This post isn’t my normal look into news and journal articles that discuss bioarchaeology or mortuary archaeology, instead I want to discuss a recent article that appeared in The Chronicle- a resource that I usually refer to for academic and professional reasons and not for blogging inspiration. However, The Chronicle does have a number of articles that deal with the topic of death, and most recently published on “A Healthy Mania for the Macabre“. This is an interesting topic, and a lot of us working in death-related disciplines often have to deal with questions regarding our morbid fascination. Academics have had a healthy mania for the dead for the past hundred years. However, it is the broader public that we are considering here, not those of us who have chosen to dedicate ourselves to the macabre.
In this article, Asma (2012) begins his article by discussing his own desire to have his dead body go through the plastination process and join the ranks of the thousands of bodies found in exhibits like Body Worlds. However, this desire soon wanes when he begins to think about his family and whether this is an appropriate ‘final act’. He notes the sadness and disgust felt by Minik, a young eskimo boy who in the 1890’s ran into the skeletonized remains of his father, Qisuk, on display at the American Museum of Natural History. This ‘squeamishness’, as Asma puts it, isn’t universal since there are numerous people completely willing to donate their bodies for display. He cites the example of Martin Van Butchell, who in the 1770’s had his friend preserve the head of Butchell’s deceased wife for him. Asma then discusses the rising current trend of fascination in the morbid including the highly popular skeletal work done by Damien Hirst (ex. human skulls covered in diamonds) or the collection by Richard Harris of morbid curios from around the world, including human bone chandeliers, paintings of human remains, and fetal remains posed playing a violin. Harris argues that this is his conversation on mortality- taken from a visual perspective rather than a talk or book. Asma believes this trend extends beyond art, with novels about death in other cultures on the rise, new photographic albums and exhibits showing the history of death, articles and journals debating the display of bodies, and numerous blogs discussing morbid topics.
A number of interviewees from the article discuss reasons for the fascination. Harris believes it is a way of humanizing death, and creating a discussion on mortality. Koudounaris, a photographer, argues that the dead body has undergone change throughout history and his aim is to bring us back to a time where the dead’s body was seen as part of their living self. Through his photos of the macabre he aims to break the taboo on death. Ebenstein, the curator of the blog Morbid Anatomy, argues that there is excitement in the public display of the dead, stemming from the friction between death and beauty. Her blog and museum focus on renewing the Victorian fascination with death. Asma argues that the display of the morbid is an act of rebellion, a “bracing existential smack to our otherwise highly distracted population”. These macabre trends are a pendulum swing towards a healthy fascination and philosophical discussion on death, rather than suppressing or ignoring it.
It is this final statement from Asma that I think hits the nail on the head. The public fascination with death is part of a pendulum swing. The ways that we discuss death and remember the deceased have changed drastically through time, and we may be noticing another shift in perception. Romans and Greeks celebrated the dead, and often returned to the graves of their ancestors to have feasts with them. It was also common to keep plaster likenesses of the dead in cabinets, which would be worn during funeral processions. In the early 19th cenutry, bones from old cemeteries were used to create works of art such as the Seldec Ossuary, the bones decorated church in the Czech Republic, or the Parisian catacombs. Since the 17th century, the Malagasy people in Madagascar have practiced a secondary burial practice called Famadihana. Every 2 to 7 years, people in the village will exhume the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts in order to take care of the remains by wrapping them in new silk shrouds.
However, this rising fascination seems to echo the Victorian obsession with the deceased. The current thought is that the trend stemmed both as a fashion to mimic the elaborate mourning of Queen Victoria, but also as a more widespread reaction to increasing death and disease of industrialization. The funerals were elaborate, a wide variety mementos of the dead, such as hair or commemorative jewelry, were kept to remember them, pictures were taken of the deceased posed as if alive, and the process of mourning meant a complete change in the habits, clothing and actions of the survivors.
Perhaps the trend noted by Asma does represent the backlash of decades of suppression. Death has become more ‘sterile’ in the past half century with almost 80% of deaths occurring in a hospital. We no longer have to deal with the remains of our family members, and the choice for cremation means that many people can go without ever seeing a dead body. We have morticians and funeral homes to deal with the process and the details. The war deceased aren’t shown on TV, children are hidden from seeing the dead, and the entertainment that deals with it notes the taboo manner of the subject (by rating these movies as violent, or preventing individuals under a certain age from seeing them). Death is now a medical failure rather than a natural process of life.
The question then is why is modern Western society now ready for death to return as a discussion? Is the organic and natural trend leading to more natural views of death? Is this part of the rise in forensics science as a major source of entertainment? What do you think?