Blog Feed


The Dead of the Titanic: The Mackay Bennett, Embalming, and Burial

Today marks 111 years since the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic on her maiden voyage. The luxury liner left Southampton on the 10th of April 1912 before picking up additional passengers in Cherbourg and Queenstown (now modern-day Cobh). You can visit the Titanic centre in Cobh today, well worth a visit if you are ever in County Cork – a lesser-known centre then the Titanic Experience in Belfast, the city where White Star Line produced the vessel.

With the anniversary of the disaster, I wanted to write this blog post on the aftermath of the sinking, drawing attention to the recovery of the dead and where many were put to rest. The lesser-known vessel, The Mackay Bennett, was instrumental in recovery of bodies for loved ones.

It took the ship over 2 and a half hours to sink, finally submerging in the early hours of the morning of the 15th of April. About 1500 people are thought to have died as a result of the sinking.

The Mackay Bennett

The Mackay Bennett was a cable ship built in the 1880s. The iron ship was chartered by White Star Line once the news of the sinking had broken. The crew opted to stay on board the ship, despite being told they were under no obligation to carry out the task of recovering bodies. The ship went to the Titanic’s last known location from the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, equipped with ice (100 tonnes), coffins 100 wooden), and undertakers who worked for John Snow and Co. Once the crew arrived at the sinking site, they were greeted with a harrowing site. Many of the dead were mutilated, and the Mackay Bennett called to warn other ships to avoid the area. The ship arrived to begin recovery on the 19th of April.

Recovery and Care of the Dead

Captain Larnder of the Mackay Bennett stated that far more bodies then expected were seen in the sea upon arriving, with boats manned by 5 or 6 crew members launched for recovery with room for 8 bodies per small boat. Over 50 bodies were recovered on the first day, fewer were recovered on the second day and 119 were recovered on the third day. Embalming fluid was also brought on the ship so chief embalmer – John R. Snow Jr. – could care for the dead. Once a body was brought aboard, it was given a number that matched a bag with their personal items. Physical characteristics, identifying features and clothing were also noted. Once all the coffins were filled and embalming fluid ran out, the bodies were wrapped in a canvas and placed on ice in the hold. Only embalmed bodies could be brought ashore, so the difficult decision was made to bury some of the bodies at sea – they were weighed down with iron bars and dropped overboard as a minister delivered a service. It was noted that the many of the bodies buried at sea were identified from their clothing as third-class passengers or crew members, with some scholars stating that the bodies ‘worth less’ were returned to the water. Many of the wealthier passengers were chosen for preservation rather than a sea burial as so insurance policies could be paid. Another ship, the Minia, eventually arrived on scene with more embalming fluid so the process of preservation could begin again. 306 bodies were recovered by the Mackay Bennett after 7 days of searching, with 116 buried at sea. The remaining victims were brought back to Halifax. 3 additional ships recovered a further 22 bodies over the following month. It is estimated that around 23% of the dead were recovered.

Reaching the Shore

A temporary morgue was set up at the Halifax curling rink. The same rink was used as a temporary morgue 5 years later when a moored ammunition ship exploded and killed around 2000 people in Halifax. The ship arrived back on the 30th of April to tolling bells and family members looking for their loved ones. Black draped hearses were set up along the dock to retrieve the bodies from the recovery vessel. Around 200 bodies were brought ashore (sources differ on exact numbers), with an area set up for identification in the temporary morgue. To assist with grieving relatives, a nurse was on hand to comfort loved ones. One undertaker collapsed from shock when he unexpectedly came across the body of his uncle amongst the victims.

Around 150 people recovered from the Titanic were buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia – over 50 victims were claimed by relatives and shipped elsewhere for internment. 3 cemeteries are the final resting place for victims in Halifax –  Fairview LawnMount Olivet, and Baron de Hirsch. These 3 cemeteries are non-denominational (FL), Catholic (MO) and Jewish (BH). An unidentified baby recovered from the water was exhumed and DNA tested in 2007 – the 19-month-old was finally identified as Sidney Godwin. His whole family perished in the disaster – they were third class passengers.

Eventually the Mackay Bennett resumed its duties as a cable carrier – retiring in 1922. The ship now lives on in the history books at the mortuary vessel for the victims of the Titanic.  


Recovering Titanic Bodies: The Grim Task of the Mackay-Bennett


Death and Lana Del Rey: From Glamour to Grief

TW: Death and Suicide

Lana Del Rey burst onto the music scene in 2012 with her album Born to Die. I remember the single of the same name being released, which prompted a lot of comments from people in my age group at the time. I remember many saying, ‘she sounds depressed’, ‘why is she singing about death?’ and ‘she sounds like she is whining’. Her image was everywhere – the beautiful, ultimate ‘sad girl’ who sung about older men, drugs, and death. I was hooked. Death seems to be everywhere in her music and imagery – something I’ve noticed now more then ever with the release of her new album Did you know there’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard? What I find particularly interesting about her contemplations of mortality is that is seemed to resonate with so many people, particularly young women. Death was mainstream in music. Del Rey has been accused of glamourising death and the ‘live fast die young’ lifestyle. Is this something detrimental to many, or is she simply embodying the ‘death positive’ movement on her own terms? In this post I will try and dive deeper into the death and dying aspects of her work, something important to acknowledge with the singer exploding again all over Tik Tok and playing an important role in the pop culture of the 2010’s.  

Born to Die

Del Rey dies in a fiery crash at the end of her Born to Die music video. She is seen bloody and beautiful and is seen adorned in an ethereal white gown in a highly decorated church. She sings about the inevitability of death surrounded by religious imagery. In one scene she lies on a bed surrounded by flowers, almost like the flowers seen around a coffin in a chapel of rest. There is no denying the video is impressive – with many comments on the page stating how much they relate to the music that Del Rey produces. Death doesn’t seem to be a divider here. Fans don’t seem to feel she is romanticising dying young but is singing about her own contemplations on mortality. On one of her videos in fact, a fan states they listen to Del Rey when they have suicidal thoughts to see how beautiful the world can be, and that they feel comfort in knowing someone else feels how they feel. The video in question is Ride, where Del Rey states ‘Live fast. Die young’ as part of the video monologue. But is this literal?    

Born to Die music video (Source: IMDb)

Del Rey also uses imagery and writes lyrics associated with celebrities who died young, including Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Elvis, and JFK. National Anthem shows Del Rey playing both Marilyn and Jackie O, almost as if she is playing the role of Marilyn if she had become JFK’s wife. At the end of the video, we see the recreated assassination of JFK with a distraught Del Rey in the back seat of the car. Americana imagery is rampant, something she stepped away from a bit with the growing turmoil of American politics in recent years.

The JFK assassination is recreated in the Nation Anthem music video (Source:

27 Club

 Frances Bean Cobain criticised Del Rey for romanticising the death of young musicians after the Guardian released an interview with her in which she is reported to have stated, ‘I wish I was dead already.’ In fact, Pop Matters in an article from 2014 stated that, ‘By re-imagining her life as a blown-out Hollywood production about someone who really wants to join the 27 Club, Del Rey acknowledges the world’s fascination with tragic woman and invites them to watch a new train wreck.’ In the same Guardian piece, Del Rey cites Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain as two of her heroes (In fact, she even has Amy tattooed on her collarbone) – both of which are members of the infamous 27 Club. Lana later criticised the interview, saying her words were taken out of context and that she mentions her heroes because they are talented, not because they died young.

 Suicide or suicide ideation is also mentioned in some of Del Rey’s lyrics. In Dark Paradise she sings, ‘I wish I was dead’. On her Honeymoon albums she sings ‘Dying by the hand of a foreign man happily’ (Salvatore) and on her Lust for Life album one of the demo versions of the songs states ‘She wants to die, lie-la-lie, And she should fucking try, lie-la-lie’ (Beautiful People Beautiful Problems). In fact, the song and music video Lust for Life is thought to reference the 1930’s suicide of Peg Entwistle. In 2017, Crack Magazine and Genius discussed the video stating there were a lot of parallels between the video and the famous 1932 death. Entwistle was an English actress who jumped from the ‘H’ of the sign after being cut from a movie.

