The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.

I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?

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One of the preserved paws of the Siberian dog (Photo Credit: Sergey Fyodorov, NEFU)

This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.

Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.

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The head and front limbs of the preserved foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body.  A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by  them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.

The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.

Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.

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Close-up photo of the preserved hooves of the foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.

As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).

Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?

References

Associated Press. (2018) Ancient Horse Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/foal-permafrost-1.4797543?cmp=rss

Day, J. (2013) Facing the Mummy: Physiognomy, Facial Reconstruction, and the ‘Delirious Biographies’ of Egyptian Mummies. 8th International Congress on Mummy Studies.

Gertcyk, O. (2018) Cute First Pictures of 50,000 Year Old Cave Lion Cub Found Perfectly Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cute-first-pictures-of-new-50000-year-old-cave-lion-cub-found-perfectly-preserved-in-permafrost-of-yakutia/

Redman, S. (2016) Reconsidering BodyWorlds: Why Do We Still Flock to Exhibits of Dead Human Beings? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Seu, I.B. (2015) Appealing Children: UK Audiences’ Responses to the Use of Children in Humanitarian Communications. The International Communication Gazette. 77(7). pp. 654-667.

Siberian Times Reporter. (2018) ‘Sibling’ of Oldest Mummified Puppy in the World Found Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0386-sibling-of-oldest-mummified-puppy-in-the-world-found-preserved-in-permafrost/

Starr, M. (2018) Incredibly Preserved 40,000 Year Old Extinct Baby Horse Has Been Unearthed in Siberia. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/extinct-equus-lenensis-lena-horse-pleistocene-foal-found-preserved-near-perfect-permafrost

Wright, P. (2017) Empathising with Bog Bodies: Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sublime. Brief Encounters. 1(1).

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2 thoughts on “The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

  1. Excellent text! A recent example of the public reacting to a preserved body could be found in Lund (the university town where I have my Alma Mater) where the 17th-century bishop Peder Winstrup was on display for a while after a grave opening.

    https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/skane/den-forsta-biskopen-fick-sin-sista-vila

    Regarding skeletal remains: I wonder if the sight of a human skull may trigger an evolutionary warning signal, saying ”humans are getting killed in this place – stay away!”. Hence the coolness of the skull symbol (just like spiders, scorpions and snakes and creatures with spiky teeth and claws are cool).

    Liked by 1 person

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