Today I’m thinking about… an empty shell.

April 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dead bodies are strange things. We don’t often speak of them because, well, maybe instinct drives us away from the corpse for all the diseases it can carry, or else we hold a natural aversion to the very idea of their unfathomable immobility. I’ve often heard that this aversion could also stem from the notion that a corpse is no longer that which it was. The idea that, like a growing hermit-crab leaves a shell in the sand behind for a roomier, more comfortable fit, so too do our souls.

As a non-believer in gods and monsters, I have always permitted the soul to be a somewhat archaic and idealistic concept, figuring we are more like sand crabs who live and die within their own soft shells. Yet I have never thought much about the impact this has (if any) on looking upon a dead body, or in fact grieving the absence of life within it.

When I was young, my brother dared me to touch my Grandmother’s dead body at her funeral. She lived overseas and I didn’t know her very well. What I knew of her was that she was kind, she smelt of a flower I didn’t know the name of and my mother loved her very much. The first time I’d seen her in years was when she was lying in a coffin, made up to look much darker than I remembered her to be. I thought her to be quite alien when I looked upon her. When I touched her, it was with the very tip of my finger, and only for a fraction of a second, on her right cheek.

Two hours later, without having really though about it, I was eating hamburgers with my cousins. It was my first experience of Burger King, the Whopper and free sauce that comes in packets. My cousins laughed at me when the extra sauce I’d slathered on in excitement sauntered down my face, dripping bright red droplets on my black lace dress. As I finished the last bite of my hefty burger, licking the last bit of red off my clothes, I felt the cold rubber texture on my finger tip and remembered I hadn’t washed my hands.

The thought didn’t leave my mind through the wake. I washed my hands several times and attempted to convince myself in mirror dialogue that the impression of her artificially plumped skin meant nothing. That her body was nothing. That it was no longer her. But still the thought gurgled alongside the burger in my stomach; that I had touched my dead Grandmother and licked my fingertips.

The dualistic argument for a separation or a distinction between the mind (or the soul) and the body was most firmly spurred by Rene Descartes, who wrote in a somewhat conflicting manner;

Nature also teaches me by the sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc. that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am very closely united to it, and so to speak so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.

Though he uses his ‘thought experiments’ to determine where his body ends, and his mind begins, in all his writings he still cannot fully escape the sensation of unity with his body. He concludes an intention to this, as to survive the mortal realm one must need a vesel and feel connected to it. But I fear that this connection is not made between the body and the so called ‘thing that thinks’, but in stead between life and death.

In Cartesian argument the vitality of the ‘thought’, this one act which escapes all sense of the material, is what possesses the body, giving it life, and escapes the body upon death. But what if the argument is rid of this ghostly, otherworldly attitude toward something which is simply a function of life? Then all we are left with is the body. And from that, the only distinction we can make is a flip of the switch. On and alive, off and dead.

If you have ever held a dead animal in your hand, then you will know that the deceased body lacks some kind of energy it had while it was alive. It feels foreign, remarkably strange. It brings about with it a gross detachment. When my cat Oscar was alive, I could have rested my head on his belly all night listening to the rumblings of his purrs, wishing he wouldn’t squirm quite so much so I could sleep but never wanting him to leave. When he was attacked, I held him in my arms and felt him die. Everything that I once felt was no longer there, his life extinguished, and though I still held him close, I did feel an abrupt disconnection that made his body repulsive.

In touching my Grandmother I felt this same repulsion. When I asked why it was an open casket, my mother told me that though the body was no longer ‘her’, people needed to see her to help with their grief. In my young mind, I thought how could seeing someone who was no longer there help the people who loved them. In fact, wouldn’t  the memories of them when they were still around do them more good?

But maybe we need to sit in that repulsion. If we are what we are, the matter, the energy is all one thing then once it’s stopped it is absolute. A tough concept to swallow, maybe, but it is still an absence, the same absence that makes us want to believe in more, that haunts us.

I fought with my brother at the wake. I blamed him for making me touch her body, for planting the idea in my head that was so sick and wicked, that made me feel so terrible inside. It was one of the worst fights we’d ever had, in the urine-yellow basement of the church reception hall. I feel now I know what I was really fighting him about, what I hated him in that moment for. I realised in that one touch that this is where I was headed. I didn’t know it, I felt it in my gut. Me, my body, my everything was going to be, one day, rubbery and alone.


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