October 03, 2010

The bodies might have lain decomposing for centuries until future paleontologists used them to speculate on our age’s burial customs. How will they explain the peculiarly English practice of putting their dead into sports bags and leaving them in bathtubs? If the bodies had not been found, there would have been no post-mortems, no frame-ups, and no idiotic suicide verdicts. The fact, though, is no one wants to leave the dead undisturbed. In Chicago, as Rahm Emanuel can confirm (and will undoubtedly rediscover when he runs for mayor), the dead are in great demand. Indeed, they may be needed to put him over the top in next year’s Democratic primary.

Illinois, alas, is not unique in its refusal to discriminate against voters who happen to have died. The Federal Election Assistance Commission found that Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Tennessee did not remove a single person from the voters”€™ rolls merely for dying between 2006 and 2008. In Alabama, Rhode Island and Virginia, many counties perpetuate the practice of keeping our (is “€œdead”€ now a politically incorrect appellation?) life-challenged fellow citizens on the voter rolls. Some districts in North Carolina, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Texas boast more registered voters in the cemeteries than in houses. This is the country that is teaching Afghans, Iraqis, and others under American military supervision the virtues and mechanisms of universal suffrage. Universal, in the American sense, really is universal”€”our Big Tent is expansive enough to embrace even the dead.

It is a good thing, politics apart, that the bodies have turned up. It is hard to grieve without a corpse. Those who loved them need something to bury or cremate, something to pray over, something to honor for the life it represented. Those who have lost family at sea or whose son never returned from war know the added horror when there is no funeral.

This drives the story in Nathan Englander’s brilliant novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, about the “€œdisappeared”€ in Argentina during the mid-1970s military brutality. About 30,000 people simply ceased to be. Many of the youngsters were drugged, stripped of their clothing, and dropped from airplanes into the Rio del Plata. Families unable to bury them were unable to mourn. A group called Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo refused to abandon the search for their children, and the military admitted it could not account for at least 9,000 of the youngsters it abducted. At the time, Henry Kissinger was encouraging the murderers.

The need for the body goes back at least to The Iliad, when Achilles’s refusal to return the slain Hector to his father, King Priam, outraged the gods. Zeus decreed, “€œWe”€™ll not let this corpse, brave Hector’s body, be taken secretly.”€ He dispatched Thetis to inform Achilles, “€œI”€™m here as messenger from Zeus. He told me this: “€˜The gods are angry with you.”€™ Zeus himself is the angriest of all immortals, because, in your heartfelt fury, you keep Hector by your beaked ships, won”€™t return him. So come, now. Give him back, and for that corpse accept a ransom.”€ Achilles received Priam secretly, heard the old man’s plea for his son’s body, and allowed him time for the funeral rites due a prince.

It is the least we deserve, even if we lose the vote.


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