Every day at the coroner’s office offers its strange fruit, its fresh harvest of the dead. Brought in overnight in bodybags and ambulances, they fill the freezer before the next day’s autopsies begin: from every corner of the county, from nursing homes, emergency departments, from apartments, from cribs surrounded by crying parents, from parks, from highway underpasses. All of Minneapolis, Minnesota’s strange and unexplained deaths wander through these doors to have the truth told about their lives and about their deaths. 

The truth that is offered here is the truth of scalpels and microscopes. It is forensic truth, a way of knowing that is also the chemical blood analysis and the police investigation. It is a point of view that is visual, bureaucratic, analytic, statistical, scientific, objective. Jeffrey Bishop wrote that this science of dead bodies, as detached as it may seem from the medicine of the living, actually is at its core: “life is in flux, and it is difficult to make truth claims about matter in motion… in the dead body, in the stasis of death, one can find a firm ground on which to make truth claims.” Nothing is off limits: eyeballs are professionally drained via syringe (the pupils inhumanly deflate back) because their electrolyte levels are more stable than blood, and the tops of skulls cautiously opened (the scalp, cut behind the ears, is folded over the face, and the scull now tabletops an inch above the brow). What parts of a face can be altered until the body moves from person to parts—especially if morticians can later hide these investigations and make them look presentable, warm and almost lifelike? Somehow, it is in the stillness of death—in a sterile room that feels detached from life—that modern truth is produced.

The autopsy room in the Hennepin County (Minn.) Medical Examiner Office.
The new Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s autopsy suite, Minneapolis, Minnesota

As many have shown, these procedures are both the eyes of Enlightenment science and the eyes of the state. In Hennepin County’s new medical examiner building, they are the eyes of the well-functioning state: a new building, a leafy suburban campus, $53 million of tax dollars raised for a bright facility that is the envy of medical examiners and coroners across the world. Rows of gleaming dissection tables, neuropathology equipment, CT scanners, high-flow coolers, and a well-funded and well-meaning staff. 

The entire and efficient technique of all this autopsy-production of truth, in its objectivity, is morally complex. Its protocolized momentum protects against passion: even with all my medical school knowledge and my ‘burn it down’ sympathies, as I reread the minutiae of George Floyd’s autopsy report, produced while the city was burning outside the Medical Examiner’s doors, I can find no traces of anything except a reasonable, studied impartiality, meticulously documenting the facts of the body and the mechanical steps of his death. All this, of course, is the necessary evidence required in a court of law to convict Floyd’s murderer. But this scientific objectivity has also been a colorblind cover for an ‘objective’ form of science that has promoted white supremacy. Fred Moten criticizes white culture for what he call its ‘ocularcentrism’—visual, written—over and against Blackness’ ‘phonic materiality’: George Floyd cries out “I can’t breathe!”, but this truth, with its desperate energy and kaleidoscopic echoes across centuries and continents, isn’t properly legible until it is quieted, dissected and lying on the table, and written up. Living vocal cords somehow speak less truth than dead ones. Twelve short hours after any strange death, even one as explosive as this, the body is opened, blood tested, photos taken, and the crevices of each and every organ explored with the scalpel, sleuthing for clues. “What was fundamentally invisible,” Michel Foucault writes, “is suddenly offered to the brightness of the gaze.” 

In the following weeks, as the arm of the state and Fox News talking heads insisted that the George Floyds of the world deserved their young, violent, and ignominious deaths—something Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics, “the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not”—the medical microscope of the state methodically documents it all. To read all the wounds of society, voices stilled but their truths forever preserved, open the doors of the coroner’s office. This is Good Friday, the day of Christ’s death.


All of this was true long before I arrived, but my time as a student of the dead coincided with the Western church’s Holy Week: from Palm Sunday, when Jesus mocked conquering kings by riding a donkey instead of a warhorse into town, to the triduum, the three holy days from Good Friday (his death) to Easter Sunday (his resurrection). There is always the temptation, especially for Americans with our pathological optimism, to jump straight over the sad hard parts of the story. In the autopsy suite and refrigerated morgue, however, there is no such luxury. I have been reflecting especially on a painting from the 1520’s by Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.

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The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1521, Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Its coffin-like proportions—six and a half feet long, a little more than a foot tall—isn’t the only thing that reminds one of death. Jesus is beginning to decompose. I have seen it now, what a decomposing body looks like. What must Holbein have seen in his young life to be able to paint this? You can’t exactly say how long a body has been dead—influenced as it is by time and temperature—but it is not surprising that he’s already ‘started to turn’ in the heat of a sunbaked tomb. 

Detail, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

His green complexion is a breakdown of red blood cells and bacteria beginning to dissolve his body, as they leave the gut and follow the blood vessels out to the rest of the body. The fingers of his bruised hand are starting to turn dusky and shriveled. Like the tip of the nose and scrotum, the fingers have high surface area and they desiccate quickly as the fluid evaporates out of them. 

Soon, his belly will begin to bloat, the rest of his skin will turn greenish-gray, and his whole body will develop crepitus (small bubbles under the skin) as the bacteria get the upper hand. The smell is overpowering—hence the fragrant spices the women bring. The lining of his stomach peels off, as does the top layer of his skin when you drag it lightly with a finger, the hair follicles peeking out strangely below as the top layer (which holds skin color) peels back. What James Cone reveals as the Blackness of God—his incarnation among the poor and oppressed of the world in life, with whom he suffers and dies, and to whom he preferentially brings the good news—sloughs off in death to also reveal the raw flesh of his universal humanity beneath.

Holbein’s decomposing Christ is a hard break with a version of religious art that distanced humanity from its Lord. It was, and is, shocking: “One could lose one’s faith from that picture!” Fyodor Dostoevsky said to his wife upon first seeing it, transfixed. Christ’s “whole form is emaciated, the ribs and bones plain to see, hands and feet riddled with wounds, all blue and swollen, like a corpse on the point of decomposition.” Art critic Peter Schjeldahl called Holbein’s Christ a “a two-days-gone corpse in a warm climate, a thing.” When we pull bodies out of the industrial refrigerators half decomposing, unzip the six-and-a-half foot long body bags, and transfer them onto the dark blue tables, I see Christ. Their bodies, in all their dead-ness, in all their terrible and holy there-ness, are his body. This is Holy Saturday, the day of Christ’s decomposition.


I began this piece with the dissecting gaze of the state and its need for bureaucratic, visual, legal documentation in cases of unusual deaths. The state, however, is obviously not uniform in its actions. Even as the county medical examiner’s office is the nexus for modern medical epistemology and medicolegal state power—police officers have a special room for watching autopsies for cases in progress, but those autopsies can also be used to convict police officers from the same department—it does not exhaust all the powers of the state. 

Michel Foucault, who documented the rise of the ‘medical gaze,’ also wrote about the changing meaning of sovereignty. In an earlier pre-modern era, state power was characterized by the power to “make die or let live.” That is, most people were let well enough alone most of the time, but the power of the state was made known in the ‘subtractive,’ ‘deductive’ power to wage war or execute, to ‘make die.’ However, Foucault writes that

‘Deduction’ has tended to be no longer the major form of power but merely one element among others, working to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them.

This, then, is the new power, to “make live or let die,” which makes much more sense in a world where our food and healthcare do not come from village field and neighbor but from a highly integrated monomachine that provides the necessities of life, that produces the possibilities for what life is even possible today. Of course the old power still works: in America, police killings, even after 2020, and the war industry, even after multiple immoral and illegal wars, show no signs of slowing down. In this they are in continuity with the old imperial formula, and the line of state and parastate execution stretches from Christ’s cross to the islands of Indonesia, the lynching tree, the gulag, the rubble of Gaza, and to the bloodied streets of Minneapolis. 

In-progress details from “Mama,” Kelly Latimore (2020)

But even here we must not stop, as this form of violence is well documented and obviously evil. We can directly see in these deaths that Christ is with them, that Christ is them. But outnumbering these deaths are those from the more hidden and sinister power of social withdrawal and slow violence. These “let die” deaths are the profitable exclusions from the system that are not only a form of class-theft but also keep the poor in a state of vulnerability where their access to basic needs is precarious, and their labor and behavior all the easier to exploit. 

