So tell me, what does a dead body smell like? I mean, really smell like?
On the Internet, that bottomless hole that has a stench of its own, due to all the decomposing, scattered scraps of incompletely oxidized information, there are chat rooms dedicated to this question. It seems like everyone is dwelling on and deliberating over the particularly foul-smelling fifth stage of death, putrefaction, a term that derives from the Latin putrere, to be rotten, putere, to stink, and facere, to perform, to suffer, to make, do; everyone wants to know about the olfactory component of the procedure, that future pastime in which we ooze into goo and dissolve.
People offer various answers to evoke the dead’s redolence—rank and sweet, like rotting meat and cheap perfume—but my favorite response is a decomposing body smells like nothing else in this world.
At school I was taught by nuns who smelled like nuns that Saint Bernadette’s incorruptible corpse emitted the scent of roses. When I was in Nevers, Sister Agatha told us, paying adoration at her open crystal coffin, I put my nose right up to her face, and the bouquet of her corpse was more beautiful than any rose garden. When Sister Agatha came near your desk, you had to hold your breath; her habit held the aroma of the vapor from the stagnant water in her hot steam-iron.
A recent story from the California section of the Los Angeles Times related an incident in San Clemente, in which an entire family was found dead in their house with an ocean view. The family members, all of whom were lying on their beds, dressed in black, had been deceased for just over two weeks. A suicide pact; the note left no explanation. Due to the unpleasant fumes, the police had to wear underwater breathing apparatus, as if they were going deep-sea diving.
What does someone who’s been resurrected smell like? I like that moment in the story of Lazarus when Martha warns Jesus that there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days. But Jesus ignores her and goes into the tomb; he doesn’t seem to fear or mind the odor of death. Out comes Lazarus, wrapped in his dirty, fetorous bandages.
To thank Jesus, Martha and Mary have him over for supper. Lazarus is there. He’s weirdly quiet. Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with some ointment; the house is filled with the fragrance. If you read between the lines, this gesture can be seen not merely as one of respect, but serving a practical purpose, motivated by the presence of their recently dead brother. You sense that beneath the sweet fragrance, everyone can still catch a whiff of Lazarus, who must reek of the void.
On the Internet, there are fragrance-free images of bodies in service to putrefaction. If I can’t inhale their aromas, I will not look at them. If there is a central tenet or organizing principle to the system I’ve cobbled together, it’s that the dead are perfect, their bodies quietly rotting away behind their immaculate reflection.
I was taught by priests with whisky on their breath that Hell stinks to high heaven, but Heaven itself is odorless. The same goes for Holy Cross cemetery, where there is a distinct absence of odors. There are no noxious fumes or vile gases. In this sense, the cemetery is successful. All I’ve ever detected there is the faintly bitter scent coming from my own body, the indescribable aroma of your body, and the clean scent of freshly cut grass.
From The Disintegrations: A Novel by Alistair McCartney. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
is the author of The Disintegrations: a Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, FALL, 2017). Seattle Times and Entropy Magazine both listed The Disintegrations on their best of fiction lists for 2017. His first novel, The End of the World Book (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) was a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award 2009 and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award 2009. McCartney's writing has also appeared in journals such as Fence, 3:AM, Animal Shelter (Semiotexte), Bloom, Lies/Isles, 1913, and Gertrude.