One of the things that really freaked me out as I read “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” was the chapter on the forensic study of insects. I remember sitting hunched on the L Taraval streetcar, reading about the bugs that come in clockwork order to feast on the unburied dead. The memory is so strong that I can still feel the reaction in my gut as I clenched into a smaller and smaller ball. My skin felt like it was rippling like a horse’s, trying to throw off imaginary flies. I read the book ten years ago.
In consequence of my very strong reaction, I’ve never pursued the topic or learned much about it. Then last week, while visiting my family in Michigan, my mom announced that there was a CSI: Crime Scene Insects exhibit at the Sloan Museum in Flint.
We debated taking my seven-year-old. She likes bugs: digging after them in the garden, collecting roly-polies, raising butterflies from caterpillars. Her room is decorated with oversized bugs. Flies and beetles fascinate her. The literature promised live insects. We thought we’d see how she did.
The exhibit opened with a copy of a Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child. A fly crawled on the baby’s thigh, symbolizing the death in his future. I was immediately intrigued and hoped for more information along those lines. I hadn’t realized people made the connection between insects as death so long ago.
A nearby wall panel talked about infestations in food and how those can be traced. Another wall revealed that the Chinese had used flies’ attraction to blood to solve a murder among peasants. And things dove straight into the macabre…
Luckily I saw the Parental Advisory plaque before Aurora had more than glimpsed the full-color live-sized floor photo of a shirtless man lying facedown in the desert. I sent her off with my mom to explore the rest of the museum while I finished the CSI exhibit.
The man and his companion had been hiking the Grand Canyon when they went missing. By the time their bodies were discovered at the bottom of a chasm, insects had already begun to colonize them. Raw red gashes split the man’s back. I didn’t draw too near for fear of what I would see feasting inside. Even faceless, even anonymous, the corpse at my feet was too much for me to study.
Aurora assured me at bedtime that she was going to have nightmares, but that didn’t prove to be the case. Her experience of death has been limited to a goldfish floating sideways in the tank. She understands that my father is sick and may die, but she hasn’t applied that knowledge to anyone else she knows. She promised me that she would live forever. She doesn’t envision being eaten by bugs in her future.
The museum said the exhibit was suitable for children 8 years and older. Perhaps that’s true for some kids. I think it’s brave of the Sloan to have mounted this exhibit, risking controversy and a drop-off in admission income. I hope they find there is enough curiosity to support them through this.
Personally, I’m glad I went to the exhibit, although I remain creeped by crime scene insects. It’s good to know where my limits are. Once again, learning about forensic bugs has renewed my desire to be cremated.
Causes Loren Rhoads Supports