But OK—the state, entrapped as it is by ongoing legacies of racism and oligarchic capture, may fail to extend certain benefits to all, but is this really all? It is simply that White benefit at the expense of Black or rich at the expense of poor? We’re obviously not a ‘win-win’ society, but is it a big ‘I win, you lose’? 

In fact, our chains go deeper. Both levels of Foucault’s sovereignty are haunted by a guilty party who has, wrongfully, become successful through their misdeeds. On a basic level this can be true, for sometimes there really is no justice in this world and the evildoers cheat, kill, and lie their way to the top. But—and this is crucial—justice here becomes a matter of punishing the wicked (individual or class), or of bringing down early the punitive justice in this life which awaits them in the next. Jesus is identified with the down-and-out of the current system, yes, but we’re still left with a system in which we’re left weighing and assessing guilt. 

To push farther than Foucault, we have to realize that we’re now even beyond an ‘I win you lose’ system; we’ve reached ‘I lose, you lose.’ According to the research, being the wealthiest in a more unequal country is worse than being the wealthiest in a more equal country, even if you have more money in the former. Psychiatrist and social critic Jonathan Metzl has shown how anti-Black policies in America come around to hurt white Americans in the end. On an increasingly uninhabitable earth, the rich may profit from their Exxon and BP stocks in their 401ks and tax shelters in the short term, and hang on to a livable slice of earth a little bit longer, but they can’t survive extreme climate change either. Increasing workplace automation is only going to exacerbate already-extreme wealth inequality—huge shareholder value in new tech-centric industries, tons of laid off workers everywhere else—and going to increase deadly loneliness, continue to fray social roles and meaning, and lead to a wave of suicides (especially among the disconnected and isolated) even beyond the deaths of despair already driving down American life expectancy. Is this the world the rich really want to live in? Even with all the best ideas and inventions in the world, we somehow have built a system that is bad for everyone. Even Foucault was trapped into a state-centric model of analysis in his two modes of sovereignty, but the problem goes beyond the state, which itself is showing itself to be sclerotic. The state is violent, but it doesn’t cause mass shootings; the violence is in the social fabric itself. Ours is a pervasive, acidic, decadent, lonely, isolating, and suspicious sort of slow violence. Even the should-be ‘winners’ who hold all the cards of privilege (older white straight Americans) have been leaders in deaths of despair. Why, and how? More to the point, how did we get here? It’s hard not to feel that we have built a death machine that is going to somehow kill us all. 

What we are experiencing is a generalization of what Friedrich Engels, citing 19th century English working men, called “social murder”: 

when society places hundreds of [the working class] in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live—forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence—…its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission.  But murder it remains.

If social murder is pervasive, the medical examiner’s office records it silently, and thoroughly (they have kept records, blood smears, and microscopic organ slices from every case since the office opened). In fact, social murder is the concept which has tied together most succinctly the kinds of deaths that end up in that office. It is not often even unusual medical conditions or freak events, though these are here too. In fact, as a doctor who has worked in emergency rooms and hospital wards, I’m struck by the ways in which most of these deaths circumvent the medical system altogether: a young woman who got hooked on her friend’s pills and overdosed on an unofficial Xanax that was actually fentanyl—you don’t need to ever have even crossed paths with a doctor for these kinds of deaths! Or someone with a chronic physical disability who, tired of the pain, social isolation, and demeaning cares they had received, commits suicide with a pistol in their backyard (and is found two weeks later). Or someone who uses at work to hide the pain of a divorce, found overdosed on a frozen snowbank leaned near the service entrance to their fancy office. Children who die of asthma attacks because they live in a poor neighborhood next to a freeway (and don’t have good healthcare). Old people who get evicted because they run out of money and kill themselves. The ‘jumpers’ from parking garages. The heartbreaking victims of child abuse or sexual assault. These are real (scrambled and anonymized) stories from the morgue. These are the anti-success stories. For every death that is deeply mourned, there is also a death of someone who has been isolated, slipped through the social fabric, and isn’t missed by many, or for long. Tasting these stories is like making a sandwich with the corner shit of an old McDonalds oil fryer, teeth gritting on those biter carcinogenic crumbles. Social deaths, social breakdown. ‘Stupid deaths’ which take life too early, and for too dumb and infuriating a reason. Social disease. Social murder.