Del Rey and the Weekend in the Lust for Life video pictured beside Peg Entwistle (Source:

On her Norman Fucking Rockwell album, some have interpreted her song ‘How to Disappear’ as a reference to suicide, and on her Blue Bannisters album Del Rey screams ‘I don’t wanna live’ in her song Dealer. On her new album, in the song ‘Fingertips’, some think she may be referring to a suicide attempt in the lines, ‘When I was fifteen, naked, next-door neighbors did a drive-by/Pulled me up by my waist, long hair to the beach side/I wanted to go out like you, swim with the fishes’. Can these lyrics be seen as a glamourisation of death/ suicide, or are they songs written by someone who has these type of thoughts and feelings?

A Funeral Song, Grief, and Loss

Del Rey poses in a hearse for Billboard Magazine 2023 (Source:

Del Rey’s new album was released last week entitled Did you know there’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard? Death is a theme in this album – but it feels more a move towards grief rather than Del Rey’s contemplation of her own mortality in her earlier albums. ‘The Grants’ (Del Rey was born Lizzy Grant) has been making the rounds of TikTok, with some saying that they want the song played at their funeral. The song mentions heaven and how memories are the only things you bring with you when you die. Del Rey lost her grandmother, the memory of her smile is what she wants to take with her – ‘My grandmother’s last smile/I’m gonna take that too with me.’ Lana also mentions the death of her uncle Dave and Grandparents in ‘Fingertips’, as well as a family mausoleum. ‘Kintsugi’, a beautiful track referring to the Japanese art of repairing pottery cracks using gold, is almost like a love letter to her own grief. Del Rey mentions how she couldn’t be at a death, who will be with you at your death, and laments, ‘Daddy, I miss them.’ ‘Kintsugi’ seems to refer to the cracks that form in the grieving process, and ‘that’s how the light gets in.’ Del Rey has been ‘cracked open’ by grief but it is now something beautiful. This type of imagery is very different to the glamourous, sultry visuals of her early career when she mentions death. Even though this album mentions the death of loved ones, it almost seems more serene.

Death – authentic or aesthetic?

Del Rey seems to be a multi-layered artist, with mortality featured throughout all eras of her career. Even though the way in which it is discussed has changed and developed over time, it has remained a constant in her craft. Even though she has faced criticism for this aspect, one can’t help but notice the consistency which suggests authenticity. Comments on a YouTube video by Mina Lee in 2021 (Lana Del Rey: the pitfalls of having a persona) suggest fans don’t find her mentions of death as a fashion statement, but rather that she was a rejection of being perfect and a way to champion expressing one’s emotions. Many also stated that as a female celebrity, she shouldn’t be pressured into being a good role model. Perhaps Del Rey’s mentions of death and dying allowed for many to move their interest into the ‘death positive’ movement – something I found her music pushed me towards.

Del Rey pictured at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for Billboard Magazine in 2023 (Source:




An archaeologist visits Bodyworlds

Recently, I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to visit the incredible Bodyworlds exhibit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I have seen and handled plastinated specimens before in a university department, but I had not seen them on display in a museum context. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the thoughts I had as an archaeologist concerned with the ethics of human remains display, and how these modern-day collections echo some of the sentiment applied to collections of the past. The technology involved in creating these plastinates is simply amazing, and if you have any interest in human anatomy I would highly recommend visiting the exhibit.

The Bodyworlds exhibit: Where and what?

The exhibit I visited featured 200 plastinated human specimens on public display. This particular exhibit was entitled The Happiness Project. The exhibit had over 200 plastinates on display – if you want to read more about the process of plastination then you can do so here. Plastination involves preserving real human bodies using a process that removes water and fat. These are replaced with plastics, making the specimen dry and stopping the decaying process. Von Hagens invented the process and has exhibited the Bodyworlds plastinates to millions all over the world. The Happiness project used the plastinates to show how our happiness is impacted, and how our health is related to our mood. One of the infographics outlined the sources of happiness in one’s life – suggested that 50% was genetics, 40% was what we could control, and 10% was sources outside our control.

