The Most Poetical Topic in the World

…I asked myself – “Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?”  Death – was the obvious reply.  “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” … the answer, here also, is obvious – “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty:  The death, then, of a beautiful young woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world …” – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”

“Girl’s Body Found”

The all-too-familiar headline that marks the end of the story of a girl who has gone missing.

JonBenet Ramsey, whose beaten and strangled body was found only hours after she was first reported missing in 1996.  Law enforcement officers were in the home when her father, John Ramsey brought her body up from the basement of their Boulder, Colorado, home.  The parents came under early suspicion, though they continued to insist an intruder killed their daughter.  The case remains unsolved and the story is still in the news.  Looking at Laurence Schiller’s 1999 book about the case, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, and the TV movie of the same name that was aired on Lifetime in 2000.

Memorials for Little Girls Lost

Candlelight vigils, teddy bear shrines, websites, child cemeteries, angel statues, and flowered headstones.

Dead Girls

Snow White: “The dwarfs, when they came home in the evening, found Snow-white lying on the ground, and there came no breath out of her mouth, and she was dead. They lifted her up, sought if anything poisonous was to be found, cut her laces, combed her hair, washed her with water and wine, but all was of no avail, the poor child was dead, and remained dead. Then they laid her on a bier, and sat all seven of them round it, and wept and lamented three whole days… And they had made a coffin of clear glass, so as to be looked into from all sides, and they laid her in it, and wrote in golden letters upon it her name, and that she was a king’s daughter.”

The Little Match Girl: “In the dawn of morning there lay the poor little one, with pale cheeks and smiling mouth, leaning against the wall; she had been frozen to death on the last evening of the year; and the New-year’s sun rose and shone upon a little corpse! The child still sat, in the stiffness of death, holding the matches in her hand, one bundle of which was burnt. ‘She tried to warm herself,’ said some. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, nor into what glory she had entered with her grandmother, on New-year’s day.”

Juliet and Ophelia, teen suicides.

Mary Rogers, the “young and beautiful girl” whose badly mutilated corpse was found floating in the Hudson River on August 2, 1841, and whose death inspired the birth of the crime novel, in the form of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”

An Exquisite Corpse: The Aesthetics of Death

It has been argued that a dead female reflects our desire to look at objectified women taken to its furthest logical extent. And the more frail, the sicker, the thinner the woman, the closer she was presumed to be to heaven.  Viewed this way, a dead girl is nothing less than an angel, not sullied as she would be if she’d lived to grow up and become a woman.

From Ripper Victims, whose mutilated bodies were “works of art,” to The Black Dahlia, whose body was bisected and then posed like a painting by Man Ray.

Also mentioned: Samantha Runnion, whose bruised and naked body was found on a lonely stretch of two-lane mountain road the day after her abduction in what police call a twisted “calling card.”   “The River’s Edge,” 1986 film in which a high school slacker kills his girlfriend, then shows off her dead body to their friends.

Little Angels: The Idealization of the Dead Girl

“The only safe safe female is a pre-adolescent girl dying or dead… the pre-pubescent corpse as heroine…”  The Protestant Pieta is “the white-clad daughter, dying or dead… [this is] the unendurable happy ending, as the white slip of a thing too good for this world prepares to leave it for the next, while readers and parents sob into their handkerchiefs.”  – Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel

Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, whose illness was strung out over months and months, chapter by chapter, and read of avidly by most of the literate population of England. Nell thought only of others, and never of her own malady; she was the epitome of the selfless, childhood angel, ready to meet her Maker.

Little Eva, the 5-year-old beauty who Tom saves from drowning in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Later she falls ill and, dying, she asks that all the slaves surround her bedside, where she gives each of them a golden lock of hair and tells them they must be Christian so that they can see each other in heaven.

A Girl Forever

Susie Salmon, heavenly teen in The Lovely Bones.

JonBenet Ramsey in the tabloids, who represents the Beautiful Death.  Death is small, death is female, death is alive.  While her autopsy report is available online at, in almost every published image that we see of JonBenet she is alive, even as she represents death. The single exception to this is two photographs of her actual corpse published in “Globe” magazine, which offer a view of the dead girl.  One depicts her body covered by a sheet, and the other, the only photo of her actual bare corpse published in the popular press, is of her hand.  The rest of JonBenet’s corpse lies shrouded in mystery, its absence protecting us from the full horror of mortality and helping us uphold our fantasy that death is beautiful.