About the woman who lived with corpsesPosted: July 6, 2010
For anyone who hasn’t read this story, this post is written in response to the story of a 91-year-old woman, Jean Stevens, who lived with the corpses of her husband and twin.
I am worried that I am not nearly as appalled as I should be. I do not think digging up dead loved one’s bodies is a good idea, but this poor woman. How sad. How terribly, terribly sad. The two people she loved most are dead, and she just wanted to be able to physically feel them again. It’s not right. But there’s something achingly earnest in her actions, which makes it hard for me to write her off as strictly insane.
I took a class in college that was about the social construction of objects. In the beginning of the class, it seemed like a complete waste of time. At first, we learned that humans give significance to objects. No real shocker there. But as the class progressed, it became more and more fascinating to understand how we fill our lives with things, and thus, with their interlocking layers of meanings.
I bring this up because we read a heart-wrenching piece by Linda Layne called “He was a real baby with baby things,” which examines how women who go through miscarriages, stillbirths and other tragedies use the tangible baby items as a way to solidify that child’s existence. It discussed how women who go through those experiences often felt that they had to first prove that they had a reason to grieve. Their sad proof was often an empty room filled with unused objects.
Through the buying, giving, and preserving of things, women and their social networks actively construct their babies-to-be and would-have-been babies as ‘real babies’ and themselves as ‘real mothers’, worthy of the social recognition this role entails.
I’m not saying Stevens had the bodies dug up in order to prove that she once had love. Or in order to prove that she has every reason to grieve. I do think there’s something to consider in her need for a physical reminder of loss.
Everyone knows that we’re in an increasingly digitalized, and thus more intangible, era. It’s what has anthropologists and historians sweating bullets because it’s increasingly difficult to document our progression. We’ve replaced letters with emails, phone calls with text messages, post-it notes with auto-reminders on our cell phones or laptops. This is without even mentioning that the very future of books, once the cornerstone to our educational system, is now constantly debated.
I don’t print out my photographs anymore. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I log onto Facebook and glance through my albums there. I can’t remember if I’ve received a love letter past the age when passing notes was the norm but I could tell you that I’ve had some splendidly poetic emails from past boyfriends. All of which were most likely deleted after the relationship.
We’re living in an age of DVRs, back-up drives and “Erase All” options. When I die, my future grandchildren will probably not sort through boxes of carefully collected newspapers, but rather will sift through stuff saved to my external hard drive.
The age of digital wills is here. We now have to consider how those who outlive us will access our online identity, and how we want it handled when we’re gone.
When I was a freshman, a girl was crossing the street in the rain and was hit by a bus. After she died, I like many others, visited her Facebook page to see it transformed into a virtual funeral book— a stream of mourning wall posts like the lines of carefully signed names. There have been countless articles about situations like these. While any outpouring of sympathy is mostly likely appreciated by those who are grieving, my question is this. Is it cheapened if it’s sent by the click of the button?
We’ve already acknowledged that social relationships have changed due to the internet. People only need to look at how kids communicate with each other to see it. Instant messages. Cases of cyber bullying in which the kid was tormented almost solely online. Or look at job hunting. It’s rare to get a new job without interacting with your future employer online first. Because of this shift in our communication model, are we lacking physical meaning in our lives?
It’s a hard question to answer, but one example might indicate that it’s worth discussing: a 91 year-old-woman digs up the bodies of her two favorite people and tends to them. Touches them. Lives with them.
My heart sinks as I think about it. I’m sad for her and can’t help but think of the closing lines of Oven Bird by Robert Frost. It’s a poem about impending modernity and the unfortunate change it must have for one bird.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.