Magazine article The Christian Century

Scene of the Crime

Magazine article The Christian Century

Scene of the Crime

Article excerpt

Recently I overheard a witty friend say that she didn't watch much television. "I'm not into forensics," she said.

She has a point. CSI; CSI: Miami; CSI: NY; Bones; NCIS and Cold Case are among the most popular shows on network TV, and all focus on homicide police and scientists with a formidable array of technology at their command. Week after week, they ingeniously wield DNA analysis (the Q-Tip industry could survive solely on mouth swabbings depicted in these shows), microscopic and assorted other technical examination of body tissue and skeletal parts, intricate ballistics, in-depth psychological profiling and so forth.

All of these shows also include numerous views of corpses at one or another stage of dissection. For column research, I popped in on CSI recently. In a scene that stretched at least five minutes, a coroner and another high-tech crimestopper held and scrutinized a piece of a victim's skull and brain as if it were a sizable wedge of cheese just sliced off and handed to them at the deft. All the while, the brain's owner lay stiff and chilled beside them on a stainless-steel table, with a third of the top of his head neatly sawed off at a diagonal. "The dead don't care," undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch has written. We hope.

One can find many more documentary-style forensics programs on cable television. What's going on? Does our culture have a bottomless hunger for forensics?

It is widely remarked that medical doctors and scientists are the high priests of our day. (Time magazine has replaced its religion section with a health section, breathlessly reporting the latest murmurings from Mayo Clinic or the New England Journal of Medicine.) We have distanced ourselves from the reality of our mortality. Whereas wakes were once held in the front parlors of homes, dead bodies are now held at a distance, in hospitals and funeral homes. Our forebears steadily if reluctantly stared death in the face. We focus on longevity.

We try to deny or at least ignore death. Nonetheless, it remains a stubborn and naggingly disturbing fact. …

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