Gender assignment without consent
There was a group of four of us that attended the exhibit. On one of the levels we entered we were greeted by a large screen that we could not avoid. The screen assigned us a gender and an age category automatically. I couldn’t help but recognise how uncomfortable this may have made some people, especially those who may be struggling with their gender identity, or who identify as non-binary. You are assigned male or female, with some people at the exhibit being mis gendered by the screen. Also, many people were pointing out they were also given a different age bracket – most were being given an older age then they actually were. Not great in a society that dwells heavily on anti-aging. I could see that some visitors were a bit uncomfortable with this element of the exhibit, and I couldn’t understand why this element was incorporated. The screen reading itself was showing how ‘happy’ the viewer was by reading their face – but I think the gender/ age element was unnecessary. The body and identity – particularly gender identity – is a topic under discussion in both archaeological and contemporary contexts. Control of one’s narrative is important and having one’s identity ‘up on screen’ without their input is quite intense.

The identifiable nature of the human head
One of the human heads on display still maintained their facial features, it did not look like the classic image of a plastinate – the ones which look unidentifiable with the muscles depicted. This head still has hair and the outer layer of skin attached. The face was quite identifiable – if a family member had seen it they would definitely have recognised them. Obviously, the donor in this case gave their body to be plastinated – fully consenting. However, I still wonder if the donor and their loved one realised this would have been the case if they were viewing the more ‘classic’ plastinates. Although the head was anonymised – meaning they were not named etc. – it still was a jarring sight. Nevertheless, the head is an amazing feat of preservation technology which shows the realistic element of a cadaver – a stark contrast to skeletal remains and historical fluid preserved specimens on display in museums. The ‘flesh on the bones’ really humanises the plastinate, I could even see moles and other spots on the skin.

The sex plastinate
If you have read about the Bodyworlds exhibit, you have probably heard about the sex plastinate that caused controversy some time back. The controversial plastinate in question showed two cadavers preserved in the reverse cowgirl position. With articles with headlines such as ‘You Can See Dead People Having Sex for Less Than $20’ appearing on the internet it’s clear the pose certainly ruffled some feathers. The Happiness project also has a sex plastinate on display, which showed two cadavers in a much less provocative pose, but still showing sexual intercourse regardless. I thought this display was presented fantastically – It wasn’t shocking, but was presented beautifully, somewhat unexpected in a city often associated with sex. And why shouldn’t sex be presented? It is, after all, a huge element of life. Sex and death have strong links in many ways – both are taboo but also get people interested and talking. In fact, I thought another plastinate perched on a swing with their legs opened slightly was a little more provocative to the viewer.

Art versus human remains
Overall, I highly recommend the Happiness Project if you are visiting Amsterdam. The technology involved in plastination is incredible and these donated bodies are presented fantastically – skilfully linking art and science. Not often are the general public able to view anatomical specimens, and Bodyworlds gives the layperson that opportunity through exploration of wellbeing. As an archaeologist visiting the exhibit I couldn’t help but compare these remains with archaeological and historical displayed specimens – and I kept having to tell myself that these people consented. No matter how different these displays are to other museums displays – one has to remember plastination is voluntary, unlike excavated and historically preserved remains in many cases. On that point alone, Bodyworlds is commendable.


The post-mortem fate of Elvis Presley: Another case study in bodily integrity

A while ago I did a blog post on the post-mortem fate of Marilyn Monroe, which has generated a lot of interest on my blog. Celebrities – dead or alive – have a power over us. Decades after their death they still pique our interest. Marilyn has become a hot topic once again recently in the news, with Kim Kardashian damaging her dress at the Met Gala, the release of a new Netflix documentary about her death, and with a new movie about her called Blonde set to be released soon. There has been some outcry online to ‘let her rest’ and to stop speculating in aspects of her life and death. I doubt very much that this will be the case. In fact, those posting about letting Marilyn rest are doing the exact opposite of what they are preaching. She is clickbait for many, which brings up many aspects of post-mortem bodily integrity. With the recent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis movie, I thought looking at the post-mortem bodily integrity of Elvis Presley was important. Like Marilyn, Elvis is considered one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. So how was Elvis’s body treated upon his death? First, a little bit about ‘The King’.

