At The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, the dead fill every nook and cranny. “Art of Mourning,” the current exhibit, features celluloid medallions and Victorian-era memorial photographs depicting the waxy, masklike faces of the dead. In “Sleeping Beauty” photos, deceased little girls and boys are cradled in open caskets or propped up in rocking chairs, as still and flawless as porcelain dolls. There are intricate wreaths woven from the hair of the dead in commemoration. What if modern mourners were to knot friendship bracelets from dear dead Bubbe’s blue-grey locks, or use a selfie with her on her deathbed as their Smartphone wallpaper? Just imagine. At best they’d be stigmatized as morbid; more likely perverse or pathological. Death, as we know it today, often happens behind closed doors, hooked to machines, in solitude and silence. Even if there was time to grab a lock of hair or snap a photo, the public display of keepsakes of the dead are today usually considered distasteful or maudlin.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum suggests we rethink our squeamishness about death and mourning, and helps us do so by putting death and morning in a variety of contexts. The museum’s permanent collection houses countless curios and death-related artifacts, including multiple copies of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, a taxidermied two-headed duck, and a bar of soap in the shape of Santa Muerte, the female personification of death in Mexican folk culture. Such an extensive display of momento mori will certainly be considered macabre, tawdry, or simply heebie jeebie-inducing by some. But for others, The Morbid Anatomy Museum, which opened last weekend, represents a shift away from contemporary death-phobia. Its very existence legitimizes death as an important aspect of culture worthy of contemplation. By literally showcasing death-related objects, a subject typically shrouded in secrecy and silence is made highly visible, public. Even the word “morbid” is reappropriated when attached to “museum.” It sheds connotations of inappropriate intrigue with gruesome subjects and gains an air of healthy curiosity or existential inquiry. In museums, objects become artifacts; shame is transmuted into pride. In many ways, the opening of Morbid Anatomy is death’s coming out party.
Perhaps that isn’t exactly what Morbid Anatomy’s Creative Director Joanna Ebenstein had in mind, but she does consider the museum a space devoted to the “things that fall between the cracks.” But a quick perusal of the museum reveals these “cracks” are so filled with history and culture that when viewed as a whole, the objects highlight what’s truly bizarre — and perhaps even pathological — about our modern relationship with death. From a historical perspective, it’s not taxidermy or photos of the dead that are aberrant, but the contemporary lack of visual culture around death. And by putting an invisible slice of life (death?) on display, the museum illuminates why these “cracks” are actually cultural fault lines.
When I visited the exhibit during the museum’s opening weekend, all sorts of people passed through: An older couple wearing socks with sandals, a younger couple sporting sleeves of tattoos on both arms. As Ebenstein and I chatted, she carefully watched patrons and noted how odd it was to see strangers so close to the delicate items in her private collection. As I watched her watching the intrigued patrons, she asked, “Why is this not part of our picture of the past?” It was exactly what I’d come to find out from her.
In part, I believe, death has been misbranded in popular culture. Ebenstein noted how in some ways, death has been “co-opted by goths” — the assumption being that anyone interested in ghosts, death, the occult, the afterlife, etc. must have pale skin, dress in all black, wear a cloak and possibly carry a scythe. (For the record, I like bright colors and sunshine. I’ve never worn a cloak or any other sort of Grim Reaper-esque outerwear.) And I believe my interest in the museum — and I’d venture to guess the same goes for many of the 200,000 people who it “liked” on Facebook — doesn’t stem from a place of darkness or sentimentality, but rather from the same urge that prompted a bunch of teens, independent of one another, to Instagram selfies beside coffins holding their great aunts, uncles, grandmothers. It is the universal urge to document and bear witness to tragedy and loss, an urge that has been stigmatized in a culture that equates death with darkness and fear. Perhaps that’s why a gnawing hunger surrounding death is so prevalent in a youth-worshipping, consumption-driven society that leaves little space for death, dying and loss. Hashtag grief. Hashtag community. Hashtag memorial photography. Hashtag funeral selfies.
As I studied the Victorian memorial photographs, I found myself thinking about the kerfuffle around Selfies at Funerals, a Tumblr that gained considerable attention last year, particularly after Obama’s now-infamous selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. In fact, I was so intrigued by selfies at funerals, and the backlash against them for their purported display of narcissism and disrespect, that I contacted Jason Feifer, an editor at Fast Company and the Tumblr’s creator. We met for lunch, and over lobster rolls and a cobb salad, he mentioned one post that evoked considerable ire: a doe-eyed teen vamping into the camera above the caption, “Love my hair today. Hate why I’m dressed up. #funeral.” It might seem disrespectful and callous, but Feifer pointed out that it captures the complicated nature of mourning and loss. Funerals aren’t all crying and teeth gnashing. (Were 19th Century Americans crying the entire time they stitched their memorial samplers? Probably not.)
As it has always done, new technology is ushering in new forms of memorialization. Funeral selfies become a sort of modern digital dialect in the visual language of grief. Funeral selfies make even more sense when contrasted with the popularity of memorial photography in the Victorian era, before cameras were widespread. A postmortem photo was perhaps the only picture a family might take of their loved one. As technology evolved and shutter photography gained popularity, memorial photography waned. For teens who came of age with smartphones, constant documentation is simply part of the way they navigate the world.
I pick on the selfie because it seems to incite particular outrage, but in fact the last few years, we’ve seen a plethora of representations of death shaped by new technologies and genres. The popularity of reality television gave rise to Showtime’s Time of Death, a 2013 docu-series that takes a candid look at the gut-wrenching last moments of life for terminally ill individuals and their families. Twitter provided an outlet for veteran NPR host Scott Simon to live-tweet his mother’s final days by her bedside in Chicago last year, and now others have followed suit. Facebook gave rise to the online death announcement, digital memorials and the uncertain terrain of a digital afterlife, territory that we’re still figuring out how to navigate as a culture. And without the internet, there would be no Modern Loss.
If people wonder why when Ariel Levy miscarried in Mongolia, she captured the brief life of her baby on her Smartphone, or why stillborn photography is now a thing, it is because a new digital dialect in the ancient visual language of grief is emerging. As Feifer put it, “People with a new technology are figuring out how to capture a moment in their lives.” (He wrote about a new visual language for The Guardian) In short, people are documenting death because that’s what we’ve always done, and we’re doing it in new ways simply because we can. The form may be different, but the function — to pin down a moment of an ephemeral life — hasn’t changed. The real question is why these new forms of mourning scare us so much.
Perhaps the threat of something like a funeral selfie lies in how it makes the experience of death and mourning banal rather than extraordinary. But I think this is precisely why The Morbid Anatomy Museum is somewhat revolutionary: it offers up the mundane as counterpoint to morbidity. It’s the mundane — from the flint arrows on display in history museums to Morbid Anatomy’s Victorian “fainting kit” for funerals, complete with of smelling salts — that often tell us the most about a particular historical moment. The museum provides a continuum along which to situate the now. It creates a sense of continuity between past and present, and in doing so, illuminates the paradox of mourning in a time when documenting both the trivial and the monumental is commonplace: the digital footprint of the dead is sprawling and vast, and yet there is so little space in our culture carved out for the expression of grief and loss. This tension, I believe, is part of what’s fueling a shift in modern mourning.
Before I left the museum, Ebenstein asked me about my interest in death. I told her that it stemmed from watching my father deteriorate and die at home in hospice care a few years ago. For a time, the experience made me feel unbearably mortal, and therefore completely alive. We talked about how this was common in a culture where an obsession with security is related to the belief that we can vanquish death. Perhaps were death to to come unfiltered through every social media feed, we’d have to face that we are more vulnerable than we’d like to admit.
—Alizah Salario: Now that cupcakes and Juicy Couture are over, so is my life.