The D-Word


At the Cincinnati Art Museum


I’ve never seen a dead person who wasn’t already embalmed and funeral-ready. The idea of being right there in the presence of a fresh corpse terrifies me. (I’m not crazy about open-casket visitations, either.) In fact, just thinking about writing about real-life corpses sent me running for a bag of potato chips, and I spent the last ten minutes eating them obsessively because everyone knows it’s easier to approach difficult subjects bolstered by potato chips. Or chocolate. Or wine.

The one time I came close to discovering a corpse was more than two decades ago, when I was on my way to church with my mother-in-law-to-be. We stopped at another house on the farm to pick up the lovely elderly Englishwoman, Laura Brown, who had once been my father-in-law’s nanny, but she didn’t come out when we pulled up, and no one answered when I knocked on the door. The door was always unlocked. I could’ve walked inside, alone, to call for her. But I chickened out. As I came down the front steps, I was already certain she was dead. My MIL-to-be joined me, and I followed her into the house. She didn’t call out, but went directly to the small bedroom off the kitchen (Miss Brown slept there because it was warmer in the winter than the master bedroom). “She’s been dead a while,” my MIL-to-be said. “Lividity has settled in. And she has her glasses on.” I knew what lividity was, and I could see from the kitchen that the bedside lamp was still on. My MIL-to-be was matter of fact, and very brave. Her own mother had died at home, surrounded by the family, only five or so years earlier, and I guessed that was why she was so calm. I didn’t feel equipped to go in that bedroom–and what would I have done if I had? Stare? It felt weird and unseemly and frightening.

Someone called the undertakers, and they arrived in their black Suburban in their black suits, and Laura Brown, in her black body bag, was carried on a gurney from the house and lifted gently into the SUV. The doors closed on her, and I never saw her again. There was no visitation, no open casket. Only the church service and the cremation and our memories of  her.

When I later spent an afternoon at the house, I went into the bedroom, but the bed had been stripped. I tried to imagine her there, slumped against the headboard of the single bed, her book open, her glasses on, the light from the bedside lamp being slowly dissipated by the sun rising outside the window. I have imagined her in that room a lot over the years, wondering what would have happened if I had gone inside instead of lingering in the kitchen, afraid. The answer is that nothing would have happened. She wasn’t going to spring magically to life and give me a heart attack. Anything that might have escaped her body had been expelled hours before. But I would have seen her in death. And maybe I would have stopped being afraid.

Somehow I suspect that death will give me a second chance. I hope I will be brave.

Many crime writers I know have visited morgues and attended autopsies to further their craft. I admire that so much. I’ve done photo research on the Internet, and that’s close enough for me. I suppose if it were critical for me to go to an autopsy, I would go because authenticity is important. But, frankly, I think I’d rather wait for a really good virtual reality program than seek out a dead body. When we are dead, our bodies cease to be anything but discarded meat suits (to use one of my fave Supernatural phrases). I’d no more want to attend an autopsy than I would want to attend a hog butchering.

So, how did this rather long blog on my limited experience with death come about? I simply meant to mention to you that I recently finished reading Morgue: A Life and Death, by Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell. Di Maio is a kind of forensic scientist to the stars. He’s worked on cases from Lana Clarkson/Phil Spector to Lee Harvey Oswald, to Trayvon Martin and the West Memphis 3. He even has interesting things to say about Vincent van Gogh’s mysterious death. It’s a detailed, gossipy, fascinating book–but be prepared to feel a sense of overkill (see what I did there?). There’s a LOT of death. Plenty of murder, mayhem, and conspiracy theories (mostly debunked), too. Highly recommended, and, like death, not for the faint of heart. ❤️


May 9th Words
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7 thoughts on “The D-Word”

  1. skyecaitlin says:

    Your description of obsessively eating potato chips, chocolate and drinking wine made me smile. My husband and my MIL had never been to a funeral, and when we needed to go to my mil’s brother’s funeral, they both hovered in the back of the funeral home and refused to go up to pay their respects ( sadly both are also gone at ages, far too young); however, I have been at many funerals, refused to attend an autopsy and feel much like you.
    I love psychological thrillers, but can do without an ‘up close, personal description’ and prefer to use my imagination. I give you credit for reading the book you describe.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      I confess I was more affected by that book than I assumed I’d be, Skye. A couple of times it really pulled me up short, and I thought, “I don’t really want to know this.”

      How difficult for your MIL and husband. I’m sorry. 💜

      1. skyecaitlin says:

        You are so very compassionate, Laura, and I was very moved by JT’s comment as well.

  2. J.T. Ellison says:

    My first was a poor homeless man who managed to get into the hotel we were staying at in DC, take the elevator up to our floor, and lay down in an alcove and passed away in the night. I was 14. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen, and really affected me. I was just so happy he had a warm safe place in the end. I’m one of the ones who’s done autopsies, and it’s a fascinating, and spiritual, experience. But I don’t like it, not one bit. I don’t blame you in the least for not rushing in to see the body. I think she appreciated the respect you showed. JMTC…

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      Oh, I don’t think you’ve ever told me the story of the homeless man. So poignant. I can imagine that affected you deeply.

      I thought of you and the autopsies. You’re my hero(ine). And thank you for your opinion on Miss Brown. I think it would’ve embarrassed her for me–a relative stranger–to see her in that state.

  3. Phyllis Jean Moore says:

    Back in my student days the hospital morgue personell notified off duty nursing students of a pending autopsy. They were conducted as educational events and with modesty to the deceased. I found the O.R. and O. B. more traumatic.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      That’s fascinating, Phyllis. There certainly would be much more trauma in those areas.

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