Dallas Morning News

It wasn’t just another corpse.
Like other TV viewers, I see plenty of dead bodies. But this one was particularly gruesome. The pallid, naked male body was undergoing an autopsy. Its chest cavity was completely open; a giant X-shaped incision exposed the entrails and internal organs.

The characters in the show, Navy NCIS, walked around the corpse as though it were little more than a sack of bolts. And while the body being autopsied was gory, it was just one of dozens of mutilated bodies that now are appearing on network television. Blood-spattered bodies with slit throats. Gunshot victims. Stabbing victims. Suicides.

A few decades ago, our TV heroes were people like Marcus Welby, M.D., and Dr. Killdare. Those doctors worked to save the living and stave off death, sometimes against great odds. Of course, there were cop shows and detective shows. But they seldom, if ever, put corpses on display.

These days, network television overflows with programs that portray coroners, forensic pathologists and crime scene investigators – and the stars of the shows often are dead.

The coroners spend hours hovering over their respective corpses, looking for clues that will help them resolve a prickly crime within the allotted time slot. And throughout that hour, viewers are given repeated close-ups of the no-longer-living; long shots caress the corpse, showing it from all angles.

I have seen more than my share of real corpses. I have zipped my own brother – dead long before his time after losing his fight with liver cancer – into a body bag. But the simple fact is that America has lost respect for the dead. Death has become romanticized. It has become yet another way in which we entertain ourselves. Necrophilia has gone mainstream.

Today’s TV shows are indicative of a disturbing truth: America has become a culture of death, not a culture of life.

One of the hottest shows on television is Six Feet Under, a cable show about a family that runs a mortuary. It has been so popular that imitators are cropping up. The A&E channel recently launched a reality-TV show called Family Plots.

It is about a real mortuary in Southern California. The star of the show is Shonna Smith, who is the “senior funeral director” of the mortuary. Shonna, the show’s Web site tells us, “takes us through the doors of the mysterious embalming room.” She also is “a drama queen who prefers dealing with the dead to the living.”

Shonna, it seems, is like most Americans. Many American teenagers are being seduced by the “Goth” culture, which glorifies images and songs that feature Satan, death and suicide. Our biggest celebrities are dead. From movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean to rock stars like Elvis, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, we have become accustomed to worshipping the ones who aren’t here just as much as the ones who are.

Our culture of death has deified Princess Diana. Every week or so, TV newsmagazine shows carry yet another special on Diana, her tortured marriage, her love affairs and, of course, the car accident that killed her. In mid-April, a CBS program, 48 Hours Investigates, even broadcast photos of the dying princess that were taken by paparazzi just after her car crashed in that tunnel in Paris in 1997.

Death is seductive. It is easy. The dead can’t disappoint us. They don’t say dumb things, go through nasty divorces or grow old. The dead get frozen in time. By focusing on dead people, TV shows get to avoid many of the complications that come with the living. Plus, they get to appear edgy and cool. And the more gory the corpse, it seems, the better.

All this death brings up some rather obvious contradictions: Network censors won’t allow frontal nudity or anything that is too overtly sexual. Nor will they allow certain profanities to be broadcast. But our other big taboo – death – is available by the hearse-load. Every night in prime time.


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