My short story, “The Necrophiliac’s Almanac,” which surrounds a closeted necrophile struggling to contain her desires, appears in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review. As part of my larger collection focusing on the taboo, this story was no different from writing about cannibalism or virginity or zoophilia, at least in one important way: it required research.
And so that’s how I found myself sitting in front of my computer preparing to type “necrophilia” into a search engine. Aside from imagining future scenarios in which my browsing history would come back to haunt me, my biggest obstacle was the dearth of research about necrophilia. The topic is so taboo that even researchers won’t touch it. But as I sifted through articles of questionable repute, a few paltry studies, and a book titled Sex Crimes in History: Evolving Concepts of Sadism, Lust-Murder, and Necrophilia, I found an unlikely source that reinvigorated my efforts for not only this story, but my entire taboo collection: a mortician’s five-minute YouTube video.
Caitlin Doughty, death acceptance advocate, mortician, and founder of the Order of the Good Death, produces “Ask a Mortician,” a video series that is as quirky and irreverent as it is informative. In this particular video, she set out to address the question “How prevalent is necrophilia in the funeral industry?” but, in the process, got to the heart of what I’m striving to do with my story collection: shine some light on the taboo.
“I know that conversations on necrophilia are not for everyone,” Doughty acknowledges in the video, “even though they should be, because everyone benefits from rational, educational exposure to taboo topics.”
Rational, educational exposure to taboo topics? At last—a kindred spirit!
Doughty wastes no time dismantling the myth of the “creepy, lonely guy who works the night shift of the funeral home or morgue” and proceeds to drop some necrophilia facts that I confirmed later on my own, including: most necrophiles are men (but my character would be a woman—feminism!), the scant available research indicates that few necrophiles are driven by a specific sexual attraction to corpses (though I decided my fictional necrophile would be in this minority), and many necrophiles seek “an unrejecting, unresisting” partner (I’ll let the sex scene in my story speak for itself).
If you can stop watching “Ask a Mortician” after just one video, then you’re a stronger person than me. Go ahead, take a gander at what might have happened to the bodies of Titanic victims, how our cultural fear of death may have contributed to Trump’s win, how natural burials work, or the truth about so-called coffin births. It’s holiday viewing for the entire family!
Doughty’s videos led me to her book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, in which she explores her nascent years working in the death industry, death rituals and customs from around the world, and her own changing relationship to death. Of her formative years, Doughty writes:
I became “functionally morbid,” consumed with death, disease, and darkness yet capable of passing as a quasi-normal schoolgirl. In college I dropped the pretense … I was drawn to all aspects of mortality—the bodies, the rituals, the grief. Academic papers had provided a fix, but they weren’t enough. I wanted the harder stuff: real bodies, real death.
Doughty is fascinated by what most of us avoid at nearly all costs. In many ways, this mirrors my taboo writing. When someone asks why I’d spend several years researching and writing short stories about menstruation, mortuary cannibalism, or virginity auctions, I point out that while taboos supposedly represent the unspeakable parts of our world, they are also magnetic. We pretend they don’t exist even as we’re drawn to them.
“People are more interested in it than it actually happens,” Doughty says of necrophilia, “but it’s totally okay that you’re fascinated by it because it’s grade-A transgressive stuff, the most taboo thing we can culturally imagine.” (Excuse me while I mentally transform that last part of her quote into a blurb for my stories.)
My protagonist in “The Necrophiliac’s Almanac,” meanwhile, is well aware that others would consider her attraction to corpses an abomination. If she could change herself, she would:
If only she had a guidebook. Something with a bright yellow cover and hand-drawn illustrations and quotes from famous people, long dead. Something with a title like How to Live a Life of the Living. This manual would be divided into sections so she could more easily learn everything of the world. In those pages she would learn how to enjoy sex with a man or a woman; how to watch a funeral without desire; how to recoil from a corpse. Mostly, she’d learn to fear what everyone alive feared, which was dying, and to embrace what everyone did, which was living.
While most of us avoid the mere thought of our own mortality, my narrator is wired in just the opposite way: she is fascinated by death and longs to be closer to it. She works in a cemetery (because of course she does), where her favorite kind of customers are those who “don’t hide from death.” Her sexual proclivities aside, she embraces the waiting grave while the rest of us run as fast as we can in the opposite direction.
Doughty has built her career around addressing this cultural fear and avoidance of death. She writes in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes:
So masterfully do we hide death, you would almost believe we are the first generation of immortals. But we are not. We are all going to die and we know it . . . The fear of death is why we build cathedrals, have children, declare war, and watch cat videos online at three a.m. Death drives every creative and destructive impulse we have as human beings. The closer we come to understanding it, the closer we come to understanding ourselves.
That understanding can extend to taboos like necrophilia, too. As Doughty explains in her “Ask a Mortician” series, it’s simply not true that necrophilia is “the terrible secret that every mortician knows and that no one will speak publicly of.” Instead, perhaps necrophilia has gained urban-legend status in part because our refusal to confront death manifests in these kinds of illicit, gruesome rumors.
“It could also be,” Doughty concludes, “that we’re so afraid of death and so distant from dead bodies that we want to transform our fear into our desire to master it.”