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When is a Dead Person Allowed to Become a Skull?

By Peter N. Maduro, J.D., Psy.D., Psy.D. - Tuesday, November 07, 2017
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My friend Sanjay and I lamented the too-early death of the great MLB pitcher, Roy Halladay, age 40, whose dashing new ICON A5 airplane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico today, with Roy in it. It seemed like only yesterday that we’d watch, and occasionally wager on, Halladay when he pitched and won, game after game, for the Toronto Blue Jays and later the Philadelphia Phillies. He was an amazing baseball player who knew how to win games, including a “perfect game” in 2010. And yet now, suddenly, he was dead: gone forever.

Sanjay made the remark, “Roy Halladay, now a mere a skull.” I was struck by this stark idea and image.

Well, anyone who knows 16th-17th century European arts and literature knows that the theme of Memento mori ('Remember you shall die') was often symbolized in the image of the human skull. Mary Magdalene regularly appeared in paintings that depicted her contemplating a skull. The skull was also a common motif in 15th- and 16th-century British portraiture.

The most famous employment of the skull as symbol of mortality was in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1, when the gravedigger exhumes the dead court jester Yorick’s skull and, in showing it to the Prince, evokes Hamlet’s famous monologue on mortality:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? “ (Hamlet, V.i)

With Roy’s still-warm corpse presumably safely in the Pasco County, Florida, Sheriff Department’s, or perhaps the Coroner’s, custody, I wondered how long his flesh-and- blood body would be, for one or another reason, important to family, friends, colleagues, fans, and government officials. How long, I wondered, would those who maintained custody of his body mediate the natural process whereby Roy’s corporeal self is reduced to a mere skull?

With my eye on death-anxiety, and the role of imagination in its tolerability, I calculated that the time in question is equal to the period Roy’s family, friends, colleagues, fans, public officials required sight of his fleshy exterior in order to erect lasting euphemism-filled illusions --e.g., images of Roy resting in peace-- that reassuringly counteract the harshness of his, their, our, own mortality. When that period expires, I figure, Roy’s still-fleshy body would have little other value and thus be allowed to decay into the proverbial skull.


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About the Author

Peter N. Maduro, J.D.,Psy.D., Psy.D is a clinical and forensic psychologist, and psychoanalyst with a private practice in Santa Monica & South Pasadena, CA. He is a Faculty Member and Training and Supervising Analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.