Painstaking Preservation (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: NONFICTION)

Issue #154
Winter 2022-23

In nonfiction, our winner is Megan Valley, for her essay “Painstaking Preservation.”


Of the story, nonfiction judge Danielle Geller says, “To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable; to be unsure is to be unsteady, but to be a person of conviction, one must turn a blind eye to all the faults of belief, the limits of knowing. In ‘Painstaking Preservation,’ Valley abandons the strictures of conviction to consider embodiment through the lenses of ritual, scientific inquiry, and memory: what does a body hold, and why do people do what they do to the bodies of the dead? I admire Valley’s careful attention and vulnerability, and I’m drawn in by the amused and understated voice that accompanies us through the absurdity of it all.”


When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Or, when did you first call yourself a writer?


One of my favorite books as a kid was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and I—like, I assume, most American girls with sisters—was convinced that I was the Jo of my family. Identifying so strongly with her put the idea of being a writer in my head. I still don’t usually call myself a writer, but it’s not because of any feelings of inadequacy—I think it should be a secondary or tertiary identity or, better yet, just something I do.


Describe your writing process. What works for you as a writer? What do you find challenging, or even difficult, about writing?


I’m still very much figuring out how to build a sustainable process. I used to be a journalist, so I had a process for reporting, but it hasn’t translated to my more creative writing. What I’m trying right now is spending fifteen to twenty minutes free writing on whatever I’m thinking about. I try to do this at different times of day and in different locations. There might be multiple sessions in a row when I’m just rewriting the same idea in different ways, and that’s fine. After doing that for a few days or weeks, I have enough scattered bits of information to see some throughlines or topics I keep putting next to each other, and then I’ll move all of those sections to another document. That’s where I’ll figure out a structure, research to fill in holes or find new angles, add depth, and generally give it a coherent point.


What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before writing?


Almost everything is research because almost anything can be content, but I mean that in the least cynical, panopticonic way possible. I like to research and write at the same time, but it’s not very efficient. I have to go back and revise what I’ve already written pretty often as I get more information, and that’s before the “real” editing starts.


Who are you reading now? What writers or works have most influenced your writing?


I’m really striving to be somewhere in the neighborhood of Annie Dillard, Alexander Chee, and Susan Orlean—I’m not sure if they’re showing through, but I hope so.


What inspired “Painstaking Preservation”? What works or writers would you say directly informed this essay?


I had gotten this tattoo of a mummified priest a few years ago, after I saw M. C. Escher’s lithograph. I knew exactly what sort of feeling the lithograph gave me and why I wanted it, but I struggled to articulate what it meant when I was asked about it. This essay is me trying to answer that question.


One of my worst blind spots as a writer is being able to trace back who I’m taking what from. I recently started logging what I’m consuming—books, articles, movies, etc.—while I’m working on different projects, so I have a better understanding of what’s influencing me. But Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard definitely had the strongest influence that I can identify.


What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve received?


I’m talking about her in too many answers, but in Alexander Chee’s essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life,” he describes an exercise Dillard used as a teacher that I’ve found enormously helpful. You go down each page, circling the verbs. Is each verb precise, or have you tacked on an adverb? Just use the verb you mean. How many verbs are you averaging per page? Increase it.


Most of my essays are more thematic, rather than centered around a linear narrative, so the verb exercise helps it feel like it’s moving even if there’s ostensibly nothing happening.


What risks do you take with your writing that have paid off?


I’m early enough into my career that even just submitting something I’ve written to a publication feels like a risk, even though it really isn’t. So the “risk” of submitting to this contest paid off.


This is very low stakes as far as writing risks go, but for this specific essay, I thought including my tattoo was risky—most people’s body art simply isn’t all that interesting to anybody except themselves. I thought it might read as annoying or self-important.


Do you have any advice for new or aspiring writers?


I still consider myself to be both a new and an aspiring writer, so my advice as a peer is to think of writing as something you do, rather than identifying as a “writer.” There’s not as much at stake if you’re just trying to be a person who writes rather than doing the whole performance of Being A Writer And Artist.




What projects are you working on now? Where is your writing headed?


I’m working on research for two possible MFA manuscripts. The first is a reported essay collection about American Catholicism and climate change. The second combines reporting and personal narratives about young people just starting their careers in local newspapers while they’re being told every day that it’s a dying industry.







