What is a Corpse?1 (h2so4 16)

In this review of "The Body" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, König investigates what our beliefs about and behaviors around "the body" have to say about our ways of dealing with death.

For a long time, television has been obsessed with death.2 From homicide squads to the emergency room, animal predators to ratings-hungry guardian angels, we are accustomed to prime-time references to mortality. These references, however, usually take either a hyperbolically gruesome or an overly sugar-coated form.3 In this review, I propose that television is starting to tackle a new question, one which lifts the veil of legal-medical abstraction and exposes death's more ragged and shameful edges. Witness a recent episode of the WB network's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the new HBO series Six Feet Under. Both of these shows pose a very specific question about mortality: What is a corpse?

What is the status of a dead body? What exactly is it—what is its ontological status? Is it like a sleeping person, to be tiptoed and whispered around, to be seen but not touched so as not to disturb the state of rest? Do we behave as if she could hear our voices, laugh at our jokes? Perhaps the corpse is more like a precious object, something to be guarded and watched over for fear of its parts being stolen or damaged. Or is this body so clearly devoid of soul that we may saw and lift its ribcage and apply a scientific gaze, like lifting the hood of a broken-down car? The body may also become the raw material for a work of art: the Sistine Chapel of the restorative arts. Borrowing a metaphor from Paul in I. Corinthians, we might even think of the body as a place: a disassembled tent that we will leave behind in the afterlife. Or, for the secular-minded, some extensions of this metaphor: a vacated apartment whose coordinates we recall but no longer know by blind instinct, a discarded persona from errant youth, a set of clothing that will no longer be worn by anyone. We speak of the body of the deceased at a wake as "lying in state." In exactly what state is this body lying? Who is left to do this lying? And finally, how do the living respond to seeing someone they love in this state to end all states?4

At the start of "The Body," Buffy (approximately 19 years old, vampire slayer, resident of suburban California "hellmouth" town) arrives home to discover her that mother Joyce has collapsed on the living room sofa—eyes open, no breath, no pulse. Buffy calls 911 and, following instructions, attempts to administer CPR. She cracks a rib and is told not to worry about that for now. When the paramedics finally arrive, a silent eternity in screen later, Buffy remembers to pull her mother's skirt down to cover her knees. Clearly, Joyce can no longer feel embarrassment at a disarrayed skirt. But when Buffy rearranges her mother's clothes, she is in effect saying: "This would be embarrassing to her, to be caught looking like this."

From this initial scene, we may gather that the tense of the deceased body is conditional. We think, "She wouldn't like that" or "She would want it to be like this" (that is, if she were here, if she were able to speak for herself). We avoid saying where she is, or stating explicitly why she is now unable to tell us what she likes and dislikes. The conditional tense is necessary because the present tense would be disingenuous ("She doesn't like that"), but speaking in the past tense ("She didn't like that") would imply a finality that we are not quite ready to accept. In addition, the past tense always seems to enact what it describes, like a second killing through language. We must speak about her in the conditional just in case she can still hear us and can still be hurt by the way our words might seem to relegate her heartlessly to the past. Psychoanalysts would call this "magical thinking." Our actions toward the body reflect this. We attire it not according to our own styles, but according to "what she likes" (that is, what she would have liked). We continue to react when something happens to or in the vicinity of the body that she would have disapproved of. It is all as if she were still alive.

Next, Buffy calls her mentor, Giles, and they accompany the paramedics to the hospital. Buffy's best friend Willow is late coming to meet them because she cannot decide what to wear. Willow's first idea is to wear something cheerful and yellow, perhaps with a perky design on it, because she wants to send Buffy the message that "everything is going to be all right" and that life will still be normal and worth living. On second thought, Willow realizes that levity might be inappropriate, and opts instead for a more sedate, dark purple blouse without any "stupid design." But when her girlfriend Tara remarks that purple is the color of royalty, Willow decides to change her outfit yet again, because she doesn't want to walk into the emergency room acting "all royal and stuff." At this point, she is thinking primarily of her friend Buffy and of the supportive message she wants to send her. So she replaces the purple top with a pink one: no "royal" messages there. But she suddenly gets a new idea and begins to hunt frantically for a blue sweater—one that Joyce liked. Now it is as if going to see the body meant that the body could see Willow, too, and be pleased at the sight of the blue sweater. Again we have the conditional tense: Willow seems to think, "If Joyce were alive, she would be happy to see that I have worn this sweater for her."

