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Why We Love Dead Things

Why is death at the heart of great romance?

Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, "The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." This statement is deeply morbid, of course, especially coming from a man who suffered the deaths of his mother and his wife while both were still young, and, to him, beautiful. It's also rather sexist, not to say misogynist, reducing the female corpse to an object of aesthetic contemplation, and possibly erotic desire.

Still, Poe, despite the disturbing nature of his assertion, is touching upon an idea that is quite mainstream, and powerful: romantic love and death-hunger are forever wedded. Think of those epic romances—Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet—in which romance reaches its zenith when the lovers, young and beautiful, die in each other's arms: amour consummated for all eternity.

Love stories with only one lover dying have likewise mesmerized us, most recently in cinematic tearjerkers like Titanic, Moulin Rouge, Ghost, and Steel Magnolias. The beloved, again gorgeous, expires before the lover's mournful gaze, and at that moment becomes a pale monument to be enduringly adored.

Richard Wagner's title for the final aria of Tristan and Isolde offers a concise name for this macabre transcendence: Liebestod, "love-death." The composer's work suggests one reason why heroic love is linked to death. Amorous fires burn hottest when the beloved is inaccessible. Death produces this consuming passion by ripping the beloved away from human contact, and leaving in his or her place an untouchable yet abiding memory.

John Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" invokes this idea when he describes a picture of a young lover on the verge of kissing his darling. Though he is imprisoned in anticipation, he shouldn't grieve, for "she cannot fade" and he will love her always and she will always be "fair."

If Keats were alive today, he might transform this poetic sentiment into the morbidly hip imperative: "live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse." This iconic line intimates the sinister underbelly of Liebestod's grandiosity: our propensity to exploit the deaths of sexy celebrities for cheap erotic thrills. We can deny this unseemly tendency, but how else to account for our culture's obsession with Lady Di, James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Janice Joplin, and so many others who burned out rather than faded away?

Freud believed that our most basic urges are Eros and Thanatos, sex and ruin. We frequently commingle the two. (The wild popularity of True Blood and Twilight, dithyrambs to the hot-bodies of the living dead, is only one example.) The French have long called an orgasm la petite mort, the little death, pithily expressing the duplicity of sexual climax: explosion of pleasure, evacuation of energy. Ecstasy's breathlessness pants and gasps at once.

Romance at its height worships the crypt. Sex is best with one foot in the grave. Halloween is the true Valentine's Day. We've all gone Goth.

There's obviously a danger in this macabre nexus, hinted at by Poe's ghoulish maxim: lovely death can devolve into deathly love, either an unhealthy devotion toward those who have passed away or a similarly unwholesome lust for dehumanized bodies.

The former phenomenon can result in debilitating nostalgia, an inability to transfer affection for the departed to present possibilities: unexpected meetings, novel flirtations. The latter situation, erotic fixation on inanimate anatomies, can lead to a similar dysfunction-a pornographical insensitivity that flattens vibrant beings to sexualized commodities.

Keats keeps us from these destructive excesses. In his ode to the urn, he reminds us that images of the dead, no matter how attractive, are cold, aloof. They are also dangerous, seducing us to value eternity over time, stasis over growth.

The lesson: to fasten to dead things in hopes of rising above the pain of time, its decays and its sicknesses and its rush toward ugliness, is actually to fall into the greatest agony of the temporal world: isolation from living creatures, great and small.

In another ode, to melancholy, Keats explores a joyous form of death-love. We experience a being's beauty as its most luminous, he claims, only by embracing the fact that this being will die, is dying this second. We witness the rose's petals quavering in the wind and we sense their fragility and we want to hold hard to this instant, appreciate its full exuberance, because it will soon be gone.

This love is of moving death, not death that has stopped. It blooms brightest when parents grow ill or a daughter ages. It blends memento mori (remember death) with carpe diem (seize the day). It knows the deep truth of the cliché: time is short; make the most of it.

Unexpectedly, the eternally optimistic Ralph Waldo Emerson eerily resembles Poe. A young Emerson visited the tomb of his deceased wife Ellen a year after she succumbed to tuberculosis. Soon after, he wrote that "even the corpse has its own beauty."

Emerson's corpse worship, however, differs fundamentally from that of Poe. Whereas Poe would languish all year by the crypt of his beloved, foregoing the colors of the seasons, Emerson would gaze upon his dead wife but a moment, and then move out into the ripening autumn, and there apprehend the love of death that creates the demise of despair.

For more about me, see my facebook page for Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away, my forthcoming book and the basis of this article: