Miasma, Effluvia,and the Mythos of Rotting

As I’m continuing to read The Work of the Dead by Thomas W. Laqueur and examining more of the reasons for the emergence of the cemetery in the early 19th century, I came across an interesting theory, which, however archaic it seems, still persists in our current culture. It has to do with the dead and how they smell, and how they can potentially be ‘dangerous.’

Spoiler: they’re really not.

In 1839, a series of books beginning with Gatherings from Graveyards by George Alfred Walker, a Victorian surgeon, supported the “prevailing medical theory of the day that bad smells,” particularly cadaverous gases, “caused disease.” This theory was used to support the argument for larger, more open burial places, i.e. cemeteries, in place of the overcrowded churchyards, some of which had indeed become grotesquely overcrowded. In cities, where the living and the dead were pressed even more closely together, the foulness present in some city churchyards was hard to ignore. In short, it was unpleasant to be around, and the living had no desire to be so close to it.

For example, in 1780 in Paris, a wall collapsed between a recent burial pit and a neighboring house:

Decomposing bodies spilled into the house’s cellar. And this was not the first time that the dead had caused problems. In previous years, local residents had complained of trembling, vomiting, and fainting; wine reportedly had gone bad and candles went out. With rotting flesh tumbling into basements and a history of strange illnesses rife in the neighborhood, the dead came under new suspicion.

Understandably, there were some conditions that were certainly unpleasant, and perhaps unhygienic, when it came to dead bodies being so close to the living. Churchyards could reek of “one entire mass of human bones and putrefaction.” But cities during this time period were pretty smelly places, as the living can certainly rival the dead when it comes to producing foul smelling gases. In London in 1840, the living produced between “320 million and 640 million pounds” of feces and between “160 million and 225 million gallons of urine.” Certainly these odors contributed to the city’s overall odor, as waste accumulated in open cesspits, “emptied more or less often by night soil men; a great deal was thrown into gutters.” Moreover, sordid burial grounds, such as in the Paris example, were limited to a very small number of burial grounds in actuality; it was not the norm for a Paris home to be swimming with dead bodies in its cellar. “Rotting bodies, however smelly, did not create a public health crisis,” says Lacqueur.

Still, the odor produced from dead bodies was thought to cause Typhus fever, which came from their effluvia – “tiny, insensible particles, noxious exhalations” which in turn caused miasma, or essentially, air pollution. It was even believed that if a pregnant woman was in close proximity to a corpse, it would cause her to miscarry. These beliefs, coupled with the very real problem of running out of burial space in churchyards, was in part why the living turned away from the church when it came to burying their dead and sought a new solution: the secular cemetery.

Even today, modern medical professionals “still act as if corpses are a threat to health and, especially in the numbers that accumulate after a natural disaster or battle, need to be disposed of as quickly as possible in the interest of public health.” This is unfortunate, because there is no medical evidence to support the dangerousness of dead bodies; in fact, a living body is far more dangerous to you than a dead one. Of course, there are a few situations where a corpse can be dangerous, such as in the cases of blood-borne diseases, but the theory that all dead bodies can infect you with their nefarious disease – death – is false. Even during the Victorian Era, gravediggers and body snatchers made the point that they handled dead bodies on the daily and it caused them no harm. These insights, however, were swept under the rug.

Recently, there have been a few cases of cemetery remains leaking into drinking water which has generated some buzz on the eternally present question: are dead bodies dangerous? But if we take a closer look, it’s not the dead bodies themselves that pose a threat – they are natural decomposing matter, which is what much of our soil has in it anyway. It is the embalming fluid used to preserve them, comprised of deadly chemicals, that is hazardous.

Remember, the dead are a product of death, of illness, of disease; they are not harbingers of death. They deserve our respect, not disgust.

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