Spectacular Human Corpses: Looking at Death, Seeing Dead Bodies
Nineteenth century preservation technologies radically changed and mechanically altered the human corpse, producing new kinds of postmortem conditions for all dead bodies. These technologies of preservation effectively invented the modern corpse; transforming the dead body into something new: a photographic image, a train passenger, a dead body that looked alive. These technological innovations were also used by early twentieth century postmortem technologists to turn the preserved human corpse into a dead body that was atemporal. Once the human corpse could exist outside the normal biological time that controlled the body’s decomposition, it became a well-suited subject for unfettered public display. These technologies augmented how an individual could see the dead body and in ways that we living humans still use today (albeit without noticing) when looking at death.
John Troyer is Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.