There’s a desiccated mouse under my oven, and I can’t bring myself to pull it out. I’ve known it was there for weeks now, but it must have died ages and ages before then, matted down into a sticky trap that I certainly didn’t set. I don’t want to look at it straight-on, don’t want to pull it out from its resting place, with the cat hair and equally dried-out vegetable scraps. Once trapped, some mice try to chew through their own limbs to escape, or so I hear. The maintenance man had pulled the stove out to look for a hole where a very-much-alive mouse might have come in, dredging the ancient mousetrap up to the edge. I knew what it was, what it had to be, before I checked with just enough light through a just-large-enough crack to see its outline. At first, my cat would lay in front of the oven, pawing at the corner of the trap, never earnestly enough to actually make contact. She lost interest, but I still haven’t found the stomach to either properly dispose of the corpse or shove it back under the stove where I can’t see it.


Maybe I’m simple. I don’t understand how an organic creature can become this mummified thing. Chemically, yes, I have a basic understanding of what happens. When the outside environment is either very cold, very wet, or very dry, it can be enough to keep a body’s decay at bay. But it seems like it should be complicated, or at least labor-intensive, to help a dead thing keep its lively form, rather than rot away to a mere skeleton. Intentional mummification required specialists imbued with the knowledge of science and ritual. Ancient Egyptians preserved bodies by surgically removing and preserving all of the organs, including the brain, and then dehydrating the remaining flesh with natron; my mouse just got stuck in an apartment in Missouri. I assume the heat from the oven kept it dry enough to combat the thick, wet air and summer thunderstorms that made their way through doors, windows, and cracks in the ceiling. Maybe it’s not even mummified, not properly, but rather fully cooked into a burnt little crisp of carbon and whatever else.


Before I discovered the dead mouse under the oven, there was a live mouse (still yet to be located), and before the live mouse, there was a different mouse that my cat killed. She woke me up in the middle of the night, chittering and mewling under my bed, and before I opened my eyes, I knew what she had. I peeked over the side of the bed just in time for my cat to throw the very-much-dead little mouse in the air right by my face. For thirty minutes—an hour?—I cried in my bathroom, trying desperately to wash her paws and mouth in the sink. I wasn’t so much sad for the mouse as I was overwhelmed for myself. The corpse had been dropped in the doorway, so I couldn’t even close my bedroom door without the risk of smearing it into the carpet. It wasn’t dead enough to be dry. I knew it was there, and it was brown, but I couldn’t bring myself to really see any features, its tail, or ears, or nose. I do not know how to look at dead things.


It’s a dark joke and one that suggests a deeper disrespect or disdain than I think I actually feel. On the back of my right arm, witnessing all my sins and hearing none of my confessions, I have a tattoo of a mummified priest. Below him are the closing words of the Latin Mass, “ITE, MISSA EST.” It doesn’t literally translate to “Mass has ended,” but it might as well. A joke, yes, but it’s also a cloying metaphor, if you buy into that sort of thing. I do, at least a little bit, but it’s far easier and less embarrassing to just tell people it’s a joke instead of earnestly explaining that I’m Catholic but not Catholic, and also that my Catholic mom tells me to my face that she hates it but tells my sisters otherwise, and also that despite it all, I do still like the idea of Mass, if not the execution.


Just once, a guy in a park recognized the closing words—my shirt sleeve covered the actual priest. He and his friends, all in their mid-twenties, were pretty intensely Catholic, he said. You have to listen to Mass in Latin—it’s so much better in the original Latin, he said, inviting me to go with them. I didn’t go that Sunday, or the next. But I did go, without my new friend.


I’d never attended Latin Mass before. The congregation was younger than I expected—there were more young couples with young children than I’d ever seen, excepting holy days of obligation. Most of the women, and even the younger girls, wore lace mantillas over their hair, which I didn’t know was something American Catholics even did, until I learned they were mostly associated with a new wave of “radical traditionalists.” Most of the head coverings were white or black: wedding veils and funeral shrouds.


Only the gospel and the homily were in English, and the priest didn’t use a mic for the Latin portions of the Mass. Two-thirds of the way back, I couldn’t hear anything except for the soft, rumbling recitations from the parishioners who found a comfort in this experience that I could not locate. There was no choir and no organ, but at least these nice Catholics weren’t playing guitars. Despite the fullness of the pews, it was cold and lacking in any of the richness that makes me understand why people go to Mass in the first place—the echoing music, the glowing stained glass, the billowing incense, the ever-so-slight weight of Christ’s body on the tongue, washed down with a gulp of wine just barely distinguishable from vinegar. I certainly wasn’t there for the speeches or readings; Catholic priests tend to be the least spellbinding Christian speakers, even in English. The Catholics may lack the charisma and personal presence of the Baptists and Pentecostals, but the environment is far more erotic than a room full of folding chairs with basketball hoops pushed into the back corners.


