Alimentary, My Dear Catherine

By Bruce Bethke

It’s a peculiar truth about us humans: death both repels and fascinates us. While it’s tempting to dismiss this as merely a predictable side effect of our being both mortal and cognizant of our own mortality, that explanation hardly seems adequate. On the one hand, we devote enormous amounts of time, money, and energy to the question of whether there is in fact some portion of ourselves that exists beyond the confines of our mere physical bodies, and if so, what happens to this immaterial component when we die. On the other hand, we also have a profound if somewhat disquieting fascination with la danse macabre–with the actual methods, appearances, and processes of death and decay, especially if the death in question is unexpected, untimely, and most importantly, someone else’s. We routinely slow down in order to gawk at terrible traffic accidents. We queue up weeks in advance to buy tickets to view the plasticine people in Gunter von Hagens’s traveling human taxidermy exhibit, Body Worlds. We even have a special term in the lexicon for just this sort of interest: “morbid curiosity.”

It’s testimony to the dedication of our emergency services personnel and the skills of our medical professionals that so very few of us ever get the chance to develop firsthand knowledge of either aspect of death (at least, such that we can talk about it later), and so we turn to vicarious experiences and the words of others in order to slake our thirst for knowledge. But which  …

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