We don't want to see death.1 We send our dead away to funeral homes. We let strangers prepare them for burial. We pretend that it isn't happening, that it won't someday happen to us.
We pump ourselves full of chemicals to promote youth and we pump our dead full of chemicals to prevent decay.2 These are the same actions for the same purpose- to deny the downward corrosion of our bodies starting on the day we are born. This is a very modern and very American treatment of death.
In every death, our language implies birth- rebirth, reanimation, the soul, the body, the
everlasting, unendingness of us. Fairy tales help us embrace and accept death on one hand but also perpetrate the rebirth mythology on the other. The Glass Coffin,3 Brother's Grimm tale
number 163 is the story of a young countess trapped in a glass chest by a jealous magician.4 A
simple tailor5 finds her and frees her.6 Snow White is also encased in a glass coffin and set out in the middle of the woods for the prince7 to stumble upon, fall in love with, and wake her up.8 The glass coffin represents a chrysalis and the young countess the butterfly, changing, growing, evolving into something more- from a maiden into a sexually mature woman, from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. Isn't that how we always describe the process of pupating?
Even the word itself is ugly: pupating. We want everything ugly to be transformed9 into something beautiful.10
Snow White's life was full of vicious, jealous people. Yet the implication is that when she wakes up all the ugly people will have disappeared and her life will have transformed: happily ever after. Her chrysalis peels away and she is the butterfly. For Snow White the value she finds
within her glass coffin is resurrection. She will have a rebirth, a new life born by laying to rest
her old life. She arises from her waking death, breaks free from her chrysalis, reborn.
Transitions are ugly, perhaps painful, too. Rarely is the actual process beautiful. Snow White has to die. The butterfly must wrap itself into a grey, brown wrapping. You can see the
caterpillar inside the chrysalis writhing. But in the end something emerges that we deem has
increased value. The value for the caterpillar is beauty. Value depreciates. Beauty fades. Happily
ever after comes with ugly people. As soon as the caterpillar has cast off its ugly carcass for
wings, its lifespan is depreciably shorter. Human beauty depreciates over time, too.11 When
Snow White is no longer a beautiful butterfly, when the glass has been shattered, the mirror has
betrayed the quest for eternal life, what of her happy ending then?
Death is a transition. The body slowly changes into soil. Soil grows new life yet its value depreciates and must be rebuilt by more dying things. Through this cycle of decomposition and
regrowth the nutrients in our bodies become reincarnated.12
We want to deny death its permanence with reincarnation.13
But while glass acts as a metaphor for clear beauty, and historically glass coffins were used to help preserve bodies by keeping everything out, glass can't prevent the decay we bring in with
ourselves.14 Bacteria keep us alive and eat their way out of us once we die. No glass will stop
their hunger. No beauty is perfect. No metaphor ever complete. Even the real makers of glass
coffins had layers below the clear purpose of their craft. Rumors circulate that many glass coffin
makers were only fronts to attract investors. No one knows how many glass coffins are buried
but only two exist in the light of day, on display in museums. There are metaphors upon
My father worked at the world's smallest college. I have a photo of him, taken when he was younger than I am now,15 half sitting on a desk grinning at the camera, full of the fresh exciting ideas of a new faculty member.
The photo is framed behind glass to protect it. If I were to digitize it, pressing it to glass for the light to capture the image, I would be putting it on a computer screen for preservation.16 My father is gone, dead. The photo reincarnates my memories of his voice, his rough hands, the spiral bound notebook he kept in his pocket that would catch and hold my hair as I hugged him tight, the reassuring thump of his heartbeat pulsing in my ear. When my mother looks through
the glass she sees a different memory, a different man. Whom are we trying to reincarnate? We
each want to remember the most accurate version of the actual person. Neither of us has the
power to conjure up the real version.17
Glass provides visual access to the thing we seek: my actual father, the beauty of Snow White. But a glance is all we are allowed. No touching.
So when the prince pressed his lips to the cold, painted lips of Snow White, did he conjure up the real live beauty of her, or did he resurrect only a mirage of what he wanted her to be? Did he not see her death because it wasn't true or because he refused to see it, encased in glass? Was he
living his happily ever after within the conjuring of his own mind?
And when Snow White lay in that cold glass box, the barely living epitome of chaste inhumanity, could she feel the human breath in the glass? Did the bubbles and swirls left behind by the
glassmaker's breath remind her of what she once had? Or did they only pervert the world beyond
her coffin so that when the dwarves came to cry at her side, they were the ghosts and she the
Greenhouses are usually made of glass.18 While glass coffins were hermetically sealed to keep out decay, glass houses promote life. They protect lush greenery allowing it to survive in unnatural climates, butterflies live in glass houses, bees, ants and sometimes even birds live in the glass houses, looking at the cold snowy landscape outside. If the glass broke, if the cold air
came inside: death. The plants would not survive without the glass to trap the heat to them, to
help capture their green plant breath in vapor droplets and send it back at them.
