What is a corpse? It’s what they piled up by the hundreds when the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh this April. It’s what lands on the ground each time a human being jumps off the Foxconn building in China’s high-tech iPhone manufacturing complex. (Twenty-one have died since 2010.) They spring flower-like in budded clusters whenever a bomb goes off in the marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan. A corpse is what individual angry, armed Americans sometimes make of each other for strangely underwhelming reasons: because they got fired, or a girl didn’t love them back, or nobody at their school understands them. Sometimes—horrifyingly—it’s what happens to one of “our own,” and usually cancer has done it, or a car, at which moment we rightly commit ourselves to shunning the very concept of the “corpse,” choosing instead to celebrate and insist upon the reality of a once-living person who, though “dearly departed,” is never reduced to matter alone.
It’s argued that the gap between this local care and distant indifference is a natural instinct. Natural or not, the indifference grows, until we approach a point at which the conceptual gap between the local and the distant corpse is almost as large as the one that exists between the living and the dead. Raising children alerts you to this most fundamental of “first principles.” Up/down. Black/white. Rich/poor. Alive/dead. When an Anglo-American child looks at the world she sees many strange divisions. Oddest of all is the unequal distribution of corpses. We seem to come from a land where people, generally speaking, live. But those other people (often brown, often poor) come from a death-dealing place. What a misfortune to have been born in such a place! Why did they choose it? Not an unusual thought for a child. What’s bizarre is how many of us harbor something similar, deep inside our naked selves.