Our Incorruptible Dead Girls

by Stassa Edwards


Maria Goretti haunts my television. Though the Catholic saint was murdered in 1902, long before television was invented, her presence is still felt. The eleven-year-old was stabbed fourteen times by twenty-year-old Alessandro Serenelli when she refused to submit to his advances. It wasn’t the first time that she had refused Serenelli, but this time, he came determined and armed with a knife. According to her voyeuristic hagiography, Goretti screamed and fought, “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!”

As she languished in a nearby hospital bed, Goretti forgave her murderer, clutched her crucifix, gazed at the Virgin Mary and died. Goretti had little — she was but one of many children in a poor Italian family — but, like a good Catholic girl, she had her virginity, and to have it stolen or lost would have been a mortal sin. It was perhaps the only valuable thing she possessed, so valuable that she took it to her grave. And it was in death — her body laid out before mourners — that Goretti found a kind of value that she never had during her short life. For her troubles, in 1950 she was canonized while her mother looked on, made the patron saint of rape victims.

Catholicism is filled with saintly women like her whose incorruptible bodies — especially virgins — insist on veneration, preserved in altars, patiently awaiting the Last Judgment. There’s Imelda, whose heart burst from the rapture of her first communion; Saint Rita of Casica, who endured a life of abuse at her husband’s hands; Agatha of Sicily who, after being forced into prostitution, had her breasts severed; and Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, who once told a fellow nun, “My job is to be ill.” The bodies of these dead women litter Europe. Their lives, like most saints, were marked with violence and tragedy. But, laid in altars or specially constructed chapels, their miraculous flesh welcomes the meditative gaze of pilgrims of have come seeking the guidance of the dead, even though dead women do not speak.

Pilgrims flock to dead girls, and they have done so for ages. In 1895, Parisians gathered at the morgue. On April 3rd, the body of an eighteen-month-old baby girl had been pulled from the Seine — the next day a three-year-old girl. “Are these two sisters?” asked Le Petit Journal. The crush to see the dead girls became so intense, so fervent, that the Journal later reported that the police had set up a special service to keep visitors lined up in an orderly fashion; the morgue required crowd control.

Before the nineteenth century, the unidentified dead were thrown in the dank basement of a prison, a “stinking pestilent place,” one observer wrote. In the basement of a prison, death had been too real — visitors, he continued, “were forced to breathe the poisoned air of this grotto and put their faces against a narrow opening.” But dead girls demand an audience. So when the Paris morgue was moved and rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century, it was designed to make looking at bodies easy, almost pleasurable. Bodies were displayed behind large glass windows, lined up one by one, displayed like an object to be consumed. Parisians could visit the dead girls, worship seven days a week, anytime from sunrise to sundown.

Behind the glass windows the of Paris morgue, the dead girls were displayed like the incorruptible bodies of saints. Enshrined, objects that could identify them were hung next to their bodies; clothes and jewelry laid next to the bodies like relics. Prints from the era show a familiar scene: Long hair falling over breasts, violent wounds hidden, faces peaceful enough that they could be sleeping. And like the dead girls of procedural dramas, their bodies never fester — removed before the rot of death set in. At the Paris morgue, the romance of spectacle was preserved.

The little girls pulled from the Seine were never identified, but that was never the point of publicly displaying them: They were a site for introspection, a jumbled mesh of mourning and vain superiority. They were a reminder of the dangers of city life; only in a city could two children be thrown into a river undetected and anonymous.

Charles Dickens couldn’t resist a visit to the Paris morgue; haunted by the bodies, he returned time and time again. He described gazing at the bodies as “like looking at waxwork, without a catalogue, and not knowing what to make of it. But all these expressions concurred in possessing the one underlying expression of looking at something that could not return a look.” Dickens could never quite reconcile the dead girls he stared at with actual living women. His dead girls work only as a clunky metaphor for the artfulness of death. In Dickens’ hands, the individual is turned into an uncanny object — a curiosity, a Madame Tussauds creation. When Dickens wrote about the morgue, his pen wandered to other dead girls he had seen. He recalls a woman pulled from a river near his home: “So dreadfully forlorn, so dreadfully sad, so dreadfully mysterious, this spectacle of our dear sister here departed!”

The bodies displayed in the morgue had obviously suffered: They had been drowned, shot, beaten, or starved. Pilgrims flocked to worship, but they also came to search — to linger over the dead girl’s body, to take into account every detail of texture, size, and color in her body, to detect the cause of death. In Therese Raquin, Emile Zola wrote: “There are amateurs who make a detour in order not to miss one of these representations of death.” Staring at corpses as afternoon entertainment might seem grotesque, but the distance between the spectacle of the morgue and a Saturday evening marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is slimmer than most would admit; Dickens’ morgue is the predecessor to the procedural dramas’ dead girl. They are both spectacle, both artfully formed.

I think about Goretti and her suffering sisters every time I see her on television. Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler hover above the body; Gil Grissom inspects every microscopic detail. They gaze at her body, faces twisted with concern or disgust, uttering lines about justice and violence. In the procedural drama gendered violence is a given: Women will be wounded; women will be killed. Death is inevitable because the production of the dead girl is its very purpose. Law and Order, CSI, and their many incarnations all have a kind of liturgy that repeats from week to week: The dead woman is never at fault, yet because she is a woman, her sacrifice was inevitable.

There is a visual continuity of dead girls in cinema: Laid out on slabs, hair draped around pale bodies that belie the likely violence of their fictional deaths, they are peaceful, serene and silent. Covered by a medical examiner’s makeshift shroud or dressed in borrowed clothes, neither their bodies nor their narratives are their own. They are bound by a kind of artfulness. The dead girl must look convincingly dead, yet death must conceal itself under the mask of beauty. So she’s pale — the lily whiteness of her skin evokes another kind of metaphor — while her closed eyes and pale blue lips convey the easy transition from living to dead. Though the procedural drama relies on the endlessly violent deaths of women, it asks that her corpse lie: to maintain its allure, not swell or bloat or bleed. The putrid smell of death has no place on the television screen, in part because the incorruptible body does not decompose.

Procedural dramas also offer a kind of alibi that simply gawking at a dead body at the morgue did not. To watch television is not simply to relish the spectacle of the dead girl, it’s to participate in the making of justice, to become a detective. In these shows, there’s a strange tension between the religious gaze and the scientific gaze. The religious longing for the dead girl, for the reunification of the body, is cloaked beneath scientific longing: Pieces of the body are magnified through lingering close ups, excuses made by a medical gaze enhanced by jargon. Yet we’re still granted unfettered access to look at thighs and shoulders; the metal carts, empty eyes, and blue lips are little more than cover granted by the objective medical work played out on screen.

If the stilted language and look of science cloaks longing, then the dead girl’s inability to speak is a fantasy in and of itself. The dead girl’s body is the only fundamental source of truth. It carries on it clues about her murder, so her entire body must be gleaned. Flakes, dirt from under her nails, microscopic evidence is all gathered placed into envelopes and jars. Labelled and preserved, these objects of veneration tell us something that victim is herself unable to mutter.

Alessandro Serenelli repented for his murder of Maria Goretti, and after serving three years in a local prison, Goretti visited him in a dream, giving him lilies, “which burned immediately in his hands.” He later became a lay brother in a Capuchin monastery and reportedly prayed to her every day, calling her “my little saint.” He joined Goretti’s mother at the girl’s canonization. That Goretti was dead seemed to be the very purpose of her existence. Her body became what no living girl ever could be: a miracle and a spectacle.