From Embalming to Eyeballs: Five (More) Fantastic Books About Death

A while back I did a blog post on five fantastic books about death. It was quite a popular post, and I thought there are so many more fantastic books out there that deserve some recognition! Despite coming from an archaeological background, my book collection extends to all aspects of death and dying. These aspects include bereavement, cemeteries, the human corpse, anatomical history, and mortuary science to name a few. Subjects related to death are extensive, and I am sure I will have another blog post soon with even more excellent books for the morbidly curious to check out.

Technologies of the Human Corpse by John Troyer
John Troyer grew up in the American funeral industry and is now an associate professor at the University of Bath. He is the director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University. Troyer discusses the human corpse and its relationship with material and conceptual technology. Technologies of the Human Corpse examines topics such as AIDS/HIV, embalming, death photography, the 1970s ‘happy death movement’ as well as the Body Worlds exhibit and the black-market trade of cadavers. The politics associated with the dead body are complicated and sensitive, Troyer expertly navigates and discusses controversial topics. Troyer also wrote an introduction for the 40th anniversary edition of Lyn H. Lofland’s book The Craft of Dying: The Modern Face of Death. Lofland’s book is also essential reading for those interested in death studies.

Technologies of the Human Corpse

Death: A Graveside Companion by Joanna Ebenstein
Joanna Ebenstein is the founder of Morbid Anatomy, an online blog, website and now a museum. Joanna has recently realised a book called Anatomica: The Exquisite and Unsettling Art of Human Anatomy, which looks at artworks associated with human anatomy. Another fantastic book by Joanna is called The Anatomical Venus, which discusses the famous Venus waxworks of Italy- particularly the work of Clemente Susini. Whilst both books are associated with aspects related to death, the book I will be suggesting in this blog post is Death: A Graveside Companion, which is edited by Ebenstein. The contents include works by John Troyer, anatomical sculptor Eleanor Crook, Elizabeth Harper (who runs the excellent blog All the Saints You Should Know), and a piece on death themed amusements by Ebenstein herself. The book is beautiful and has outstanding imagery and font. An essential for anyone interested in death and dying.

Death: A Graveside Companion

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty, who also featured on my last post, has realised her new book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Doughty has also wrote From Here to Eternity and When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Doughty is also the founder of the Order of the Good Death and runs a YouTube channel called Ask a Mortician. Caitlin Doughty worked in the death industry and now advocates online for more death education, as well as working towards a ‘good death’. A self-labelled ‘funeral industry rabble-rouser’, Doughty is not everyone’s cup of tea, but her books are accessible and humorous for those interested in the death industry. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Chronicles the answers to questions Doughty has gotten over years concerned death and dying.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?

Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner): The Essential Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation by Michael Hebb
As someone who often talks about death, I was very intrigued by Michael Hebb’s book. Hebb states that we have so many conversations with each other, but we are not having one of the most important ones – the one about death. Hebb is also the founder of deathoverdinner.org, encouraging families to gather around the dinner table and chat about the end of life in an engaging, insightful, and empowering way. Let’s Talk About Death shares prompts that have led to numerous discussions about death and gives a fascinating insight into the challenges that come from talking (and not talking) about death.

Lets Talk About Death (Over Dinner)

Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold
Arnold’s excellent book chronicles the history of London and its dead. Starting off discussing roman burials, Arnold moves onto to the plague outbreaks, the erection of Victorian cemeteries, and moves all the way to the mourning associated with the death of Princess Diana. The book has numerous aspects of death, including archaeology, history, death studies and architecture. Necropolis can really be considered an ‘all-rounder’ particularly for those with a fascination of history. Catharine Arnold has written an array of books, including Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History, and City of Sin: London and its Vices to name a few. I am looking forward to exploring more of her work and cannot recommend Necropolis enough.

Necropolis: London and its dead

Sources
https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/technologies-human-corpse
http://www.allthesaintsyoushouldknow.com/about
https://thamesandhudson.com/authors/joanna-ebenstein-64571
http://caitlindoughty.com/
https://deathoverdinner.org/

The Archaeology of Vaccination (18th- 20th Centuries): An Examination of Four Diseases

With the recent development of Covid-19 vaccines by Moderna, Oxford University and Pfizer, there seems to be little else on everyone’s mind. Vaccination against deadly diseases has a history that can been illustrated in archaeological examples left behind. Death rates from crude attempts at ‘variolation’ (the practice of grounding up smallpox scabs for inhalation or scratching onto the skin) had a death rate as high as 30% in China during the 16th century. Refining of such techniques using inoculation and vaccination has led to a revolution in global health, with some diseases such as smallpox eradicated completely.
This blog post will examine the history of vaccines in the last 300 years, associated with four deadly diseases, by examining archaeological examples in museums. There are many more vaccinations for an array of diseases, but I have narrowed it down to four for this blog post. Although proven to be safe and effective, vaccines are becoming more and more controversial in today’s society- something that can be traced back to past societies as well.

Disease: Smallpox
Symptoms: Fever, aches, vomiting, rash, sores, and pustules that eventually scab and fall off.
Objects: Civil War Era Vaccine (Mutter Museum) and Lancets of Edward Jenner 19th century (Science Museum)

When one thinks of vaccination, Edward Jenner and smallpox usually springs to mind. Inoculation was being practiced in China as far back as 1000 years ago. This inoculation was being carried out using pus or scabs from smallpox to boost immunity against the disease. It was around the 18th century this concept began to develop in Europe. Lady Wortley Montagu seen the ‘scratch method’ of inoculation in 1721 in Turkey and used this method to inoculate her own children against smallpox. She is credited with introducing this method to London high society.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823) noticed a similar practice on English farms and in the surrounding communities. Milkmaids in the countryside were renowned for having a clear complexion. This was because they were often infected with cowpox, meaning they were often left immune to smallpox (thus not having any facial scarring). Locals began to inoculate themselves with cowpox to immunize against the deadlier smallpox. Jenner adapted this method in his own practice, applying pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox pustule (these were usually on the hand) to that of a young boy in 1796. You can still see the lancets Jenner used to apply the pus to the boy’s arm, he would have used the scratching technique. He later exposed the boy to smallpox, after which no disease developed. In 1798, Jenner published his findings in a book entitled ‘An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae; a Disease Discovered in some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of The Cow Pox’ (Vacca is the Latin word for cow).

George Washington insisted on quarantining regulations within the Continental army in the 1770’s when smallpox outbreaks occurred, eventually crudely inoculating the army in 1777. A higher percentage of British troops had already suffered from smallpox, unlike the Americans who were more susceptible to catching the disease. Unlike Jenner, Washington was inoculating the army with the live smallpox virus- a very risky procedure instead of using a milder related orthopoxvirus. Vaccination was also being carried out in the army during the American Civil war (c.1860’s), an example of a lancet vaccination kit can be seen at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Like Jenner’s kit, it consisted of lancets for scratching. DNA testing of the blades revealed a virus used for vaccination was present, there were no signs of the smallpox virus itself.

Six lancets of Edward Jenner used for vaccination
Civil War era lancet kit for vaccination

Disease: Cholera
Symptoms: Diarrhoea, vomiting, thirst, cramps.
Objects: Glass Amboules of Cholera Vaccine 1924 and 1892 (Wellcome Collection)

Cholera is most associated with the physician John Snow, who mapped the cases of cholera in Soho, London in the 1850’s – Asiatic cholera reached Britain in 1831. This allowed him to conclude that the water supply was the source of the disease, debunking claims concerning miasma theory. Prior to this there had been numerous outbreaks of cholera in Britain, with 1854 becoming the worst year of the disease to take hold. Snow realised sewerage contamination was the cause of the disease, suggesting the removal of the pump handle in the affected area.
However, it was not until 1885 that the vaccine was developed by Spanish physician Jaime Ferrán (1852-1929). The cholera vaccine was the first vaccine to protect humans against a bacterial disease. The vaccine was developed when Ferrán cultivated bacteria from an ill person and then administered injections into the arm (not the scratch technique). He went on to develop vaccines for plague, rabies, and tetanus. Louis Pasteur is also credited with developing a cholera vaccine using chickens. He used a weakened culture to inoculate the chickens, after survival they were immune to the disease. The Wellcome collection houses a 1892 example of the vaccine that had been developed from inoculating guinea-pigs.
In the Wellcome Collection, there is an example of the cholera vaccine dating to 1924. The amboules are French (from Paris), and have the name of a laboratory that developed vaccines for the army. Because of the water-borne nature of the disease, cholera, as well as typhoid, were considered serious threats to soldiers. Vaccination was a part of an initiative to keep the army healthy. This strongly echoes the times of the smallpox outbreaks amongst American soldiers in the previous centuries – however we see the move away from the previously crude ‘scratch’ technique with a lancet.

1892 cholera vaccine example
1924 French cholera vaccine

Disease: Influenza
Symptoms: Fatigue, aches, chills, cough, sore throat, fever, headache.
Object: 1919 Influenza Vaccine (Pharmaceutical Society Museum)

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, there has been many comparisons drawn between today’s pandemic and the Spanish Flu H1N1 pandemic of 1918. The spread of the disease was exacerbated by movement of troops at the end of World War 1. Half a billion people all over the world were infected, eventually killing somewhere between 50-100 million people- the most severe pandemic in recent history. Mortality rates were high in children under 5, the elderly and those aged between 20-40 years old (the healthy being susceptible was unique in this pandemic). Prior to the vaccine, interventions such as quarantine, hand hygiene, social distancing, and disinfecting were used to control the illness.


Vaccines had been developed for other diseases at the time of the outbreak, so it was hopeful a vaccine could be developed for influenza. A few vaccines developed around this time are now thought to have been ineffective. As the disease was viral influenza, it would not have been treated by these newly developed bacterial vaccines, but many may have prevented pneumonia from developing. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that researchers realised that influenza was caused by a virus (in the 1918 case it was influenza A strain) – it was successfully isolated in 1933. It can be said then that the 1919 vaccine example from the Pharmaceutical Society Museum was likely ineffective during the outbreak. This had been developed by the Royal Army Medical College using lung scrapings from infected patients.
The influenza A vaccine was developed in the 1930’s, followed shortly by the influenza B vaccine in 1942. In 1945 the vaccine (for both A and B) was approved for military use in the US and for public use in 1946. Both Dr Thomas Francis and Dr Jonas Salk were involved in flu vaccine research and development after Ernest William Goodpasture was able to grow viruses using chicken embryos in 1931.

1919 Influenza Vaccine

Disease: Tuberculosis
Symptoms: Cough with bloody phlegm, weight loss, sweats, fever, fatigue, neck swellings.
Object: Freeze dried BCG (bacillus Calmette-Guerin) Vaccine 1980 (Science Museum Group)

The BCG vaccine is made from a weakened strain of Mycobacterium bovis, close in nature to M. tuberculosis which causes TB. Bacteriologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin are credited with developing the vaccine between 1908 and 1921 at the Pasteur Institute, Lille, France – the oral dose was endorsed by the League of Nations in 1928. Calmette was a pupil of Louis Pasteur and had acquired Mycobacterium bovis from the milk of an infected cow. The vaccine was adopted in France and Scandinavia initially, with widespread distribution stalled due to a contamination that killed 75 babies vaccinated within 10 days of birth- known as the 1930 Lubeck Disaster. The vaccine eventually became widespread after the Second world war and is administered via needle into the arm today.
The Science Museum houses a set of freeze-dried intradermal BCG vaccine dating to 1980-85. Made by Evans Medical Ltd, freeze drying allowing for transportation over long distances. This would have been particularly significant at the time as in the 1980’s there was a rise in TB cases in developed countries due to healthcare complacency, movement of people from countries with a lot of TB cases, and the spread of the HIV (there is evidence of co-infection). According to the World Health Organisation, TB kills 1.8 million people every year, with one third of the global population infected but asymptomatic. Despite initial reluctance in uptake, over 4 billion people have now been vaccinated against TB, making it the most widely used vaccine in the world. Unlike the UK, the US has never introduced mass use of the vaccine as it is thought there are not many cases of TB in America- vaccines can be purchased privately for around $100-200.

Freeze dried BCG Vaccine dated between 1980-1985

Sources
https://wellcomecollection.org/works?query=cholera%20vaccine
https://www.phillyvoice.com/mutter-museum-smallpox-vaccine-artifacts-civil-war-philadelphia/
https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_720069
https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline/all
https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co148572/edward-jenners-lancets-lancet
https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jenner-tests-smallpox-vaccine
https://www.jenner.ac.uk/about/edward-jenner
https://www.history.com/news/smallpox-george-washington-revolutionary-war
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/04/george-washington-beat-smallpox-epidemic-with-controversial-inoculations/?awc=19533_1606143282_1e295409c678607b5b4cc03d4ffaf60c
https://www.phillyvoice.com/mutter-museum-smallpox-vaccine-artifacts-civil-war-philadelphia/
https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/symptoms/index.html
https://www.cdc.gov/cholera/illness.html
https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/history-of-cholera
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cholera#Vaccination
https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline#EVT_101034
https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/ferr%C3%A1n-vaccinating-cholera
https://www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/early-flu-symptoms
https://advisor.museumsandheritage.com/features/spanish-flu-100-florence-nightingale-museum-explores-worlds-deadliest-pandemic/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Pasteur#Chicken_cholera
https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html
https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/blog/vaccine-development-spanish-flu
https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/812621
https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline#EVT_101053
https://www.immunology.org/chickens-egg-1931
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tuberculosis-tb/
https://www.britannica.com/science/BCG-vaccine
https://www.britannica.com/science/history-of-medicine/Immunology#ref412887
https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/blog/july-18-90-years-tuberculosis-vaccination
https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co8064748/freeze-dried-bcg-vaccine-england-1980-1985-vaccine
https://www.britannica.com/science/tuberculosis/Tuberculosis-through-history
https://www.who.int/teams/health-product-and-policy-standards/standards-and-specifications/vaccines-quality/bcg
https://ourworldindata.org/vaccination#tuberculosis-vaccine-bcg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BCG_vaccine
Arnold, C., 2008. Necropolis: London and its dead. Simon and Schuster.
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/how-vaccines-changed-the-world/ https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/25/well/family/covid-vaccine-smallpox-coronavirus.html

Death Folklore in Ireland: Three Examples of Death Omens in Irish Culture

Growing up in rural Catholic Ireland I often came in across traditional stories associated with death. As far back as primary school, I was warned all about the Banshee and her screams and attended traditional Irish wakes of loved ones. Death was an important part of our culture. I recently read Dr Marie Cassidy’s book ‘Beyond the Tape: The Life and Many Deaths of a State Pathologist’, her memoir which recounts her years as Ireland’s State Pathologist between 2004 and 2018. One statement in her book stood out to me, ‘The Irish are obsessed with death’. No truer words were spoken in my opinion, and since moving to the UK 5 years ago that has become more apparent to me as I talk about death with others. Cassidy states attending funerals in Ireland is a national sport and instead of checking your horoscope, the Irish listen to the death notices on the radio- this conjures up so many memories from my childhood! The Irish feeling comfortable with death likely steams from our past, including stories of folklore and mythology. In this blogpost I will discuss three examples of death omens in Irish culture.

