Staring Death in the Face

The visual cultures of the Paris Morgue and Buddhist death meditation.

Posted Jul 07, 2020

One million annual visitors flooded the Paris Morgue during the last few decades of the 19th century. Eager tourists jostled in front of a large glass viewing window to ogle anonymous corpses, and going to the morgue was often compared to going to the theatre.

It’s hard to imagine taking your entire family to the morgue for a Sunday afternoon treat. In large part, that’s because most 21st-century Americans have a more distant and sanitized relationship to death. In the words of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” and as he argues, we have become experts at denying death.

Of course, we know that we’re going to die someday, but that’s very different from coming face-to-face with death regularly. So, why did 19th-century police, doctors, and media encourage the spectacle of dead bodies in the Paris Morgue? Why did spectators enjoy these gruesome sights? And more generally, how does seeing death on a daily basis alter one’s understanding of human life?  

The Spectacle of the Morgue

Prior to the 19th century, the morgue was little more than a storeroom in the basement of a Paris prison. Anonymous bodies were stored there, and families could come look in the hopes of finding their missing loved ones.

As historian Vanessa Schwartz explains, in 1804, the morgue was moved to a specially designated building with a nicer display room, and in 1864, it was relocated once again, to an even more accessible site in the middle of the city.

With each move, the display became more visible. Other European cities had morgues, but Paris was the only place with a public viewing window open during daylight hours, seven days a week. The morgue became a neighborhood gathering spot, frequented by men, women, and children of all social classes.

It’s hard to overstate the popularity of the morgue. After a woman’s severed body was found in the Seine in 1876, 300,000 to 400,000 people filed through to see it. Within a few days of the accidental death of a 4-year-old girl, more than 150,000 people came to look.

The popular press latched on to the public’s fascination with the “real-life theater” of the morgue, and they ran front-page stories about the dead. Newspapers exploited sensational narratives, and readers gobbled up tales of death alongside current events.

At the morgue, death was not only visible; it was proactively put on display. It’s easy to write this pastime off as a form of morbid curiosity. But many 19th-century spectators didn’t see the morgue this way. It was a civic institution with a purpose, and it reminded Parisians that death was a part of everyday life. People of all social classes and genders mingled to face the stark reality of death. By confronting these stories of anonymous mortality, they confronted their own fragility and vulnerability.

As norms slowly shifted, bourgeois families began questioning the respectability of looking at the dead. The morgue was finally closed to the public in 1907, amid a sea of protest.

Meditations on the Dead

We only consider the spectacle of the morgue “strange” because it conflicts with our own views on death. Over the last 60 years, writers like Jessica Mitford and Caitlin Doughty have drawn increased attention to the prevalence of thantatophobia (fear of death) in America and Europe.

Meanwhile, other cultural traditions place significant value on seeing death and decay. For example, in certain Buddhist traditions, meditating on corpses in a powerful way to impress mortality on the mind.

In Buddhism, dukkha, or suffering, is a fact of human life. To come to grips with mortality, the Wat Toong monks and nuns of Thailand spend a great deal of time around cadavers or looking at photographs of corpses. They fixate on the sights of death and decay, in order to fix the images in their memory.

As anthropologist Alan Klima explains, this isn’t a simple process. First, practitioners learn to concentrate their mental attention through breathwork and mindfulness practices. Then, they transfer their attention to the corpse or photograph. They study and memorize a variety of gruesome aspects, learning to call to mind images of bodies at every stage of decay, from livid and gnawed to worm-infested and skeletal.

Once they have immersed themselves in these sights, Klima explains, “mediators perform the crucial next step of imagining themselves as such a corpse, applying the visualization to their own body (199).” Over time, they learn to accept that their bodies will undergo the same changes.

This experience is not viewed by practitioners as negative or taboo; in fact, it’s valued and desired. It brings positive changes in the self because it gives insight into bodily existence and allows the meditator to accept physical reality. Looking at death allows us to accept it.  

Death Positivity

As Ernest Becker suggested, the denial of death is a basic human drive that helps us keep our fear at bay. It depends on a kind of fundamental narcissism, which “keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him" (2).

But perhaps we’ve taken our denial too far. When people feel themselves to be impervious, they tend to act as if they are—and this blinds them to the effects their actions have on other people. In America, we are unfortunately witnessing this all too clearly with responses to COVID-19.

Perhaps, as a society, it would be beneficial for us to draw a little closer to death again. That’s the argument of the death positive movement, most clearly articulated by an organization called The Order of the Good Death. Their first tenet is, “I believe that by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.”

After all, our attitudes about death have a profound impact on how we live.

References

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press, 1973.

Doughty, Caitlin. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.

Klima, Alan. The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. (Klima’s research was the foundation for the section on Buddhist meditation.)

Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.

The Order of the Good Death. http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com

Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. (Schwartz’s research was the foundation for this article’s treatment of the Paris Morgue.)