Death Signals Life: A Semiotics of the Corpse
Once a human heart stops, chemical changes occur that alter the pH of the body, causing cells to lose their structural integrity. This process of autolysis leads to the breakdown of organs. At the same time, putrefaction sets in. The bacterial ﬂora of the gastrointestinal tract invade the vascular system and spread through the body. These anaerobic organisms transform carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins into organic acids and gases. Within minutes of death, blowﬂies and ﬂesh ﬂies arrive at the body to lay their eggs around oriﬁces and wounds. The ﬁrst visual sign of decomposition is a greenish discoloration of the lower quadrants of the abdomen, followed by greenish discoloration of the head, neck, and shoulders. Next, the accumulation of gases inside the body cavity makes the abdomen extend, giving the cadaver a bloated appearance. Soon after, ﬂuids start seeping out of oriﬁces such as the mouth, nose, and anus. When blood vessels hemolyse in a reaction of hemoglobin with hydrogen sulﬁce, it produces a marbled appearance on the skin. Maggots may have hatched and begun to feed on the tissues contributing to skin and hair slippage. By this time, the body is a pale green to green-black color. Maggot activity and the accumulation of gasses will lead to purging of decomposition ﬂuids. Rupture of the skin allows oxygen to re-enter the body and provide more surface area to aerobic organisms, ﬂy larvae, and beetles feeding, in turn, on the corpse and the larvae. The release of gases produces a strong, distinctive odor associated with decay. Depending on environmental processes, this process takes place within days or weeks of death. Decomposition is an essential process in the cycle of life because it provides materials for the growth of living organisms. The biology of death forms at most a material constraint to some of the most intense and elaborate
culture work to make sense of the hubris of mortality. In contemporary dying and death, decomposition becomes an inconvenient fact of life to be delayed and masked in the embalming process, circumvented during organ and tissue transplantation, or thwarted during cremation. The body of a deceased is a palimpsest printed and re-imprinted with contested and deeply felt human meanings. Dead bodies are inherently ambiguous and, therefore, open to multiple meanings. They no longer speak but are still spoken for. Their material presence provokes the mystery of life and death, of embodiment and biology. Their biography renders them ‘heavy symbols’ (Verdery, 1999: 32; Kligman, 1990) because upon death, the formerly living body with an identity enters the masses. And still, social scientists have written for decades about the denial and invisibility of death and the dead
in modern societies. In contrast, however, the possibility of death and the dead themselves have proliferated in countless practices, rituals, interventions, representations, and conﬂicts. The Foucaultian analysis of the biopolitics of life has a feedback loop from death back into life: we are witnessing a tremendous
investment in biological and human disciplines to foster knowledge about life from death. Medicine can be viewed as discipline to avoid death, guide death, or extract knowledge from the death for the living in which every passing requires accountability. The corpse is not simply an object for disposition but becomes a commodity, a gift, an instruction tool, a piece of legal evidence, an evaluation measure, and a public health data point. The deceased signify religion, medical excess, medical shortcoming, unrequited love, violent hatred, senescence, prematurity, place, and religion. The dead provoke emotions of grief, love, relief, revenge, and, above all, normative closure. The plurality and intensity of work to reconcile mortality is staggering. It is relatively straightforward to review the social science literature on dying since the end-of-life has
become thoroughly researched as a prime area of medicalization over the course of the twentieth century. Social scientists have followed physicians, nurses, and relatives around the deathbed in hospital wards and hospices and examined the construction of a good or digniﬁed death (Timmermans, 2005). The postmortem literature is less straightforward. If we follow statistical patterns, the obvious halfway point for the corpse on its way to the cemetery or crematorium is the funeral home. We will review research on how the funeral industry processes corpses and present the dead in culturally appropriate ways. The story of the corpse, however, does not only lie with statistical trends. The outliers draw the most cultural energy. Think, for example, of the heat wave deaths during the 1995 Chicago summer. The total tally was 733 deaths attributed to the heat, a mere blip in the thousands of deaths that happened that year in Chicago. But these deaths, as Eric Klinenberg (2002) shows, became a highly charged cultural ﬂashpoint about the role of the media, family, city government to prevent and deal with these deaths. Or take the workings of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. This scientiﬁc army within the military investigates leads about U.S. soldiers killed in action but never brought back to the U.S. military conﬂicts. In 2009 the unit of 400 plus scientists and researchers identiﬁed the remains of 98 U.S. military personnel, including 26 from the Korean War, 19 from the Vietnam War and 53 from World War I. The U.S. spends tremendous amounts of resources ‘until’, as the motto of the unit puts it, ‘they are home’. The sociological interest in the corpse thus resides both in the majority and in relatively few bodies that
stand for something bigger than the actual physical remains may suggest. In each situation, the fact that we are dealing with human remains requiring disposition, retrieval, or preservation adds a sense of cultural relevancy but in each case, the corpses are embedded in corpse-speciﬁc and wide-ranging issues. Rather than generalization and comprehensiveness, we opt in this review for speciﬁcity, overrepresenting the role of the medicine in rendering corpses functional and socially meaningful. We deliberately underplay, for example, the extraordinarily important relationship between nation states, national identity, and corpses (Verdery, 1999), the literature on relics and religious rites, and the contemporary literature on grief, mourning, and memoralization.