The Banshee (Bean Sidhe)
Perhaps the most famous of all Irish legends associated with death is the Banshee or Bean Sidhe, meaning ‘woman of the fairies’. Most children in Ireland know about this legend, usually told by grandparents to give them a scare. There are endless sources on the Banshee, all stating she is a supernatural being whose scream foretells the death of a loved one. She usually wears a dark cloak, has a ghostly complexion and has flowing red or white hair. There are conflicting ‘first-hand’ accounts of her age, either stating she is young or siren like, or old with a hag like appearance – either a maiden or a crone. It is her cry or scream that terrifies anyone who crosses her path, with Irish families with O’ or Mac/Mc as part of their surname most likely to become a victim to her shrieking. She often combs her long hair and will only turn violent or aggressive if someone finds her comb and steals it. I was often told as a child not to pick up any comb if found near a graveyard as it was likely the Banshee’s.
Keening women or bean chaointe (as Gaeilge) were a part of Irish mourning tradition and may have associations with the origins of the Banshee legend. Many writers state she only cries for the families of the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Neills, and the O’Gradys to name a few. Sometimes she is described as a washer woman (bean nighe) seen washing the blood-stained clothes of the family member about to die.

The Banshee with flowing hair and red eyes from crying

The Coiste Bodhar (Death Coach or Coach-a-bower)
The death coach in Irish folklore is often thought to be summoned by the wails of the Banshee. A headless horseman drives the coach, sometimes thought to carry a black coffin, and pulled by headless horses (very similar to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Like the Banshee, the coach foretells the death of a loved one, and will only leave once it has claimed a soul. The creature known as the Dullahan drives the coach (sometimes called Gan Ceann as Gaeilge), a headless male figure that sometimes carries their own head with a hideous grin. WB Yeats mentions the coach in his collection of Irish Folk Tales. Yeats states the coach will rumble to your door and, if you open it, blood will be thrown into your face. Yeats also states that as well as the coach and the banshee, some families know death is near by the crack of a whip or the attendance of ravens. Often it is stated that the coach travels so quickly it sets fire to the road, and that locks on houses and gates would not deter the coachman- the only thing to scare away the Dullahan was the sight of gold.

The Death Coach driven by the Dullahan

Fetch
In Ireland, a Fetch is a supernatural double of a living person – like that of a doppelganger. Sighting of a fetch, particularly at night, signifies the death of that person. Some suggest the word originates from the Irish word for seer or prophet (fáith), other than that there is very little said about the origins of the term (it may also have some association with Norway). It is thought the term dates back as far as the 16th century but rose to prominence in the 19th century when mentioned in the gothic story ‘The Fetches’ by John and Michael Banim. The Fetch was also mentioned in the letters of Sir Walter Scott on Demonology and Witchcraft, 1830.

1891 depiction of a Fetch

Sources
https://www.pinterest.ie/pin/519813981974706033/
https://www.celtic-weddingrings.com/celtic-mythology/legend-of-the-banshee
https://www.britannica.com/topic/banshee
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banshee
https://www.irishpost.com/life-style/exploring-irish-mythology-banshee-170287
https://irishfolklore.wordpress.com/tag/banshee-comb/
https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009217/4998868
https://www.connollycove.com/insight-irish-wake-superstitions-associated/
https://www.yourirish.com/folklore/coiste-bodhar
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Coach
https://books.google.co.uk/books?redir_esc=y&id=pp_SVHuVsFoC&q=bodhar#v=snippet&q=bodhar&f=false
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dullahan
https://celticmke.com/CelticMKE-Blog/Irish-Headless-Horseman.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fetch_(folklore) https://www.pinterest.ie/pin/360358407661878293/ https://www.libraryireland.com/LegendaryFictionsIrishCelts/Contents.php

Death and Sex: The Sexualisation of Victorian Women’s Mourning Attire

In 2014-2015, the Met Museum in New York held an exhibition entitled ‘Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire’. The exhibit displayed 30 pieces of Victorian mourning attire (for female mourners) dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibit gave a fascinating insight into the standards women were expected to uphold during their period of mourning in the 1800’s. When we think of Victorian bereavement rituals, we automatically think of the ‘widow’s weeds’ all black ensemble. And whilst we might think this attire might have been just been about death, dying and grief, it may also may have been about something else- sex. The Death Becomes Her Exhibit illustrated this point.

According to one of the curators for the exhibit, Harold Koda, “The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances. As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.” This suggested that the widow’s weeds were a symbol of sexual experience- she was no longer virginal (unlike the white worn at a wedding), and likely viewed by men as a candidate for casual sex. If she was a willing participant or initiated this arrangement, as Koda remarks, she was a threat to the social order.

In her article, ‘Sex, Death, Glamour: Victorian Funeral Style at the Met’, Bess Lovejoy discusses the Met exhibit and the links between Victorian widows and sex. The widow was a figure that aroused sympathy as well as sexual appeal. The long dresses oozed glamour, with black seen as ‘becoming’. As Lovejoy states- black is chic and sophisticated, along with beautifully made mourning jewellery the ensemble must have been striking. Mirroring a wedding dress with a veil, voluminous skirt and corseted waist, one can see how the lines were blurred between sex and death when one viewed the widow’s weeds. It is even suggested in the article that death can evoke interest in the opposite sex (as studies have shown). One glamourous dress that stands out in the exhibit is the ultra-glitzy purple sequined gown Queen Alexandra wore when she was mourning Queen Victoria (It was due to Queen Victoria and her prolonged mourning of Albert that mourning periods in black became commonplace).   

Dress worn by Alexandra whilst in mourning for Queen Victoria

The burden of wearing black during the mourning period mainly fell to the woman of the house. In full mourning garb, the woman would wear all black, eventually ‘diluting’ to a ‘half mourning’ period. During this period muted colours like grey and purple were worn. The intense period of mourning could last two years before muted colours became a wardrobe stable. Death was such a regular part of Victorian society that women could be wearing black for years on end. Interestingly, it was thought that ending the mourning period early meant a woman was sexually active. To see a widow out of her mourning dress was scandalous and once again linked to sex.

Dress similar in appearance to a wedding dress

It is suggested that these dresses were used to restrain men from making sexual advances. The wearing of black in fact was meant as a deterrent to male suitors – even though this likely had the opposite effect, especially if the widow was young. Society viewed a young widow as dangerous- she was untethered by marriage but had full sexual experience. She may have been vulnerable, having lost her social and financial status through her husband, but the black dress was a reminder to many of her associations with death as well as sex.  

