Two months after his death, my grandfather’s grave still lacks a headstone. My mother and I stand at its oblong of disturbed earth, too exposed in the withering grass and screaming summer insects. Underneath us is the coffin, and inside it, the narrow, still body of my grandfather. Broken down by illness, he is mostly bones—I can see it as I stand there—just below me, through the thin scrim of dirt. We lay bouquets across the top, mine a fistful of sunflowers. Choosing them, I thought that their bright faces would have brought him joy. In my hand they feel as heavy and resistant as a baseball bat.
All summer I have been reading about what happens to a body after it dies. The pooling of blood and the sloughing of flesh. What might preserve it, and what might hasten its decay. I tell my mother that I do not want to be buried; that I know what happens in the ground, that mold grows on someone embalmed, that a body in a shroud is slowly consumed by tiny, wriggling creatures. It seems imperative to say that I want to be burned into nonexistence, not put beneath the grass.
I think of the many drawings I have seen of archaeological skeletons, the tilt of a skull, the jaw hanging open where it comes apart at the joint. How a body always seems, because of how the neck and shoulders decay, to be hunched into its burial place. I think of the slip and slide of worms around bone. I do not think long enough about saying this to a woman who is standing at the grave of her own father.
On the grounds of the Yorkshire Museum, in northern England, a man’s skeleton comes out of the earth. He is from Roman York, what was called Eboracum. People in York have long speculated about where the Roman city’s amphitheater would have been. The one place it was most likely to be—near the much later ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey—was where the skeleton rested beneath the museum’s foundations. Then the ground heaved and gave him up.
The archaeologists make his bones talk. They say that he is in his late thirties or early forties, nearly six feet tall, with muscle attachments shaped by repetitive motion. They are careful about making claims, but what the archaeologists mean is that he swung a sword and his body learned to carry its weight. His skeleton had grown according to what he’d asked of it. Bones are always changing, answering the questions you pose: Can you support this? Where are your limits? How old are you? How broken and where? In what way did you die?
There was more than just the evidence of what appeared to be a sword arm. There were also slices through his vertebrae, the back of his head, broken ribs. He had died, the bones said, in great violence and pain. And then he’d been tossed away—”with the rubbish.” No laying to rest here; more of a disposal. People started calling him “the gladiator.”
My memory of the marks on his bones locates them at a short distance, as if every time I saw them, I’d been leaning over them, putting my face right up to his death. Which I had been: the museum asked me, an intern, to lay the skeleton out for display. “I’ve never taken a skeletal anatomy class,” I told them. “Never mind,” they said, “just do your best.” I set the bones on the backdrop of a blue fabric-covered board, with pins to hold them neatly in place and little round red stickers indicating the wounds.
Weeks later, the exhibition opened. I spoke with a man next to the skeleton under its Perspex box; we were both holding glasses of wine. He was an osteologist—which is to say, he studied human bone. He said, “It’s a great skeleton, but they’ve done a terrible job with it.”
“Oh?” I asked, carefully arranging my face.
He motioned to the arm, to the collarbone. “They’ve put the ulna where the clavicle should be,” he said. “That’s not even the only mistake.” He started to tell me about the ribs.
“How interesting,” I said. “You should probably tell them. I’m sure they’d be glad to know.” I drank more wine. I was young, and it had gone to my head.
I remember the broken jaw, my own bony face nearly pressed against it, finger on the small red sticker. The way I recall it, the story went like this: a blade (a sword, a dagger, a knife) had been thrust into the mandible and then turned, breaking it. I thought about that often, the snap of the bone, how it breaks when it’s green and alive—like a branch, unevenly, into splinters. Sometimes I could look at the jaw without too much concern, and other times, when I thought about how it would feel to have a knife shoved into my jaw and twisted, it felt like someone had placed a hand on my liver and squeezed.
In the St. Louis Art Museum, I am one of a long line of small children filing past mummies’ painted faces to stare at one opened casket on a glass shelf. I am just tall enough to put my own face right up against the mummy’s through its box. The wrappings on his exposed feet are precisely like a movie costume: bedraggled is the word that comes to mind, as if I’d expected a mummy to present itself more neatly. When we file out we receive buttons to pin on our shirts: I Love My Mummy.