Engels’ stinging description—a system that “places them under conditions in which they cannot live [yet] forces them… to remain in such conditions”—resonates far beyond his time and place. It even goes beyond the physical: one is reminded of Kierkegaard’s phrase, a sickness unto death, as a way to describe the state of our society, but Kierkegaard’s phrase refers to despair, a form a spiritual death which heightens the physical. But again, all this seems to somehow hold true for everyone now: would the poor be saved by trading places with the rich? Sure, temporarily. But we’re still in the same boat, even if we switch seats. It is not just the bottom-of-the-barrel Victorian working class who is a victim of “social murder”; on a dying earth, with all our fraying bonds and fearful politics of reaction, it is all of us. And we’ve got no one to blame.


Where is Jesus in all of this? With us in our rising stormy waters, no doubt. I do believe that Jesus, like the early church who followed in his example, called the rich and powerful to repent in a repentance both spiritual and material: “The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally… Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.” There is yet a new world to build together under new suns: the harvest is plentiful, and the workers few.

But even beyond personal or communal repentance, we must consider even the way that we think about sin and brokenness. Part of the problem is that we have overfocused on individual sin—on assigning individual blame—to the exclusion of our common and creaturely sickness-unto-death. Our focus on individual sin is based on a theory of atonement and salvation that many of here in the West have grown up with: this is the model in which we individually sin, incurring guilt which needs to be punished; Christ’s role is to stand in our place in the courtroom, as it were, and soak up God’s wrath by taking punishment upon himself, our transgressions evidently deserving death—to think of it, its harshness sounds like a divine 1994 Crime Bill, which may explain that notorious mass-incarceration bill’s evangelical support and heavy-handed penalties. Our response in this model, anyway, is thankfulness to Christ for ‘taking the bullet’ for me. But think of the psychology that this creates: I am still bad, God is fundamentally mad at me (can this God be abba father?), God only loves me because he’s wearing Christ-colored glasses, and the fundamental locus of everything that is wrong in the world is me and my transgressions. Evidently, as a son of Adam, I chose to rebel; but I never remember really choosing that—I want free too, I feel trapped by my own brokenness and complicity—nor am I my own creator, who made me with the capacity for sin but without the capacity to overcome it. I can already feel my resentment towards God and this whole situation growing.

I don’t want to demean individual holiness nor the depths of how depraved we can act towards one another, nor is it as if crime-and-penalty language is entirely absent from the scripture—but we’ve focused far too much on this individualizing and me-and-my-guilt model. Is it not a way to create psychological neuroticism, legalism, and a strange sort of blindness? In all this, what have we lost? The ability for communities of faith to analyze collective problems, or to imagine collective healing. We are all different, of course; if my sins are apples and yours are oranges, we must each come to God, but separately from one another, each of us on our own defendant’s stand—if, on the other hand, we are both enslaved to the powers of death, each in our own way, we can hunger together for new life.

In fact, this hunger for life and hatred of death is exactly the disposition Christians need to cultivate. Of course, it is not hatred or distance from the dead or dying; ordinary Christians are called to be familiar and caring around death (unless they were obviously of another faith, this week I furtively made the sign of the cross on each cold forehead as a small blessing). But the powers of death are what earns a holy God’s wrath. God’s beating heart of goodness loves life—He is God not of the dead, but of the living!—so much that what he hates is exactly the things which threaten the complex braid, those golden threads running through creation:, of truth, love, joy, beauty, justice, conviviality, and communion. 

This is the abundant life Christ comes to bring: Jesus proves to John the Baptist that the Kingdom of God is arriving when he tells his messengers to “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Good news indeed! There is healing and new life. Good news is triumph over the powers of death, even as on that path there is a dance with death. Good news is tangible, delicious, and straightforwardly recognizable, especially to the poor who, unlike the rich, have not had their vision so clouded and desperately need the Kingdom of God. 