Sources

https://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2014/death-becomes-her

https://www.racked.com/2014/10/28/7571465/metropolitan-museum-of-art-funeral-attire

https://www.thecultureconcept.com/death-becomes-her-a-century-of-mourning-attire-at-the-met-ny

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/grief-as-a-fashion-statement-in-death-becomes-her-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art/2014/11/12/819527a4-65f4-11e4-836c-83bc4f26eb67_story.html

The post-mortem fate of Marilyn Monroe: a case study of bodily integrity in death

When we think of the famous starlet, Marilyn Monroe, we think of the vivacious blond bombshell so full of life on our movie screens. Marilyn, born Norma Jean Mortensen, is by far one of the most well-known faces from the golden era of Hollywood. Like her life, her death was also full of controversy and is subject to conspiracy. I have read numerous articles and books, watched documentaries and listened to podcasts surrounding the circumstances of her death- with accusations of murder against the Kennedys, the Mafia and her medical team in numerous sources. Instead of discussing the topic of her death, I have decided to discuss the post-mortem treatment of Marilyn’s body. In life, her bodily autonomy was a subject of discussion for many a Hollywood executive. Whilst Marilyn was proud of her body and her overt sex appeal, one cannot deny how she was manipulated and used by many around her. She was painted as the ‘dumb blond’, despite the fact she was extremely intelligent and well read, she had an interest particularly in art history and classical literature. Unfortunately, issues regarding her bodily integrity also became apparent upon her death.

Marilyn died in her home in on the 5th of August 1962. She was naked in her bed, with her telephone in her hand having died from an apparent overdose. Once the news had broke of her death, paparazzi surrounded her house and images taken of her dead body in her bedroom by the police were later publicly released. The bottles of prescription drugs on her bedside cabinet were pointed out by someone posing in the infamous photograph beside her corpse. Videos were taken of the gurney rolling out of the house with her lifeless body laying upon it. Just mere hours after her death, Marilyn was already being exploited by the media- they swarmed the funeral home she was taken to (there have been reports her corpse was stuffed in a broom closet away from prying eyes).

Newspaper headline with Marilyn’s Death

An unsavoury article released by the Daily Mail in 2015 discusses the claims made by the famous funeral service, Abbott and Hast, that Marilyn looked awful upon her death. Abbott and Hast were famous during the 1960’s as the funeral service used by the rich and famous, having also handled the bodies of Natalie Wood and Clark Gable. According to Allan Abbott, he states when he saw the body of Marilyn that she ‘looked like a very average, aging woman who had not been taking very good care of herself’. He even goes on to comment on the condition of her manicure, her hair colour and the fact that she had not shaved her legs in ‘at least a week’. Her appearance was scrutinised even in death, even then she was held to the highest of beauty standards. She was still a female subject that could be criticised by the male gaze, worsened by the fact Abbott was trusted to care for her in a confidential, respectful manner but decided to make his comments public. Abbott further discusses her case in his book ‘Pardon My Hearse’, chronicling his time as a mortician in Hollywood. Marilyn’s makeup artist Whitey Snyder came to the funeral home to do her makeup and to fit a wig that was used on one of her movies. Synder discussed Marilyn’s breasts with Abbott in the funeral home, stating that they had begun to say at her age and that she wore ‘falsies’ to keep her physique. One of the workers exclaimed ‘what happened to her boobs?’ when they first saw her after the autopsy, as the incision in her chest area and rib cutting had caused them to change shape. Once the employee had decided to stuff her bra with cotton wool in the coffin, they stood back and stated, ‘Now that looks like Marilyn Monroe!’ Sexualisation and scrutinization of her physique deemed acceptable even as she was laid out to be viewed by loved ones. As someone who has trained in a funeral home setting, I cannot but feel disgusted by this blatant lack of disrespect and breach of confidentiality. Abbott even auctioned off the ‘falsie’ breasts brought to the funeral home by her executrix, and some of her hair that was removed by the embalmer. It is unsettling but not unsurprising that these items were deemed acceptable to auction.

Medical attendants removing the body of Marilyn Monroe

Before Marilyn was transported to the funeral home at Westwood Village Mortuary for preparation, her body was brought in for autopsy. Her autopsy was carried out by Dr Thomas Noguchi, the deputy chief examiner. Her death was ruled a probable suicide from barbiturates, most notably Nembutal and Chloral Hydrate. At the morgue, a Life magazine photographer bribed a mortuary attendant with a bottle of whiskey to take a photo of her un-embalmed, freshly autopsied body. Another infamous photo of her corpse has been the subject of much scrutiny, with even more derogatory commentary made concerning her appearance in the years following her death (there have even been sickening claims of necrophilia). There have also been allegations that the Hollywood Museum of death stored and displayed some of the post autopsy images of her. Marilyn or her loved ones had no control over the photos being taken of her body, and she had no control over their subsequent distribution and display in the years following.

Pills on Marilyn bedside table

Marilyn’s funeral took place on the 8th of August 1962 at the Westwood Village Mortuary Chapel, she was buried afterwards in the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery. It was organised by her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio; she was dressed in green Pucci dress with a green chiffon scarf with the casket opened for the ceremony.

Having recently listened to the excellent podcast episode by Morbid Podcast on the death of Marilyn Monroe, there are even more disturbing facts surrounding her resting place. A man named Richard Poncher requested to be buried in the space above Marilyn, he also requested to be buried face down so he could ‘lie on top of her’- this wish was granted upon his death. Hugh Hefner, the infamous mogul of Playboy magazine, was buried next to Marilyn. This was the very same man who used her nude photos without her permission in the first playmate edition of the magazine in the 1950s. If you visit her grave today, bright pink and red lipstick marks adorn the monument from her fans- particularly unsettling as Marilyn never wanted to be remembered as the ‘dumb blonde’ lipstick wearing sex pot she was portrayed as onscreen.

Marilyn’s body serves as a reminder of the importance of bodily integrity in death as well as life. Her case is a poignant study of how death does not make one exempt from bodily scrutiny and exploitation. The legal issues regarding the rights of the dead and bodily integrity are complicated and controversial. We are concerned with the autonomy of the dead as they are strongly linked to the body of the living who expresses their wishes whilst alive. The question arises as to whether the dead provoke feelings of concern regarding the treatment of the corpse. Using Marilyn as an example, it does not seem that controversial to say the dead deserve the same respect as the living.  

Sources

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3117211/Marilyn-Monroe-purple-blotches-face-neck-swollen-lips-badly-chapped-dire-need-pedicure-high-school-buddies-old-hearse-ended-preparing-tragic-star-burial.html

https://www.qcc.cuny.edu/socialsciences/ppecorino/SS680/Funeral_Marilyn_Monroe.html

http://morbid-curiosity.com/id139.htm

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7367199/Photos-Marilyn-Monroes-naked-corpse-taken-just-hours-death-new-doc-reveals.html

https://www.dailystar.co.uk/showbiz/marilyn-monroe-autopsy-pictures-uncovered-21318242

http://www.marilynmonroe.ca/camera/about/facts/funeral.html

https://www.morbidpodcast.com/

Taraborrelli, J.R., 2009. The secret life of Marilyn Monroe. Grand Central Publishing.

Young, H., 2012. The right to posthumous bodily integrity and implications of whose right it is. Marq. Elder’s Adviser14, p.197.

https://www.startribune.com/marilyn-monroe-s-death-suspicions-linger-50-years-later/164679796/

A Bearded Woman, Embalmed: The post-mortem display of Julia Pastrana in the 19th century

Who was Julia Pastrana?
Julia Pastrana was a Mexican woman born c.1830-34 in the Sierra Madre region. Julia suffered from a disease known as hypertrichosis, among other conditions. Standing at no more than 4ft 5 inches, Julia’s face and body were covered in hair, and her overgrown gums cause her mouth to protrude in a grotesque manner. There is much uncertainty surrounding her early years, with rumours stating she was sold by her parents or abandoned in the wilderness before being stumbled upon and rescued. Eventually she was adopted by Governor Sánchez in Sinaloa and worked as his maid before leaving his employment in 1854. The ambiguity of her early years is likely due to suppression of the truth by the freak show circuit who wanted to make audacious claims about her origins (including that she was a ‘unholy union of man and beast’).

Julia Pastrana

Life as the ‘Bear Woman’ or the ‘Baboon Lady’
Julia was likely recruited to become a member of a ‘Freak Show’ by an eager entrepreneur, and she began to tour under the showman Theodore Lent who she would marry in 1855. She went on tour in numerous cities across America before debuting in London in 1857, all the while under the direction of her husband who used her body for profit in both life and, eventually, in death. Control was likely the reason Lent married her, as seen when P.T. Barnum met her in 1857. She would not remove her veil for him until her husband entered the room. Pastrana went on to tour across Europe under the supervision of her husband, making sure she performed on stage, submitted to examination, and posed at social functions.

Death and embalming
Julia died in childbirth in 1860 along side her baby son who had also inherited her condition. She was in Moscow at the time, and Lent sold her body (as well as their baby’s) to a Professor Sokolov of the Anatomical Institute at the university so he could embalm them. The embalming technique used by Soklov was a success, with many praising his experimentation to benefit anatomical collections. His method was thought to blend aspects of both mummification and taxidermy, with the whole process taking around 6 months. The colour and texture of the corpses gave them a wax work like appearance, and images of her dead naked body and her son’s during the embalming process were published for academic research. Lent reclaimed the bodies in 1862 and began to tour with them as ‘curiosities’. Her display in death continued to allow her husband to profit from her body, in death it was easier for the public to view her body and discuss her openly in medical fields- she had become more object than person as she could be displayed for however long Lent required.

Image of Julia

What happened to the bodies?
Lent went on to marry another ‘bearded lady’ called Marie Bartel, presenting her as Zenora Pastrana, the little sister of Julia. Like Julia, Marie performed on tour for her husband before he was committed to an asylum in Russia after he began to lose his mind. He died shortly afterwards, and Marie sold the bodies. They were displayed at numerous exhibits across Europe for years to come. The bodies were touring up until as recently as the 1970’s until Sweden banned the exhibition in 1973 putting a stop to the display of the corpses. A break-in to the storage facility in 1976 where the bodies were kept resulted in extensive damage to the body of Pastrana’s son- the corpse was disposed of and Julia was moved to the University of Oslo.

In 2005, petitioning began for the repatriation of Pastrana back to her native Mexico. After over a decade of campaigning by artist Laura Anderson Barbata, Pastrana was brought back to her native home in 2013. She was laid to rest in a white coffin after a Catholic mass. Finally, Julia was given a dignified end to her story.

The story of Julia Pastrana is tragic and unsettling. Bodily autonomy in life and death was taken from Julia without her say in the matter. After a lifetime of scrutiny surrounding her appearance, despite Julia showing intelligence and a loving nature, this only continued at the hands of her husband after her death. To Lent, his wife was profitable, and whats even more disturbing is the fact that Lent did not seem upset in anyway to display his dead wife and son years after their passing. This questions his motive behind the marriage in the first instance, with the union likely more of a business plan than a loving partnership to the scrupulous businessman. It took years of body on display and a decade long campaign for Julia to finally be laid to rest- even then it is sad to think this would not have happened organically were it not for the relentlessness of Anderson Barbata.

Julia on displayed after her death

Sources

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/z9f8368a

https://www.buzzfeed.com/timstelloh/behold-the-heartbreaking-hair-raising-tale-of-julia-pastrana

The Sad, Grotesque Life of “Baboon Lady” Julia Pastrana

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-21440400

https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/julia-pastrana-a-monster-to-the-whole-world

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1875067216300827

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003591577406700229https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10036/3599/PettitF.pdf?sequence=1

‘World’s Ugliest Woman’ Finally Given a Dignified Burial, 153 Years After Her Death

The Archaeology of Witchcraft in England: An Examination of a Dark History Through Five Objects

The Historical Background of English Witchcraft

Witchcraft has a long, complicated history in England. In comparison to other countries, the hysteria surrounding witchcraft came quite late to England, but prior to the 16th century it was still considered a punishable offence. The Inquisition never had a huge amount of success in English Society as there was denial in the use of torture to obtain a confession. Evidence had to be substantial in cases of maleficia, with confessions needing a large amount of support to be accepted. Henry VIII was the first monarch to introduce a statute to deal with Witchcraft. This was passed in 1542 and only saw one suspect arrested under the Act until it was repealed by Edward VI in 1547. It was Elizabeth I who introduced more substantial legislation in 1543, which seen the beginnings of ‘witch mania’ in England with the cases of the Chelmsford and St Osyth Witch trials.
It was with the 1604 Act introduced by James I that we see a real shift in societal attitudes. This Act is thought to have been the basis for the Salem Witch Trials, and this Act saw the biggest mass execution in this era of hysteria. The 1640’s saw the exasperation of this hysteria with the rise of the infamous ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins. Although torture was outlawed as a means of obtaining a confession, Hopkins used methods such as sleep deprivation, diet restriction and enforced walking to entice an accused witch to confess. Hopkins also stated that pricking and a witch’s mark were substantial evidence of witchcraft. The infamous method of swimming was also used by Hopkins, but this was outlawed in 1645. Victims were overwhelmingly women, usually poor and resented by their communities.
The 1604 Act was finally repealed by George II in 1736, it is thought that at least 1000 people were executed for witchcraft between the years of 1542 and 1736. Although witchcraft was not illegal after this time, communities still accused individuals of practising, including a woman called Ruth Osbourne who was stoned to death by locals in 1751. There have been isolated cases of witchcraft in the last few centuries, with a revival in interest particularly in the last 50 years after Parliament removed the last references to witchcraft in the statute book in 1951.
The archaeological material remaining from the eras of suspected witchcraft and persecution are fascinating pieces of paraphernalia. Between 2018-2019, the Ashmolean Museum held the exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, which displayed numerous archaeological objects associated with the theme of magic. That exhibition is the inspiration for this blog post, which asked viewers to examine their own beliefs and rituals through the examination of the presented objects. This important aspect in English history should remember its victims by showcasing what material has been left behind. I have chosen five archaeological objects to discuss- a scratch on the surface of the wealth of material available.

