Our Bodies, Not Ourselves 

Why has America fallen in love with corpses?

Before he ever gets to his story in his fine book about the hapless Elmer McCurdy, Mark Svenvold digresses into Marilyn Monroe's autopsy and accidentally explains us to ourselves.

Monroe's image, Svenvold says, "had so deeply entered the territory of the cultural unconscious that her likeness has recurred in generational shock waves. Now imagine Thomas Noguchi making his Y-incision on that same feminine form, pulling the skin of the face over itself, weighing the heart, severing the sternum, and not only will you have an idea of the invasiveness of every standard autopsy, but you will have an idea of his profession's indifference to iconography."

Leave it to a poet writing his first book of prose to get it right, but forget about TV, which is now doing the imagining for us every week on CSI and its little sidekick CSI: Miami -- not to mention Six Feet Under and Dead Like Me, Showtime's answer to HBO.

These shows are hits because we have forensics envy. Forensic specialists have something we want: a lapidary familiarity with death that confuses us into considering it a portal back into life. Too world-weary for religious doctrine, we turn to scientists and other death professionals and the people who play them on TV to bring the afterlife to the here and now.

Svenvold calls our obsession "an exemption, a temporary stay from the oblivion that awaits us all." Studying the outlaw Elmer McCurdy, he says, offered "a way of coming up alongside the wonder of my own obscure and likely fate."

McCurdy's fate was most unlikely. A failure in life, he became a perverse celebrity in death.The inept train robber was killed in Oklahoma in 1911, and his unclaimed and mummified corpse was paraded around the country in carnivals and freak shows for 65 years.

In agile prose, Svenvold spins the history of 20th-century entertainments and flimflams. McCurdy's shrunken body was a huckster's dream, and it wasn't granted its final rest until after it was discovered in a Long Beach amusement park in 1976.

Amazing, but such tales are the stock-in-trade of forensics, and there are enough outlandish, bar-bet-winning stories making the circuit to support not just TV's forensic fad, but also a multitude of recent books about cadavers, all supporting Svenvold's theory from their own disparate points of view.

Kathy Reichs was a bestseller before CSI, but that show's influence is obvious in Bare Bones, the sixth installment in this author's Temperance Brennan series, which begins: "As I was packaging what remained of the dead baby, the man I would kill was burning pavement toward North Charlotte."

Reichs' debut novel, 1997's Death du Jour, opened with the excavation of a church's burial ground. Now it's charred babies, and the forensic-anthropologist heroine thinks about death all the time, but isn't much moved by it. Reichs is herself a forensic anthropologist (Patricia Cornwell, by contrast, is a pathologist). Written by an author with different credentials, Bare Bones might not be so measured, and Temperance might get upset when her daughter's life is threatened. Reichs skips along from grisly death scene to grislier death scene, but she's all building action and denouement. Like her sexually frustrated heroine, who works hard but never really gets a chance to play hard, you might wonder where the climax went.

The same is true of the life of Doug Owsley, forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, whose talent and freakish dedication to his work have made him the go-to guy in forensics cases of criminal or historic significance for more than a decade. He's pieced together bodies in the Balkans, in Waco's Branch Davidian compound, and at the Pentagon after 9/11, and is responsible for a number of changes in the way we now consider early American history.

If there was ever a man on an even keel, it's Owsley. He has no hobbies and a Boy Scout demeanor, but his work makes him worthy of a biography and he deserves a better one than Jeff Benedict's No Bone Unturned, an overanxious love letter of the sort usually reserved for athletes and rock stars. Benedict's writing reveals neither a gift for storytelling nor reportage. His reconstructed conversations are painful, and in the book's centerpiece, the Kennewick Man litigation, he leaves a lot of dangling threads.

Still, Owsley is a hero, thanks to his courageous and impolitic stand against both the US government and the Native American tribes who showed extraordinary bad faith in trying to claim Kennewick Man as one of their own. Benedict does provide a good brief history of this dispute, which is also one of many archaeological puzzles and marvels that feature in Written in Bones, a fun educational coffee-table book with great photos and a documentary feel.

In 1996, two hikers in Kennewick, Washington discovered a nearly ten-thousand-year-old skeleton. Not the oldest ever found here, it is nevertheless the most complete and of immeasurable importance. Almost immediately, the remains were hijacked by five local tribes using the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to demand that they be returned and reburied without further study. All too happy to throw a sop to the tribes, the US Army Corps of Engineers -- prodded by the Clinton White House -- promised them the remains. It didn't matter that Kennewick Man had no relation to the tribes in question and appeared to be of Polynesian or Japanese descent. As Umatilla representative Armand Minthorn told The New York Times in 1996, "We know how time began."

Owsley was certain they didn't -- at least no more than any sacred tradition claims to know the origins of the world -- and in No Bone Unturned we learn how he sued the federal government for the right to study the remains to determine whether they belonged to the tribes or the United States.

The specter of more government malfeasance is raised in the inadvertently sinister Maggots, Murder and Men, a book that pulls off the neat trick of being simultaneously fascinating and dreadfully boring.

Known affectionately by police all over the United Kingdom as Dr. Zak, the late forensic entomologist Zakaria Erzinclioglu lived inside a whirlwind of baby flies and brutality. If there was a mysterious, maggot-infested corpse to be inspected, he was the guy.

There's almost no end to the evidence that can be presumed from the insects that breed in dead bodies, or to Dr. Zak's self-satisfaction in divining their secrets. His smug memoir is a series of pedantic and sententious lectures redolent of a scary devotion to science that makes the Umatillan point of view a lot more sympathetic.

Though he claims to have been overly solicitous of those who claimed to be wrongly convicted, Dr. Zak's blind faith in the virtue of most law-enforcement officials is worrisome. He was very excited about new technologies that make it possible to place a suspect at the scene of a crime through odor or DNA collected from mosquitoes. They're intriguing concepts, but they're the antithesis of the precision required in forensics.

He concedes that a mosquito might also have bitten innocent persons, but remains confident that "other evidence would clear them." On CSI, sure, but maybe not in real life. So bug spray, the unscented kind, will protect against the conspiracies of Big Brother and Mother Nature, and parsing your mortality will make you immune to it.


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