from my essay, “Death Is a Way to Be”
Guernica, “the Boundaries of Taste,” Summer 2015
selected by robert atwan as a notable essay, the best american essays 2016
In the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, bodies floated in the streets and slumped in folding chairs in the sun. They lay on street corners for days, and cameramen took their pictures while National Guardsmen, policemen, other journalists passed them by. “That’s where the dead guy was,” my friend points out as we pass the Circle Food where the I-10 peels off of N. Claiborne, and I see again the water rippling under the overpass, the dead guy floating in his ballooning shirt, face down. Like a dog, we say. Left in the street like a dog.
The care we owe bodies is reliant on our understanding of their humanity. Humans do not die like dogs, because, unlike dogs, we live in death’s anticipation. Our mythologies are clear on this. “You are dust,” God says as he expels Eve and Adam, “and to dust you will return”—they were animals in the garden, in their ignorance, and now they are men. Knowing that we will die, we concern ourselves about what will happen afterwards, to our bodies, which we, intuiting a truth perhaps belied by talk of souls, find it difficult to separate from our conception of ourselves. What does it say, then, when we the living fail to care for the bodies of the human dead? What does it say about our humanity, and about what we think of theirs?
From Louisiana’s Code Noir of 1724, XI: Masters shall have their Christian slaves buried in consecrated ground.
Giambattista Vico: Indeed humanitas in Latin comes first and properly from humando, “burying.”
The deceased is still more than just stuff, Heidegger writes, and yet, when we leave a dead man under an overpass for days covered in only a garbage bag, aren’t we treating him as though he weren’t? The slowness with which the dead were recovered in New Orleans following the flooding was not simple impropriety but revealed a profound disrespect for the humanity of the victims of the storm and levee breaks. And bringing the corpse back into our funeral rites is not a desecration or an impropriety, either; instead, perhaps unconsciously, this custom reasserts the body’s importance and restores dignity to the deceased, insists on the humanity of the dead. Uncle Lionel standing in his suit with his watch around his hand and Mickey Easterling in the floral pantsuit she’d specified in her will reassure us that proper care has been taken. In short, a funeral that ignores the body is not a luxury we can afford.