Birds, Bees & Dead Bodies

How could I resist a book advertised as a “bird lover’s mystery”? I love birds, and I’m open-minded about mysteries, so I downloaded a copy of Die, Die Birdie by J.R. Ripley from my local library. This novel, the first in a series, focuses on Amy Simms, who opens a business for bird lovers in her newly purchased Victorian home. When we meet her, it’s two days before the store’s grand-opening. She’s low on birdseed and birding supplies, but that becomes the least of her worries when she finds a dead man in her storeroom:

I could now see the body of a medium-sized man lying on his back on the floor, his face twisted. He looked like he could practically reach out and touch my toes. Then again, judging by appearances, unless he had some zombie blood in him, I didn’t think he’d be touching anything.

I enjoyed this light mystery, once I adjusted to Amy’s choppy speaking style, brash demeanor, and poor judgement. Even her reaction to finding a bloodied body puzzled me. The hairs on her arms stand on end, but she doesn’t recoil, she doesn’t think much of the “sticky red substance” on her hands, and she doesn’t even call 9-1-1 until someone suggests it. The dead body is an annoyance to her, an impediment to her business, but she presses on with the grand-opening as planned.

That’s a weird way to behave, right? But maybe I’m the weird one. My aversion to blood and death (and any association with a serious crime) is strong enough to make me get the hell out of that house.

However, as with just about everything, there is no “normal” way to behave in response to a corpse, though fear is a common reaction. According to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, author of Fear of the Dead, Fear of Death: is it Biological or Psychological? (2012):

Reactions to a lifeless human body are varied… Beyond the variety of responses dictated by history, cultural context, and individual personalities, there seems to be a common denominator of fear, horror, and aversion.

One theory about why this fear exists stems from the belief that corpses may be a source of disease and contamination, possibly making a fear of them evolutionarily advantageous. However, there is little evidence to show that corpses pose a significant health risk, especially when the living–those carrying pathogens–present as much or more of a danger than the dead. As Beit-Hallahmi explains:

“The notion of pathogens in corpses is recent, modern, and unfounded. Ideas about the biological danger inherent in dead bodies are clearly tied to the deservedly triumphant germ theory of disease, but such ideas may still be simply a modern, secular, version of the ancient fear of the dead. The dangerous microbes have come to symbolise the evil inherent in fellow humans as they are being shockingly and irreversibly transformed.

[…]

The most important component of our reactions to the dead has to do with comprehension, belief, and meaning, experienced beyond any individual and automatic aversion. For any minimally reasoning human, an encounter with a corpse is also an encounter with one’s own future and final destination.” (citations omitted)

I highlighted that last sentence because I like it. It makes sense to me that we fear corpses because they remind us of our inevitable demise.

But back to Amy Simms: She certainly shows a degree of aversion to corpses, but not nearly as much of one as I would’ve expected. Had she run from the house and refused to return, perhaps local law enforcement would’ve been less likely to consider her the prime suspect in the person’s murder. But that would’ve made the story less interesting.

5 thoughts on “Birds, Bees & Dead Bodies

  1. You bring up a very interesting point. I don’t have much experience with corpses beyond friends and loved ones who have passed away. However in discussion with friends and kids from other backgrounds and life circumstances, it’s been revealed that what I thought of as a natural aversion to dead bodies probably has more to do with my own background.

    Apparently, curiosity, irritation, or indifference are fairly normal in some cultures or circumstances, especially if one didn’t know the body as a living person. One of my friends was completely shocked that I did not touch a relative’s body after death and left the physical portion of her funeral preparation to strangers. Others encountered so many deceased people in their lives that they no longer have much reaction to bodies.

  2. quote: I could now see the body of a medium-sized man lying on his back on the floor, his face twisted.

    As an editor, I cringed. We could have done without the filter words “I could now see.”

    The body of a medium-sized man lay on his back on the floor, his face twisted has much more impact.

    I mentally edit everything I read. Horrible, right? 🙂

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