I get taller and older; my will to stare at bodies tags along. In a science museum, I inspect yellowing slices of flesh cut into cross-sections; I am still looking for the bodies where I can find them, whole or split into pieces. In the Paris catacombs, the muted browns of dusty bones line the walls, coated with a damp, underground smell. In the nineteenth century, I would have been among the crowds viewing the great windows of the city’s morgue. “You go there to see the drowned as elsewhere you go to see the latest fashion,” said the French playwright Léon Gozlan. I visit, as if impelled, the places where we expose the dead.
What am I looking for? I become an archaeologist, then an anthropologist; I spend my days in the spaces where the living meet the dead. I wash up in Rwanda, a country replete with memorials to violence. Visitors pause their slow perambulations to gaze at skulls on racks, and I am there peering over their shoulders, trying to see what they see, trying to make sense of the hands that place each bone on a shelf and the eyes that come to see them. In the end what I want to understand is not what they do, but what I do: this staring at empty sockets that look blankly back. I circle endlessly around not what happens after we die, but what happens to us after we die. What we are made into, the shapes we take, not of our own volition.
I am training for my own death. I picture what might happen to my body—pools of blood, worms and decay, bacteria multiplying beyond control—and I decide that I prefer the blackening and peeling effect of fire. It does not occur to me, yet, that many of my loved ones will die first, before I do, and that I will think about what happens to their bodies, not just my own. My own is for burning, but theirs are beloved.
I visit the British Museum to tick names off a list I don’t realize I’m keeping in my head—the Parthenon marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Lindow Man. This last one has other names. Lindow II. Museum Number 1984,1002.1. Pete Marsh, as a joke. He was found in a peat bog in Cheshire. The bog turned his skin into leather and saved his hair, his beard, his fox-fur armband; it lost, somehow, most of the lower half of his body, and it pressed him into deformity, a torso like a puddle, a face distorted like stretched pixels in a photo. Lindow Man was taken out of the bog, which had preserved him for some two thousand years, and then he had to be preserved all over again. A mummy removed from its environment can start to decompose once more: so much work to keep Lindow Man from dissolving to dust. He was doused in polyethylene glycol, freeze-dried, secured on a tray, and carried to an exhibition gallery, surrounded by a great crowd.
I am not the only one who loves a dead body. The Paris morgue was listed in tourist guidebooks. Mummies are especially exciting. A Victorian writer, in 1884: “Ask a London boy what he saw in the Museum and he will instantly reply, ‘The Mummies!‘“ Europeans unwrapped mummies, touched them, took parts of them as souvenirs, used them as medicine, burned them, tasted them. The art museum’s pin: I Love My Mummy. A violent death? Even better, if it’s long enough ago, or of someone far enough away. No one who views Lindow Man misses the blow to the top of his head, or the twisted thing, made of sinew, around his neck: like a necklace, or a garrote.
A mummy is particularly appealing because it has flesh. Lindow Man’s arm is a funhouse mirror reflection of my own. To see him is to imagine that my body would simply wait to be found again, distorted but recognizable, changed but still human. His body suggests it’s possible to evade what promises to consume us: the mold that wants to bloom in the grave, the progress of cheerful and remorseless microbes—things that only want, themselves, to live. Quiet in his climate-controlled box, Lindow Man lies about survival. As if we simply shrank, upon death; as if we didn’t have to think about what eats us, once we cease to eat.
The burned body of the Isdal Woman was found in Norway in 1970. Her identity has never been established. She was buried in Bergen in a zinc-lined coffin intended to protect her body from decomposition, but her jaw was removed and kept in storage. On a recording, I hear a man rummaging through boxes, reading labels written in Norwegian. “Medieval skull,” he says—”wrong box.” He wants the newer, fresher, less diminished bones of the Isdal Woman: her jaw will be used for DNA tests. He thinks that taking the jaw for testing is better, or at least simpler, than exhuming her body. Somehow he prefers the bone separated at the joint to opening the grave. Perhaps because someone else has done it, and he won’t have to pry at the mandible himself, with a knife. What makes a body violable? This jaw, a piece of evidence. This body, the remains of a life.
