Caitlin Doughty writes about two recent cases where people came across the bodies of dead people but then dumped them, thinking that they were mannequins put out as pranks. She is the owner of a funeral home and she says that part of the problem is that too few people spend any time at all with their deceased loved ones, thinking that they must quickly shunt them off to funeral homes, and thus have little idea of what a dead person looks like.
How could this happen twice in the span of two years? The answer lies in our strained, often non-existent relationship to the dead body. In the Western world, Halloween mannequins are more of a reality than a real dead body. The misidentification of a corpse by civilians is not a surprising outcome, it is the only outcome.
I opened my latest book with the story of a daughter who wanted to keep her mother at home after she died. The hospice nurse, well intentioned though she may have been, erroneously told the daughter that to do this would be illegal, that the funeral home had to come take away the body immediately. The daughter feared that something she desperately wanted for her own healing was morbid and wrong.
Meeting our dead, in their natural state, is something Americans practiced for hundreds of years before the rise of the modern funeral industry (and the chemical preservation and makeup that came with it). Anyone who has cared for their own dead knows it is a simple transition back to that time past. Our dead have almost magic powers—an outsized, powerful, and unexpectedly profound effect on the grieving individual. Even if we fear them, we must see them for what they are—treasure, not trash.
If you had asked me before whether I could tell the difference between a dead person and a mannequin, I would have said of course. But after reading this, I am not so sure. When I have been to open-casket funerals of people I have known, they do not look quite like what they did when alive. Given the increasing life-like appearance of mannequins these days, maybe I could get confused too.