I cannot resist a visit to the used books exhibition every ten days or so, even though I know I accumulate more books than I can comfortably keep. My collection has become vastly more manageable after I signed up with LibraryThing and tagged my entire collection — but I need to upgrade my book storage hardware.
Anyway, my visit to the exhibition the other day was singularly productive, as I bagged a jewel of a book for seventy bucks (that’s just over a dollar): Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William Maples. The author was a leading US forensic anthropologist (specializing in skeletons) based in Florida, and his job was the identification of human remains. So, his bread and butter was the kind of raw material you and I would shrink from in horror: burned bodies; butchered bodies; decapitated bodies; stabbed, pierced bodies; decomposing bodies crawling with maggots; rotting bodies; parts of bodies; and skeletal remains. The book is a kind of autobiography, and irresistible for a true crime buff. Maples describes how the great Scottish king, Robert the Bruce (yes, he of spider fame), was proved to have died of leprosy from his disinterred remains. And how an imposter skeleton masquerading as the conqueror of Peru, Pizarro, was unmasked and the real article restored to its rightful place of honor.
Here is Maples making no bones (!) about what his profession entails:
I have gazed on the face of death innumerable times, witnessed it in all its grim manifestations. Death has no power to freeze my heart, jangle my nerves or sway my reason. Death to me is no terror of the night but a daylit companion, a familiar condition, a process obedient to scientific laws and answerable to scientific inquiry.
For me, every day is Hallowe’en.
How does one get into a profession like this? Maples describes a formative childhood event that might explain his strange career choice. The deputy chief of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department lived across the street and was a friend of Maples’ father. The great woman outlaw of the 1930s, Bonnie Parker, was also from Dallas:
One night this deputy, who was a friend of my father’s, brought over the autopsy photographs of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. I was allowed to see them. They were the first autopsy photographs I had ever seen, and they fascinated me. I was only about ten or eleven years old at the time. Far from being horrified, I was enthralled.
So there you have it! He was a lad with a precocious (precious?) affinity for corpses. Whom should we thank that he didn’t become a serial killer? Maples continues:
Years later I happened to be wandering in a part of the cemetery where members of my family were buried in Dallas. I came upon a tombstone with this inscription:
AS THE FLOWERS ARE ALL MADE SWEETER BY THE SUNSHINE AND THE DEW, SO THIS OLD WORLD IS MADE BRIGHTER BY THE LIKES OF FOLKS LIKE YOU!
Above this poem were the words:
Oct 1, 1910–May 23, 1934
I was astonished. The poem might have described a child or a sweetheart instead of a cigar-smoking murderess who perished in a hail of bullets.
I later photographed this headstone and show the poem part in some of my lectures. The next slide shows the full epitaph, with the superscripted name: Bonnie Parker. In that moment in a Dallas graveyard it came to me that every person, from the most depraved serial killer to the most seraphic innocent, was likely loved by someone when each was alive. Victims and murderers alike are people.
The book is a fascinating read, an invitation to a bizarre universe made rational, where the tools of science and technology are employed to pry secrets from the decaying bones of the dead. I will post more about the book later (I know I’ve broken this promise many a time), but for now, let me close with some photographs of headstone inscriptions from a visit to a graveyard in a personal capacity a couple of months ago. I’ve cropped out the names to protect privacy, which is probably an unnecessary precaution, but I decided to err on the side of caution. The second inscription (see photos below) is for a 17-year-old boy, and the dragonfly in the following photo just happened to be there.
One might think of some of these sentiments as maudlin, but forget not the gravity of the occasion — the words on my mother’s casket hit me like a sledgehammer when I first beheld them in the church during the service before the funeral: “Man, remember my end.” She had died of cancer in her fifties.