  1. The Discovery of Witches book by Matthew Hopkins, 1647, British Library.
    The book written by the infamous ‘Witch-finder General’ described the details of his profession. Hundreds of women were executed during his ‘reign of terror’, and Hopkins was on a mission to destroy the ‘works of the devil’. Hopkins made a substantial sum from his persecution, moving from town to town with his entourage charging for their services. He is thought to be directly responsible for the deaths of 300 women over a two- or three-year period in England, directly taking references of his dogma from King James’ Daemonologie. The Discovery of Witches pamphlet was published in 1647, the same year that Hopkins met his end in unknown circumstances. We can see parallels with this pamphlet and the infamous witch hunting treatise Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of the Witches written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in the 15th Century
The Discovery of Witches
  1. The Reigate Witch Bottle, c. 1685-1720, South London.
    The Reigate witch bottle was found buried under a house in South London. It contained urine, nine bent pins into an L-shape, human hair (likely eyelashes), wool and grass. In this example, the stopper was still in place and the bottle itself was made of glass. The use of glass was unusual as most witch bottles from the time in England were durable, brown, and bulbous- usually German-made Bartmann vessels according to MOLA. Most of these types of vessels are found beneath the floor of a house, up a chimney or under a threshold. The purpose of the bottle was to assist against a witch you believe had bewitched you. The bottle contained a ‘prepared cure’ against the witch before being sealed and was sometimes thought to explode once the witch who had bewitched you died. These bottles are a great archaeological example of the hysteria amongst the general population concerning witchcraft. The use of witch bottles in England is thought to have been introduced from the Netherlands, and their use was still quite popular up until the late 19th century (particularly in parts of East Anglia where jam jars of urine were often thrown into fires).
Reigate Witch Bottle
  1. The ‘Witch Pits’, c.1640- 1970, Cornwall.
    Archaeologist Jacqui Wood discovered a series of pits near the Hamlet of Savelock in 2003. The find revealed several pits thought to have been used by local women over numerous generations in Cornwall dating back to a coven in the 1640s and used as recently as the 1970s. The pits contained offerings of birds (notably swans and magpies), animal bones wrapped in twine, eggs, pebbles, claws and even a part of a cauldron. The symbolism associated with the birds and the eggs indicated some sort of fertility ritual that may have been carried out to increase the chance of pregnancy or marriage. The offerings may have coincided with the feast of St Brigid of Kildare (1st February), the Irish Saint of new-born babies and has often been referred to as the first abortionist in Ireland. She also has strong links to the pagan practices associated with Springtime. The finds highlight that witchcraft was still being used by women even in times when it was highly risky, and that it was passed down through the generations, so the traditions were not lost.
One of the Witch Pits containing a swan
  1. The Deviant Burial of Meg Shelton or the ‘Fylde Hag’, 1705, Lancashire.
    In the grounds of St Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton is the grave of Meg Shelton, an accused witch that was thought to use her powers to steal from the locals. The grave consists of a boulder, and it is alleged she was buried under it in a vertical position as to stop her escaping. Accounts state she had crawled out of her grave twice before the boulder was placed on top of her. This is an unusual burial found in England, particularly since it is on consecrated ground. Many accused her of shape shifting into different animals, it was even said she walked with a limp after transforming into a rabbit. She was found crushed to death between a barrel and a wall. The case of Meg highlights the accounts of accusations involving recluse women in local communities. Archaeologically, her grave is an interesting case. The boulder is only three feet by two feet as it is thought her grave was very narrow for her to be buried headfirst, a burial of indignity as well as practicality in the eyes of the accusers.
The grave of Meg Shelton
  1. Poppet Doll found in South Devon, 1909-13, Displayed for the Spellbound Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
    A poppet doll was found in an Edwardian style black dress with a stiletto through the face in South Devon. The doll is quite late in age, dating to the early 20th century, showing witchcraft was still being practised. Poppet dolls were made to represent a person and were used to cast magic against them or to aid them in times of difficulty. The obvious aggressive act depicted in this case shows the poppet was intended to harm the individual, often penetration of the head with a nail or sharp object intended to cause the person to go mad. Poppets or ‘image magic’ were often made from clay, wax, wood or, as with this case, in the form of a rag doll. Some witches were thought to add ingredients such as fresh grave soil, cremated human bones, spiders, or any piece of biological material from the person they intended to target or protect. Pins, nails, or thorns were stuck into the doll to cause harm. Into the heart would cause instant death or the doll being buried in the ground would cause a slow, painful death. In 1960, a poppet dating to the 18th century was found in Hereford in offices. The name Mary Ann Ward was attached to the skirt of the doll.
Poppet doll from South Devon

Sources
https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Matthew-Hopkins-WitchFinder-General/
https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-discovery-of-witches
https://www.ashmolean.org/spellbound
https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/specials/timeline/how-to-kill-a-witch-the-reigate-witch-bottle.htm
https://www.mola.org.uk/blog/what-should-you-do-if-you-find-17th-century-witch-bottle
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Matthew-Hopkins
https://archive.archaeology.org/0811/etc/witches.html
http://www.archeolog-home.com/pages/content/saveock-g-b-ancient-cornish-witch-pits.html
https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/sorcery-display-witch-bottles
http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/folklore/meg-shelton-the-fylde-witch/
https://flickeringlamps.com/2015/08/14/buried-under-a-boulder-the-grave-of-a-lancashire-witch/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/lancashire/content/articles/2005/10/06/spooky_woodplumpton_witch_feature.shtml
https://www.facebook.com/ashmoleanmuseum/photos/poppet-with-a-stiletto-dagger-the-museum-of-witchcraft-and-magic-bocastle/10157080358473442/
https://archive.org/details/cunninghamsencyc00cunn_0/page/13
Dell, C. (2016) The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History. Thames and Hudson: London.
Lipscomb, Suzannah (2018). Witchcraft. illus. Martyn Pick. London: Ladybird Books.
Mackay, Christopher S. (2009). The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (1 volume). Cambridge University Press.
Pickering, D. (1999) Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft. Brockhampton Press: Great Britain.
Russell, J.B. (1999) A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. Thames and Hudson: London.

Museums and Human Remains: Repatriation, Display, and Storage.

Human remains collections in British Museums over the last 200-300 years have been an important aspect of cultural heritage, however, there have been ethical dilemmas surrounding their curation and display for several reasons. Issues arise particularly in relation to public sensitivities, ethics, and the way in which the human remains acquired i.e. was there consent from the donor or the family of the donor? With the rise of modern medical exhibits such as Body Worlds by Gunther von Hagens gaining millions of visitors worldwide, controversy surrounding human remains display has grown. So how do the public really feel about the display of human remains, and what are the main issues that arise?
*Disclaimer: This blog post is only intended as a short overview of some important points- a full debate would be much longer, and excellent detailed sources can be found on the subject elsewhere.
Where have these remains come from?
Several factors surrounding the acquisition of human remains are controversial. One in particular is the expansion of colonial territories, and the addition of specimens acquired by ‘colonial agents’. These ‘curiosities’ may have been considered acceptable as they were displayed in a time when there were even ‘living curiosities’ on show. Colonialist ties to human remains have resulted in numerous museums beginning the repatriation process, after years of pressure from campaigners. There remains however, collections still with colonialist ties in museums today.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there were cases of ‘resurrectionists’. These were paid body snatchers that would exhume fresh corpses at the behest of paying surgeons and doctors. The trade was rife in London and Edinburgh (with Burke and Hare the most famous of these snatchers), as the only legal way to obtain a corpse was if it was one of an executed criminal. Another point to make here is the legal system was very different from today – many of those executed were only guilty of petty crimes done out of desperation. Despite the introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1832, there have still been concerns surrounding the use of unclaimed bodies from workhouses after this time, but it must be said that some of the bodies were indeed claimed with consent (but how informed was that consent? Where professionals offering desperate family members payment for their dead loved one?).
Evidently, with such dubious origins highlighted, it is no wonder there has been some questioning as to the whether some historical remains should be displayed or not. Museums however are constantly working to tackle this issue, perhaps the best may forward is to give a voice to these important pieces of cultural heritage by displaying the remains with their origins listed- even if the truth is unsettling. For the items of unknown origin, perhaps stating this fact along with suggestion as to their origins (whether unsettling or not)? Whatever the case, museums are constantly evolving, and although human remains over 100 years old are not affected under the 2004 HTA, the origins of these specimens are being taken more seriously. Many remains in the British Museum for example, were ‘gifted’ or purchased in the 19th century from places which may have had a complex relationship with death which is different from our own. Even the complex relationship of death in today’s society has been emphasised through modern pagan groups vocalising the need to rebury ancient British remains.