Who was Elvis Presley?
Elvis Aron Presley was born in Mississippi in 1935. He began his rock and roll career in 1954 in Memphis Tennessee. Despite the flamboyant costumes and the lavish surroundings Elvis became known for, he started off very poor. His musical style was inspired by blues, country, and gospel. Throughout the 1950’s his rockabilly style dominated the charts for the first time – paving the way for other rock musicians. Presley, with his slicked back black hair and thrusting dance moves, became a sex symbol. His good looks and talent meant he also became a movie star and appeared on numerous television specials. His career continued to be successful into the 1960’s, and in 1967 he married his long-time girlfriend, Pricilla. Shortly after, they had a baby girl called Lisa Marie. The two eventually divorced in 1973 but remained good friends. In the 70’s he continued to tour but his lifestyle was catching up with him. He took prescription drugs, ate fatty foods, and had a terrible sleeping pattern – it was even reported he reached 350 pounds in weight. Even at the height of his career he always lacked confidence in himself and feared slipping back into the poverty he experienced in childhood.

How did Elvis Presley die?
Elvis was found dead at his home in Graceland in 1977 at 42 years old. Like most significant cultural icons from the 20th century, his death has been met with speculation and controversy. There have been derogatory jibes made about the position he was found in (i.e., the King died on the Throne) – he was found in the bathroom, likely having died on the toilet before falling to the ground. The fact he was found with his pants down in such a vulnerable position, questions how much information should be released to the public. Is letting the public know he died on the toilet a violation or post – mortem humiliation? Ginger Alden wrote in her memoir about the position in which she found her then boyfriend, as well as how he physically looked upon his death.
Elvis was known to have had a horrific drug problem in the years leading up to his death. He also was reported to have needed a full-time nurse to help him in the months leading up to his death, and that his awful diet even consisted of cheeseburger platters. I recently read Mary Roach’s excellent book Gulp in which she talks about Elvis and his diagnosis of megacolon. He had suffered from chronic constipation due to his diet, colon condition and drug use – it is thought he died from a heart attack brought on by Valsalva manoeuvre. It has also been suggested that he died from a drug overdose that caused his heart to stop. There has also been a theory that he died from a heart attack brought on by an autoimmune condition caused by a brain injury from a fall in 1967. Whatever the case, it is clear his heart stopped very quickly.

What happened to Elvis’s body? Elvis was brought for an autopsy to establish a cause of death at Baptist Memorial Hospital – however, the results of the autopsy have been sealed from the public record until 2027 (50 years after his death). Elvis was embalmed after he was brought to Memphis Funeral Home – he was dressed in one of his famous suits and his hair/ sideburns were dyed to hide his greying hair. He was then transported to Graceland for a public viewing under the direction of his father, Vernon Presley. Vernon was also the person who ordered the results of his autopsy to be sealed, causing much public speculation and even rumours about Presley faking his death. The death of such a well – known celebrity has often come with rumours of the death being a hoax. It’s a question of whether these rumours are generated from the public in denial of the death, from ‘genuine sightings’, or from those who wish to keep their memory alive. There were rumours that the body on display at Graceland was actually a wax dummy that appeared to have ‘beads of sweat’ from melting slightly. His dead body was scrutinised by thousands of people, even though the opened end of the casket was placed slightly out of sight of fans.

Over 30,000 fans were let into the foyer of Graceland to view the open casket before a scaled back funeral service was held at the estate. There were reports that some of fans fainted upon seeing the casket. Friends and Co-stars of Presley were present at the small ceremony before 80,000 fans followed the funeral procession to the burial at Forest Hill Cemetery. He was buried next to his mother, Gladys. A BBC presenter discussed the interaction he had with the family upon viewing the body of the star. Michael Cole was one of the first to view the body and in a Daily Mail article he commented that the head (of a deceased Elvis) was the size of a ‘watermelon’ and he was ‘deathly pale’. He goes on to say he speculated the bloating of the body was from drug use and that the hairstyle that had been done by the hairdresser at the funeral home ‘upset’ him. Like Marilyn, we see that even in death, the appearance of public figures is (and was) commented on. Even the dead are not ‘off limits’ and expected to look their best.

Unfortunately, there was an attempt made to steal the remains of Presley and his mother in the same year as his death. Nine days after the burial, Raymond Green, Eugene Nelson, and Ronnie Adkins attempted to steal the corpse with the intention of holding it for ransom. It was reported they had explosives with them to blow open the mausoleum, and the heavy, copper casket. The casket had been so heavy in fact that eight pallbearers were needed. There has been accusations made against the Presley family themselves, suggesting they were part of the plot to indicate that Elvis should be buried elsewhere – i.e., at Graceland. Initially, burial of Elvis at Graceland was not permitted by the Memphis board. If the body was elsewhere and required security, then surely it would make sense for him to be buried at Graceland where it could be safe? Specifically, his father Vernon – the same man who allowed for public viewing of the casket – has been most associated with the plot. Even more disturbingly, it was suggested that Vernon wanted his son moved to Graceland to generate more income from fans and tourists visiting the estate. If that is true, then even the remains of the King were being seen as something to generate wealth. Some speculate that none of the Presley family are actually buried at Graceland and that their bodies are elsewhere for family members to visit them privately.

In 2010 the Chicago Tribune reported that the embalming tools used on Elvis were being put up for auction by the embalmer who looked after his body. One cannot deny how much of a violation of trust this is. Those working in the death care industry have a responsibility to respect the dead and their families. The ‘John Doe’ tag, rubber gloves, forceps, lip brushes, a comb and eyeliner, needle injectors and aneurysm hooks all allegedly used at the funeral home were up for auction. The lot was eventually withdrawn, not because it was disrespectful to the memory of Presley, but because the authenticity of the tools was brought into question.

Elvis can be considered one of the greatest icons of the 20th century, and continues to generate wealth, conversation and an extraordinary fanbase. It is sad to think that one of the greatest musicians and sex symbols of the 20th century met such an untimely end. His headstone now reads ‘Elvis Aaron Presley’ – Aron is spelled incorrectly, a heart-breaking realisation when you understand that one of his greatest fears was to be forgotten.  


Roach, M., 2013. Gulp: Adventures on the alimentary canal. WW Norton & Company.,30%2C000%20fans%20were%20let%20in,%20elvis_report.pdf#


The Death of Anne Lister: Her Post-Mortem Fate

Anne Lister – her life and diaries have gained fame in recent years, especially since the release of the hit tv show Gentlemen Jack starring Suranne Jones. Anne was born in 1791 and began writing her diaries at the age of 15. She was a businesswoman and ran her family estate – Shibden Hall- in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Anne dressed head to toe in black (a woman after my own heart), was an extremely independent woman, and had numerous lesbian affairs. She is often called the ‘first modern lesbian’ and thought of her life partner, Ann Walker, as her wife. The two took sacrament together is a ‘wedding ceremony’ at Holy Trinity Church in York. A plaque dedicated to their union was unveiled there in 2018.  Anne’s’ life was chronicled so much in her diaries, but what about her death? How and where did Anne die? Where is she buried now?

Horner, Joshua; Anne Lister of Shibden Hall (1791-1840); Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council;

Anne was an avid traveller, has produced volumes upon volumes of travel writing. In 1840 she travelled to Georgia as part of a prolonger trip with her partner Ann Walker. The two had begun the trip in 1839, and had travelled to Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Russia before reaching Georgia. Anne recorded a nasty insect bite she obtained in Georgia in August of 1840. A virulent fever prolonged her death, she suffered for six weeks before dying in the September – she was only 49 years old. It is reported that it took Ann Walker over six months to bring her body home. Her death was reported in the Halifax Guardian on Halloween, reporting that:

We are informed that the remains of this distinguished lady have been embalmed.

