First published in 1933, "A Natural History of the Dead" is Ernest Hemingway's cynical recollection of his time on the Italian front in World War I. It is perhaps the most gruesome and disturbing of the stories he wrote about his time there.
Hemingway opens the piece by telling the reader he is going to recount events from the perspective of the naturalist, comparing himself to accounts written by W. H. Hudson and Bishop Stanley: "Can we not hope to furnish the reader with a few rational and interesting facts about the dead? I hope so."
Hemingway treats his subject matter in that naturalist vein, describing for the reader the experience of encountering the dead in various forms of decay. He focuses on two particularly gruesome events. He first describes the aftermath of an explosion at a munitions building. His prose borders on the matter of fact, even as he touches on his surprise at the number of dead females and the length of their hair. The story becomes more disturbing when he recounts his experience during the Austrian offensive in June 1918. Graphic and unsettling, Hemingway's writing relates the decomposition process and its effects on bodies in a variety of locations and circumstances. This grotesque series of images is starkly contrasted by another matter-of-fact commentary from Hemingway about the amount of paper strewn among the dead bodies. The visuals of the experience were clearly something Hemingway never found easy to forget. He comments, however, that he cannot remember the smell, comparing the memory of the smell with being in love: "The sensation cannot be recalled...."
Hemingway's naturalist treatment of his time on the Italian front briefly returns to his original idea of finding hope in such a horrifying experience. The story ends with an anecdote about a doctor and a soldier with a fatal head wound. As the man is dying in extreme agony, several soldiers fight with the doctor, pleading with him to put the man out of his misery. The doctor contends that his job is to save lives, not take them. Ultimately, the man dies and the doctor asserts his position, forcing the soldiers to suffer for questioning his judgment.