The college built their greenhouse at the edge of a wide lawn, adjacent to a gravel path. In the winter my father would guide the plow down the path scooping up delicate snowflakes and small
loose stones and tossing them to the side. As winter melted away into spring, the grass would
grow lush and tall, hiding the stones that dropped from the disappearing19 snow banks. When
my father mowed across the edges of the lawn, the mower would pick up the stones and fling
them at the glasshouse windows that would crack and occasionally shatter. The light fractured
on it's way through to the plants inside. Cold air crept in. My father plowed the stones onto the
lawn; he pushed the mower that flung the stones at the window. He fixed the window once it
was broken. A cycle of destruction and rebirth.
Now, someone else mows the lawn. The windows still get broken, but no one fixes them. They stay broken. The greenhouse, unable to hold in the hot air, is abandoned for larger, lighter,
plastic frames set into the garden and away from the gravel path. Plants can sink their roots
straight into the soil, without the need for a gardener. The glass house is dead, without hope of
resurrection or rebirth in the face of progress.
The decay of the greenhouse continues. The shingles loosen and slip into strange angles. The air flows in and out. The rich composted soil dries out, the dust creeps in. Snow White will die,
eventually, despite her happily ever after, despite her rebirth. We should wrap these words in
glass20 to preserve them. Behind glass we start to see the real words, the real world. We put
dried starfish and bleached shells in oni boxes in our living rooms and yet we never talk about
death. We try even harder not to think about death.
Who will put us behind glass when we die? Who will kiss our cold lips and remember our warm hugs. Who will resurrect us? Not dead, but only enchanted?
1. Glass Caskets were not meant to display the body, they were meant to hygienically protect it from the elements. The trade catalog for the Crystal Glass Casket Company, Washington D.C. describes their product as "hermetically sealed by applying a composition which renders the casket air-tight, water-tight, vermin-proof and absolutely sanitary, thus assuring a perfect burial receptacle."
2. Glass didn't work as well as formaldehyde, apparently.
3. Not to be confused with an oni glass display box. Things like desiccated sea urchins, sand made up of hundreds of dead shells, torn to pieces by wave action and time, bleached sea stars.
4. Glass started being used in casket construction in the 1850's, the brother's Grimm published their first collection of tales in 1814. So glass was the hot new trend in burial accessories. Wilhelm died in 1859 and Jacob died in 1863. I wonder if either of them were buried in glass?
5. Where Fairy tales are concerned, the simpler, the better.
6. The story doesn't say if the glass chest was repurposed or tossed out. I expect it became a tasteful coffee table containing sea urchins and white sand tablescaping.
7. If the man can't be simple or remarkably humble then let him be royalty.
8. Those dwarfs must have been stronger than they look. According to the Corning Museum of Glass, glass coffins weigh in at 500 pounds without the princess inside.
9. Glass itself is a metaphor for transformation. Common, ugly sand and ash is pressed, compressed and heated into crystals and molecules making the delicate, clear, beautiful glass.
10. Let's not forget that pupating can go the other way, too. Beautiful caterpillars can become ugly butterflies. We never use that outcome to craft our metaphors, though, do we?
11. Don't believe me? When was the last time you saw a regular old lady between the covers of Harper's Bazaar or Vogue?
12. Reincarnated, but not resurrected. Resurrection implies that we have stayed the same. Zombies are resurrected. Jesus was resurrected. We are reincarnated. Different entities composed of the same elements. We all wish to be resurrected, but in fact our elemental pieces are all reincarnated.
Butterflies do it. Snow White does it. Jesus did it. Why can't I?
14. The Corning Museum has photos of women making glass coffins. If I were one of those women surrounded by open, empty coffins all day, would I be honored to be making the last and eternal bed for someone, or would the thoughts of death slowly creep under my skin and into my psyche?
15. In the photo I believe he is frozen at 28.
16. One more way to stick it behind glass.
17. But we still tell stories of him to try our conjuring tricks again and again. If we tell the stories of his life enough times, will they become fairy stories? Will my father become Snow White in his own glass coffin?
18. When they aren't being made of plastic.
19. Isn't disappearing just a polite and evasive way to say dying?
20. Glass deceives the common observer. What appears solid never holds the crystalline structure that would make it brittle and so it is technically a liquid. Words, though weightless and transitory, in fact carry great weight and are sometimes heavy enough to cause grievous damage when thrown without precaution.