Anne’s body is believed to have been brought to Moscow for embalming. Ann Walker ensured her remains were to be transported back to England via Turkey by sea. There has been some suggestion that Anne’s remains would not have been embalmed as the arterial technique was not widespread at the time. However, it may be the case that Anne was partially embalming in some manner that may not have been arterial. Apothecary embalming practices pre-date arterial embalming and may have been used in some manner in the preservation of Anne. Viscera may have been removed and herbs/ alcohol may have been used. Embalming in the 18th century was often thought to be reserved for the likes of royalty, but Anne was a wealthy woman of noble birth who was to be repatriated in the 19th century, meaning her death was not a normal circumstance. Although Jean Gannal did not develop arterial embalming fully until 1841 – arterial system preservation was being practiced in anatomical specimen preservation. John Hunter was quite a prolific ‘preparer’ of specimens in Britain during the 18th century, and William Harvey’s work on the circulatory system had been published in the 17th century. Anne’s body was reportedly brought to Moscow for preservation, it is not inconceivable that scientific endeavours in the city allowed for her to be embalmed to some extent.

The font at Halifax Minster where Anne was baptised

As well as being preserved, Anne was also placed in a lead lined coffin or lead shell which was then placed inside another wooden coffin. It was lawfully required for a prolonged period in the 19th century for coffins to be lead-lined to allow for leakage prevention. Her body finally reached Shibden Hall in Halifax in April 1841 – over 6 months after her death. Her funeral was reported to have been attended by thousands of people, with crowds gathered in the streets. The funeral procession consisted of typical Victorian funeral traditions, including a hearse, coaches, and carriages. Anne is one of many Listers to be buried at the minster, but she is by far the most famous. Her exact burial place is not known as her tombstone was broken and moved in the 1870’s (many assume she is buried in the family vault which is located somewhere in the church). It was not found again until 2000 and is now on display at the minster. Listers tombstone still has flower offerings laid on it today, and there are calls from many, including Sally Wainwright, creator of Gentlemen Jack the tv show, for her exact resting place to be located. Over 150 years after her death, the location of Anne’s body is still in the minds of many who are inspired by her and her resilience. Even in death, Anne Lister still interests and captivates people.

Anne Lister’s Tombstone at Halifax Minster


Damon, A.B., 2020. Anne Lister,“A Sundial in the Shade”: A Gifted Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Women’s Studies49(2), pp.130-148.

Zigarovich, J., 2009. Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth-Century England. Eighteenth-Century Life33(3), pp.65-104.


When Lightning Strikes: The Tragic Story of the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Grave

A close friend of mine recently told me about a tragic burial at St Thomas’ Church in Leeds. The church has been a place of worship in Stanningley since the 1840’s. Heavily Methodist influenced, the church has two side aisles rather than one central aisle. The church also is home to some beautiful Victorian stained-glass window. One of these windows has been crafted in memory of a young couple who died in the area in 1869. Their grave is located in the churchyard, which my friend’s dad refers to as the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ grave – Patrick Simpson lays flowers every year in memory of these two young Sunday school teachers. A poignant reminder of this tragic story – the subject of my blog post this month.

Emma Carrick and Thomas Hardaker were aged between 20-22 when they were killed in September 1869 during a violent storm. They had been courting for 2 or 3 years and were the children of basket makers and cloth weavers from the Pudsey and Stanningley areas. According to a lengthy news article that reported their deaths, the couple were keen to spend much time together the weekend of the tragedy, as Thomas was travelling a lot with his brother to take charge of a bazaar. The couple were last seen together in conversation by locals before their bodies were discovered after they were ‘struck down by the electric fluid and killed on the spot.’ It was thought they were both struck by the lightening as they had been in close proximity to an iron railing. They were both found lying next to each other with scorch marks upon their faces – the only indication on their bodies that they had been struck. The coins found in Thomas’ possession were found to have melted together from the strike.

The funeral of the lovers attracted a huge crowd, with both hearses travelling in procession side by side. It was estimated that up to 7000 people attended the ceremony. Factory workers attended in their work clothing, with the friends and family of Thomas accompanying his side of the hearse and Emma’s accompanying hers. Mourners were seen adorned in the traditional Victorian black garb and also in some white garments – likely representing the youth and innocence of the couple who were due to be married in two months before their death. Black cloth was placed upon the coffins and the Death March was played as the coffins were being interred – first Thomas, before Emma was placed on top. Understandably, their death was spoken about all over the North of England. The newspaper report from Leeds at the time emphasised the fact that both of them looked peaceful in death, and that it did not seem that they had suffered in their demise. The rosiness of Emma’s cheeks in death was especially emphasised. It was also written that perhaps the couple deemed so respected and worthy that they were deemed fit to pass painlessly by God due to the tenderness of their love – the newspaper stated that the Romans thought anyone struck by lightning were favourites of the gods. Although the write up of their death is poetic, no amount of flowery language can hide the fact that these young lovers suffered a tragic fate.

