategic value, the heads were thrown into the bushes.

During lunch that day, Simon Murray, one of the two assigned to decapitation detail, witnessed “a scene that I will recall to my dying day with a shudder”:

…one of the Spaniards, with a mighty guffaw, reached into the cauldron and pulled out by the hair one of the heads, which he had retrieved from the bushes…the Spaniard stood there with the ghastly head dripping soup, dangling by the hair from his outstretched hand, while the German, standing aghast and white as a sheet, froze for a second and promptly turned and threw up.

“I must confess,” Murray adds, “I laughed like hell.”

A certain senior from Limestone County, Alabama’s Clements High School would probably have laughed, too. On a field trip to the University of Alabama Birmingham’s biology department, the student posed, smiling, next to a cadaver slated for dissection, snapped a selfie, and posted the photo on Snapchat. For this breach of common decency — not to mention UAB rules against bringing recording devices on the tour and removing sheets from cadavers — she now faces punishment.

Punishing the student is only right and just. But should we be surprised? Macabre humor is as old as death itself. Much as the dead deserve our respect, they have a way of scaring us to the point where we’ll shirk that obligation in order to reassure ourselves that we’re us, and they’re them. This isn’t to suggest that the sight of mortal human remains can turn anyone into a fifth-rate prop comic, but it does seem to have that effect with a certain regularity.

Stories abound of medical students who play pranks with cadavers, or in many cases with disembodied parts thereof. The most lurid among these tales are probably urban legends, but some must be true. In The Dressing Station: A Chronicle of War and Medicine, surgeon Jonathan Kaplan recalls that his training at the University of Cape Town included laughing “at the old practical jokes involving cadaver fingers slipped into the lunchboxes of the unsuspecting.” In After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver,” Norman Cantor writes: “Humorous photos, cartoons, and jokes about anatomy labs appeared in medical school yearbooks until the mid-1970s.” For “skittish” medical students, says The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, even trading apocryphal stories of pranks serves as a “test of one another’s proper emotional preparation” for the task of dissecting a dead human body.

One student in a gross anatomy class at Indiana University School of Medicine Northwest is said to have named his cadaver “Mercedes,” because, in his words, “she’s going to enable me to purchase a bunch of Mercedes.”

For the dead, then, we living are a tough room to play. On one end the spectrum, you have the Legionnaires, made into callous clowns by overexposure (and imminent danger); on the other, you have the Alabama high-schooler, and even some future healers, reduced to defensive japery by the awful exoticism of it all.

If anyone represents the golden mean, where reverence balances comfort, it’s people like Reshma Memon Yaqub, who describes the experience of helping to wash the body of a distant relative. It is her first washing, and Yaqub confesses to feeling, during the preliminaries, “trapped in one of those old “I Love Lucy” episodes, where Lucille Ball finds herself stomping grapes or smuggling cheese.” But she ghazis up, taking charge of the feet. Even as she participates, Yaqub finds herself able to step back and observe, remarking, “There is so much gentleness, so much privacy.”

Along with character, Yaqub has culture on her side. In Islamic tradition, washing the dead is held in high esteem, and comes with a great reward — the remission of 40 “great sins.” Etiquette is spelled out with foolproof precision: “Not only is [the body] to stay covered at all times, but the washers are to remain forever silent about anything negative or unusual they may witness — for example, if there is an unexpected scar, or deformity, or tattoo.” From death till burial, the body is never unattended.

But this goes against the general drift of Western funerary practice. Home wakes and home viewings are out, along with mourning jewelry and postmortem keepsake photographs. We now prefer to entrust the disposal of our dearly departed to professionals, who live up that title by being competent and obliging — but finally impersonal. When it emerged that Rick and Karen Santorum had brought home the body of their prematurely-born son, Gabriel, as a memento mori for their living children, Alan Colmes found it inexplicable. Maybe Rilke wasn’t afraid to look the dead in the face, but plenty of people these days are, and proud to say so.

I can’t think of that high schooler’s vicious joke without recalling my own reaction to the news that my father’s body had gotten a proper tahara, or Jewish ritual purification, thanks to some Chabad members who happened, providentially, to be vacationing nearby. It was this: Better them than me. Between my shudder and her smirk there may be ground, but it ain’t much.

But the student’s punishment might mark a new priority in medical education: to turn out the most respectful body-handlers our country’s ever seen. Medical school faculties now hold ceremonies honoring the people who have donated their bodies to science. Some meet the donors’ families. Yale students are encouraged to prepare for the closing festivities by creating “prose, poetry and other art reflecting on their dissection experience.” Given the alternatives, who says a little sensitivity training is a bad thing?

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