I’ve become a huge fan of Ira Glass’s ‘This American Life’ podcast, especially since it provides a welcome antidote to all the bad news coming out of the states recently. Last week i stumbled upon one of the strangest stories ever, in the episode ‘Grand Gestures’ which challenges so many aspects of what we are as humans. My scribbled notes are hard to read so hope I can convey the story properly.
It dates from I think the 1930s, in Key West, Florida, and involved a young woman called Helena who was dying of TB and a German technician von Kessel who fell completely in love with her. But his love was not reciprocated. She was already married and was not drawn to him at all, and he was twice her age, but he offered her free treatments – electricity, radiation etc which she accepted in the hope of saving her life. But she died.
He paid for her funeral and headstone but gave her his name. He convinced the cemetery caretaker to re-bed her body – she had not been embalmed so she needed cleaning up, her clothes had rotted, he put new felt to support her body and new clothes. She was reburied in a double casket with tubes and valves so von Cossel could talk to her. He built a mausoleum where he would talk and sing to her.
But then he took her home where he tried to repair her decaying face. He inserted glass eyes, painted what was left of her skin to make it more lifelike, floated her in plasticine fluid to preserve her. He did experiments to try to bring her decayed corpse back to life and… please turn away if you are delicate – he had intimate relations with her remains. He couldn’t accept the great love of his life was gone.
Eventually his bizarre behaviour got too much for Helena’s family and they had him arrested for interfering with human remains, but the public supported him and gave him gifts. A Havana radio station ran a soap opera based on the couple. There is a book, ‘undying love’.
One person was asked why so many people supported him, even saw him as a grand romantic. They replied ‘love is kinda selfish’. and that people were pretty tolerant.
Helena was put on display in a casket, and tourists visit her, to see this great romance.
There are so many issues here. My first objection was in terms of hygiene. A decaying corpse is full of bugs. That’s why it smells. Some are so full of gas producing bacteria they explode. So von Kassel is lucky he didn’t die of something like ecoli. But for all his romance, the woman rejected him, so living or dead, this was abuse.
People are strange.
Here’s the full wikipedia version: