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Our morbid curiosity insults the memory of Joanna Yeates

Little by little we are becoming inured to death online. A few weeks ago, we saw the publication by a court in Los Angeles, home of show business, of pictures of Michael Jackson's pretty, frail corpse. They were copied around the world. The Daily Mail, which runs almost the world's favourite newspaper website now, was so shocked ("there can be no justification for showing the picture of Jackson on his deathbed") that it ran an article about it - illustrated with the picture of Jackson on his deathbed. (It appears not to be his deathbed but a hospital trolley, but never let the facts . . . etc.)

Following the Jackson corpse have come the creepy details of the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol last Christmas, complete with televised tour of her flat, her cuddly toys, her nail polish, "the double bed she shared with boyfriend Greg Reardon" (the point being?). Is it possible to make a sort of public will declaring that if ever one is murdered, one does not want TV cameras invited into the house afterwards? Not even in the interests of "open justice" (or "macabre public curiosity").

There was an interesting moment on Radio 4 on Monday when a coy reporter, alert to the sensitivities of listeners, referred to a detail in the events surrounding Yeates's death thus: "the cat litter tray was full and the cat was very keen to go outside". In other words, it needed to poo. I only mention it because the coyness sat uneasily with the BBC's other coverage, which happily reported every intimate and intrusive element of Yeates's death, even the contents of her stomach, in loving detail.

Gory details

So, on the BBC website: "He [the prosecutor] added Miss Yeates's death would have been ‘uncomfortable and painful'. Miss Yeates's body was found on a snowy verge with her jeans still fastened and her pink top partially pulled up over her head, the jury was told." The Daily Mail had a bit more detail about the pink top: "When Miss Yeates's body was found eight days later on Christmas Day, covered by snow beside a country lane, her T-shirt and bra had been pushed up to partially expose her right breast." Nice, salacious detail for the male readers. Also on the BBC (and everywhere else): "Toxicology tests on Miss Yeates's body were consistent with her having drunk between one and a half and two and a half pints of cider. Scientists also confirmed she had not eaten the Tesco Finest pizza she bought on the night of her death."

If you take the BBC as arbiter of these things, apparently we are more shy as a society today about a cat's bodily functions than we are about the contents of a dead woman's stomach.

The veneer of civilisation that society drew over the spectacle of death as entertainment with the ending of public hangings is being stripped away by the internet: the death tours, the gruesome pictures, imagine yourself at the scene. The car crash that killed the racing driver Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas on 16 October is being replayed and replayed online.

What appears to have normalised our fascination with the death of others is, first, accessibility. Just as access to online pornography has facilitated and, in the eyes of abusers, legitimised paedophilia, so access to the macabre normalises it.

Second, a parade of celebrities has willingly turned dying into a public spectacle - from Jade Goody to Farrah Fawcett, John Paul II to Patrick Swayze. John Diamond and Ruth Picardie wrote columns about it, Goody didn't bother with the writing, but sold words about it - she would charge a few hundred quid for four lines of quotes in the Sun. The difference is that these people did it willingly; and none of them invited the cameras to the scene of their death. They didn't leave us posthumous invitations to look around the homes in which they died, the bed where they spent their last night. And, with the exception of Goody (is that "death picture" online real?), they didn't publish photographs of themselves dead.

Private lives

We wouldn't replay a video of the car crash that killed somebody we knew. We wouldn't poke around the flat of a dead person who was a friend. We wouldn't publish pictures of the body of a loved one on the internet (though it will come). We would show them more respect than that.

Yet, as the courts draw the curtains on people's private lives when they are alive, we seem ever more inured to the gross intrusion of pulling the curtains back when they are dead. Jackson and Yeates, like Diana before them, did not consent to pictures of their corpses, or the intimate scenes of their death, being published around the world.

In death as in life, and as he was from childhood, Jackson is being manipulated in that picture. And in more ways than one. His waxen corpse is more show business than drug overdose, his skin smooth as alabaster - not, in fact, like a corpse at all. There is nothing beautiful about a corpse, not before it has been made up. And especially not if the person died in a sudden and uncomfortable way. Even in death, Michael Jackson is unwittingly performing, his corpse prettied up for the cameras.

I once worked in a funeral parlour for a day. The oddest part of the job was dressing and making up the corpses so that they looked nice for visiting relatives. The splodges and blemishes and the smells of death get smoothed away with the application of a lot of make-up and embalming fluid.
We want to look, but we don't really want to know the truth: death isn't nice and it doesn't look pretty. Perhaps the least courtesy we could afford the recently deceased is to allow them a little dignity and to recognise that death isn't a performance, a finale for us to gawp over, but the real thing.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying