Friday, 23 August 2013

On The Death and Burial of Cock Robin: Guest Post by John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society, Bath University

All animal life eventually dies. This much we know. At a certain point in time, the organic structures supporting a living organism break down and ultimately cause death. How we humans then represent that organic death and decide what should be done with our dead bodies is significantly less concrete. Indeed, the human handling of dead human bodies remains one of Homo sapiens greatest inventions. But for the human inventions of burial, cremation, tissue digestion, freeze drying, etc., the dead body would remain where it died, decomposing for all to see. Such unsightliness after dying has become largely controlled in the modern West, and a dignified death can often mean a deceased person’s body was removed from public view before it looked too dead.

Walter Potter’s The Death and Burial of Cock Robin brilliantly illustrates this postmortem human inventiveness.

I don’t think that Potter intended the Cock Robin taxidermy display as a critique of human funereal customs given his enthusiastic commitment to anthropomorphizing dead animals. Rather, by using an entirely dead menagerie to illustrate the humanly invented funeral, Potter provokes an always-important question: Why do we humans do these things to our dead bodies? Every time I see The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, I am reminded of John Berger’s essay Why Look at Animals from his 1980 book About Seeing. In Why Look at Animals, Berger explores the human relationship with both representations of non-human animals and the physical practice of looking at animals. From Buffon’s early taxonomies to humans staring into animal eyes at zoos. In my mind, Potter’s taxidermy work melds with Berger’s essay to ask: Why look at Dead Animals? Living animals, especially the ones burying Cock Robin, would never behave the way Walter Potter’s tableaux presents, and that’s the key point. In death, we humans can take our non-human animal cousins and civilize them in ways a zoo or circus or freak show can never accomplish. Dead animals are fully compliant and perfectly docile animals.

We want Cock Robin’s dead animal friends to bury him so that we humans know that we’re somehow not also animals. We like knowing that Cock Robin’s friends want to be just like us. But we are animals, and what Potter’s taxidermied animals remind us is how removed we’ve become from not only death’s animality but also the organic animal-ness of our own dead bodies. 


This guest post is by John TroyerDeputy Director, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath.