Autolysis: Post-mortem change

An Etalage: Three Ways of Dying

Three instances of death are examined: a preman's ascension into mokṣa, a medical death checklist and programmed cell death found in fermentation. As we leave this world, what traces do we leave behind?


The following retells a scene in the last few chapters of Eka Kurniawan’s Cantik Itu Luka (2002).

An invincible preman named Maman Gendeng, well-versed in silat and usually stationed by the bus terminal in front of the market, is on the run. 

Throughout his stay in Halimunda, he felt that the city saw him and his band of goons as useless idiots, spending their days drinking and fighting. To be fair, what else could be done, when society closes the door on people like him? “All my old grudges have been ripped open like a half-healed wound,” he says to himself. 

Now, he is on the run from the town’s soldiers, in their attempt to violently rid the city of Maman Gendeng’s gangsters. The process is cold-blooded: the premans are shot on the spot by soldiers dressed in civilian clothing, their bodies buried by amateur gravediggers in a sack rather than a burial shroud.

On the seventh day of the massacre, Maman Gendeng and his right-hand man, Romeo, ran away to the jungle. Arriving on a small hill, Maman Gendeng entered a dark, humid cave and meditated, looking to achieve mokṣa, the spiritual freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. He orders Romeo to stand guard in case the soldiers manage to find him before the ritual’s completion.

Four soldiers eventually arrived, but not before the preman achieved mokṣa. Maman Gendeng dissolved into orbs of light, shedding his body that has now disappeared into the ether. Before reaching the heavens, he heard a final betrayal: Romeo had bartered Maman Gendeng’s location for his own life to be spared. As he left this world, dead by the means of earthly departure, he transformed Romeo’s face into his own. The soldiers then shot Romeo, now pleading through Maman Gendeng’s mug. It was this body that his wife Maya Dewi eventually found, before Maman Gendeng’s spirit visited her on the third day to let her know what really happened. 

In his death, his body disappeared with him. What is death, when death leaves no corpse? In this case, the only evidence of death is an absence and his return from the afterlife.


Medical Death

How do doctors define death? 

The Guidance Notes on the Verification of Death from the state of Victoria in Australia outlines that to “verify death,” quotation marks included, requires a registered medical practitioner or individuals that have received relevant training such as nurses, midwives and paramedics. 

The process outlines six judgments as the absolute minimum that needs to be fulfilled to “verify death.” 1) No palpable carotid pulse (no heartbeat felt) 2) No heart sounds for two minutes 3) No breath sounds for two minutes 4) Fixed and dilated pupils 5) No response to centralised stimulus (inflicted pain, such as the painful sternum rub) and 6) No motor response or facial grimace in response to a painful stimulus (like pinching the inner aspect of the elbow). Additionally, an ECG test could be done, and a strip that shows no rhythm confirms the death. But as Rohin Francis MBBS says: “It feels completely bizarre to listen to nothing for over a minute, especially when you’ve got a room full of family members wondering what the hell this doctor is doing.” Curiously, the document clarifies that legally, only “verbal reassurance that ‘cessation of life’ has occurred” is required before the funeral industry can start moving the deceased. 

In this case, the event of a death declaration isn’t a solitary event, but implicates the family (to relieve distress and provide closure), the state (who is qualified and trained, as declared by what body?) and the document (detailing the verifier’s name and title along with the method of assessment). But some elements on these checks seem arbitrary: are two minutes enough time to listen for breathing, or not enough? What if their pulse has been artificially restarted? What if the patient had neurological damage and can’t feel pain, or if they were blind? It might be implicit in the document. No one is going to read a volume of reflections on thanatology when a midwife has to declare a death. But how have these things become implicit? Do we sort of just agree that “death” means a binary, somatic death, for those with a fully functioning nervous system? The answer might lie in related medical records and a patient’s medical history, but on its own, these guidance notes raise many questions.

Doctors report being able to perceive the death of their patient upon entering the room; it feels completely different, they say, following the patient’s death.

The variance in how death is defined not only affects what procedures are ethical to conduct but it also on whether continuing care is appropriate. Declaring death in a hospital setting is also done to prevent further distress to family members. 

There is a distinction between brain death and circulatory death. The first full heart transplant conducted in 1967 in South Africa was possible because the donor, a traffic accident victim named Denise Darvall, has been declared brain dead by the state pathologist. A similar procedure was to be conducted one month prior, but the hospital was hesitant “lest they be accused of experimenting on a subjugated minority.” 

 A full heart transplant wasn’t possible in America previously because of a “staunch theological opposition to changing the definition of death,” defining it as the moment the heart stops beating. At that moment, organs start deteriorating and start becoming damaged and the heart quickly becomes unsalvageable. Let’s question the document on final time. Does it make a distinction between cell death and somatic death? 


A prayer, sur lie

Bianca Hlywa’s Figures of Amplification (2019) and Avril Corroon’s Spoiled Spores (2019) both stage collaborations between human and nonhuman agents. With Hlywa’s installation, a giant dark brown sheet of SCOBY, a symbiotic bacterial culture often used for the production of apple cider vinegar, kombucha and sourdough bread, is slowly raised using an automated pulley system, then released and dropped back onto its glass-walled container. Fittingly, Hlywa’s subsequent work, still working with bacterial cultures and created for the Barbican Arts Group Trust, is titled Life Models (2019). For Spoiled Spores, Corroon cultured cheese out of black mould that landlords have repeatedly refused to remove. Installed in a series of four commercial fridges, the pungent mixture of the 27 cheese wheels that Corroon has made permeates throughout its dedicated exhibition room.

Autolysis, as opposed to apoptosis or programmed cell death, occurs during unexpected cell death. Post-mortem change has been analogised as a form of self-digestion: membranes break, enzymes leak, and cells eat away at themselves from within. Known as autolysis, this feast finds its etymological origins in Greek, pointing towards a rupturing or a loosening. In bread-making, the autolyse method begins with leaving a water-flour mixture to its own devices. The enzymes present in flour break down protein and starch, making for a more elastic dough that’s far easier to knead. Similarly, ageing wine sur lie calls for its sustained contact with accumulated dead yeast cells to impart additional aromas and flavours. Cell death that happens after somatic death occurs under its own rules. 

An offering in one sense, and an uplifting in another, the anaphora in orthodox Christian tradition precedes the Eucharistic prayer and sees to the preparation of bread and wine, consecrating the body and blood of Christ through spoken word. If a lysis of the self rests upon pliability, the sacrament is an exercise in stretching language. By way of loosening, lysis might articulate a reversal of crisis as the act of self-digestion locates life in death, re-construction in destruction.