five vignettes about the stages of decomposition

tyla parks

ERIK KIRKLAND MEMORIAL PRIZE FINALIST

jane seibert

art by danielle fessler

Fresh

Sighing has become my new thing. Usually done in private: in bathroom stalls, in bed, after he goes to sleep. Sighing has become a way to readjust the weight and find another point that hasn’t become exasperated. My roommate asked me if I was okay as I had let a sigh slip. Yes,

I’m just tired. Can tired be a word used to encompass all the feelings words cannot be put to? It has become easier to sigh in private since wearing masks. It is a little secret and as I sigh into the pouch, I wonder if all the other masked faces are releasing silent sighs that move in tandem with shifting the weight of the world. 

On an August night that made my body heavy and fingers swell with heat, I woke with alarms going off internally. My neck, twisted to the side, was strained, the muscles screaming. I couldn’t turn my head to the left or look down without the muscles knotting, a living rigor mortis. I tended to sleep in the style of Lazarus, arms crossed at the chest. I slept as if I was buried under soil or encased in a golden sarcophagus, the weight of the dirt crushing my lungs, ribs, and neck. My neck stayed tilted to the side for a week and a day, in a haze of ibuprofen, Biofreeze, and lidocaine. I sighed more that week. There was a collapsing in my muscles as if they were turning in on each other, trying to cleave in and start the process of deteriorating early. 

Agonal breathing is the last gasps of the body before succumbing to death. Not to be confused with the death rattle that shakes the bones down to the marrow. A reflex of the brainstem, agonal breathing is characterized as the heart being unable to properly circulate blood blossoming with oxygen. A person who is experiencing agonal breathing may have suffered  from a heart attack or a stroke, all symptoms of living in a world that plugs the veins with worry. Or it may be the person is close to passing over. The quiet agonal breathing of the living is sighing. What is contained in those agonal breaths?  Last regrets, jokes, thoughts of “oh this is happening faster than I thought.” Whatever is contained in them, it is expelled into the atmosphere, soaked up by the trees before succumbing to the decay of fungi, and people who will live out their lives until being put into the ground. This is the beginning of the process. 

Bloat

Death is a part of life that needs accepting. But as a 21-year-old, invincibility is an attribute that comes easy. Autumn is a season where death is most prevalent. There are days dedicated to the deceased as we adorn them with beads and prayers. There is the sweet stench of decaying leaves, hands begin to turn to a bruised blue from the cold, the days shorten to a length where darkness arrives early. Autumn is the season of bloating. Horns of plenty overflown with maize, squash, and pumpkins. Distended stomachs laden with tryptophan. I’d like to think that there are small instances that prepare us for death. Mourning friendships that move to the wayside, losing a sock in the dryer, dropping an earring on the carpet. Owning plants is another such instance. 

In the beginning of the summer, where there was a possibility of normalcy, my aloe vera developed root rot. One stem was bleeding red and emitted the smell of body odor. A decaying arm that had to be cut off, I surgically peeled back the leaf to reveal the milky stem plastered with wet dirt and black ichor. I continued to peel off the leaf and the rot came along with it. I also lost a variegated fern. White speckled spots littered the circular leaves.  It had also developed rot and the stems began to droop and tighten up. Discoloration of the leaves left the limbs of the plant appearing soft. Measly bugs riddled the soil. I felt guilty for not realizing the signs of caring too much. I cared too much for the fern just as I cared too much for the jade plant, string-of-pearls, and rabbits-foot. I spread the limp bodies out in the furthest corner of the backyard, the dirt much darker than the dried patchy grass from hiding under the trampoline. Over time, the dark spot at the edge of my vision as I looked out the window while doing the dishes slowly disappeared and returned to its original state.  

There are six body farms in the United States. Located in areas meant to be the backdrops for flora and fauna, body farms are hospitals for the dead. Caged off four by six areas where the body is laid out, markers surrounding the limbs like lifelines. They tend to themselves without the caring hands of nurses and doctors, curing themselves until they deteriorate into the ground leaving the space empty for the next patient. In the state of bloating, bacteria take hold of the body like a parasite to a host. It takes five to 10 days after death for this to happen.  Anaerobic organisms seek shelter in the intestinal tract where gasses are produced and the body swells, secreting odors and liquids. The limbs turn dark and the face puffs out, the cheeks heavy with the skin beginning to sag. To deteriorate is an organic process.  We are returned to the earth and become a part of the elements and molecules that molded us in the womb.  

