Fascinations with Death

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.

Plastinated body, via Robin Kirk

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.

Crest of human bone from Seldec Ossuary, via Flickr user word_virus

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.

Memento Mori of Dead Man, via Beinecke Library

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?

2 responses to “Fascinations with Death

  1. Katy said:

    1) The question then is why is modern Western society now ready for death to return as a discussion?

    2) Is the organic and natural trend leading to more natural views of death?

    3) Is this part of the rise in forensics science as a major source of entertainment?

    4) What do you think?

    Answer to Question No. 2:

    No. Absolutely not. I know almost no one, zero, zip, nada who is even minimally into “organic” and “natural.” Organic and natural happens in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, and a few cultural Islands east of the Mississippi River. Nearly everyone else is heavily into things such as plastic; oil; coal; vehicular emissions; artifical fibers; food preservatives; animal antibiotics; artificial growth hormones; and chefly concoctions of fats, carbohydrates, calories, and obesity. All of these things lead directly to death. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Why be simply fascinated with the idea of death when you can work so hard on successfully achieving the “real banana”?

    Answer to Question No. 1:

    We here in the United States are so fascinated with death now because we are about to undergo the largest “mass die off” of human beings in American history. Depending on whose numbers you use, 72,000,000 to 79,000,000 baby boomers are about to begin dying off during the next 20 years. Another 66,000,000 born in the generation immediately after the baby boomers will cross the river Styx over the following 20 years. Maximally, that is 145,000,000 people (nearly half of the curent population of the United States. That is 40 years of more or less steady, pervasive, unrelenting pain, suffering, and death on a grand scale.

    That is bad enough by itself, but you have to weigh in another very important cultural factor. If you are less than 30 years of age, you probably have no experiential feel for this, but I do because I am a member of the baby boomer group. Culturally, mine was the generation of youth, beauty, and sexual virility. We were totally absorbed with it. Our parents, teachers, and professors told us that we were the most intelligent and capable generation in American history. The entire mechanism of American culture was for years totally geared to our pervasive youthfulness and its growing needs. On some fantasy level, we as a group quite literally bought into the notion that we might be “eternally young” and live forever. I wish you could have experienced it like we did, even in a Mr. Spock mind meld. Katy, you would withdraw from Spock’s hand touching your head, bend over in shivers, and say, “My God!!!! It was so powerful, so deep!!! How was it even possible that your experience of life was so deep, vital, and utterly engrossing!!! My God!!!!” I think it might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that we felt as if we were the first and only generation in human prehistory andhistory to have ever TRULY LIVED.

    Now, weigh the two foregoing paragraphs against each other in stark contrast. We who were going to live forever now feel the cold breath of death hovering ever nearer and we sense its cold breath rolling our way. Is it any wonder that we would be fascinated with death—that it would be on our minds—that we might flirt with it some, if only vicariously, through forensic medicine shows on T.V.

    Answer to Question No. 3:

    I just answered part of it in that last paragraph—vicariously pretesting our inevitable and rapidly coming baby boomer encounter with death. After all, if one can learn a little more about death in short and relatively painless doses from which one can easily recover and resume daily life, then the spectre of the Grim Reaper becomes somewhat less scary to one who was going to be eternally young and live forever.

    The other cultural factor is the classic American love for the carnival freak show. I can hear the carnival barker now: “She walls. She talks. She crawls on her belly like a reptile.” Americans have always had a deep fascination with the sardonic, the man that is only 12 inches tall, and the Siamese twins. This is one reason why Halloween ranks right up there with Thanksgiving and Christmas. Americans love ghouls, crania, long bones, and “The Walking Dead.”

    Dr. William M. Bass III at the The University of Tennessee taught me everything that I know about human bones and forensic medicine. He was also once given a national award for being the best college professor in the United States. Why was that? Well, in addition to knowing his subject matter well, he has a real flair for making the sardonic entertaining in a classroom, without being disrespectful to the dead and their families. Going to a Bass osteology or forensic medicine class was more like going to a really good movie or play than going to school. He had so many stories to tell—so many—and some of them were more odd than anything in the annals of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” I particularly remember the story he once told us about a man who was hit by a fast-moving train in the dark one night. It was a freaky sort of hit, sort of like hitting a hole-in-one in golf from 2000 ft away—possible maybe for some person somewhere—but maybe one chance in a billion of it ever happening. Well, the train hit this poor guy just perfectly. All of the forces of nature converged and resolved themselves on this one guy that dark night, and the train hit created a very nearly perfect sagittal sectioning of his body.

    Americans have always loved the carnival freak show, especially one where they can learn something.

    Well, anyway. That is what I think Katy. What do you think? You can visit my blog anytime at:

    http://contextintn.wordpress.com/. Sad to say, I have been dealing with the death of an old friend there in recent days.

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