(Working on a little monograph about two famous necrophiles. Also, about why we scrupulously hold onto our memories of the dead: dead celebs, family, friends, etc. It will be very short, but I hope to publish as a small book.)
Once, when I was a young boy, a thing I saw on television effected me very deeply. If you were a very sensitive or socially-concerned person, you might say that it scarred me for life. Made me the person I have become, or at least partly.
I came home from an extended afternoon of play and turned on the television to a new program called “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”, and it was hosted by a craggy-looking, scary television actor named Jack Palance. He introducede each reenacted segment in an ominous eerie voice I can’t soon forget.
One segment focused on a bizarre ritual. The ritual involved a number of people (I got the impression, as young as I was, that the thing took place lon, long ago) stepping forward to kiss the hand of a woman seated in a chair, adorned in what I took to be a robe and crown-like affair.
The camera pulled back to reveal that the seated woman was a grinning, ghoulish death’s head, a skeleton. She was a dead thing exhumed from her grave, clothed and sat up so that people could be, presumably, forced to come forwad and kiss her skeletal fingers.
I was, amazingly enough, not horrified. I was fascinated, enraptured really; the program transported me to another world, opened a new window into another, more sinister reality I could only as-of-yet guessed at through vague circumstances and hints, dreams and portents that cam to me too young to consciously remember or understand.
Do men love the dead? I must have wondered. It would be decades before I would explore the possibilities behind such a love in my novel Buried, which I based upon the sordid history of Otto Carl Tanzler. Here, I surmised that death could be the final act in an evolutionary chain; that the living body could be a cocoon for the soul, and that, when released, they dead became something else, utterly seperated from as much as connected to our humanity.
Ghastly films like Faces of Death would, several years later, grow to fascinate me. They would feed my appetite for the morbid, for the ghoulish and darker aspects of an existence, bring a feeling which was a mixture of haunted beauty and grave rapture. I was hooked as a child, a horror miscreant.
But death is no mere fantasy. Around me, year after year, relatives and friends began to pass, some from age, some from suicide, one even from murder. I wondered at this strange state of death, this ominous final chapter of life which waited, perched precariously like a vulture on a hanging , craggy cliff, and which, no matter how often one pushed the thought away with the ephemera of cultural distractiona nd workaday reality, could visit one, on the road. In the shower. In a public place. Even, as it were in the middle of one’s sleep.
Now I lay me down to sleep…
My first funeral took place in a funeral parlor down the street. My grandmother took me, and the woman laid out in the casket was a complete stranger to me, an old woman from another era, another time.
I didn’t understand. I couldn’t comprehend. Here, then, was Death, a first glimpse for a boy that would go on to do more than his fair share of obsessing over it.
It is puzzling that some men cannot, as it were, let go of the objects of their adoration, but must pursue them to the grave, and even beyond.
We do not mean, in this simple monograph, to relate the exhaustive history of every obscure psychopath with a “taste for corpses,” (as one notorious necrophile was quoted as telling the judge at his trial). Our little book is not a fixation on Messuers Bundy, Dahmer, or Lucas, since we hav written about such men before,a nd we do not find an especial filip of true love in their obsessions. Instead, they seem to have been motivated by their own callow need for control, instead of a true fixation upon the sepulchral angels that beckon other, truer necrophiles. Perhaps we are wrong in this, but it is our decision.
We are, instead, merely going to relate the histories of certain men whose rare deeds, vile and bizarre as they were, truly mark them as being special even amongst the teeming ranks of deviants. For whatever reason, these men hold a special place in the pantheon of our fixations, forever bringing us back to the more unsavory speculations as to how they developed their own personal tendency to “love the dead”? No deep-seated inadequacy could account for it, surely.
The dead are another race. Another order of being. Spiritualists claim to be in contact with them, albeit in their discorporated essence. Does this traffic with the departed also amount to a necrotic romance, an amorous affiliation with the atrophied?
There are those who fetishize the ceremnets of the grave, who bring to appaling life the pale lustre of the departed–as they envision them to be in their heated imagingings. An entire industry of gothic chic romanticizes death, and movies and television programs, particularly those having to do with the fictional form of the vampire (who, initially, was never a suave romantic but a bloodsucking freak that stank abominably of the charnel house) have done incredibly well traditionally.
There is something about the crossing over, the shuffling off of the mortal coil, the possibility of the mutated, hungry form left behind (in the words of one anonymous author, “…the living was food for the dead.”) that entrances any who dare leave a lingering eye over the phantom forms of their former friends and fellow men.
A necropolis. A “City of the dead.” So many boneyards reeling up to the pale grey sky.
At a local cemetary, a massive family tomb rests on a hill, accesible by a steep little drive past benches and resting spots for weary visitors. The place could almost be a palatial mansion for the departed, a stone edifice erected for the final, equalizing sleep that can unite even warring factions of a large clan together, for eternity.
This necro-elegance overlooks a grave yard where other, more dismal stones sink into the earth like marble bugs, their weathered surfaces worn away until finally, nothing can be ascertained as to who rests beneath them, of whom they once signified. Lost, perhaps, to the elements, to time, their identity could only be captured by a medium, by a witch or by God Himself.
Some of them were infants. Cholera and mysterious illness took them out of the harsh, bright, and undeniably cruel world before they even had a chance to toddle. Others were profligates, wastrels, sinners of every stripe–suicides, murderers, the worst sorts of scoundrels.
Still others were unremarkable.
I have walked the dips and rises, these craggy lanes of the local necropolis, and felt the eerie calm sink into my bones. It is at this particular boneyard I suppose I will one day be interred, as per my instructions. It is reasonably close to the neighborhoods where I grew up, where all my grandparents once lived, where I first saw that television program that so impressed me.
Death comes. And we “cross over.”
But, what of those who cannot let go?
Beneath the streets of Palermo, Siciliy lie the Capuchin Catacombs, a grim, forbidding stretch of medieval tunnels beneath a monastery. Protected for centuries and watched over by the brothers of the holy order, these tunnels contain the earthly remains of prominent citizens who died hundreds of years ago. Their mumified remains, still resplendent in medieval finery, stare grotesquely from their places on the wall, where their biological remains rest frozen forever, the victims of their own fascination with the animate phenomenon of their earthly station.
It is not difficult, passing the monstrous visages of such macabre relics, to see them as the denizens of some alien race, to divest them of the humanity that they so ardently sought to preserve by having themselves interred here. What did they seek? The same preservation the Aegyptian sought with his arcane rituals of mummification? Is the life, then, wrapped up in the body?
Perhaps only our own notions of it. It is difficult enough to conceive that one day the sacred breath of life will leave us, we’ll fall down, and be forever still.
Instead, to swear off this incalculable horror, we invent tales of the supernatural, pay obeisance to one and many gods, dress our dead in silk finery and send them out in lavish, expensive funerals when cremation would have been so much more efficient and cost-effective. Why? What seekest we in such pomp and circumstance? Is it the idea that we can preserve a semblance of the life that was, to be carried over into the mystery of the life which is to be?
When famed outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were unceremoniously dispatched by Texas Rangers, the “death car” was crowded around by spectators eager to steal some trophy, or even dip handkerchiefs into the copious blood. Ditto the James Dean death car (which, by the way, was reputedly cursed), which had many pieces twisted and pried from it.
Why? What are people trying to capture? What is it we want to preserve?