The most taboo of all the taboo subjects

Todd Van Beck's picture

Last week my phone went off the hook.  One call after another and the conversation was almost verbatim on each and every call.  Then the emails started and I finally had to log onto the internet and read the story about a man being arrested in Texas, charged with abuse of a corpse. That was the reason for the calls.  Basically the allegations reported this week on television and the internet go something like this:  Photos were taken which indicated this individual had crossed the line concerning physical contact, possibly intimate contact, with a corpse.  Added to the allegations is that in his quest to contact a former friend via the internet, he inadvertently posted these corpse photos on the internet and the friend turned him in to the police, who took action.

In the Sociology of Funeral Service students are taught about “taboo” subjects in life.  Subjects like incest, cannibalism, child pornography – you know, the tough stuff in life.  No Pollyanna here.  Personally I always thought teaching this dark side of life, these perverted realities which permeate every community, this harsh and raw subject matter, was basically essential for the education of up and coming funeral directors, for to be sure our profession is NOT made of sugar candy.
The students by and large were silent and thoughtful as we went through one “taboo” subject after another.  Here and there a question or story would emerge, but basically the subjects were so saddening, so overwhelming, so powerful, so disturbing that even the most out of control and raucous students would become uncharacteristically quiet and pensive.  As an educator I always thought these were growing and maturing times for most students.
However there was one taboo subject, one terribly disturbing subject that created absolute silence among then groans of distress from the students, who were shaking their heads in disbelief.  The subject was necrophilia.
I remember my first contact with necrophilia came early in my career.  We were called by the Douglas County Coroner to respond to a murder (we held the coroner’s transportation contract) in a building which used to be a Sears & Roebuck building but had been converted into luxury apartments. We were not called to luxury apartments for a murder very often. When we arrived the County Coroner as well as the Omaha Police Department had things well under control, and we were in short order given permission to remove the deceased and transport the remains to the Douglas County Hospital.
I remember standing there, staring at the carnage, trying to take it all in, when out of the blue the Coroner announced that the victim had been raped, but the sexual activity had occurred after the person had died.  I damn near fainted. It was my first encounter with the darkest, most clandestine, nay evil event I had ever heard of, let alone viewed.  It shook me to my very core.  Youth, huh?
Fast forward five years.  I am now a student at the New England Institute of Anatomy, Sanitary Science, Embalming and Funeral Directing in Boston, Massachusetts.  This experience was a turning point in my life, and central to this turning point was my fortunate association with the Professor of Psychology, the Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson – he changed my life.
In his class we were covering “abnormal psychology” a term which is politically incorrect today, but in the early '70s if you were behaving erratically and dangerously to yourself and others you fell under the canopy of “abnormal psychology.”  Abnormal psychology – I was fascinated, and actually I spent most of the class identifying with the very abnormalities that Dr. Jackson was teaching us about, and left the classes convinced I was personally abnormal and honestly have really not altered that opinion about myself since.  Todd is and has always been just a tad odd and abnormal, end of report.
However as Dr. Jackson began to discuss necrophilia, I was so uncomfortable I felt as if someone had electrified my chair because I was wiggling, and moving from one side to the other throughout all his lectures on this bizarre topic, and Dr. Jackson was direct and to the point – no candy coating at 656 Beacon Street, Boston.  All I could think of was the experience I had had at the luxury apartment which shook me to my core.
Fortunately Dr. Jackson was a stellar teacher as well as a stellar human being, and he handled this horribly taboo subject with clarity, dignity and deep understanding. According to Dr. Jackson, to understand necrophilia one really needs to delve into the shadowy, dark, hidden, complicated world of the psyche which captured Dr. Sigmund Freud for his entire career.  To be sure, Dr. Freud has fallen out of favor over the many years since death, but in dealing with the unspeakable, the unimaginable the horrific aspects of life, Dr. Jackson taught that few if any other theorists captured this disturbing aspect of life better than Dr. Freud.
Dr. Freud maintained that our deep childhood experiences (or lack of them) affect our adult lives in a profound way.  In other words, when people are highly functional in their childhood experiences, this mirrors their adult reality, and when adult people are highly dysfunctional as children this, too, mirrors and mars their adult experiences.
There seems to be strong indications to support this concerning necrophilia.  The list of necrophiliacs seems to clearly support Freud’s viewpoint.  Here is a brief list: Ed Gein, Jeffery Dahmer and Albert Fish.  All of these personalities had horrific childhoods, felt abandoned, felt rejected and felt worthless. According to Dr. Jackson it is the perverted and extremely aberrant feelings of loneliness, rejection and abandonment, this feeling of total isolation, and total inability to connect to another human being that propels necrophilia.  
As disturbing as this approach might be for some, in a nut shell what is being said here is that the necrophilia evolves to a state where the surest and easiest way to have total control, total acceptance, and total success in relating to another human being tragically descends to the point that the human being which is to be the object of intimacy is, of all things, a corpse.