But what we need from God—triumph over the powers of death, and a refreshing of Creation—is, so thankfully, exactly what he came to provide. Not merely individual freedom so I can fly away to the spheres, but a universal reconciliation and cosmic restoration—apokatastasis, the ‘big standing back up’—that is our healing and final flourishing in both body and spirit. Going up to meet Christ in the heavens is merely temporary; such imagery of going out to meet a visiting dignitary or conquering king (our donkey-riding, humble king) was to meet and accompany him as he entered his city. Our post-death reality will be one of the New Heavens and New Earth, where God comes again to dwell with his creation in the garden-city which is our true home, and in the full flower of beloved community. Death, violence, injustice, and sin are no more: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). In the Eastern church, the focus has always remained on this notion of Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) and his power over the grave: in the classic icon depiction of the resurrection, Christ leads Adam and Eve, representing humanity and all creation, out of the grave and trampling on the gates of hell. 

Demchuk, Ivanka_Anastasis (in situ)
Mural with resurrection icon by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza, Iglesia de San Nicolás, Granada, Spain, 2022

The Kingdom of God is breaking in and new seeds of life-beyond-death are sprouting, even in our world of death. This is seen wherever the subversive fruit of solidarity, joy, friendship, honesty, healing, humor, communion, and justice emerge. No one in the Kingdom of God is disposable, but for the sake of one forgotten sheep the anxious shepherd risks the ninety-nine. The hope of Easter is not that the dead nor all the violence of the world simply forgotten: Jesus, even in his resurrection, bore the scars of the crucifixion. But with the literal taste of the life abundant—good bread and rich wine, buoyed by singing and a loving community—in our mouths, we are emboldened to continue the fight of justice, mercy, and humility. God became man, Irenaeus said, so that man could become like God. All the tools of state violence (the cross or the knee) and all the tools of state truth (the scalpel and the microscope) will do what they will do, will do what they still can do in this time between times. But these pale in comparison to the one who says “I am the Truth” and who perfectly wields the sword of what Archbishop Óscar Romero called “the violence of love”; the actual swords and bombs, struck down, shall be turned into plowshares. Christ’s power is already locked in battle with what Paul calls the ‘powers and principalities,’ those spiritual forces of death and dominion. In 2 Esdras, a little-read book of the Bible, the writer has a cosmic vision:

The Most High has looked at his times; now they have ended, and his ages have reached completion. Therefore you, eagle, will surely disappear, you and your terrifying wings, your most evil little wings, your malicious heads, your most evil talons, and your whole worthless body, so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved and may hope for the judgment and mercy of him who made it.

The eagle symbolized Rome, but our own American eagle-imperium will fare no better. The rod of violence will be broken, the community healed, the earth refreshed; dry bones will spring to life. For the time being, our job—actually, our joy—is delightful participation in this reality. On the final day, justice for the oppressed will be all in all. Reconciliation and delight will be all in all. On the final day, the doors of the morgue will creak open, a shiny building filled with idled microscopes and empty tombs. The bodies of George Floyd, the coroner staff, and all the tragic victims of social murder will be caught up on that new and glorious day.

Holy Week is a recitation of the Gospel, the Good News, in miniature. Christ came into our city as a man, and as man he died. Even in his terrible death and decomposing flesh he was in solidarity with us, his beloved, without shame. Christ also came to us as God, and as God, he finally destroys the power of death. In his finite body he was destined to die just like a mouse who falls into a mousetrap, but he was the one pulling the trick—just as soon as Death clenched him in its jaws, He flexed and broke the jaws of death. This is the good news of Easter. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” the Eastern church joyfully shouts again and again, “and on those in the tombs bestowing life!” What was fundamentally invisible is suddenly offered to the brightness of that new day: This is Easter, the day of Christ’s victory!


From John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily, read every Easter for fifteen centuries: 

He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Christ is Risen, and you, oh death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep!

D. Brendan Johnson (MD MTS) is a psychiatry resident at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, a recent graduate of University of Minnesota Medical School, and a former Fellow in Theology, Medicine, and Culture at Duke Divinity School. He co-hosts the podcast Social Medicine On Air.