Let Her Paint an Inch Thick
Anonymous asks, What aspect of human death do you feel is most overlooked, ignored, or glossed over in fiction?
Death occurs in fiction nearly as often as it does in reality (though as a reader of mystery/thrillers, SFF, and horror, my perspective may be somewhat skewed). I can’t think of any one aspect of death that hasn’t been covered in great detail somewhere, be it the minutiae of decomposition or the labyrinths of grief.
In general, though, death in fiction is often very neat. By design, in many cases—not everyone wants to think about the unpleasant details. The emotional fallout of death doesn’t require one to roll around in the squishy bits, as it were. But because death is not something most of us interact with on a regular basis, many writers and readers may not have a supply of telling details on hand. Before I became a mortician, I tended to fall back on certain descriptions that I commonly encountered in fiction. A few in particular now stand out as less realistic.
I’ve mentioned purge in a previous column. Not everyone will void bladder or bowels on death (#NotAllCorpses), but if an assassin or thief is frequently rifling through the pockets of the dead and never once gets an unpleasant surprise, I’ll eventually call shenanigans. Visual media often give us a pale, beautiful corpse with a single delicate drop of blood at the corner of their mouth. Far less often do I see or read about a person purging blood, stomach contents, or lung fluid out of their nose and mouth for much longer than is polite.
Algor mortis, or the cooling of a corpse to match ambient air temperature, is a slower process than I once imagined it to be. I deal with the cold dead at work because we store bodies in a cooler. When stumbling over a body in the wild, however—a common occupational hazard or benefit for many fictional characters—room temperature is the coolest they’re likely to be. The texture of dead flesh is often compared to wax, but I rarely find that to be the case. For me a better word would be slack. Even when muscles are locked tight in rigor, the skin and subcutaneous tissue over them is markedly less firm than in life.
Also, many people die with eyes and/or mouths open, and closing the eyes is not the graceful motion so often portrayed. Rigor mortis affects the tiny facial muscles too, and many eyelids can only be closed with tugging, prodding, and eventually adhesive. Mouths gape, and while nurses and families will sometimes use a scarf or towel to try to hold the mandible in place, it’s not very reliable. There are reasons embalmers use wire or suture to close mouths, and it’s not because we’re sadists with a dental fetish.
I’ve become a terrible person to watch horror movies or procedurals with. Those corpses don’t look right! Some do better than others with the shading of livor mortis, but the colors tend to be off. Not to mention that makeup artists are adding layers of paint and prosthetics, where death is shrinking, dehydrating, taking away.
This ties into another topic that many people mention when they find out what I do. She didn’t look like herself. They usually have a story about seeing a parent or grandparent at the funeral and being struck by how different they looked. Sometimes it’s a detail like their loved one not wearing the glasses they habitually wore in life, sometimes something like the texture of their skin being different.
My instructors groused about the topic of glasses—people don’t usually wear glasses when they sleep, after all, and most people are used to seeing their relatives awake. The goal of mortuary restoration is not to mimic sleep, but nonetheless decedents are arranged lying down with their eyes closed, which isn’t the angle from which most of us commonly view our loved ones. If you’ve ever tried to take a flattering selfie while supine, you may be familiar with the insidious effects of gravity on one’s face and neck. My department’s beloved Mr. G often mentioned the changes wrought by gravity, and sure enough, when I attended his service and stood next to his casket, the point was driven home. He didn’t look like the person I had known.
Death slackens, shrinks, reduces. Embalming replaces those missing fluids, plumps and firms tissue. People transform on the table in front of me. It’s an amazing process. But I didn’t know this person in life. I may have a reference photo, but just as often I don’t. I’m trying my best to make them look better, but I can’t make them look how they did in life. Not truly.
When it comes to restoration, it’s easier to add than to take away. If a body is emaciated after a long illness, I can plump dehydrated tissue with humectants, fill in hollow cheeks with cotton, inject sunken temples with feature builder. The inverse is harder to deal with—most recently with COVID deaths. Bodies come to us after weeks in the hospital, bloated with edema—twenty, forty, sixty pounds of water weight. Their lips are swollen and cracked from the ventilators. The adhesive leaves marks on their cheeks—sometimes simple indentations, sometimes blackened, scabbing lesions. These eyes aren’t a struggle to close—their lids are swollen shut. If we’re lucky, our edema reducers work, and the swelling subsides. We aren’t always lucky.
Young or middle-aged people who come to us from the medical examiner often look the most like themselves after embalming, but sometimes those differences are especially marked and heartbreaking. A young woman who hanged herself, leaving her face swollen and discolored. The family gave us a photo of a laughing woman with clear skin and freckles. Those freckles were lost under the thick foundation we used to cover her purple cheeks. I was an art student once; I was not artist enough to give this woman back her laugh. Others who die violently or by trauma may be as much wax as flesh by the time they’re viewed. We spend hours rebuilding their faces, even days. The results can be remarkable, but in the end, just an effigy.
Some people don’t understand the point of that effigy. They don’t understand the desire–the need–to view a loved one after death. Or, if they do want that final glimpse, they want to see the reality, not the transformation of preservatives and dyes and makeup. I respect that. Unpainted death is far more intimate. Having held the hands of the dead before and after embalming, I can assure you the difference is striking.
Nonetheless, I can’t shake the irrational hope that offering that transformation to the dead means something. For many of us, the power to control our appearance is profound. Clothing and cosmetics are an armor, a way to communicate self-image to others, or just a way to feel better when glancing at a stray reflection. Sometimes morticians get to see the face a person chose to show the world. Other times we have no idea, and are only projecting our own aesthetics. While I know better than to read the comments, it’s still nice to imagine that somewhere on the Yelp of the dead, someone left me a generous review.
This column is made possible by the wonderful staff of The Deadlands, the inexorable nature of death, and readers like you. If you have questions for the necromancer, send them through our submission form at thedeadlands.com, or ask @stillsostrange on Twitter.
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.