Death used to be so physical. Not all that long ago, our forebears watched each other die as a matter of course — on battlefields, in plagues, in childbirth, of disease or old age (you know, thirty) in their own homes rather than the anodyne abstraction of hospital rooms and nursing homes whose staff, doing their rounds, find corpses and notify families. With their own hands, our ancestors prepared their kin for cremation or burial — or ritual cannibalization, if certain anthropologists are to be believed. Our forebears knew the look, smell, and sound of gases and fluids bursting from a corpse. They cleansed their dead, dressed them, and carried them. They knew why deadweight is called deadweight. The idea of leaving such tasks in the hands of strangers would have puzzled our forebears at best, infuriated them at worst. In times of yore, before there was a funeral industry, the luxury of simply showing up for Mother’s funeral and then traveling home with clean hands and clean clothes was totally unknown.
In The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, archaeologist Timothy Taylor traces human reactions to death through the ages, focusing not on squeaky-clean funeral rites but others, practiced from Australia to Britain to Brazil, in which corpses were pierced with stakes to keep them from becoming vampires; slaves were buried alive to serve their dead masters; and mourners slashed their own flesh with knives, sometimes so viciously that they died of the wounds.
He starts off with a chilling discussion of muti, a Zulu tradition still happening today in which children are dismembered before being killed, their body parts used in charms: “Subcutaneous fat, cut in a strip from a child’s thorax, to smear on the wheels of a taxi, [provides] supernatural insurance. … Penises ensure sexual prowess.” Often the doomed child is selected by his or her own blood kin to be killed, notes Taylor, who was consulted when a muti victim’s torso turned up in the Thames.
Revisiting the scenes of his own fieldwork, Taylor — his previous book was The Prehistory of Sex — limns the hard science of forensics and requisite piling-up of dates with vivid visual details and imagined emotional scenarios. These bits bring death to life, as when he explains how corpses maintained at certain temperatures “give off a pale light … stay ruddy and pink, swell, move, and make loud, ripping noises.” Examining the gang-rape and murder of a slave girl as part of a Viking chief’s funeral, he describes funeralgoers banging on their shields to drown out her terrified screams.
Contradicting colleagues who have described this girl as having been “happy” to die, Taylor empathizes instead, speculating that she was drugged, possibly prepubescent, and had probably seen her entire family slaughtered in the raid during which she was seized. It is this personal current that lifts The Buried Soul out of the lab and the classroom and into the cafe — and even, now and then, into the therapy session, as when Taylor recounts a night in Vienna when, young and depressed, he slit his nude body repeatedly with a Swiss army knife, then climbed into a bathtub whose water turned “a lurid red.” He ties this in neatly with ancient rites in which Scythian mourners sliced their ears, slashed their noses, and drove arrows through their hands to demonstrate their grief.
Dead bodies are all too real for Courtney Angela Brkic, whose memoir The Stone Fields recounts her stint in 1995 as part of a forensic team excavating mass graves in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her 2003 short-story collection Stillness won the Whiting Writers’ Award, demonstrating a powerful lyrical voice which now, switching to nonfiction, Brkic uses to describe morgues and putrefaction and skeletons: a young man identified as such by “the billows of his pelvis”; blood-soaked clothes of the dead washed and photographed in hopes that relatives might recognize them; land mines still pocking the soil, ready to explode and “leave someone writhing in agony and the dissipating warmth of his own blood.”
At 26, Brkic was the youngest and greenest member of the international team, by turns pitied and patronized by colleagues who had previously worked in Rwanda and other hellholes whose soil is now fertilized by the fruit of human-on-human hatred. But this mission held a resonance for Brkic that it lacked for her teammates. The former Yugoslavia is her father’s homeland, scene of his youth and the American-bred author’s childhood vacations. Those long-ago trips were sensual, sunlit weeks spent at beaches and in “green, forested hills that bore a striking resemblance to the foothills of Appalachia,” with a coterie of aunts who wept and shouted and gave gaudy gifts and, in one case, kept a pet catfish in a plastic tub.
Sorting through the human debris of a modern tragedy — in secret: she doesn’t tell her father where she’s working, as she knows he would worry — Brkic contemplates her own clan’s sad stories, the blood and guts and missing persons of two world wars. She cross-cuts the narrative of her 1995 adventure with that of her paternal grandparents and aunts, spanning the years between the wars and then after.
Cross-cutting is always risky. Interrupting the flow of events you’ve just worked so hard to establish, slashing through scenery you’ve just striven so hard to make seem real, only to launch off into another time, another place, with another set of people, is a recipe for disaster which far more memoirists attempt these days than should. Even if the writing is poetic in both and the imagery authentic in both — an algebra which Brkic pulls off, making it look easy — being jerked constantly back and forth asks a lot of the reader, who collapses panting on the shore rather than keeping up at a sprightly clip, as the author imagines. We care about the bygone Brkics, raising children singlehandedly and being hauled off to prison. And we care about the youths whose remains — wearing amulets, striped shirts, pants with breadcrusts in their pockets — fill the mass graves. But each of these narratives is so strong that they end up fighting against each other.
Corpses and the struggle to keep two stories straight simultaneously also plague the characters in Keigo Higashino’s novel Naoko, which won a prestigious Japanese fiction prize and is newly available in an English translation.
When easygoing factory manager Heisuke Sugita sees on the nightly news that a tour bus carrying his wife and daughter to a ski resort has plunged off a cliff, he rushes to the hospital nearest the crash scene. There he finds his wife Naoko and eleven-year-old daughter Monami critically injured and clinging to life, Naoko’s heart pierced by glass shards from the bus window and Monami comatose but with no external injuries. As Heisuke watches helplessly, Naoko slips away. The next day Monami makes a miraculous recovery — but makes a startling revelation to Heisuke.
“I’m not Monami,” the child’s voice says. “It’s me. Me. It’s Naoko.”
That his wife’s soul has inhabited her daughter’s body becomes clear when the girl recounts memories and recites facts that only Naoko could know.
It’s their little secret, and this conundrum becomes a quirkily engrossing page-turner as a middle-aged man navigates the slippery alleyways of life with a middle-aged woman lodged in a tweener body — his daughter’s tweener body, at that. Determined to keep the secret a secret, Naoko-as-Monami attends middle school: a familiar-but-unfamiliar world of homework and awkwardly attentive would-be boyfriends. Higashino is a deft conjurer of human relationships, and while this is first and foremost a tale of grief — thankfully, no one calls Naoko a story of redemption — he infuses it with spasms of sharp humor.
Stabbing oneself in the hand is so cathartic. But these days we sidestep such catharses. No one striding past us in the supermarket knows we are bereaved. Nor can we pick out who among the strangers we see each day is the mourner. Death has become increasingly private: a modern luxury. Videotaped beheadings and life during wartime are changing this, thrusting corpses out of the hands of archaeologists, forensic teams, and fantasy novelists and right back into ours.