Most churches, including this one, have the same basic structure: two columns of pews before the altar. It automatizes the sacrament of communion; just like the readings, the prayers, and the songs, there’s a universality between parishes. You just know how to move—toward the center aisle, up to the altar, and file around the outside wings back to your seats.


This church was different. After walking up to the front, parishioners would all kneel in a line in front of the altar, while the priest went down the line to place the Body on their tongues. Only my very oldest—at this point, now all dead—family members ever took communion directly in their mouths instead of their hands. It’s far too intimate for younger generations, I think. The line moved slowly, with people waiting until their group was gestured up to kneel. I felt more exposed, not to God, but to the congregation, to the priest. Could he tell, when he placed the Body on my tongue, when my last confession had been? My parents, even during their more devout waves, thought confession was a ridiculous sacrament, a remnant from a time when all Masses were in Latin, to keep the priest central to a relationship he had no business being a part of. I had only ever had my first confession, to tick off a box toward confirmation. Now, I only ever go to Mass with my mom. I’d always taken communion and never before thought about whether I should or not. The dress I wore to the Latin Mass had a high, tight neck, and I choked myself kneeling at the altar on the wrong part of the skirt, trying not to stare at the people to my right, to see what to expect. The priest put the wafer on my tongue, seemingly unaware that I was not in a state of grace. Communion doesn’t even taste like bread, I thought, while it slowly dissipated on the walk back to my pew. It just sucks the moisture out of your mouth, which is a taste all its own.


The whole experience could have easily been salvaged with an organ and choir. I didn’t expect a miracle or a conversion, but a sensory experience. Even in English, there’s a mysticism to the Catholic Mass that makes it feel a little alien, if not holy. The Body of Christ was gone, fully dissolved. I shivered in the pew in the most modest dress I owned—covering the priest I carried with me, of course—and I shivered walking to my car, and I wished that the service had stirred something inside me, even shallowly, but it only deepened the pit in my stomach. So I went to the gym and exhausted myself. Without the perfume of Mass in my chest, I sought another sense of burning and purging something out of me. I choked and gasped, running in a surgical mask, and felt more miserable than I ever had before, but at least I felt—even in a cold, sterile gym, with no stained glass and no choir and no incense.


When I was about thirteen and still flush with ambition, I wanted to be a doctor, a forensic scientist, or anything else that required lab coats, steady hands, and a strong stomach. I didn’t have any of those items, but I wanted to be the sort of person who did. My dad knew the man who ran the cadaver lab for physical therapy students at a local commuter college, and they arranged for me to sit in on a class to see if I could handle it, “it” being the cadavers. The smell of the lab was more acridly chemical than gamey, but I don’t know if that was the cadavers themselves or just the lab. Logically, I knew that muscle was just meat, but I was still shocked when they uncovered what appeared to be a human-shaped beef jerky sculpture. I don’t remember what that day’s lesson was on, or which parts the students were peeling apart and putting back into some semblance of together. I don’t remember much after that first, solid view; I might have been invited to touch the flesh with gloved hands, but I’m sure I didn’t take up the offer. I looked the cadaver right in the face, and I felt hollow and black. That was the lesson I was there to learn.


My particular priest—or monk, or friar; I’m not terribly concerned with the bureaucratic tendencies of the church—is a Capuchin Franciscan. He would have followed St. Francis of Assisi, “the universal saint.” Their order was born of the Plague, and they died caring for the sick. I plucked him from a lithograph M. C. Escher created in Gangi, Italy in the 1930s. I first saw him in the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, a year before any jokes about the Plague would ring too true to be funny. There was a whole exhibit of Escher’s art. His chessboard-like tessellations are among his most famous works—and the most relevant for chess enthusiasts—but the display included his irreligiously depicted biblical stories, saints, and scenes of life in Catholic orders and cloisters, including the lithograph I cribbed my eternal companion from. He also had a highly stylized portrait of my priest’s patron, St. Francis of Assisi. In profile, stigmata clearly visible, he preaches to the birds.


From left to right, each of the four Capuchins in “Mummified Priests in Gangi, Sicily” are uniquely unearthly: this one seems to stand too readily on its own; that one is looking upward, mouth agape in awe or horror or pain; this one’s ghostly visage appears to be less well-preserved, rotting off the bone, but still alive enough to leer; the final one’s skull seems swollen and deformed, his stature stunted—Escher’s St. Francis has the same bulbous head. My priest isn’t a direct copy of any of these, though in posture it most closely resembles the decaying ghoul. I specifically asked my artist for a less horrible face; I kept the scrawled inscription Escher added. The Mass is ended—no further instructions for any lingering parishioners.


The mummies in Escher’s lithograph are haunted by more life than the colored photographs from the crypts in Palermo. Escher’s mummies look like they might still bleed. In pictures, the mummies are pinned to the walls like mounted butterflies or cheap Halloween decorations. Apparently, there’s a startling lack of smell to them. One nineteenth-century tourist recorded their response: “There is no offensive odor, and the visitor would scarcely know, if he did not see them, that he was surrounded by the dead.”


God willing, my corpse will not reach this level of either deterioration or painstaking preservation, depending on how you look at it. I’ll be burnt and charred or at least deeply buried.


In most modern burial traditions, it seems to be all or nothing: either everything human is burnt away to dark dust to be kept in a jar or illicitly spread into the wind, or painstaking attempts are made to retain and plump out the flesh, sunken and sallow as it might be. The dried mask of a mummy somehow looks more drawn and gaunt than a fully stripped skull, despite the remnants of flesh. A face full of formalin veers into the uncanny valley: perhaps more technically human than a mummy, but certainly worse for it.


Embalmed or mummified bodies cannot be considered incorruptible, a sure sign of saints or beati. Officially, incorruptibility isn’t counted as a miracle leading up to sainthood anymore, but miraculous or not, an incorruptible body is still considered supernatural. Some holy corpses reek the odor of sanctity, a sweetly floral perfume that replaces rot, decay, and grimy, dirty flesh. The prevailing scientific explanation is that the smell comes from the acetone that’s produced by ketosis. The smell is brought on by starvation from fasting, as saints are wont to do; it’s the same chemical that can lace the breath of diabetics.


No, if mummification is a miracle at all, it’s one of natural science, underlined by the Vatican’s work to preserve the bodies of popes, beati, and saints.


Initially, it was just the Capuchins who were preserved and displayed, because the order venerated their dead. (It’s a practice that’s since fallen out of style, but there have been some recent attempts to revive it within the order.) Eventually, lay people were preserved and displayed as well, first for renowned military members and the local bourgeoisie, and then anyone who had the money for it.


Intentionally drying and treating a mummy is an earthly and time-consuming process. For a year, the Capuchins would let the corpse’s fluids drain in a sealed room. The cadavers were then washed with vinegar; sunken cavities that previously housed soft tissues might be plumped back up with wool or straw. The crypt’s naturally arid rooms and halls would aid the preservation. That’s not the only way to mummify a body, of course: bodies preserved by being dry, wet, or frozen are all considered mummified. Alter the state, whatever it may be, and the body will start to decompose. That makes it seem like preservation is a delicate, temporary state of condition for an endeavor aiming toward permanence, but more than 1,250 hardy mummies in the catacombs have survived everything from mold, to fires and floods, to invading Allied forces during World War II.


Most of the articles for a general audience are more or less the same, portraying the crypts as a morbidly quirky travel destination. After hundreds of years, I suppose everyone’s paces through the halls inevitably start to blur together, as indistinguishable as the warped faces on the walls. Academic Natalie Polzer writes about how the mummies have shifted from “ancestral bodies” to “universal bodies” as the catacombs ceased to be an active place of burial. A universal body, she writes, “designates human remains that generate ideological meaning on a level transcending local community boundaries.” The catacombs no longer exist for the locals; the mummies are thought-provoking tourist attractions before they are ancestors, symbols before they are people.


In the catacombs, a part of your brain must melt to cope with what you’re looking at, blunting any clearer perception of what is happening or at least what has happened for you to be looking at this site, with walls and walls of these faces. Confronted with room after room after room of the dead, I imagine I’d face the same empty pit that’s neither fear nor disgust that I did in the cadaver lab as a teenager. En masse, stripped of a clinical context, I’d probably feel the absence of anything even more deeply. Living people apparently have a deeper empathy and engagement with mummies than skeletal remains, but empathy can manifest in many ways. It’s not unlikely that I, a reverse Orpheus, wouldn’t be able to look at all.


An incomplete list of topics every magazine feature, travel story, and blog post references: that the link between the living and the dead is particularly strong in Sicily, as if other cultures don’t painstakingly preserve and honor their dead; the dry conditions that help to naturally mummify the corpse alongside the handiwork of the clergy; that the rooms are segregated by position, gender, class, and age, because death is not the great equalizer and never has been. The oldest and most recent tenants are always referenced too: Silvestro da Gubbio, a friar who died in 1599, and Rosalia Lombardo, a toddler who was embalmed in 1920 and put on display, even though new bodies had ceased to be added to the catacombs decades earlier, for hygienic reasons. She’s so well-preserved that she’s called “Sleeping Beauty.” In photographs, her bangs look slicked down with sweat, like she’s still in the feverish sleep that killed her. These two are not even famous for their deaths, which were blessedly unremarkable; their legacy lies in what happened to their bodies after they vacated the premises.


Even alive, I feel shame about my body. Not any Edenic nakedness or sexuality, nor the size or shape or softness of my form; there is just something deeply humiliating about physical existence. Everything is embarrassing. What is there here that’s worth the pain and money of preserving, during life or after death?


My muscles are tepidly growing, while my body, as a whole, is shrinking, recoiling back into itself. The reconfiguration or “recomposition” of my body, as the actual fitness experts and influencers call it, is intentional, I suppose, but surprisingly, I feel no particular way about it: no pride, no shame, no joy, no dread. No more than before, at least. That’s the healthiest attitude to have, I tell myself. I do wonder if my priest will shrink and grow with me in any noticeable way, or if his proportions will just start to skew out of whack, and whether the distortion will just add a surreal edge that strengthens his overall affect.


I tell myself that fitness has become a matter of functionality. I can roller skate faster and longer; I’ve started jogging, even in the sweltering heat and face-chapping cold. I eat better so I can lift more weight, run more miles, and start to do more on my skates than go around in circles.


Good health is not the same as increased functionality. I want to be able to do more now, but I don’t want my body to last any longer than I’m morally obligated to keep it running, to guard God’s creation, or whatever he considers me to be. So I run, but I smoke the (increasingly rare) cigarette on my balcony when I get home and need to waste a few minutes to stop sweating so I can shower, and I drink every weekend and probably too many weeknights, and I haven’t been to any real health professionals, outside of an urgent care office, since I graduated college. Bent into thirds, blinded and disoriented by pain I couldn’t locate to any particular organ or side of my gut, I asked the nurse practitioner if I should go to the emergency room, if there was any way for her to wager a guess at the odds of whether it was appendicitis or not. I couldn’t afford to go and not have something urgent. She said she didn’t know, so I didn’t go, and I won that bet.


If I were a stand-up comedian—which I’ve consciously chosen not to be, because that would be even more humiliating—I know one of my bits would be about maximizing my sin rate: how can I have as much earthly fun as possible while still ensuring I land in Purgatory, not Hell? I’m not so much interested in the theological or ethical implications as I am in the thought experiment, the mathematical equation I’m trying to recover. It’s not worth thinking about seriously in ethical terms because it immediately falls apart. It’s too planned, too cynically weighed out and measured for my soul to have a shot in Hell. Plus, gambling is a sin of its own, I’m pretty sure. But that same thought experiment, stripped of any morality outside that of western fitness and diet culture, is basically how I approach taking care of my body. How many cigarettes does a thirty-minute jog around the park buy me? Can I eke an extra one out if I push myself just a little further, a touch faster? How do I avoid preservation as an endeavor toward permanence in favor of having a mostly functional body right now, while it might still be worth having?


When the writer P. E. Moskowitz wrote, “All I was left with was a void—I was without mass, without presence. Mine was a body you could walk through,” they were writing about reclaiming their body through sport. “Mine was a body you could walk through” would have been visceral for my increasingly athletic form, if not for the void. At my body’s largest and smallest—through the most toxic and potentially most misguided lens, its least and most fit—I still feel nothing. It simply isn’t there, or at least isn’t clearly defined: a sentient, nebulous cloud of muscles, bone, and sinew without firm outlines or boundaries. I bleed into the couch, my bed, the pavement of the park I’m slowly and dutifully propelling myself against. What is being preserved, if it doesn’t feel solid in life?


I don’t know which is the worse fate: to be picked and peeled apart and pulled together over and over in the name of clinical science or to endure as a tourist attraction. A cadaver has a career of up to six years, but the oldest mummy in the Italian crypts dates back to the sixteenth century. How do you compare a relatively brief naked stint to many, many lifetimes in a silly hat and robe? At least one is endeavoring to propel science forward; did those bodies feel fulfilled in life, knowing what their mission would be after death?


Many museums display mummies, in various capacities. Some mummies spend their entire afterlife traveling the country or world. Museum guidebooks typically have notes on the respect and dignity of the mummy, which is usually called a “human mummy” rather than a person, body, corpse, cadaver, or any of the other terms I’ve fallen into using. Mummified animals are, of course, a wholly different deal, with their own (less ethically bungled) taxonomy and presentation.


The Cincinnati Museum Center’s learning guide says that “When modern scientists examine these mummies, they are careful to preserve and keep them as perfectly intact as possible, while still learning all they can about their lives, origins, peoples and histories. In doing so, the scientists—and everyone who sees the exhibition—are ensuring that the living person the mummy once was will be remembered. The people presenting ‘Mummies of the World’ have attempted to acknowledge the views of the social and cultural groups from which the mummies originated.”


The Catholic human mummies in Italy are kept in their original resting place, while the mummies in Africa and Asia are often stolen from their tombs or catacombs, stripped of their context, and denied the fate they had hoped would befall their remains. The Catholics, at least, actually got pretty much exactly what they signed up for: an eternal pantomime of their class and gender in some cave in Italy.


Long after the first mummies began to fill up the Gangi Catacombs, the Vatican started to take the Egyptians and their preservations seriously. In the 1970s, a team was put together: surgeons, anthropologists, microbiologists, researchers of all sorts of pathologies. They worked to perfect the science behind mummification, to better preserve the popes, the beati, the saints.


Sainthood, or any other Catholic honorific, isn’t just about miracles and faith. There’s a bureaucracy to be waded through, a timeline for respectability. The Vatican decides both which bodies to preserve and which souls to elevate. For all the work to preserve them, saints—especially the older and more interesting ones—are not always granted the dignity of maintaining their whole, intact body in death. Hacked off body parts and bone fragments were considered relics: hearts, feet, jaw bones, entire arms. All Catholic altars are supposed to contain a relic from a saint, ideally a martyr. For confirmation classes at my home parish in Flushing, Michigan, we had a tour of the church that we sat in most Sundays. Inset into the altar was a much smaller bone than I’d expected, probably from an ear or a finger—the church secretary never returned a message I left asking who and where it was from. I claimed to believe I was consuming the Body of Christ every week, but a bone in a table was far more discernibly human than communion.


My parents are making concentrated efforts to preserve their bodies and minds. Reinforce might be a more accurate word, really—my parents, and my dad, especially, are similar to me in that they don’t want to extend their overall lifespans but want to be functional, body and mind, for a larger percentage of whatever life span they’re destined to. Their parents never took care of themselves, and while my parents and most of their siblings have dutifully cared for them, they say they don’t want their children to have to do the same. Because of their age, they have to take a different approach than I do, even if the goal is more or less the same. They don’t run or jog—bad for the knees, at their age—but they walk and lift weights to increase their bone density. My dad is starting mobility training to work around forty-year-old shoulder injuries from high school wrestling. They hyperfixate on their weight. They’ve never smoked and hardly drink anymore. They have smoothies that are disgusting as a sign of their moral goodness, chock full of fiber and vegetables and three to five frozen berries to “sweeten up” the celery and spinach and Metamucil and whatever seed, nut, or grain my dad was researching that month.


My dad is constantly joking, but not joking, about aging and his eventual death. He doesn’t want his children to take care of him. “Put me in a home and visit once a year.” It’s an utterly insane thing to say to your children who don’t already hate you. His family has a legacy against preservation for preservation’s sake. One of his grandmothers, when hospitalized and diagnosed with a heart condition, decided to climb stairs between hospital floors that very night until she died of a heart attack, rather than drag out what she assumed would be a lesser life. Or at least, that’s the story my dad believes and retells once or twice a year, and there’s no one with firsthand knowledge still alive to confirm or correct the family lore my dad has venerated my entire life.


