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Cast a cold eye on life, on death…

23 April 2009

Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-digger’s toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.

(W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben)

While I’m fascinated by the Bolivian terrorism story, it’s a little off my beat — there’s more than enough weirdness and kinky violence right here in Mexico.  Otto and Bina are doing a better job (and sometimes scooping the big boys) of keeping up with the Bolivian-Croatian-Hungarian-Argentine-Colombian conundrum, and the best I can do is take a look now and again at the Irish Times.. or pass those interested on to them.

Conor Lally, the Times crime correspondent, has been doing an excellent job of following up on Michael Dwyer, the Irish “tourrorist” that seems to be a side issue in all this.  There are some eyebrow raising suggestions in Lally’s story (the Irish security company where the dead man worked has an unsavory reputation, but no website; who were the other 17 Irish travelers, and what was this “training course” he told his parents he was taking in Bolivia are questions I have, but are left unanswered).

But, what really caught my attention in Lally’s article was this from Martin Dwyer, the dead man’s father:

Mr Dwyer said he was disgusted that pictures of his son’s body appeared in newspapers after his death.

While perhaps, out of shame, or grief, the Dwyers wish to retreat into privacy,  privacy is not extended to the dead in Latin America.   The dead have no shame, nor is it any assault on dignidad — dignity being the ultimate right of personhood in this part of the world — to be exposed in death.

It seems grusome to outsiders —  and there’s no getting around the fact that it takes an adjustment — that death, even violent death, is an accepted fact of life.  Whether traffic accident victims, headless gangsters (or their victims), suicides or foreign terrorists gunned down in a hotel room, the photos are going to be published.   The same as those who die a “natural” death are not prettified, nor is there any indignity.

Visitors get a ghoulish thrill from Latin America’s acceptance of the “not pretty.”  The spate of media reports on Mexico’s Santa Muerte focus on the sect as a “Death Cult”.  It’s not.  It’s a religion that accepts death, but so does Christianity.  In our churches, the image of Jesus is not some nice, cleaned up corpse ready for the “viewing”.  Jesus’  limbs are distended from the  crucifixion, the lance wound in the side, and the crown of thorns are bloody.  The mystery at the heart of Christianity is resurrection, but to have resurrection, one must accept that Jesus died under torture, and to turn one’s gaze from the torture is to deny the significance of the resurrection.

It is not that one likes the images, nor that one accepts gangsterism, or terrorism… or auto accidents for that matter.  But they are not abstractions, something alien to one’s life.  This does not make Latin Americans fatalistic… the survivors of those whose bloody demise is splashed across the morning papers mourn their loved ones just as an Irish family does.  But they — and we — understand quite well that this is part of being human.

There are those who say images of violence make one tolerant of violence.  No, it’s the abstraction of violence.   Real violence is not shown:  the same country that would not publish even photographs of coffins of dead soldiers from an extremely violent invasion is the same country where an entire industy is built on violence as entertainment.  Hollywood movies are extremely violent, and popular television series in the United States, “CSI” ,  is premised on the idea that violent death is an interesting intellectual puzzle.

Northerners, with a few exceptions, have never cottoned on to the Latin American sense that death is a fact of life.  One of the few was the naturalized Mexican writer, Bruno Traven.  Traven’s 1929 novel, Die Brücke im Dschungel (The Bridge in the Jungle in English,  El puente en la selva in Spanish) is essential to understanding the Mexican way of death… and, in some ways, the Latin American (and human) way.  A little boy is killed, ironically, by the “gifts of civilization” (unaccustomed to wearing shoes, he falls off a bridge and drowns) and the unnamed narrator becomes a partipant in the lengthy funeral rites.  There is nothing pretty about the dissolution of a corpse in the jungle heat, but there is nothing unnatural about it, nor any attempt by Traven or his characters to deny it.  It is in the nature of thing… and humans… to die and to rot.

It is in the nature of foreigners with guns to be shot and to leave a bloody corpse.  In Mexico, one admits to mortality.  Tourists come for the oddity of Dia de los Muertos, but there is nothing ghoulish about celebrating life and death.  Levity is part of being human too, and the irreverence shown to death itself is in no way showing irreverence to the dead.  It’s death that is not to be feared, but mocked.  Not the dead themselves.  They, no matter the cause — gunshot or a noose — maintain their dignidad.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 April 2009 8:32 am

    An excellent post, RG. You had me nodding my head in agreement all the way down the line.

    You also did what the best writers do and stirred my memory. I visited a church in the small Peru/Bolivia border town of Pomata years ago (the Titicaca lakeside towns thereabouts were famed as homebase for many different Christian churches way back when).

    To the point; in the Pomata church there hung (hangs) a depiction of Christ on the cross. The artist (I tried and failed to make out the signature and there was nobody home when I knocked on priesty’s door) was clearly very accomplished and working to order. The painting was nothing short of brutal (I’d go as afar as breathtaking) in its realism of Christ’s dying pain and did exactly what the painter (and patron) wanted it to do, i.e. make a lasting impression.

    You are absolutely correct; there is no sactimonius hiding from the cold reality of death in LatAm. It’s much the better place for it. Great article.

    PS: Or in the words of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “crucifiction’s a doddle”.

  2. 23 April 2009 8:34 am

    can’t spell crucifixion

  3. 23 April 2009 9:11 am

    Otto and RG:

    Came across this via Otto’s blog. Excellent article, and definitely a good insight into cultural differences in the perception of death re: Europe, US, and LatAm. Great point about the hypocrisy depicted in Hollywood and reality in the US.

    One thing I would add (and would love your respective opinions here), is that I think consumer demand drives why pictures of the dead appear in LatAm dailies. I think death fascinates/scares people everywhere, but how openly it is accepted is a matter of culutral relevancy. I will never forget the gruesome and wholly real images of a murdered man I saw covering the front pages of a Paraguayan tabloid while there a few years back. These images wouldn’t appear on the front page of the NY Post because public outrage would lead to a decrease in sales. Dwyer’s father’s comments, while understandable, clearly demonstrate a key cultural difference in not only the perception of death, but also what consumers are willing to pay for.

  4. 23 April 2009 9:55 am


    You kind of answer your own question there. You’re right to point out that the NYP would get pilloried and lose sales if it went with such pictures. Latino media can do it because of death’s acceptance in its society. The voyeuristic side is allowed to be fed by the fact that such photos don’t cause a cultural rejection.

    at least imho.

  5. 23 April 2009 10:23 am

    Eliot — I just wanted to add that there’s nothing unique about the placement of guts n’ gore stories in the media. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a saying known to every journalist in the English-speaking world. It’s just that the real blood is covered up. We want to see nice tidy body bags, not bodies.

  6. MRegan permalink
    23 April 2009 10:49 am

    From Carmen viii

    Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
    et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.

    Poor Catullus, it’s time you should cease your folly,
    And account as lost what you see is lost.

    Dwyer’s family needs to contend with his death and make a full accounting of what has been irretrievably lost. Else, they bear his casket on their shoulders every step of their own journey to the clay. Dwyer for his part must fear being left to wander the lowlands as Pookah with no master. He likely has one last task. I for one hope and pray it can be done.

  7. 23 April 2009 11:33 am

    Maybe it’s because I’m so unsqueamish that I studied anatomy at university (before switching my major to English Lit, for which I was better suited than medicine); maybe it’s because I’m a true-crime buff who wants to know what makes people tick, even the worst people. Maybe it’s because just 70 years ago in my ancestral country, they were hanging people publicly as a “lesson” to those who opposed the Nazis for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because I find equal fascination in the “how did they do that?” of Egyptian mummies and the preserved corpses of Lenin and Evita. Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen far uglier death pictures than Dwyer’s on But whatever it may be, I really don’t understand how it dignifies the dead to hush up about their deaths and say nothing (except maybe eulogistic praises, which in the case of dead terrorists, is just plain macabre). Silence is the deadest death of all.

