At first, before I got used to seeing them, the immobility of embalmed corpses struck me as false. They always seemed to be on the verge of jerking into vivid, horrifying motion--as if they might not just move a finger in an involuntary postmortem tremor, but actually dance and sing. Roland Barthes wrote that a snapshot of a dead person unsettles us because we instinctively think that what is real must be alive. The corpse is so thing-like, so inescapable, so obviously real, that it verges on hyper-animation.
If you have just lost a "loved one," as we say in the trade, you may not recognize this experience of mine. Looking at the corpse, you are struck by the fact that this is not the person you knew. You knew a living person, not this ritual re-assemblage of that which remains after death. For me, not a mourner but a death-worker, it is different: The disjunction between the live and the dead is invisible to me, because I did not know these people living. What strikes me, instead, is that I have seen them somewhere else, that I see these corpses daily, walking the streets of Seattle. And there are more of them all the time. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
My job--I'm a nighttime receptionist and caretaker--is being phased out in corporate-owned funeral homes. Soon there won't be anyone left like me, housed for "free" on the funeral-home premises, in the dismal trade but not of it, a marginal appendage to an antiquated establishment. I will be replaced by a more rational technological arrangement, for example, an armed-response alarm system and a remote voice-messaging service. Like the corpse, I myself am something of a remainder, a worker subjectivity formed in the 19th century and now destined for rapid disposal.
Herewith--before I cease to exist, or rather, after I have ceased to exist, since my job is already consigned to history--a report from the death trade in Seattle.
The funeral home is in the business of producing simulacra: your father or sister or cousin, lying eternally abed in a convincingly lifelike hue. I leave it to others to criticize the mixture of bad faith and existential quailing that are said to be behind this practice of making a corpse look as if it reposed in the bloom of health. What has gone unnoticed, in the criticism of the American way of death, is the uncanny architecture of the funeral home, and what it tells us about defining the place of the dead.
The very first likeness any funeral home produces is that of the "home" itself. Dead bodies used to be washed, dressed, and laid out at the home of the deceased by the women in the family. Now that this labor is done by paid hands, commerce is covered over with a veneer of domesticity. The funeral business, in providing itself with this cover, has produced a truly uncanny home: the home where no one lives. The blandness of the funeral-home interior is intended not merely to soothe mourners, but to plausibly simulate the home of the deceased--this unobjectionable sofa, this indifferent bit of chinoiserie could have been chosen by the man who lies in state today in the slumber room--why not? And tomorrow, the same props will stand in as the "home" of a different dead person. Not only does the funeral home suggest that the afterworld is just like this one (but with a slightly dowdier decorating scheme), the funeral home also sets up a space where the dead are neither at home nor away. Precisely in setting up a place for the dead, we find that they have been displaced.
This same function of the funeral home, the uncanny displacement of the dead, is at work on a larger scale in the city. Seattle has a history of corpses that cannot stay in one place. I'm not talking about anything so quaint or colorful as ghosts. When Seattle tries to put death in a place where it can safely be forgotten, death returns to dislocate Seattle's sense of place.
In Seattle, death has attained a peculiar legal standing; the city has a "death zoning law" in its charter. In 1908, the charter was amended to prohibit "the establishment or platting of new cemeteries or the extension of existing cemeteries within the limits of the City of Seattle." This attempt to banish the dead from the city limits has failed, but to see this requires a detour through the history of cemeteries.
Like Seattle itself, the modern cemetery was an invention of the 19th century. Before there were cemeteries as we know them, the (Christian) dead were buried in crowded churchyards or in catacombs. City dwellers once lived in what we would consider a horrifying proximity to rotting bodies; ossuaries contained such a jumble of bones that only Judgment Day could sort them out into discrete individual bodies. But after the Enlightenment, people were no longer willing to await the Resurrection before getting those bones out of their sight. So the modern city of the living invented its own anti-city of the dead, the pastoral cemetery. And by the mid-19th century, the extra-urban cemetery had come into its own: It was an artificially landscaped paradise in easy commuting distance from the city, ideal for the edification of its visitors and the eternal peace of its inhabitants.
That the cemetery functioned as a park is a truism of American landscape history; Frederick Law Olmsted himself noted the similarity. But look closer--in a peaceful place outside the city, each body in its own little box, each box in its own tiny plat of greensward... the cemetery was the first suburb. Thus long before Levittown (or Bellevue) came into existence, all the techniques, architecture, and ideology of the suburbs were in place in the cemetery. If you don't believe that the cemetery is the origin of the suburb, you have only to look at the suburbanite. The technologically perfected body, the glassy stare, the inner rot--who can doubt that the suburbanite is modeled after the embalmed corpse? As Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, "Not only under ground are the brains of men/Eaten by maggots."
Thus the true meaning of sub-urb: not the outer or lesser city, but that which has always already begun to decay beneath or within the city. Seattle wanted to exclude that rot, to contain it and export it outside the city limits, and so it inscribed that exclusion in its very charter. But what is repressed has a way of returning, and Seattle's dead have never been good at staying in their place. The suburbs are erupting in the heart of the city, as the urban core is increasingly suburbanized by chain stores and franchises. The Gap, Old Navy, Anthropologie: It's the dawn of the dead in Seattle. The return of the living dead was assured the moment Seattle signed that 1908 decree.
In the slumber room, the embalmed corpse does not notice the shadows lengthening over him; he endures the coming night without feeling hunger or fatigue. Blind to time and history, impervious to want or distress, he does not appear to do anything, but he is busy nonetheless: His hair and nails are growing, while the rest of him is rotting. A city that stakes everything on growth may also find that there is rot within.