This is the latest in a series of essays titled “Man has premonition of own death”

I’ve yet to see a dead person as nature intended, pre-embalming, before the sewn lips and eyelids, before the makeup, before the pink powder and blush, before the hairdye to touch up the hair, before the mortician entwines the fingers and rests the deceased’s hands properly and prissily open their chest.

I really don’t mind the thought of embalming and making the dead as pretty as possible before they embark on their final voyage. I avoid wakes whenever possible anyway, but if I have to go, I’d rather go to a wake where the body is not yet smelling and decomposing and gruesome.

I’ve seen autopsy photos. I know people often die with their eyes open and their eyes stay open until someone gently shuts them. I don’t know the science of this, but I gather that the eyelids of the dead tend to pop back open after you close them, hence the old practice of placing heavy coins upon the eyes. Nowadays, I gather, the eyes are sewn or glued. And so the dead look like they’re sleeping, although if you look closely you soon realize that it’s a weird, disconcerting sleep, the deepest sleep, the sleep from which we do not stir, the sleep in which the eyes never move and twitch, in which there is no dreaming soul behind the eyes.

Emily Dickinson writes:

I like a look of Agony, Because I know it’s true — Men do not sham Convulsion, Nor simulate, a Throe — The Eyes glaze once — and that is Death — Impossible to feign The Beads upon the Forehead By homely Anguish strung

Dylan sings: “Everybody’s wearing a disguise/To hide what they got left behind their eyes.” Maybe the morticians in our midst should consider this: Maybe you should not staple or sew or glue shot the eyes of the deceased. Warn us beforehand, if you like, so the more timid among us will not faint upon the sight, but leave the eyelids open. Let us see the blank expression, that infinite emptiness, that obvious lack of life, that look that looks to be very much like fright.

Maybe we need to look death straight in the eye. Maybe it would be good for us. Or maybe what gets us through life is managing to look the other way when Mister Death beckons with his bony finger.



One thought on “A look of agony

  1. “Maybe we need to look death straight in the eye.” That is exactly what Emmett Till’s mother thought. More precisely, she wanted the country to look hate-fueled murder in the eye when she had her teenage son’s body tour the country in the state his murderers left it in.

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