The Beautiful Dead

Every week, every night almost, the crime scene dramas seduce us with images of the beautiful dead. It's always a lovely young woman, dressed in a party dress which, before the scene ends, must be stripped off, albeit gently by actors and actresses who skillfully play the parts of forensic scientists—roles which combine the great ideals of wisdom and justice.

Tonight the New York team found a lovely young woman floating in the harbor in a mermaid gown. The writers knew that would strike a chord with the viewers. It did with me. It was the vulnerability of restricted movement, combined with the self-exploitative desperation of the character being portrayed. And when they got her into the examination lab they used camera shots that emphasized the beauty of her youthful face, the femininity of her person and the humanity of her departed soul. It was a real work of art, accompanied by skillfully created music meant to loft us up into the ethereal chambers of higher consciousness. The sense of loss was powerful.

The image of the beautiful dead is an old one. We see it in the tombs of Egypt and in the poetry of Greece. We hear it in old Irish ballads. It is beautiful and sad. And we want to touch it.

Or do we? In reality the actress on the morgue table was alive. They made her up and dressed her and paid her to lie still. I wonder what dead roles pay, the same as live roles, do you think? The girl was shown alive in a few short scenes, I will admit. But they were fuzzy and dreamlike, showing the action obliquely as she was being strangled, but that was not so memorable. The important and meaningful scenes were the dead ones.

Why do we want to dwell on these images? In order to draw ourselves close to the dread and loss we feel is always at hand? Or to stay one step ahead of our grief, to fend it off? I don't know.

But I do know if she were really dead it wouldn't be beautiful. She is beautiful because she is alive, as we are alive. Her beauty touches the beauty in us and we feel akin. We don't feel it with marble statues. That's a very different sort of beauty—an aesthetic beauty. This is different. It's more like lost love.

At the end of the story the lady investigator went to the jail to face the killer and ask him why he did it. He would not tell. He did not know.

And what about us? Do we have space enough in our hearts for her? Will we love her while she is still alive? Or will we fetishize her future, certain death and pretend it will be beautiful?

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