A logician might say that Willow's choice is the result of fallacious reasoning: Joyce is dead, therefore it doesn't matter whether her sweater would please Joyce or not. A psychoanalyst might say that Willow's crisis about her outfit reflects a larger dilemma she is experiencing about whether she has been a good enough friend to Joyce and to Buffy. A third possibility: Willow's overly fraught concern about her choice of clothing makes sense under the circumstances. It is in fact symptomatic of the situation. There is no appropriate or etiquette- approved thing to say in such a circumstance. And Willow realizes that clothes "say" things. Hence her confusion; hence the conclusion that it doesn't really matter what she wears. And frankly, Buffy is probably too fucked up right now to notice anyway.

Buffy's younger sister, Dawn, learns of the loss (or rather, learns that her mother is at the hospital and that something "bad" has happened) during an art class where she is sketching a human figure in charcoal. She is interrupted by Buffy's arrival, and (unlike the stoical Buffy) experiences "total meltdown" at the news (that is, she cries). Later, at the hospital, Dawn sneaks into the morgue because she cannot believe what has happened and wants to see the body for herself. During a semi-digressive encounter with a vampire (whom Buffy immediately slays), the white sheet is pulled from Joyce's body, exposing her face. When Dawn reaches out to touch it, Buffy says, "It's not her" (although clearly, it is her body). Buffy's "It's not her" reveals the kind of violence which is exacted upon one who must identify a corpse and say, "yes, that's her"—because it isn't. But this also constitutes Buffy's first genuine acknowledgement that her mother has passed away, and her attempt to communicate this gently to her sister.

In fact, we might even go so far as to say: it's not Joyce, and it isn't even her body. It is not "hers" in the sense that this body does not belong to anyone anymore; there is no one left for it to belong to. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the body which was Joyce's body was made up of many things which no longer exist: a specific set of postures, gestures, sensations, gaits, grins, aches, blushes, cravings, winks, good and bad hair days, sneezes, rings, glasses, peculiarly questioning looks, and so on. All of that was Buffy's mother's body. The body that lies here in the morgue, however, is not. It is not really her body. In this sense, it is not only no longer her body; it is no longer a body at all. The corpse is not a body—indeed, it is the opposite of a body.

The show ends with a shot of Dawn, fingers outstretched to her mother's face, asking her sister, "If this isn't her, then where did she go?" The credits roll without providing any answer to this question. Indeed, this is an unanswerable question in the universe of this TV show, which provides a highly ordered account of the supernatural processes by which vampires, gods, and various other species of the undead enter and leave the earth via Sunnydale's hellmouth, but which does not usually address human mortality. This episode represents the first time the show's writers have had to consider what happens when a regular mortal dies. It's a daring question to pose in this format, because it risks exposing the scaffolding behind the fictional world upon which the show is premised. Vampires are not real; the show is thus free to make up its own rules about how they live, how they get slain, what happens when spells are cast on them, and so forth. Human mortality, on the other hand, is subject to the rules of the world as we know it: the show can only take so many liberties, and cannot simply deal with Joyce's death as if it were part of the world of vampire slayage. Buffy's job as a slayer is to put the undead to rest, and when she drives a stake through a vampire's heart, it vanishes in a puff of sound and special FX. A vampire's death leaves no trace behind—no flesh to touch, no ambiguity about where the vampire went, not even a chalk outline to testify to its former presence. No body.

A more answerable question might be, If this isn't her body, what is it, then? If someone in Dawn's situation asked me such a question, I would answer her thus: this body is no longer a body. It is a sign, an image, of your mother's body. It is what Charles Peirce would call an indexical sign: it is related to its original by a physical link and testifies to the fact that she was here (but is no longer). It is also what Peirce would call an iconic sign, referring to its object by way of resembling her visually. Finally, it is a symbol: it is associated with her by societal conventions; indeed many cultures have developed elaborate rituals for the body based upon such conventions. Despite all this, it is not to be mistaken for her. It is not to be mistaken for her in the same way that you wouldn't mistake the word "mother," a sketch of your mother, or even her photograph, for the actual person. It is like the drawing you began to make in your art class: a representation which is connected in several ways to its model, but which will never coincide completely with her. She is no more, and neither is her body.

