When dead bodies have the power to speak

Mike Brown’s image, reclaimed by his family.
Mike Brown’s image, reclaimed by his family.
Image: Reuters/Robert Cohen
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Michael Brown, the 18-year-old whose death sparked the Ferguson protests, was buried today, a full two weeks after his shooting. The story of what has happened to his body in that period exemplifies a paradox at the heart of many of the other tragedies of recent weeks.

The death of Brown—and of Kajieme Powell, another black Missourian shot by police on camera—the wreckage of flight MH17, and the beheading of American journalist James Foley have all filled our Twitter streams and Facebook feeds with images of death. The paradox is that these images have obliged the public to sit, symbolically, with these dead bodies longer than traditional Western custom affords, yet at the same time, the families of some of the victims have been denied that access, unable to claim the physical remains and bury them with dignity.

The outcome has been to escalate the political and polarizing nature of these killings. The visibility of the dead, coupled with the delay in retrieving them, has brought about a global response that there might not have been if the bodies had been dealt with tidily and swiftly.

Bodies as messages

After Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, his body lay in the street for more than four hours. An ambulance did not come. He was not tended to. TV cameras filmed people milling about his corpse, and passersby tweeted pictures. That callous treatment underscored the devaluation of a young black man’s life in America today, and was the genesis of the outrage that took over St. Louis and ultimately cascaded around the world, as it might not have done if the scene had been anesthetized and the street quickly laid bare.

Even Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson told reporters “he was ‘uncomfortable’ with the amount of time the body had been in the street.” And yet the question of his untended body became a refrain. Jezebel’s Kara Brown asked, “Can you explain why Mike Brown’s body was left uncovered in the middle of the street for hours for any reason other than to send a message to his community?”

Rituals and remembering

Americans are quick to remove bodies from the realm of the living, by covering them quickly and entrusting them to medical professionals and funeral directors. Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying told Quartz:

“I often used to think about the book The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying when seeing my patients bundled up in body bags almost immediately. In that book, they spoke of keeping the body still and untouched for a period—I think it was a few days, to allow the spirit to transition to the next level more peacefully. I sometimes cut a snip of hair off my patients for their families if they wanted one.”

But this wasn’t always the case. In the Victorian era, because there was high infant mortality, bodies remained with us long enough to become the object of post-mortem photographs, trying to preserve an image of an intact family. More than a century later, in Puerto Rico, funeral homes offer services where the deceased is put into a lifelike scene, wearing clothes and surrounded by the “props” that were part of their regular life. Elsie Rodríguez, vice president of a funeral home in San Juan, told the New York Times (paywall), “the family literally suffers less, because they see their loved one in a way that would have made them happy—they see them in a way in which they still look alive.”

Mourning delayed is mourning denied

The bodies of MH17’s crash site became a battleground.
The bodies of MH17’s crash site became a battleground.
Image: Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev

The absence of the dead body can prove to be a trauma comparable with the death itself. After flight MH17 was shot down in over Ukraine on July 17, all 298 people on board were killed. The bodies became hostages for the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the rest of the globe. Ukraine accused separatists of removing bodies and tampering with evidence. Fighting between the Ukranian government and separatists delayed the retrieval even further.

It took over a month for the Malaysian prime minister to negotiate with Russian separatists to recover the bodies. Azfar Aza, who lost six family members, said of the two whose remains were found and returned home to Malaysia, “Having their bodies helps us somewhat—it’s a start.”

Most of the dead were from the Netherlands. Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans said that nearly every family knew a victim or a relative of a victim. Dutch bodies were returned after a week, but this only served to unite the EU in economic sanctions against Russia. Timmermans said, “To my dying day I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult job, and that human remains should be used in a political game.”

With a loss so shocking, bodies take on even greater value in whatever form they may be. David Kessler, an expert and author on grief, told Quartz about his witnessing the discovery of remains during 9/11:

“I remember being in the morgue tent that was assembled for the bodies recovered at Ground Zero. At one point, the horn sounded. Everything came to a stand-still. There was complete silence. That sound meant a body had been discovered. I stood respectfully at the morgue for it to be brought in. There were tears and sobbing sounds, yet there was no other noise. I looked to see the body being carried. But there was no intact body. It was a finger. That is what stopped everything. And we all understood to show respect to this finger, because it was a finger that was all that was left of someone’s loved one. It was a finger that was part of a hand. That hand belonged to a mother, father, wife, husband, son or daughter. That finger and hand, drove a car, answered a phone, and cooked a meal.”

The power of images

James Foley’s visage at a memorial service in Irbil, Iraq on Aug. 24.
James Foley’s visage at a memorial service in Irbil, Iraq on Aug. 24.
Image: AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic

The family of the American journalist James Foley, beheaded last week by ISIL, may never retrieve his remains. All they were granted was the horrific video of his last moments, a gruesome message aimed at the West, and even that then became an empty space as social-media outlets started to scrub the image from their networks. Foley’s family, colleagues, and friends urged people not to watch the video—to circulate photos honoring his humanity rather than his killers’ grotesqueness.

But his killing, as the New York Times wrote (paywall), served as a”shift in the complexion of the American confrontation with the terrorist group—until now an abstraction to most Americans. It obliged politicians to, if nothing else, ramp up their tone—president Barack Obama called ISIL a “cancer”—and seems to have prompted the US to start considering air strikes in Syria, where ISIL is also rampant, though it shied away from intervening there before.

Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle begins with a chilling seven-page treatise on death:

“We are constantly surrounded by objects and phenomena from the realm of death. Nonetheless, there are few things that arouse in us greater distaste than to see a human being caught up in it, at least if we are to judge by the efforts we make to keep corpses out of sight.”

Though our instinct may be to avert our eyes, it is this inability to turn away that offers the only hope that these killings will not be in vain.