Body farms came into existence in the early 1970s. The first one, created by Dr. William Bass at the University of Tennessee, was created for further research in forensic taphonomy. Unclaimed bodies are donated, or people become pre-donors, a walking harvest. The six facilities focus on how the decomposing bodies are affected by certain weather or soil conditions. As humans, we have an interest in the state of the dead. From forensic anthropologists studying the time of death to the point at which the body is discovered to entomologists as they study how insects partake in the body. We tip-toe around lumps of grass so as to not disturb their sleep.  

Active Decay

Active and decay; two words I hadn’t thought could be put together. From tooth decay, hair loss, growing older, we are in a constant stage of actively decaying. The x-ray technician’s hand eaten up from radiation exposure. The woman found alive in the process of decomposing in her bed. What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger, until we are living corpses, hungry somnambulists like Cesare. I woke up to find small, fresh scratches on my arms and hands. The blood beginning to dry, the lines starting to harden. I traced my finger along the ridges. I rinsed them under water and inspect them, trying to remember the happenings of the night. I don’t sleepwalk.

The signs of a haunting can manifest as unknown scratches on the skin. It can be a sign of a poltergeist. It can be a sign of ghostly hands latching onto me,  attempting to pull me into the next stage that takes place after life. I am a part of the living. But the gossamer scratches that shimmer in the light say otherwise.  

Active decay is characterized by the strong odor and the blackening of the skin. Bodily fluids will secrete into the ground and insects will tear away at the flesh. 10 to 25 days after the moment of death. Almost a month later. The body would be unrecognizable up to this point.   

Photography was one of the first ways in which we could have a clear remembrance of the dead. Before, death masks were used, and sculptors would chisel and liken the stone to the mask. In the 19th and 20th centuries, post-mortem photography was a staple in Victorian society, who lived side by side with the dead. They were familiar and comforted by their own mortality and welcomed it in like it was an old friend. Memento mori they were called – “remember you must die.” The daguerreotypes, plated photographs, displayed the deceased posed as sleeping in chairs or cradles surrounded by family, reclined back on a lounge, lips halfway parted as if what they wanted to say was cut mid-sentence because their time had come, or propped up by metal rods that make the body appear stiff and cramped up.  Death was an active part of life during that period, shamelessly displayed. The arm of the deceased wrapped around their shoulder; the head positioned in their lap.  

I asked myself ubi sunt ui ante nos fuerunt, as I laid in bed. “Where are those who were before us?” A mediating phrase on life and mortality, commonly used in medieval poetry. “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” I ask myself. They remain in fragments.  In pieces of poems, snapshots, snippets of lyrics. Francois Villon wrote of the beautiful woman of yesteryear long gone up to the point where she enters into his verse, a memory of what once was. Laying in bed too long will make it feel as if the process has started. That the organisms in my gut believed me to be dead and will start to chip away at my skin. I made it a habit to turn my body when I am in the phantasmatic world between the stages of REM. Limbs thick and fleshy, heavy with sleep. I willed myself to shake them awake enough that I am sure they will not pull me into the decomposed state. 

Advanced Decay

Advanced decay is a terminal stage. The skin, hair, and tissue of the body becomes tattered and devoured by insects. This is almost 50 days after the moment of death. There is a look of eternal deterioration in the hollowed eyeholes, wisps femur or collarbone off to the next biological of hair clinging to the rounded skull.  Bones are revealed and may hop and skip away from the body’s original resting place. A missing process.  Scavengers may seek out the remains and feast on the bones. There is a dabbling in the deterioration process that makes it a part of the living. We poke at the bone to see how it will move, cut open bodies to examine and reflect what we are, and prevent the death of the consciousness.

