"I lay my fingertip there, just inside the socket, where some of the bone is chipped away: it was pecked out, by the beaks of vultures. These are the markings the huge black birds made when they consumed her eyes, with the permission of her family."
—Alex Mar, "Sky Burial"
In "Sky Burial," recently published in the Oxford American's Fall issue, Alex Mar visits the Forensic Anthropology Center at San Marcos University (FACTS)—the largest of America's five body farms, where people donate their bodies to be studied for the benefit of science. There, under the Texas sun, human bodies decompose, and graduate students research human anatomy and the environmental impact on corpses. (Or as Mar writes in her story: "the body farm at San Marcos is one of the only places in America where death is literally splayed out in front of us, laid bare in a field, undeniable.") Mar recently answered some questions about what drew her to San Marcos.
In "The Secret Life of Nuns," you wrote for the OA about the Dominican Sisters of Houston. You are also at work on a book about present-day witchcraft, and American Mystic, your documentary, is about religious communities. "Sky Burial" is not strictly a story about religious belief, though of course it does concern after-death wishes and the spiritual leanings of your subjects. What initially led you to researching and writing about fringe communities?
I'd say, more precisely, that I'm attracted to communities built around a belief system—and the more difficult that system is to sustain in the face of mainstream culture, the more fascinated I am.
I've often joked that I'm drawn to these worlds because I'm a bit tweaked—thanks in part to the fact that my dose of religion as a child came through a mother who's a liberal, a feminist, and a Catholic. From a young age, I was taught to respect the rituals while also keeping in mind that the Pope is a deeply fallible guy and that the church is run, unfairly, by men with political grudges. So even as I stood apart, I was still completely drawn in by the mysteries, by high mass, by the stories of the martyrs. I didn't agree with the official version of what Catholics were supposed to believe, but I was never able to shake this sort of primal attraction to the ceremony, the stories, the feeling of being just steps away—if only you could believe a little bit harder!—from truly understanding why we're all alive, here, on this planet.
Put more simply: regardless of whether a person calls herself a believer, an agnostic, or an all-out flaming atheist, we are all looking for meaning. Every one of us. It's one of the most basic qualities of being human. So whether you subscribe to one of the Big 3 religions, or you identify with a scrappier group on the fringe, to my mind it's all connected. Most of us are standing somewhere on the broad spectrum of seekers, even if we don't have official membership in a particular club. So each of these projects has been about clarifying what links any reader to that woman in the cloister, or the priestess of a coven in northern California. And in the case of "Sky Burial," perhaps the distance I was trying to bridge, for the reader and for myself, has to do with choosing to donate your own body, or the body of someone you love, to a "body farm." Perhaps some people, through reading the piece, were able to come out the other side finding that decision less shocking. The process of mourning is universally difficult and confusing, and it's one none of us can avoid, regardless of what funerary customs we observe and who else approves of them.
Why did you visit the body farm in San Marcos, rather than any of the other facilities in the United States?
There are really only two facilities that have body farms on a meaningful scale: the one at the University of Tennessee came first, and now there's FACTS in San Marcos, which is technically the largest. It opened just eight years ago, and it's run by researchers who all learned their trade in Tennessee and wanted to improve their methods in Texas in whatever ways possible. But more important for me was this added element of surprise that the geography and climate of the region provided them with: Central Texas weather is much drier, and the sun is relentless, and so the conditions have a very different impact on the bodies. They naturally mummify.
And then there are, of course, the vultures—which was why I was drawn to tell this story initially. They're creatures that have a pretty repulsive and sort of dark fairytale quality in the popular imagination, not to mention their mythic associations with the dangers of the West. But their role in the environment also potentially makes the decision to donate to FACTS that much more dramatic: would someone choose not only to be donated to science, and not only to have their decomposition documented out in the open by strangers, but also to be consumed by vultures? Plus, vultures serve as a link to the process of "sky burial" as a spiritual tradition in other cultures, as I mention in the piece.
The students who work at the body farm are described as being predominately female. Was this at all surprising? Do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case?
I was completely surprised. It was so skewed in favor of these female grad students and undergrads. I think I saw, at most, a total of three men the entire time I was on the grounds. And I think that's terrific. In general, there's so much talk of how men are dominating the sciences, and here I was at what you would assume would be more of a "macho" kind of science facility—in terms of the sheer amount of up-to-your-elbows gore and hands-on work with cadavers involved—and it was wall-to-wall women. And not only women, but young women, many of them in ponytails and sporty clothing, like the most average, upbeat, all-American students. And they did not flinch. They were all-in. (One of the only guys on hand actually told me that he has a hard time with the decomp—he prefers working with the clean skeletons.) The sense among the grad students was that this is the case in forensic programs around the country. Someone should actually do a study to find out what the reason behind this might be. Perhaps because it's a relatively young field and so there's less of a psychological barrier for younger women looking to get a foothold? No idea.
During your research trip to FACTS, you handled bones and saw various stages of human decomp. When you arrived in San Marcos, were you prepared for this sort of intense hands-on research and observation?
I tend to gravitate toward stories that push me in some way, that crack open a hyper-specific new world for me. I think that access to a heightened kind of new experience is a pretty addictive aspect of working in non-fiction. I've taken part in dozens and dozens of witchcraft and occult rituals, I've witnessed a sun dance out on Pine Ridge, I've stayed in a convent—all incredibly different, but each occasion pushed me in some way.
That said, even for me, this trip to FACTS was nerve-wracking. I knew I wanted to write this story—but I did not know how well I'd handle the situation. Fortunately, outside of a very staid funeral, I'd never seen a human corpse before, and I truly did not know how I'd react. A female friend of mine who's done some incredible documentary filming—she was in Egypt during the Arab Spring, and in Baghdad when the U.S. bombed the city—gave me some advice. She had two words for me: "Vicks Vapo-Rub." She said if I rubbed a little under my nose I would be fine around the recently dead. But as soon as I was driving out to the facility with the researchers I realized that I'd forgotten the stuff. And I'm glad, as it now seems important that I got to know that smell. What makes it much easier, of course, is that this is not war journalism: most of the people out in that field were laid out there by choice, in peacetime, at a research facility dedicated to useful investigative work.
As I write in the piece, I felt myself—my reactions to the dead—transform over the course of that week's visit. I have to say, this was the kind of story that really changes you in the reporting of it.
Read "Sky Burial: Excarnation in Texas," by Alex Mar, from the Fall issue.