How are they displayed?
Perhaps the most controversial of the plastinated bodies of the Body Worlds exhibit was the sex plastinate. The questions that arose surrounded the remains, besides the displays themselves, was the sex position in which the donors were placed. Many wondered whether the donors and their families realised that this was the position they would be displayed in, highlighting that even when one donates their body that informed consent is still a burning issue. Although Body Worlds was an exhibit, not a museum, the issue of display is still rife and spills over into the heritage sector.
Within museum settings many visitors expect to see human remains on display, particularly skeletal remains. As a rule, displays are often laid out in such a manner that means visitors cannot come across them ‘by accident’. There are signs up warning the visitor if they chose not to view the exhibit. Display conditions should always be environmentally stable to ensure preservation and protection of the remains. This is particularly significant in incidences were specimens have been preserved in alcohol etc. as to prevent the evaporation of the liquid from the containers, thus rendering the specimen vulnerable to decay. The displays should have the aim to educate, explain and encourage conversation and reflection in a healthy manner. Evoking conversation and thought in the case of 18th – 19th century soft tissue allows the rise of ethical questions, as so often the public may feel more detached from older skeletal remains than preserved soft tissue.
Conclusions
The question of what to do with 18th-19th century dated human remains is never easy- particularly when soft tissue is intact as preservation and conservation is required i.e. preserving fluid. Museums and researchers are more and more informed on issues of display and consent- particularly in the wake of the Alder Hey Scandal. What is the right thing to be done with these valuable sources of information? Should they be repatriated out of respect or is it disrespectful to not utilise the information they can give us? Should they be displayed for public viewing in a responsible manner or should they be placed in storage out of view? Is this also a disrespectful way to treat these remains as they are left to sit on a shelf and viewed as obsolete? The answer is not an easy one, and it is vital that heritage institutions continue to dwell on it.

Sources
https://web.a.ebscohost.com/abstract?direct=true&profile=ehost&scope=site&authtype=crawler&jrnl=13622331&AN=123893802&h=yVZXkJLcnpChW1iCT1utHA3X4TJPctruPnhuEMN%2btIOI1VLblAB3HnTxTDNE%2f8OJlK%2fTPTU8bUYF7nSlJE5k1A%3d%3d&crl=c&resultNs=AdminWebAuth&resultLocal=ErrCrlNotAuth&crlhashurl=login.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26profile%3dehost%26scope%3dsite%26authtype%3dcrawler%26jrnl%3d13622331%26AN%3d123893802
https://wellcomecollection.org/pages/WyjY_SgAACoALCmH
https://www.mummystories.com/post/body-worlds-london
file:///C:/Users/sutto/Downloads/AlbertiandHallamMedicalMuseums2013%20(1).pdf
https://londonist.com/2015/09/barts
https://www.britishmuseum.org/sites/default/files/2019-11/Regarding-the-Dead_02102015.pdf
https://www.standard.co.uk/standard-home/body-worlds-sex-couple-the-debate-6801712.html
https://londonist.com/london/features/who-in-the-world-goes-to-body-worlds
https://www.britishmuseum.org/our-work/departments/human-remains
https://www.jcms-journal.com/articles/10.5334/jcms.1021220/
https://www.britishmuseum.org/sites/default/files/2019-11/DCMS-Guidance-for-the-care-of-human-remains-in-museum.pdf https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/the-worlds-19-creepiest-museums-65542

Embalming: A Help or Hindrance to Grief? A Personal and Professional Experience

Whilst many European countries do not feel the need to embalm their dead, Ireland is not one of them. Growing up in rural Catholic Ireland, I was exposed to the deceased bodies of loved ones from a very young age as it is tradition for us to ‘wake’ our dead at home. I was eight years old when I saw my first dead body, it was that of my grandfather who had died from a long battle with lung cancer. I remember seeing him a day before he died, he was struggling to breathe, gaunt and his skin had yellowed. It scared me to see him like this, so I was apprehensive seeing him in the coffin that was placed in the living room of my grandparents’ house. But he had transformed from the ill man I had seen the night before to someone who looked the peaceful picture of health. I did not know it at the time, but I came to realise it was the embalmer who had been responsible for this transformation. I lost other grandparents, cousins, aunties, uncles, and parents later down the line and was never afraid of viewing them in their coffin because of the peace I felt at seeing my grandfather.


I recently came across an article on time.com by Sallie Tisdale who discussed viewing her mother after she had died of breast cancer. She describes the transformative type process I just described seeing my grandfather, but for her the experience was overwhelmingly negative. She felt acceptance of her loss was hindered by the viewing, as her mother was made to ‘look alive’. Tisdale asks the important question, ‘why do we so often make a dead person appear alive?’
Caitlin Doughty of the Order of the Good Death does an excellent job of educating the public on embalming practices in America. Doughty does a series of YouTube videos (Ask a Mortician Channel) discussing what happens to a body during embalming. On the Order of the Good Death Websites there is plenty of information about how embalming became common practice (spoiler- The American Civil War played a large part) as well as the dangers and myths associated with dead bodies and the practice itself. Doughty does not condemn the practice but makes sure that the public know it is not always necessary, it can often be an extra cost to families.

From personal experience, embalming has helped immensely in the grieving process. My Father passed when I was 19 years old very suddenly in an accident and he was embalmed as part of the Catholic wake tradition. However, it was my Mother’s death when I was 25 years old where I felt embalming personally helped my grieving. My Mother died of brain cancer and had been ill for quite some time before her passing. She was only 50 years old when she died and had always looked quite youthful for her age until the disease began to progress. She was a shadow of her former self in the care home she was in, she had swollen limbs from excessive medication, her complexion was pale, and she was constantly agitated and confused. On her passing, seeing her in the funeral home after her embalming felt like a huge relief. She looked like her glamourous self again, more peaceful in death than she had been in life. Unlike Tisdale, I was appreciative of the practice as we had a chance to say goodbye to our Mother in the way we wanted to remember her. This may also have been down to differences in the work and skill of each embalmer, our embalmer did not go overboard with any makeup etc. Two weeks after her death I began assisting an embalmer and understood the practice fully. Whilst the practice itself is quite invasive, I was fascinated by it and asked the mortician about families who opted out of the practice. He told me they always make sure families know the extras costs and tell them it is not always necessary, but some still feel the need to go ahead with the embalming as it is how they grieve. What is important here is that families know their options, and the funeral home are not exploiting people when they are vulnerable.


There have also been suggestions that embalming has psychological implications in American society. Psychologists have suggested that embalming can be considered a ‘final assault on the self’ and that the natural looking deceased can encourage denial of death in loved ones. There is also some suggestion in other studies that there was more regret surrounding not viewing the body than having the body embalmed. Again, personal preference plays a large role. One lady describes how viewing her mother after she was embalmed disturbed her, but it brought her brother peace.


As someone with a background in archaeology, with an interest in how we preserved the dead in the past (as educational specimens and as part of funeral rites), it is no wonder this has interlinked with my professional life. Although modern embalming methods are strongly linked to the American Civil War, different cultures from all over the world have been preserving their dead in various ways as part of their grieving process for thousands of years- in the same way that many have not. It comes down to understanding the various options out there, and what works for some does not work for others. So, does embalming hinder the grieving process? The answer will never be the same for everyone.

Sources

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/resources/embalming#4
https://time.com/5542117/death-embalming-preservation-cremation-mourning/
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-21724769/embalming-allows-people-to-initiate-grief-process
Palermo, G.B., Gumz, E.J. The last invasion of human privacy and its psychological consequences on survivors: A critique of the practice of embalming. Theoretical Medicine 15, 397–408 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00993797
https://www.funeralbasics.org/what-is-embalming/embalming-and-grief-process/
https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c2032
https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-embalming-1132124

The Depiction of Embalming in Art: From Pharaohs to Presidents.

Embalming has been carried out for thousands of years by different cultures all over the world. An array of techniques concerning the practice have been described by scholars and doctors from each of these time periods, but selection of artists have depicted this practice as well. Embalming cannot be called a common subject matter in the field of art history- but nevertheless there are still examples that survive today. As part of this blog post I will discuss five works of art that depict the practice of embalming, a topic I do not believe is widely discussed through the examination of such materials. I will attempt to cover different embalming techniques as well as different time periods and locations in their examination.


Papyrus of Hunefer, Egypt- c.1275BC. and New Kingdom Tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt- c.1250BC.

Numerous depictions of funerary rites and embalming are depicted in Egyptian papyri, on sarcophagi and other objects. I have chosen the Papyrus of Hunefer from the British Museum which shows the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The embalmer is depicted wearing a mask of Anubis (the god of embalming) and the mummy is being reanimated by the priest so the deceased could speak in the afterlife. We also see an embalmer depicted during the mummification process wearing a jackal head in the New Kingdom tomb of Sennedjem. The deceased in the papyrus is depicted as already ‘mummified’ by the embalmer before the final step of the ceremony takes place and the deceased can be laid to rest. The embalming process would have been subject to expense- with the most elaborate process costing the most money. Organs were removed and placed in canopic jars, the body cleaned and sewn up and dehydrated with natron. The process took around 70 days.

Tomb of Sennedjem
Papyrus of Hunefer

Embalming of the Body of Christ triptych, Rotterdam, Unknown Master- c.1410.
This 15th century triptych shows the embalming of Christ- a very rarely depicted scene in religious art. In the image we see Mary embracing her son as she is supported by John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleopas and Mary Salome in her mourning. The jars of oils, resins and spices used in the embalming process can be seen around the feet of Christ, with men (presumably the embalmers) handling equipment to assist in the preservation. The Bible mentions the embalming of Christ. His body was washed and perfumed with substances such as myrrh and aloe before his resurrection. However, there is no mention of organ removal and it is likely the body was perfumed for pomp and display. It is strange that the topic of the embalming of Christ is not depicted more often, as it links so closely with resurrection and preservation of the body.

The centre image depicts the embalming of Christ

The Embalming Jars of Friedrich Ruysch, Thesarus animalium primus, 1710.
The Dutch anatomist Ruysch is remembered for his development of anatomical specimen preservation and use of the arterial method of embalming. He acquired a very large specimen collection and created carefully arranged scenes incorporating human body parts and preserved animals. The scenes were intended to be an art display as well as a scientific preservation. Images of his artistic ‘embalming jars’ were featured in his Thesarus animalium primus in 1710. His collection of ‘curiosities’ notably contained infant and fetal remains posed among botanical landscapes.

One of the ’embalming jars’

Embalmed Body of Abraham Lincoln at Springfield, Illinois, Engraving, 1865.
The American Civil War saw with it the popularisation of embalming methods so deceased soldiers could be brought home to loved ones. Lincoln was a huge advocate of the practice and had his 11-year-old son Willie embalmed upon his death in 1862. The same embalmer would go on to embalm Lincoln himself after his assassination. At the time, embalming was carried out using alcohol, mercury or arsenic via the arterial method, and makeshift embalming tents were often put up at battlefield sites. After Lincoln was embalmed his body went of a ‘tour’ for public display in different cities in America. This engraved illustration shows the embalmed body on display in Springfield, Illinois. The book the image came from was entitled ‘Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States : with a portrait of President Lincoln, and other illustrative engravings of the scene of the assassination, etc’ by D. Williamson and G. Bancroft, 1865.

The embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln on display in Springfield, Illinois

Embalming is seen in a lot of artistic mediums but is not a popular subject matter. Interestingly, funeral processions and anatomical dissections were quite popular related subject matters for artists- both have themes strongly relevant to death and the human body. However, this snapshot of art pieces has shown mediums in painting, illustration, and sculpture over numerous time periods in different parts of the world. Preservation of the human body is still preserved in the art and archaeological material that we can still examine today.

Sources
https://www.codart.nl/museums/museum-boijmans-van-beuningen-acquires-pre-eyckian-embalming-of-the-body-of-christ/
http://art-in-space.blogspot.com/2014/10/anonymous-embalming-of-body-of-christ.html
https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA9901-3
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_funerary_practices#/media/File:Opening_of_the_mouth_ceremony_(cropped).jpg
http://egypt.hitchins.net/the-three-kingdoms/the-tomb-of-sennedjem.html#:~:text=The%20Tomb%20of%20Sennedjem,tomb%20in%20the%20village%20necropolis.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2017/03-04/egyptian-mummification-technique-process-purpose/
https://theconversation.com/how-lincolns-embrace-of-embalming-birthed-the-american-funeral-industry-86196
https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14782342695/in/photostream/
https://theconversation.com/how-lincolns-embrace-of-embalming-birthed-the-american-funeral-industry-86196
https://www.medicaldaily.com/how-it-works-science-and-art-embalming-365530
https://archive.org/stream/illustratedlif2293will/illustratedlif2293will#page/131/mode/1up
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederik_Ruysch
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pathologicalbodiesproject.home.blog/2019/12/06/embalming-fluid-in-archaeology-what-did-we-use-to-preserve-our-dead-the-discussion-of-four-bodies/
Gannal, J. (Jean-Nicolas)., Harlan, R. (1840). History of embalming: and of preparations in anatomy, pathology, and natural history; including an account of a new process for embalming. Philadelphia: J. Dobson.