In England, a research team reanimates a mummy’s voice with a CT scanner and a 3D printer, plus an electronic larynx. It makes “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his coffin and his larynx came to life again,” a long vowel that sounds like “ehhh.” The team asserts that the mummy—a priest named Nesyamun— “had this wish that his voice would somehow continue into perpetuity.” They are backed, seemingly, by the inscription on his coffin: true of voice. Then their real eagerness slips through as they talk about their technological advancements. “Could we make Nesyamun actually speak his original words as written on his coffin?”
The venerable anthropologist Mary Douglas suggested that once enough time has elapsed, once the body has sufficiently decayed and its identifiability disappeared, “[e]ven the bones of buried kings rouse little awe, and the thought that the air is full of the dust of corpses of bygone races has no power to move.”
A body, unguarded, is an opportunity. It can be picked up, handled, put down again; easy to manipulate, incapable of objecting; unable to shut its mouth when we wish for it to speak. But still, what is an object—an inanimate, inactive thing? A skull on a shelf makes me run my tongue over my own teeth; the gladiator’s sliced bones send the shudder of a broken shoulder through my own arm. He’s not much more than the remains of a life, but then still: that hand, squeezing my liver.
The more bones I see, the less I can look at them. I can no longer separate them from their lives; they have less distance, not more, from the dead. They have lost their capacity for synecdoche. They are not what I thought they were.
Before my grandfather dies he tells my mother, “Mary, I’m dying,” and then he does. The virus strikes my grandmother, too: the two of them lying side by side in their king-size bed. When it sends him to the hospital they spend a night apart, a vanishingly rare occurrence in their sixty-five-year marriage. He comes back to lie next to her, the two of them in their miasma. He stops eating and then he goes.
She survives but she isn’t quite convinced he is dead: she keeps seeing him, walking through the doorways of the room to which she is now confined. “Mary,” she says to my mother, “are you sure that he’s gone?” She does understand, when told, that he is, but her own eyes keep telling her otherwise.
When I hear this, I am sure she only survives because she has lost enough of herself that she can no longer make the decision to die: they never wanted to outlive each other. Instead she lingers on in this half-life, where death would be mercy. She has faith in heaven and that her husband is already there. They used to joke about it, the two of them, lying side by side on the grass of the family grave plot: “We’ll fit right here,” they said. They believed in heaven, and in glory.
As people die around me, I have a harder time clinging to a different or a better world; I can think only of this one, bound in flesh and bone. My own body has become a strangely wired thing that I no longer recognize and cannot understand. I keep up a frazzled kind of monitoring in mirrors that distort my body and don’t show what is happening to me. The thud of my feet in my attic apartment seems too loud; I assume a weird, shuffling walk— toe, then heel. I wonder who will die next. I think the fear is going to write itself into my bones, like rickets, like scurvy. What does fear look like on a bone? Tiny splinters, fraying at the threat they might rattle themselves apart.
Someone I was just beginning to love once put his hand against my sternum and evaluated its potential to be cracked open, as if for a heart transplant. Against my eminently breakable ribs it was freakishly solid: “Like an I-beam,” he marveled. I wonder how much of my body I can hang on this single bone.
A body’s not much without resistance. If you never carry any weight, your bones never grow to reinforce themselves. All I can do is brace against hard things. I balance on my hands in my living room and pedal my bicycle for hours over wet and fading leaves. My body is a set of pulleys moving my joints, somehow articulating bones, one against the other. In my body are stable isotopes—forms of elements, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, strontium—that neither decay nor disappear. They vary from place to place: the isotopes of south Texas, where I was born, are written in my bones, layered into my teeth. My body installs them as I eat and drink and live, as a signature of where I was. When I die, my body can be made to say where I came from and against what burdens I pushed.
