Death and cadavers

by bjmuirhead

Death always has troubled me, having first entered my consciousness when I was three or four in the shape of a dog run over on a country road. I was with my father, and although I can’t remember if he killed the dog, I do remember him stopping the car and getting out.

Better check if it’s dead, he said.


Have to put it out of it’s misery if it isn’t.

But it was dead. It’s jaws were open and there was a puddle of blood congealing on the bitumen.

It startled me. It was an image that never has left me. The blood was a rick, viscous and bright. It seemed brighter than any colour I had seen, until grade seven when my friend John had his head slammed into one of the concrete stumps under the classroom.

It was the middle of summer and we were lined up under the building because it was too hot to be out on the bitumen. There was no sign that anything was wrong, no sound or argument until the crack of John’s head hitting the concrete, the slump of his body on the ground. He wasn’t dead, and the classmate who had assaulted him was restrained and removed quickly, never to appear at that school again. But the blood that streamed from John’s wound was every bit as bright as I remembered.

Over the following years there were deaths all around. There was the boy at high school who tripped in the crowd and fell under a moving bus, car accidents and Vietnam war footage on the six o’clock news. (I still remember the expulsion of bone and flesh from the side of the head, the writhing of the body on the ground, the gesticulations of the killer in what must be the most famous piece of footage from that war.)

Death, as they say, had come to town and lodged itself in my head, laughing a little ever time I saw another corpse, and there was an apparently never-ending supply. I don’t know why. I certainly didn’t seek out cadavers, but I moved about the city a lot, so much so that the taxi drivers came to know me, and would ask if I was going to see my friends in West End, or was it a stop at Larry’s tonight? Even the bus drivers on certain routes knew me and sometimes stopped their buses to say hello or offer me a free ride if they saw me walking.

But my first close look at a corpse didn’t come until 1974. I worked for a state government department, and had been sent out of the office with David, who was taking some out of date cattle dip to the poisons dump. I didn’t need to go, but I had nothing to do and the bosses always liked to get rid of me when they could, I being no particular use to them.

We had stopped at a stop sign, and there was no sign of a car in either direction when David began accelerating. We’d barely entered the intersection when something, perhaps the sound of an engine, alerted us to look to the right. I barely had time for anything but a scream: Shit! And the other car hit us at the sound of the t!.

I was struggling, a purely mental struggle to get out of the blackness surrounding me, and then it was a physical struggle as my eyes opened and I tried to move but couldn’t understand what was preventing me.

It’s your seatbelt, take your seatbelt off, David said, and although I could barely hear him, he was yelling at the top of his voice.

The seatbelts. It was one of the first government cars to arrive with the new inertia lock seatbelts and I had complained about them when the journey started, because they were too tight over my chest, and I never adjusted the old manual belts so that they could actually do their job. Later, I would understand that the new seatbelts had saved me from serious injury, at the least, but as I dragged myself back into consciousness I was cursing them for the second time because I couldn’t work out how to release the catch.

All the time, however long it was, I could hear David trying to get out also, and I’m almost certain it was he who undid my seatbelt and yelled at me to open the door because he couldn’t get his door open. It took both of us to force the passenger door and then, although I don’t actually remember getting out, we were standing next to the car.

Are you two alright?

Yeah, I suppose so… or words to that effect.

We didn’t try to get you out. The car spun on its side, and hit the fence, and the power pole, and bounced back into the middle of the road, the stranger explained. You didn’t move, and we thought you were dead.

What about the other car?

Down there.

It was a long way.

What’s that on the bonnet?

The driver, and there’s a baby further down the hill.

The other car had no seat belts. The baby that had been on the front bench seat had gone through the windscreen and landed some three hundred metres further on, where it lay quiet in old fashioned swaddling. The driver also had gone through the windscreen, but only half of him, and the blood was free on the paintwork. It was no wonder the bystanders had thought David and I were dead when we didn’t move for the best part of a half hour, or so we were told.

I don’t know who phoned the office, but most of the senior management of the division appeared and talked to us while we waited for the police and ambulance to complete their work and confirm that the others were indeed dead, and we were in the lap of the god of luck, still standing and chain smoking with no discernible injuries bar shock. Much later, the accident squad informed my bosses that they estimated the speed of the other car at one hundred miles per hour (one sixty kilometres), give or take a bit. They also said that the weight of the cattle dip in the boot had prevented it being worse.

