i Editor's Letter: Horror and morbid fascination


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The Independent Online


Have you ever seen or touched a dead body? We were discussing the odd spectacle of the late Sir Jimmy Savile “lying in state” in Leeds before his funeral today in Scarborough. It is a peculiarly British type of “lying in state” — visitors can only see the closed coffin, albeit a golden one.

You do not have to be a war reporter to have a higher chance than most of seeing a body on the job as a hack: for example, at the scene of a car crash. Undertakers, doctors, firemen, and others are even more likely to have done so, but it is surprising how many adults have not experienced it.

I lost two fathers, grandparents and many uncles in my London childhood, but had just a solitary encounter with a corpse. I was 11, and on my second trip to meet my family in Boston. As we landed at the airport, my uncle, with whom we were to stay for the next five weeks, died in hospital. I met my aunt (for the first time since I was four) in the unchartered territory of the funeral home. In the Italian-American tradition, the coffin was open. My poor aunt grabbed my hands and placed them on Zio Donato! I will always remember the extreme cocktail of sheer horror and morbid fascination.

My daughter will never forget her recent sighting of Chairman Mao in Beijing. My dear colleague Louis recalls being taken to see Winston Churchill lying in state. Both experiences induce a frisson of jealousy. Perhaps if I were Irish, like a member of i’s newsdesk, it would really be “no big deal” after so many a “ laying out” in the much less institutional surroundings of the home. I’m not sure which of the traditions I prefer, but I do believe that we should all be less squeamish about the dead.