I had many conversations with Dr. Jackson while strolling down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston concerning this subject.  His perspective and insight brought me to an increased awareness of just how ill these individuals have become. They need help, they need to be removed from daily society, and possibly, just possibly, they can be helped if not healed.  However, according to Dr. Jackson this type of positive outcome is usually a long shot. In other words necrophilia creates deep and abiding psychological damage and scars which might not respond to treatment.
The next incident that I encountered concerning necrophilia basically reinforced the information that I had learned from Dr. Jackson and came many years later in Toledo, Ohio.  Downtown in Toledo, there was an ancient funeral firm which in its heyday basically ran the funeral profession in Toledo.  It was a mighty fine firm.  The descendant of the founder was a good buddy of mine.
On the staff of this funeral home were two particular employees.  I knew both of them, and I knew that they both lived highly dramatic, wreckless, dangerous and traumatic lives.  It seemed that both of them moved from crisis to crisis and if there were no crises, one of them or both would make one – they seemed to be on the edge constantly.  It was exhilarating but also exhausting and was not going to last for long.
In time, the tension of their sexualities and personalities collided and at the end the their out of control lifestyle the Toledo Police were called to the funeral home, where they discovered both funeral directors drunk, one was trying to embalm himself while the other was sexually involved with a corpse.   The incident was front page news and within a year the volume of the funeral home had plummeted from over a thousand calls a year to fewer than two hundred. Both men ended up in prison, and one died while serving his sentence.
So now eyes are on a well-known funeral firm in Houston, Texas where possibly it is alleged something akin to this crazy abnormal stuff has happened. Predictably the owners of the funeral home will scramble to stop the bleeding (which is their duty), the public relations department will pass out well worded and well thought out media and press releases, the state regulatory board will no doubt jump on an investigation, the families, the poor families, might well sue, and the lawyers – well the lawyers will do what lawyers do – we need not worry about them.  
Once again the glare of the public is on funeral service.  This situation will no doubt create difficulties for you and me because the media may well make sweeping comments about the entire funeral profession and it’s sometimes relationship to this strange and odd subject. I once had a news reporter ask me “Why is necrophilia always discovered in funeral homes?”  I thought the question extremely exaggerated, but trust me he was serious.  Here is some information I found extremely helpful in answering this difficult question.
In order for true necrophilia to take place, a person so inclined to this extremely perverted activity needs first and foremost access to dead people, and that by itself limits opportunities severely – in other words, access to dead people is basically not easy or common.  However access to the dead is not only possible in funeral homes.  In the studies concerning necrophilia (Rosman and Resnick) the predictable personnel included hospital personnel, morgue personnel, funeral home personnel, the clergy, cemetery employees and soldiers in combat.  Rosman and Resnick concluded that necrophilia happened in these vocations and/or situations simply by virtue of access – not by plot or design.  
However we know that plots and designs to get hold of a dead body have existed, as in the instance of Ed Gein, who was a Wisconsin farmer. Gein’s obsession with necrophilia was so overpowering that he had to create his own access to the dead, which he did very effectively by means of midnight grave robbing and finally reverting to murder.
Freud was of the thought that since necrophilia has been present in the human experience since time immemorial that it will never end.  This is probably true, for the ancient historian Herodotus refers to the practice in his HISTORIES, and one apocryphal legend states the King Herod killed his wife and then had sex with her for sever more years.  
If Freud’s prediction is true, then the implications for every funeral home, and every cemetery, as well as every morgue and coroner’s office, is that we must be ever diligent and vigilant in protecting the precious dead who are entrusted into our care by the members of our communities.  This subject glaringly begs the issue of preparation room security, a sober and serious determination as to who gets access to the preparation room and who is excluded.  It brings to the forefront the importance of having timely and periodic discussions with the entire staff concerning the vitally important subject of the ethic of reverence for the dead.  It also begs the question of who gets hired and completing due diligence before anyone is hired let lone given any access to the preparation facilities.  Freud said necrophilia will never end, but I believe that we can take extra precautions to insure that it does NOT happen on our watch in our funeral home or cemetery.
Probably the greatest insult to humanity concerning necrophilia is the totally vulnerable position in which it places someone’s dead mother, daughter, father, son, or other relative or friend.  A dead person cannot under any circumstance speak up and stand up and defend their own personal dignity, cannot protest, cannot tell a person to stop what they are doing they cannot protect their own person, and I believe with every breath in my lungs and blood in my veins that just because you are dead does not mean you are still not a human being.
I declare that vigilance over the dead is in the end the paramount responsibility for the members of our great and noble profession.  Always has been, always will be – I hope.
Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.



... but a valuable and well-written essay as per usual, Todd.

An update: The charges were dismissed in this case, citing insufficient evidence, as of May 2010.

Grew up in the Toldeo area and never remember hearing of the story of the two drunk funeral directors. Does anyone have more information about the incident? Very curious.