I keep looking for the mummy, the gladiator, the Lindow Man, trying to see where they have gone, what they have left behind. What is left of them is slowly fading into the air, molecule by molecule. Everybody eventually disappears. Where has my grandfather gone? I know him to be lying in a cemetery called Bellefontaine. But which of his bones have shifted under pressure of gravity, which of his cells have gone into the still and silent space of his grave?
I have seen so many bodies: racks upon racks of skulls, sorted femurs, desiccated corpses with puffs of hair. Even before 2020 became the year of bodies—stacked like cordwood, tipped into graves—I had spent so much time face to face with them, poking at them, flaying them open to the eye. Can I pay, somehow, for the years I spent glancing carelessly at bodies that someone else once cared for? But I can’t unstick my gaze from the mummy’s wrappings or stop looping through the Paris catacombs. There is no way to ransom the lives of the people I love so that they do not go down and disperse into that dry and unforgiving earth.
Desire lines are the paths feet mark in the ground, showing where they want to go, whether or not they’re meant to. The bones have made their own desire lines, marking me with their attachments: my body like a marionette, a thread from their joints to mine.
When I stand at my grandfather’s grave I know that my feet float right above his own—as long as they are there, as long as they still exist. I must have been looking for something when I visited the Lindow Man and the Paris catacombs, when I put together the bones of the gladiator. Did I want some proof that they endured? Did I enjoy that I could be so close, that I could print them on the interior cave of my skull, that I could move them around on the blue display board? I looked so many times at the slices on the gladiator’s small interlocking vertebrae, the crack in his head, that split of bone from bone. Did I want to feel how my own bones connected and how easily they could separate? Or where my body might end, crushed in a peat bog, saved by what buries me?
This is what I mean to tell my mother, standing at her father’s grave: I want no opportunity left for something to be made of my own body. I want to turn into gas and fragments to be processed and churned, beaten down to sand. No body turns to pure ash but burning is the next best thing. I want to go up in smoke. I want no place for some woman to stand, thinking of the bacteria clambering across my body, undertaking their tiny, invisible work. No one to hover over me with a glass of wine; no wide-eyed, sharp-faced child to touch my shoulders and put me back together, piece wrongly upon piece. What I want is the disappearance, the mercy that is being gone, with nothing to remain.
Everywhere I turn is a body—dead or soon to be dead, layered into the earth. After I stand over my grandfather’s feet, I go back to Sweden. I lean my spine up against the stacked stone ring of an Iron Age fort, looking at where the dead once walked, the desire lines they would have made. Now, so many hundreds of years later, the desire lines come from the paired hooves of sheep, which have wandered out of the forest into the sunlight on the fort. They circle away from me as I keep following them, instinctively and without realizing it: I want to go where they go—these small, damp, live things.
In memory of Robert G. Avis.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.
Classen, Constance. 2014. “Touching the Deep Past: The Lure of Ancient Bodies in Nineteenth-Century Museums and Culture.” The Senses and Society 9 (3): 269. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/174589314X14023847039872
Douglas, Mary. 2001. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 161. London and New York: Routledge.
Lewis, Haydn. 2010. “Roman Gladiator Skeleton Found beneath Yorkshire Museum.” The York Press, December 10. https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/8731223.roman-gladiator-skeleton-found-beneath-yorkshire-museum/.
Soth, Amelia. 2020. “The Paris Morgue provided ghoulish entertainment.” JSTOR Daily, September 10. https://daily.jstor.org/the-paris-morgue-provided-ghoulish-entertainment/.
St. Fleur, Nicholas. 2020. “The Mummy Speaks! Hear Sounds from the Voice of an Ancient Egyptian Priest.” The New York Times, January 23. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/23/science/mummy-voice.html.
Tredennick, Bianca. 2010. “Some Collections of Mortality: Dickens, the Paris Morgue, and the Material Corpse.” Victorian Review 36 (1): 72. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41039109?seq=1.
British Museum. Object: Lindow Man. Object: Lindow II. Database online. Britishmuseum.org. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1984-1002-1.
Death in Ice Valley. Produced by Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and British Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p060ms2h/episodes/downloads.