The episode's creators give us several indications that this body is an abstract sign, not a concrete person or body. After each commercial break, the show starts up again with a fixed- camera image of Joyce's face tilted at an exact right angle to the frame. The face appears slightly more pale, abstract, and "dead" each time. The body is also associated with Dawn's incomplete sketch via editing. Finally, the vast gulfs, which extend between the living bodies and the signifier-corpse body, are highlighted throughout the episode. The living are resolutely incarnate: Buffy vomits immediately after the paramedics depart her house, Willow is uncomfortable and displeased with all the options for clothing her body, she and Tara perform their first on-screen kiss, Dawn is repeatedly reminded to eat and plied with one of every item from the vending machines by the concerned friends. Everyone in the waiting room has a particular body for this occasion: an anxious body rejecting both food and unwanted news, an unhappily clothed body seeking comfort in a kiss, a not-hungry body which is nevertheless in need of sustenance. As Roland Barthes aptly puts it, "Which body? We have several. I have a digestive body, I have a nauseated body, a third body which is migrainous, and so on: sensual, muscular (writer's cramp), humoral, and especially emotive: which is moved, stirred, depressed, or exalted or intimidated, without anything of the sort being apparent" (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes).

Unlike Roland Barthes' body, and unlike those in the waiting room, Joyce's corpse is no longer plural. It can no longer be moved or stirred. It cannot pass through all of these states, and can no longer choose a particular one for the occasion. It is instead "in state": a singular state with no possibility of variation. Hence the identical close-ups at the start of each scene, each one having the same framing, fixed and unchanging. In Lacan's words, Joyce's body has become a symbol, or "that which becomes embodied only by being the trace of a nothingness and whose support cannot thereafter be impaired" (Rome Discourse, 65). Joyce can no longer be impaired; she is no longer susceptible to anything. If she embodies anything at all, it is this nothingness itself.

The pilot episode of Six Feet Under arrives at a similar conclusion via a slightly different approach. Whereas Buffy is a vampire slayer, the characters in Six Feet Under are a family of undertakers. Buffy kills the undead for a living; the Fishers help to bury the dead. At the very start of the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, the patriarch of the family and director of their funeral home is killed by a bus while reaching for his car cigarette lighter, to the ironic tune of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Both Buffy and the Fishers deal with death on an everyday basis, but none of them have genuinely had to grapple with serious loss up until this point. One might think at first that running a funeral parlor or being a slayer would prepare these characters well for dealing with the death of a loved one, but these shows both suggest that their characters are just as unmoored by a sudden loss as anyone else would be.

The Fishers are a motley group. While maintaining the appearance of 1950s-style domestic normativity, Ruth Fisher has been having an affair and confesses as much upon her husband's death, smashing a perfectly good roast in the process. The elder son Nate is a runaway to Seattle: upon his return for Christmas, he screws a woman he meets on the airplane immediately before hearing about his father's passing, almost as if he were drowning out the news before it arrived. Middle child David is full of secrets: while doing the family duty to help to run the funeral home and attending church, he also has been "doing" a male African-American cop and cursing his father as he performs facial reconstructions on the corpses they take in. Finally, youngest sibling Claire is a rebellious, sullen, druggie teenager. She's high on meth when she gets the phone call and subsequently quips, "I guess this horrifying experience I'm about to go through will burn a little brighter now." The recipe is calculated for maximum guilt in every case.

And yet, from the beginning of Six Feet Under, we suspect that the Fishers are not going to be slain by this event, but are rather finally about to come alive. Right away the two brothers are pitted against one another. At their father's funeral, Nate declares, "I refuse to sanitize this anymore! What is this hermetically sealed box, this phony astroturf around the grave? It's like surgery: clean, antiseptic!" David, the "good" son, replies, "You want to get your hands dirty? Talk to me when you've had to stuff formaldehyde-soaked cotton up your father's ass so he doesn't leak." Both accuse each other of not confronting the material realities of death in the form of the corpse. In David's case, dirtying one's hands with the dead father's body becomes a sign of filial piety: the more filth you acknowledge, the purer your love. In Nate's case, however, "getting your hands dirty" means departing from customary ritual strictures: forget the salt shaker thing; he will toss the dirt directly onto the coffin with his bare hands. To honor the father, in Nate's view, one must malign tradition. However the traditions of burial were his father's bread and butter. David calls his brother on his maverick gesture: prodigal Nate is in fact the antiseptic one, substituting mock rebelliousness for real confrontation. Neither of their positions is pure, however. Nate's bravado plea for hypocritical appearances to be stripped back for his father's sake reads as a thinly disguised attempt to compensate for his previous distancing of himself from the family. But David's loving attention to his father's corpse and his attempt to maintain appearances also seem like an attempt to compensate for the emotional nitty-gritty with which he failed to confront his father.

