"Fresh From My Body, Straight to Your Plate!"
Carolyn Space Jacobson
February 28, 1997

copyright © 1997

[Lights up.]

I: My House

At the end of August, when my family returned from our annual trip to visit relatives out east, I went down to our basement to look at a photographic family tree that covers two generations of Swineys who fought in the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War. These forefathers produced the family we had visited and about whom I had just heard so many stories. When I first went down to see the pictures, I looked at all the faces--small gray male faces against a black background, battles and wounds liste d in white hand-printed letters around their oval portraits. Aloicious Thaddeus Swiney, my closest relative, was wounded in the head and received a steel plate in his skull during the Spanish-American War. My great-aunts remember how when they were youn g, he'd pull aside his hair and let them feel the cold metal that disappeared under his scalp. The next day I went down to look again, but this time the faces were moving. When I lifted the frame from the wall, white bugs dropped from the back and I dis covered the hole in the wall where the termites had tunneled into the spot directly behind the photos, had gnawed through the frame, and had begun to eat my ancestors at a frightening pace. It turned out that the whole center beam which supported the hou se had been mostly eaten away and had to be replaced, and in the meantime, the house had to be supported on metal braces to keep it from falling in on itself. The steel bit into the support beams, leaving marks that you can still see when you're in the b asement. I had gotten to the picture just in time, and the photos are back in place now, although a little nibbled, apparently more indestructible than the ancesters themselves, who are all dead, and who persist in that condition. Aloicious's picture re mains, as does the steel plate, I assume, 6 feet under the earth somewhere, but the rest of him is gone. If any bone fragments still exist, they're on their way to dust, too.

II: My City

Philadelphia is home to the Mtter Museum, a medical history museum chock-full of artifacts, curiosities, and freaks of nature. The whole museum is hard to take--pieces of people in jars, body parts sliced or mounted or recreated in wax wherever you look , and an astounding and horrifying array of antiquated gynecological instruments. But standing in front of the skull collection is the most upsetting display of all--because it's where you get drawn in. One whole wall is devoted to just part of this 19t h century skull collection, in which the skulls line the shelves, distinguished from each other by small yellowed plaques listing the country the skull came from (all over Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa), the cause of death (often some form of executio n), and a brief detail of the medical or criminal history of the skull's former owner. The display is a remnant of the phrenology movement of the eighteen-hundreds, whose enthusiasts tried to link mental or moral disease to the cranial features of skulls . You stand there looking at the skulls, and then you see your own face leering out of the display case, thanks to the shadowy lighting which reflects on the glass. You start to notice the curves of your own parietal bones, the cavern that exists below your upper jaw, and the rim of your eye sockets rising up under your skin. If you stand just right, your head sits on the shelf alongside the other hundred or so skulls, waiting for the flesh to rot away, and if you turn to look at the other people in th e room, bent over exhibits, all you see is their skulls lurking beneath their skin, waiting. You turn to the person you came to the museum with, the person you have never imagined dead before, and all you can see is the hinge of his lower jaw, the shape of his frontal lobe beneath his skin. If you turn right now and look now at the person sitting next to you, you can see their skull, too, if you look right.

III: My Class

It reminds me of taking exams in anatomy class, watching the span of the auditorium where all the students were touching themselves in order to tap into the memory devices they had employed while memorizing the lists of bones and muscles from the diagrams in the textbook. Ulna, Radius, Humerus, Clavicle. I see one woman using her digitus secundus manus, thanks to her transverse ligaments, to rub her patella, probably trying to remember the term "sesamoid," which describes the type of bone the patella is , and which is the answer to number sixteen. We are what we study in this class, and despite the layers of soft tissue in her way, she can feel through them to the more solid matter underneath. Think of these two bones trying to touch each other, digit to patella. Think of the sound of bones rubbing against each other. Think of how little separates them.

IV: My Obsession

The Anthropological Research Facility is located at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. There, every year, they study dozens of bodies which have been unclaimed at the local medical examiner's office. The bodies are placed in a variety of conditio ns--on examining tables, buried in dry soil, buried in muck, set under a constantly-running fan--and then the rate of decay is carefully monitored. The buried bodies are routinely dug up and photographed, the corpses are prodded, sniffed, and tested for chemical breakdown, and the data gained in this process is used to help forensic scientists and homicide detectives make sense of what they find and have to identify on the job. The scientists and students at this lab have as their obsession the rate at which we will disappear, until all that is left are our bones. They think of flesh as something not at all permanent, but instead, as something in transition. Here and then gone.

V: My Conclusion

Twentieth-century graves in England are all marked with the name of the person buried, and then the phrase, "Fell Asleep"--one of the most deceptive euphemisms for death I've ever heard. I want "dead and rotted beyond recognition" on my gravestone. Pure and simple.

The house I lived in was rotting away. The house I live in is rotting away. My body is a temple, and it's not going to last. The theater we sit in falls apart a little every day. Think of the word "flesh" as a verb. On its way out, not here to stay.

Wait until late tonight. Wait until you're saying good-bye to your friends out in front of the Mill or Country Kitchen. Wait until you're on your doorstep. Wait until you're chatting in bed. Look for the skulls in the people around you. Be the vision ary who can look past the present flesh and see deep into the form we will all take in the future. Think of your loved one's head. Their skull. The part that will out last them. You. Love.


"Fresh From My Body, Straight to Your Plate!" debuted February 28, 1997.

Performed at Best of No Shame Theatre on May 2, 1997

[Carolyn Space Jacobson's website]

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