Our fascination with death (""Do we get to see dead bodies!")

While teaching Criminal Justice, I took my students on a field trip to the county morgue. I warned them to think about their questions before they asked. Just before the tour, the Medical Examiner asked, "Any questions?" One female student asked loudly, "Do we get to see dead bodies!" He merely stared at her. The other students were embarrassed. Why are so many people fascinated with death?


My students were always pleading for tours to The Body Farm and the morgue. They wanted to study death scene photos. But it isn't just my students. There are books and websites dedicated to crime scene photos. People slow down at car wrecks and stare at body bags. 


Death is the greatest unknown. The space program now has pictures of mars. The United States sent people to the moon. We can supposedly find out about our past lives and futures and tell a lie from the truth. One dab of spit reveals a perpetrator or a great-great-great-great-grandfather and his country of origin. We live in a world where answers are seconds away, from baking a cake to the chemical elements of Osmium tetroxide. 




We rely on faith to tell us where we go when we die: Heaven if we are holy, Hell if we are sinful. Depending on the religion, it is God or Allah or Buddha or - you get it. But we only know these things in faith. A dead body is tangible evidence of what happens to us and what we look like from the inside. There it is: spleen, stomach, brain, eye sockets. 


And we are a nosy society. True crime shows. Reality shows. Magazine covers were featuring Princess Diana as she lay dying in the 1997 car crash. So many years ago, this would have been considered intrusive. Now it's everyone's business, including the gory details. And the gorier, the more impressive.


Society loves shock value. Count the number of true crime shows on television. The audience can follow along with the crime, making the adrenaline pump; the fear factor kicks in. We are moving from a mundane, predictable, boring life to something we cannot control for a few moments, something scary, a real-life horror film, real evil. And then we look at the perpetrator and see they could be the person next door, in the next office. Even scarier!


Now back to that Criminal Justice class. My class did not see dead bodies that night's tour but watched autopsies on video, and a third of the students almost lost their lunch. About a week after that field trip, a horrible house fire broke out in a local neighborhood and killed the girl who had blurted out, "Do we get to see dead bodies!" We learned the fire trapped her in a bedroom, and she burned to death. The next time I saw the Medical Examiner, I told him about it. "Oh," he said sadly. "That was an awful (autopsy) to do. That poor girl..." He grimaced in sadness and horror. 


Unfortunately, she got to see a dead body, a lot of them surrounding her own. 






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