Midwestern elementary school music classes are a strange mishmash of things that are, at best, music-adjacent. In those seven years, I learned songs about America, Michigan, and Lewis and Clark for performances that weren’t musicals, exactly, but rigidly themed concerts; I watched The Sound of Music over the course of weeks, since we only had music class weekly; I played the recorder and the glockenspiel; I square danced; and I learned about Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns every year.


The plot of the song is quite simple: as the clock strikes midnight on Halloween (twelve Ds plucked on a harp), Death (a solo violin, starting with a dissonant tritone that will be a motif through the entire song) wakes the dead to dance for him until the cockerel crows at dawn (an oboe), and the dance is over.


We were instructed to start by laying on the ground. Our music teacher, who wore stirrup leggings, terrible little bangs, and a clear dislike for children on her sleeve, said we were the skeletons, and we were asleep in our graves. The song would play over the speakers. We’d wait for Death’s fiddle as our signal to start slowly rising up and shaking out our joints, which hadn’t been used since the year before. We’d warm up our rickety knees and run our hands along our rib cages, hoping they’d play like xylophones. Then we had free rein to “dance like the dead,” whatever that meant to an eight-year-old, but we had to be back on the ground in our starting spot before the cockerel signaled dawn and the end. The dance played out like a very long, dull first round of musical chairs.


I was not sophisticated enough at that age to understand that good art is rarely pleasant, at least not if it wants to be taken seriously by a particularly cynical and pretentious modern audience. Danse Macabre is not pleasant; it’s eerie and sounds like the sonic manifestation of soft, anxiety-tinged dread. The dissonant tritone of Death’s fiddle is literally called diabolus in musica, the devil in music. When it was first performed, it caused widespread feelings of anxiety, thanks to the “horrible screeching from solo violin,” as scholar Roger Nichols identifies it. To me, most of the traditional classical music pieces that sound like Halloween have lost their edge. It’s the music of choice for children’s cartoons. Organ toccatas sound like the PG-rated, kooky and spooky movies from Family Video’s defunct “Family Fun” section. Danse Macabre is the exception.


I hear the twelve plucked notes on the harp, and I am on the hard, carpeted floor of the music room. I have never seen a dead body, have never been to a funeral, and have never thought much about death or flesh or bones, but I know my arms should be crossed over my chest, which is what most of my classmates do as well. My eyes are closed. I’m hyperaware of my still-beating heart, my expanding and contracting lungs, and how every part and process of my body seems to be syncing up to the strokes of the song’s clock. I stand and start to move and believe myself to be dancing like a ballerina, with rounded arms and light steps, but my bones lacked the length for grace. I am unselfconscious while my classmates and I move between and through each other. I’m grounded in my body as my essence radiates through my limbs and evaporates off my fingertips. In moving, I prove I’m still alive, even if I didn’t yearn for that proof yet.


Then, it was time for my skeleton to go back to rest. If Death’s skeletons weren’t back in the ground by the dawn, my teacher said they would be dust and wouldn’t be able to dance next Halloween. There’s always a more permanent death, even for the very deceased. The rough, low-pile carpet is directly on top of a cold, concrete foundation. There’s no dirt for me to settle into, no soft satin or velvet coffin interior, no grass to cushion my final resting spot, just a cold slab of man-made rock.


I knew the skeletons were people, or used to be. But until this exercise, I never applied that knowledge to myself. I knew I had bones, but that’s different from realizing there’s another person or entity inside of you. I didn’t think of my skeleton as me; I still don’t. It was more of a character, one that could play its own ribs as a xylophone, one that thought itself a ballerina for one night a year. It was, and still is, an entirely separate persona from myself.


The afterlife doesn’t disinterest me, but I cannot bring myself to think too much about it. Even if I were to know better, I’m not sure I have the willpower or energy to do anything differently. So instead, I fixate on what happens to the body, rather than anything else there might be. These questions are of anthropology, biology, chemistry, economics, and sociology. The psychology behind the decisions, both of the deceased before they kicked it and of their survivors, are as metaphysical as those questions can get for me. The degrees of separation between considering the Catholic afterlife and how, for so long, this idea of the Catholic afterlife necessitates an intact body be preserved might be slim, but they’re a crucial, weight-bearing pillar propping up my dumb little animal brain as I artlessly and gracelessly maneuver myself through life. Then again, animals don’t have a knee-jerk, desperate need to close blinds without peeking through the panes, to shove the already-dead mouse deeper under the stove.