Cryonics is an intervening hand that freezes the process. First introduced in 1962 by Robert Ettinger in The Prospect of Immortality, cryonics is a way in which the human body is preserved by freezing with the goal of possible revival in the future. There are over a hundred bodies being preserved at the moment, waiting to be revitalized in a future that is better off than the present they died in. Housed in a facility, they are left in the care of human hands. How does one care for a body that is in a numbered transient sleep? Death is nothing but a crossing of thresholds in their cases. Their damaged tissue will be repaired with nanotechnology. No more scratches, bruises, scars. The future doesn’t hold a place for that with its newness, modernity, freshness. They were planners. Thinking ahead of time to when they will rise from a leaden sleep.  

I have never been to a funeral; I have only ever been juxtaposed next to one. I could see the cemetery with a broken chain fence from my childhood window and see the pavilions lined with people surrounding dark mounds of dirt. My grandfather passed away when I was three, my great step-uncle when I was twelve. The people I know who have died aren’t buried, but cremated. Cremations are cheaper than a burial. Ashes standing on mantels, hidden in closets. I peeked into my mother’s closet searching for the red box that held my grandfather. He is hidden among freshly pressed blouses and dresses. He is hidden in the house that shuddered with life; a sixth member of the household anchored in the minds of mother, daughters, and sons. 

I used to wonder if there would be no more room in the ground for the deceased and if skeletons came to life under the basement floors I walked on. I used to hear tapping. I wondered if the uprooted trees on sidewalks were the cause of the dead being unrestful, bumping their heads against the concrete, looking for a way into the living world, not to be forgotten. I wondered if the shivers I got were from the ground below and not from someone trekking over my grave from up above. I wondered if the decaying of my skeleton was coming early, with arthritic hands and muscle convulsions. 

Vivid dreams plagued me when I was growing up. Always the person standing above me, the figures on the walls, the sounds of terror. I wouldn’t leave my bed, transfixed until needles began puncturing my bent arm or pivoted leg. When there was a lapse in the darkness, I ran through and into my mother’s room where I stood at her bedside willing her to wake. I shook her awake and she turned and mumbled a “go back to sleep.” Part of the night I sat at the edge of her bed, frozen, volatile, and vulnerable, an extension of the extension of my grandfather in her closet. 

Skeletonized

The final process is the skeletonization or the drying of the bones. This is 50 days or more after the time of death. The skin tattered away, the hair nonexistent and the tendons scavenged. The bones may become dry and brittle and the elements may take charge and erase the thought that there ever was a body present. Preservation may occur in the right conditions. But it is not guaranteed. Mummification is another route of the process.  In this, the deceased is eternal and holds a beauty in the state of the decomposition. The skin pulled taut over cheekbones, eyelids closed remembering the last point of time, the memory replaying in perpetuity. The last image of the dead we receive is the skeleton and the bareness of the bones as it is reduced to its essential state.

I had a bout of sleep paralysis once. My limbs stiffened and fused to the sheet, my eyes open staring at the ceiling waiting for it to pass. How long does it take for death to pass? It lasted for a few minutes. A wave of air washed over my body as I inhabited it again. My skeleton laid heavy against the mattress; I felt a spring digging into my back. Just as death kindly stopped for Emily Dickinson, he stopped for me. He moved across the walls, in and out of the predawn light and stood at my head. He lifted his hand; I let out a sigh.  

Works Consulted

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“About Cryonics: Cryonics Institute.” About Cryonics | Cryonics Institute, www.cryonics.org/about-us/.

“Agonal Breathing: What You Need to Know.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321974#agonal-breathing-vs-death-rattle.

Bell, Bethan. “Taken from Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography.” BBC News, BBC, 4 June 2016, www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581.

Kazmeyer, Milton. “The Stages of the Human Decomposition Process.” Education, 29 Sept. 2016, education.seattlepi.com/stages-human-decomposition-process-4705.html.

Raymunt, Monica. “Down on the Body Farm: Inside the Dirty World of Forensic Science.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 Dec. 2010, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/12/down-on-the-body-farm-inside-the-dirty-world-of-forensic-science/67241/.

Scheve, Tom. “How Body Farms Work.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 27 Jan. 2020, science.howstuffworks.com/body-farm3.htm.