Great Bone Structure

I may have mentioned that my dream house would look like a Victorian study/wunderkammer. I’m already partway there, with my specimens and pictures of bugs and bats and my curios from around the world, but someday I will have more. Oh yes, I will have more.

Specifically, I would love a collection of animal skulls. Animals look like fantastical monsters without their skin, and I find them fascinating. But I currently have nowhere to put a collection of skulls, so for now I make do with one tiny muskrat skull. Someday, though, I would love to have a proper home library with beautiful dark wood book shelves and a few choice specimens on display.

They’d have to be mostly replicas–I’m not about to hunt a giraffe or net a sea turtle or harpoon an Indus River dolphin–there are just so many problems there, both ethical and practical. Replicas would do just fine. And while we’re talking replicas, I might like a replica child’s skull complete with all those teeth waiting to grow in. It’s funny, I really enjoy looking at skulls and imagining where the muscles attach and why they’re shaped the way they are, but looking at all those extra teeth hiding inside a kid’s skull freaks me out a bit.


Book: Working Stiff

working stiffI just finished Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell. Melinek is the Medical Examiner, Mitchell is her husband who knows how to write. 🙂 I loved the book, but parts were hard to read. You can imagine a medical examiner’s job is hard sometimes, and Melinek doesn’t hold much back. This book is great, but not for everyone.

I’m up for almost any true story and most fictional ones, no matter how sad or weird or gruesome. Believe it or not, it’s not a morbid streak. It’s more that I think all stories should be told, even the dark and sad ones. Every true story should have witnesses, and we can listen and learn from everything. Many people, even darkly inclined people, shy away from stuff like this, and I’ve always had a weird compulsion to make up for that by looking even more at the dark and the sad and the weird and trying harder to learn something from it, to understand the world better and be a better person because of it.

Which is how I end up reading about autopsies. In vivid detail. Not everyone wants to read about this stuff, so I won’t go into specifics, but if you’re good with bodies and decay and hearing about traumatic death this is a fascinating book. Melinek shares her forensic expertise without losing (in my opinion) her compassion for the dead and for the living they leave behind. She’s honest about her personal feelings and about sometimes being jaded or tired or judgmental, as well as having a real respect for the forensic process and the people she deals with at one of the worst times in their lives.

This book didn’t really give me deep thoughts about life and death. Instead it made me think of all the people who deal with death every day so that you and I don’t have to, and how important and thankless that work can be.

Most of the book, and most of Melinek’s job, was ordinary death. Illness, medical complications, accidents, suicide, drug overdose. There are so many ways to die, and each body tells a story if you know how to read it. These stories were sometimes gross (decomposition doesn’t sound pretty), once or twice funny, and always full of interesting medical facts. For most of the book I was able to put myself in the doctor’s shoes and read about strap muscles and vital reaction with a scientist’s detached interest. There were moments, though, when the sad stories behind those clinical details were hard to read, just as they seemed hard for the doctor to put aside as she did her work.

The hardest parts to read were near the end. A couple of the murders she described really tugged at my heartstrings, but Melinek’s description of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and her office’s exhausting efforts to identify remains and give families some certainty about their loved ones had me bawling. I was states away during the attacks and didn’t know anyone personally involved, and though I followed the news like everyone else it didn’t really cover the awful details people like Melinek had to process every day for weeks. It brought back memories while really bringing home sorrows I’d never even thought of. With more recent European terrorism and U.S. disasters in mind, it made for some tough reading and dark thoughts.

Like I said, this kind of reading is not for everyone. That kind of job is not for everyone. But I’m glad there are people who can do it, speaking for the dead and doing what they can to help the living cope with death. I hope this book inspires a few others to continue the work, and I hope understanding the detailed human cost of violence, all the pain it causes for everyone involved, helps push humanity toward more peace and compassion.


Reading about Death: Two Books

First Book: Smoke Gets in your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

I liked Ask a Mortician so much I read Caitlin’s book. It’s an easy read as long as you’re not too squeamish about dead bodies. If you are squeamish about dead bodies it’s a harder read, but still worth it. It’s not just a sensational memoir. There are a lot of ‘work stories’ about cremation and embalming, interspersed with historical and philosophical thoughts about death and our relationship to it.

Her basic point is that Americans (and probably many other Western nations) have hidden away and sanitized the death process too much and have sort of lost our way because of it. She wants people to be prepared for death and thoughtful about it instead of terrified or in denial, and I think the detailed stories of body pick-ups, cremations, and enbalmings work for that purpose. Some people could see them as sensational or disrespectful, but I saw them as demystifying death and dead bodies. I appreciated the honesty.

I enjoyed the historical stories and appreciate her philosophy on “the good death,” one planned for and done with dignity. I didn’t agree with her on every detail, but I came away from the book with a lot to think about and a hope that Caitlin’s work will get more people to think about death in a new light.

Second Book: Dead Mountain: the Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar

I’ve always been interested in creepy historical stuff–unsolved mysteries, unexplained events, legends of ghosts and monsters–so I’d read about Dyatlov Pass before. to put it super briefly, in 1959 a group of hikers/mountaineers attempted a difficult winter trip and died. It was obvious from the start that they left their tent without proper clothing and died of exposure, but no one could figure out why they left their tent without proper clothing. It’s all very mysterious.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Donnie jumps back and forth between the hikers’ journey, the investigation of their deaths, and his own trips to Russia to see the mountain pass for himself and meet people involved in the case. The suspense builds nicely and I got both a good sense of the Dyatlov group and a taste of Soviet society at the time. There’s a lot of detail about the Incident and its aftermath and a solid discussion of various theories put forth over the years, but the whole book still feels like an interesting story about people instead of a catalog of facts. It’s very well done.

I’m being purposely vague about the details because I don’t want to ruin the fun of the book, but Donnie ends with the most satisfying theory I’ve yet heard about the Incident. It’s unproven but testable, and I hope someone gets the money and time to do it one day.


Thanks to Septicemia’s post, I’ve been watching Ask a Mortician all afternoon. When I got to the episode on Open Eye Wakes and Body Farms, she plugged a friend’s book and I realized that Hot Damn I Read That One! We’re kindred spirits!
I read Ghostland: an American History in Haunted Places last October, before I started this blog, so I didn’t think to write about it. I loved it, though, so I’m writing about it now. A lot of “haunted America” type books are just story collections, and while I like that, I loved that this book was so much more. It discusses what kinds of ghost stories we tell and why we tell them. It’s less ‘history of ghosts’ and more ‘how we use ghosts stories to deal with our history.’

It’s not a dry-but-thorough examination of American hauntings, but more a series of musings about famously haunted places and what the stories tell us about their history. It was a relaxing pre-Halloween read, and especially good for those who like a spooky atmosphere without too much blood and gore. Be warned, though, that it does have some discussion of slavery, and slavery is always hard to stomach.

If you know and like U.S. history and culture at all, this book is a fresh and interesting way of looking at it. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get beyond the stories and look at why we tell them in the first place.

Plan Your Epitaph Day


There are actually two international Plan Your Epitaph days, so if this one has caught you unprepared you’ll have another chance on November 2. It’s never too early to plan for your inevitable demise.

Goths have a reputation for being “obsessed with death” but in my experience we’re really not. It’s more that non-goths are so obsessed with avoiding death that they get weird the moment you bring it up. Even goths can be more interested in abstract death and dying than our own plans for the future, but it pays to be prepared.

If I didn’t believe that before, it became all too clear a few Aprils ago when a good friend died in surgery. She, like so many people, didn’t have much of a plan and would not have approved of all the decisions made in her name. Since then, every April my thoughts turn both to her and to my own future affairs.

To that end, Mr. Robot and I have bought life insurance and written wills. We’ve discussed organ donation (hell yes) and what point we want each other to stop live-saving measures. And we’ve made basic plans for our funerals and remains. I plan to be cremated and, if I die too long before Mr. Robot, to have my ashes put in a tasteful urn (red and black preferred) and prominently placed in the living room. Mr. Robot is hoping for a green burial–one where they plant a tree over your grave–and I’d like my ashes spread and buried with him. Our kids like the idea that we’d be “in the tree,” continuing the cycling and recycling of life.

This plan doesn’t really need an epitaph, but I wouldn’t mind a tasteful plaque near our tree. I’d quite like this quote from the Mahabharata:

What is the greatest wonder? Death strikes every day, yet we live as if we were immortal.

May you live long, die well, and leave timeless last words. In the meantime, perhaps these epitaphs will entertain and inspire you.