  8. 23 April 2009 11:47 am

    By the way, I should add that English Lit is just as death-ridden as anatomy and medicine. Without exception, every great poet or writer that I ever studied wrote extensively and with great fascination on the subject. It’s de rigueur for poets and authors in general to go where “good citizens” fear to tread. There’s a reason why your respectable Aunt Charlotte’s rhymes about flowers and butterflies and rainbows will never be as famous as the works of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who obsessed about death and took their own lives, or for that matter John Keats (who died young) or John Donne (who used death as his springboard for metaphysical reflection). The mind that cannot face an occasional deep reflection on death, is a mind that cannot create deathless art.

  9. MRegan permalink
    23 April 2009 12:47 pm

    In January of 1988 I was in a march of people from Huaycán VES Lima protesting about water, lots and other inadequate govt services. A blast of dynamite stampeded all of us into la Plaza de Armas where los tombos were waiting in riot gear. One of those geniuses decided that plowing into the crowd with his rochabus was a good idea. One man died instantly (his head was crushed and another was crushed across his middle, he later died at Hosp. Loayza). I had fled up the steps by the cathedral. One is left stunned. Se me renace esa horrenda sensación de oquedad de vez en cuando que me propinó ese inescapable instante.

  10. 23 April 2009 1:06 pm

    I’ve still not gotten used to the media images of accident victims, crime victims, etc. I agree there’s nothing disrespectful about it, but does remain somewhat of a cultural barrier for me.

  11. 23 April 2009 2:12 pm

    I doubt that Latin American families whose relatives are splashed across the front pages for whatever unfortunate reason are particularly pleased about it, though, are they? They may have seen such images before but I’m sure it’s still pretty awful when it happens to you. And for an Irish family it’s presumably something completely unexpected.

    However, I remember reading something about how it is more acceptable to show graphic images of ‘exotic’ bodies in the Western press – skeletal African corpses or horrifically burnt Iraqi remains, to give just two examples – than it is to show someone from closer from home. A close-up of the face of a dead British murder victim would be seen as unacceptable.

    I am relatively neutral about the morality of printing graphic images. I find the differences across cultures fascinating and generally find it more productive to get outraged about the causes of violence than the images of it. But I did get my stomach turned by a full-page shot of a decapitated corpse in an old issue of La Republica.

    Thanks for the post!

  12. locojhon permalink
    24 April 2009 7:59 am

    About the last of the uber-violent photos to be shown by US press, was the brilliantly horrific photo of the child who was napalmed in Viet Nam. (I think it won a Pulitzer.)
    In showing the US taxpayer precisely how their tax dollars were being used, I believe the disgust it generated helped stop that war, and is probably one of the main reasons why such photos are not often shown in the USA today—especially our soldiers.
    You see, the USA likes wars. It stimulates one of the few remaining money-making industries (other than prisons, of course) that the USA has left.
    No photos please–they remind us of the reality we’d rather keep hidden–like the caskets at Andrews AFB coming back from overseas.
    Most photos illuminating our atrocities have to be beamed into the US, because they certainly will not be shown by US media to the rest of the world.
    We in the USA need an ‘intervention’ from the rest of the world in the worst possible way.

  13. Dan permalink
    24 April 2009 3:45 pm

    Interesting post about something I had always noticed.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t see you really doing much to explain it.

    Like many things I suspect that the difference has many causes and I think one that at least plays some role, not with standing your playing down of it, is fatalism.

    In Latin America a sudden and unplanned death is a much more real possibility than it is in some other countries such as the U.S. Murder rates are much higher, accidents are more likely to be fatal due to little in the way of safety precautions and practically non-existent emergency services, and illnesses that are practically cured in the U.S. such as AIDS are still major causes of death in L.A.

    So if death being just around the corner is a realistic possibility in L.A. and something you can’t avoid then you have no choice but to deal with it, have some acceptance of it, and move on. In the same way Latin Americans put up with corruption, impingements on personnal liberties, and personnal relationships that are often far less than ideal without batting an eyelid so too they have this acceptance of death. No point shoveling sand against the ocean.


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