For some reason the whole event was barely discussed in the family or elsewhere. But it heralded years of corpses smashed up in accidents. It seemed that I saw one everywhere I went, one, sometimes two a month. They were even in magazines, such as Penthouse Photo. They published the greats of the day, and in one was an unexpected feature: photographs of beheadings. There were shots of American soldiers, with big grins on their faces, in Vietnam, carrying four or six heads of enemy soldiers strung on wire (proof of kill), and a group of shots of mass executions in China in the early part of the Twentieth century. One in particular, showed a long line of people waiting to be beheaded. At the far end of the line, the photographer had taken the shot before the head or body had hit the ground, and the blood was a fountain, high in the air. Behind the executioner was a line of collapsed dead, and on the other side, the next half dozen to lose their heads were screaming. The rest looked sullen, almost unconcerned.

These photographs were the source of many a nightmare over the years, simply because of the horror of what people do to each other. But there’s a horror in what people do to help each other also, as I found out when I visited the anatomy laboratory at the University of Queensland as a part of a course I was studying.

For some reason we were taken to the receiving entrance which was at the bottom of a steep driveway. It had a high rolling door that was half raised, and just inside was a bench with a white coated figure bending over it. We only saw that she was bending over a quarter corpse (head and shoulders) as we were led into the building .Before we entered the laboratory proper, one of the staff gave a quick talk, the contents of which I forgot immediately.

I don’t know why we were taken to the lab. Our anatomy course didn’t require dissection; only the most basic of knowledge was taught to us, and we were encouraged to just wander around and look at the corpses, from the new addition being prepared, to the eviscerated on the tables. As we wandered from table to table our lecturer spread herself between us all, sometimes calling the nearest students to Come and look at this, before going to the next small group. Twice I saw people, students I suppose, rushing with bucket and mop while whoever had vomited was taken away.

I didn’t vomit. I didn’t even feel nauseated. But I loathed every minute I spent there. Just as I can’t imagine myself coldly decapitating another person, I could not and cannot imagine the reality of what I saw that day. When I left I was in a state of suspension, not because of the dissection as much as the time I had passed among the corpses. I wrote and published a poem about the experience many years later, but it didn’t capture anything near what I actually felt. None the less, it was a shift in focus. Where once I had written about love and sex and the beauty of life, my new focus was entirely on death or, if not death, on a death-likeness, on the facing of death.

The difficulty with this is that I have no idea how to deal with this focus.

In terms of photography, I have turned to roadkill. There always is something dead on the bitumen or the verge, and often it can be turned into a photograph that says something worth seeing, something which takes you into a space of knowledge, the importance of which is that it is a space that the majority of us do not frequently inhabit. I continue to be surprised, in fact, by the number of I know who never have seen a corpse, though the older I become, the more common it is to have seen a parent or relative dead.

It seems that most people turn away from human and non-human roadkill, and I understand this. In a society insulated from the presence of death, where medical researchers continue to talk as though death can be prevented, a corpse is an unusual item for those not directly involved in their disposal. But for me, the real difficulty is writing about death: how do I write about it without telling a story when no story tells what I want to say? The answer to this has been trying to write what is inexpressible. Not even Wittgenstein, who proposed at the end of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus that we should leave the unsayable alone, was able to do so.

The writer who came closest to saying something near what I want to say was Peter Porter, in The Cost of Seriousness (Oxford University Press, 1978), from which I quote The Charnel House, St Leonards, Hythe:

One of us, the prettiest,

would like a skull for an ash tray.

We who have flesh around our skulls

and can imagine the pain of dying

are proper company

for these generations of the sexes.

One is soon to be dead herself,

another wishes that he were,

self-indulgent, waiting for a voice…

A calm night after a blistering day,

the evening quiet with disappointment

and the apertures of death.

A bad opera on the radio,

proving that words and notes

make little difference,

and everywhere inside the summer room

the brilliant and disgusting skulls

with never a thought of names.

What this poems shows, in a manner which is quite easy to appreciate, is the use of images to create/promote tacit knowledge within us. The tacit is not merely important in the visual, it is what brings life to life and life to literature, and it always is informed by our past experiences which, after all, provide the tacit within us all. And now, a photograph, just for the sake of it…

a flight of leaves-lr

A flight of leaves

© BJ Muirhead All rights reserved, except for Peter Porter’s poem, which is  © The Estate of Peter Porter