Body, Dignity, and Too Much Information

On Saturday morning, I had the honor of playing Massenet’s Meditation from Thais at the funeral of a local centenarian. Judging by the comments of the late gentleman’s family, he seems like he must have been a delightfully cantankerous and altogether charming fellow, a great friend and neighbor and mentor to those around him. It was my first open casket funeral; most of the funeral services I’ve attended have really been for people who were cremated or who did not wish for open-casket visitation.

There he was, 100 years old, lying ever so still in his coffin, smooth and waxy and yet inescapably human. It was a bit unreal, looking at his age-blotched, knotted hands so neatly folded there, taking in his closed eyes behind his glasses and his neatly pressed suit. I know some people find that stillness unnerving because the deceased looks as if he might suddenly awaken. I didn’t feel that from this man, although the funeral home did a really excellent job of preserving and presenting his mortal remains. It was just strange to see him lying there.

Culturally (and I think is is true for many cultures), we have a sort of horror and revulsion about death. Death and our demons walk together. Sickness and decay are terrifying. We hide the ill and the dying from sight; it’s only “decent.” We fear it and, weirdly, revere it. We resist it even after it happens by preserving the inanimate body and by building monuments. We do not present the corpse of the deceased as it looked when death occurred, because there is an apparently obvious loss of dignity in it (and no little disgust attached to the process, at times). We present the corpse with the trappings of the dignity of life (even if, in life, there may have remained very little dignity to be had for that individual). We make a monument of the body before we ever put a headstone over it, enshrining an image of a life in the body of the dead.

Ol’ Bentham was a clever bloke after all. He just made everyone else take this seriously.

What's In The Booooooox?!?!
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This morning, as I left the grocery store, a young woman (a teenager, I think) suddenly started throwing up on the entry side of the HyVee foyer.* She couldn’t control herself — she was standing there shaking and shaken by her own body’s need to expel something, trapped in the embarrassing position of doing so in a public and inappropriate place. It was an awkward moment fo all of us going in and going out. One man went back in to find the people he’d seen the young woman go in with, to let them know she was puking in the doorway. Others (including myself) went to find an employee to help clean up.

Obviously there are reasons why this sort of thing might cause disgust in an onlooker, and we are often embarrassed when we cause disgust in others. We are often taught to feel shame at the failure of bodily control, and to avoid failures of control in others where we can. We create private spaces for handling waste and taboo secretions and artfully sell products to tend to these things (sometimes without ever mentioning precisely what these products are for). There are good reasons for this, too — hygiene and disease control are important. Bodies are — there is no getting around this — messy.

Still, there was something especially pathetic and strange and moving about this moment. It was disturbing to witness her loss of dignity in public. While several people present were clearly worried about her, they were also profoundly uncomfortable with what was happening. We were all torn, I think, between care for the ill and disgust with the illness.

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Even health isn’t entirely a defense against disgust. Kissing — sexy, romantic, important, desirable — can be intimate in ways that are both sweet and a bit…um. Well. Leaving aside disease transmission through the exchange of fluids (doesn’t that just make swapping spit sound awesome?), there’s also the odd fact that kissing someone is perhaps the most immediate (and not always the most pleasant) way of finding out what s/he just ate.

It can also be fascinating, of course — as gross as it sounds, sharing that knowledge can be powerful. Knowing what someone else tastes like is a rather intense sort of intimacy, a kind that takes the shroud of romance and hormonal excitement and clothes it in an acute awareness of the immediacy of a body, with all of the associated needs and frailties and nifty features.

I remember kissing someone once who had just eaten a piece of apple candy. It was still there, still under the tongue. It was really sweet.

*Vestibule? Cart and entry area? Whatever the hell you call it. The space with the automatic doors.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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