At least in the pilot episode, Claire seems to be the only member of the family who expresses her grief in a relatively non-defensive manner. At various moments, her father appears to her in her imagination, and the show incorporates these moments seamlessly into its visual representation. He appears to her seated on their lawn smoking a cigarette as she joins him and follows suit. She imagines asking him what death felt like, and he replies, "It was over in a second. I didn't have to be afraid of it. I didn't even have to think about it." When a funeral-goer remarks, "He's in a better place now," Claire facetiously imagines her father replying, "You got that right!" Claire is clearly dissociating from reality to some extent in these scenes: that is, she is hallucinating her father's presence. But it is clear that her mother and brothers are dis-sociating as well, despite the fact that their imaginative machinations are not represented as part of the film world. Claire imagines her deceased father cracking wise and story-telling, as he was in life. Her brothers fixate on the treatment of the corpse. Their approaches are united in that they all serve to erect delicate and necessary shields against the reality of the loss.

The pilot episode of this show employs a fine stylistic device which does not recur in later episodes: the insertion of fake commercials for undertaker's corpse-reconstruction products (make-up, putty, filler, etc.), done up to look like unsullied 1950s domestic-product television ads. These insertions complicate the temporality of the show on multiple levels. First, they suggest that the characters are metaphorically stuck in the world of the televisual 1950s, in a mindset characterized by a phony, almost hysterical insistence on maintaining the appearance of domestic stability and comfort. Just as the 1950s was a decade plagued by a concern over appearances which hide something sinister beneath, so our present culture, the show seems to argue, hides death behind a waxy, made-over façade. In addition, each ad prefigures the events of the scene which is about to occur, placing them within a commercial frame of reference and thereby offering an implicit critique of the nation's death industry. Finally, these ads connect up with the theme of sanitization versus exposure of carnality.

Ultimately, HBO's Six Feet Under seems to offer a less complex answer to the question of what a corpse is than the WB's Buffy episode. However another answer to this question—and possibly a way out of the two irreconcilable positions represented by Nate and David—is offered by Rico, the Fishers' resident mortician. Rico is absolutely dedicated to his work: for him, restoring corpses for family viewing is not simply a skill but a science and art wrapped into one. At first we might think that Rico takes it as his task to return the bodies that form his material to a life-like state: to mask the signs of decay and traces of mutilation, to keep up seamless appearances, in effect to operate in the service of the cult of repression. However Rico clearly sees his corpses not as dead people, but as works of art. He takes pride in his job precisely because these bodies are no longer themselves, but rather sculptures upon which the discerning eye may detect his artistry and his signature. In this way, Rico's attitude towards the corpse is similar to that of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode: it is no longer a body, but rather a representation. And yet in each case, the underlying message seems to be that the perceptual experience of this representation, far from being anesthetized, is fundamentally aesthetic.

Each episode of Six Feet Under starts with a scene which dooms someone to die—in the first episode, it is the father, but in later versions we will see people from all walks of life metaphorically arrive at the same place. The corpse which is produced in the opening sequence provides the material for the remainder of the show, both in that the body ends up at the Fishers' funeral home, and in that the death it dramatizes has symbolic implications for the rest of the show's content. This familiar structure may perhaps give us hope that the corpse is not the end of the story. From loss and stillness, it seems to say, springs movement. •

1 This review was written prior to September 11—it is a review of two fictional television shows and is not intended to address mass acts of destruction. However, the television coverage of those events raises questions that seem important and germane in this context. I have thus included a small amount of commentary on them in footnote form.

2 Although never before, to my knowledge, with the particular intensity of September 2001. Previously, it seemed to me that television obsessively showed us images of death, yet almost always failed to put grief on display. Recently, television has ceased to shy away from mourning: the grieving and the bereft are now on constant display. Nevertheless, it seems unfortunate to me that these depictions often present mourning in the guise of patriotism and vice versa.

3 This statement applies even to 9/11 television coverage. Viewers had their senses assaulted with unbelievable images of architectural destruction, usually presented in a thoroughly undigested form: confusingly captioned, graphically overloaded, surrounded by running text, and carelessly interpreted; these images constituted a brilliant form of perceptual terrorism in their own right. But while the images of the twin towers in flames were shown compulsively and repeatedly, viewers were shielded from images of what was actually found in the rubble.

4 What happens when there is no body? Or when remains may be ascribed only through DNA testing, if at all? If one lacks such means of verification, when and how does mourning begin? When does "missing" turn to "gone," when does "lost" become "slain"? When does hope run out?

5 In the absence of a body, it seems that other signs can come to function in its place as indexical traces of someone who is no more (photographs and personal possessions, but also music, smells, etc.).