Image courtesy of Gemma Simpson

You can visit the gravestone today. On the gravestone it states that Emma and Thomas were –

‘Entr’d into rest Sept 5th 1869

Being Called Home By A Flash Of Lightning.’

The inscription also states how well liked the both of them were, and that they were both teachers in the Sunday school. I think the ‘Romeo and Juliet Grave’ is a fitting name for them – both couples having died in tragic circumstances.



Death on Display: The Dead in the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology

Five Examples of the Displayed Dead

In March 2022, I visited the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street, Dublin. This archaeology museum is free to the public and is well worth a visit if you are ever in Dublin. The human remains are displayed very well in the museum, being securely laid out behind glass and lit very well. The bog bodies exhibit in particular is laid out excellently. I remember visiting this museum as part of my undergraduate modules when I was studying at UCD. Here are five examples of how the dead are displayed in the museum.

Clonycavan Man, Co Meath.

Date: c. 392-201 BC

The bog bodies on display in the museum are perhaps the most evocative of the dead featured. The display of the bog bodies is done in a respectful manner, with visitors able to bypass viewing the remains if they wish. Clonycavan Man is featured in the Kinship and Sacrifice Exhibit, which also features the other Irish bog bodies. Clonycavan Man was found in 2003 and is believed to be a murder victim, with possible indications that he was mutilated as part of a ritual killing (his nipples are missing for example). He also seems to have suffered a deep head wound that may have been the cause of his death. A reconstruction of the face of Clonycavan Man further humanises him – a ‘face put to the name’, as well as the discussion surrounding his ‘gel’ hairstyle which consists of resin. The hair and skin of Clonycavan Man is visible, although they have changed to a brown colour due to the anaerobic conditions of the bog, but his features are still very visible regardless. I highly recommend visiting this exhibit if you are ever in Dublin – they are a fantastic resource to engage in conversations about death and the display of the human body.

Replica of Clonycavan man
Clonycavan man

Viking Burial, Memorial Park, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 9th Century

An almost fully intact skeleton is on display in the Viking Ireland section of the museum. The skeleton dates to the 9th Century as was found in 1934 at Memorial Park, Island bridge, Dublin. The burial is labelled as belonging to a warrior, as a dagger and sword were found with the skeleton. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much other information accompanying the burial, which may have been due to a lack of information being gathered and recorded at the time of discovery. Furthermore, members of the public are not told whether the burial is male or female, something not known to the untrained eye – it is simply implied by the ‘warrior burial’ label. The ‘warrior burial’ label was also critiqued by Howard Williams on his blog (link in sources section).  The skeleton is dimly lit with partial reconstruction done on some elements of the skeleton. The glass case makes sure the remains are secure and cannot be touched by members of the public, and the darkness of the exhibit does allow one to appreciate the fact human remains are on display. Should these skeletal remains be presented in the same manner as the bog bodies? I.e., in a small, labelled section away from public view? These are the questions one should ask as a viewer – how much of human remains is too much for the public?

Viking burial

Burial 24, Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara, Co Meath.

Date: c. 2000 BC

Burial 24 contained an inverted encrusted urn and an inverted vase – the urn contained the remains of at least one adult, and a burnt flint knife was also found with the remains. As there is work going on in the museum at the moment, the entrance is now through the Hill of Tara section where this burial is located. You almost pass it by as you enter the museum. The exhibit shows fantastic finds through the centuries at the Hill of Tara. What is interesting about the cremated remains is that one would likely not realise you were viewing human remains unless you read the label on the exhibit. Do people pass by these remains without realising they are passing a part of someone? It would be interesting to do observations of visitor interactions with all the exhibits containing human remains and see how different ‘types’ are reacted to.

Cremated remains seen in the centre

Human Skull, John’s Lane, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 10th Century

As part of the Clontarf 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Dublin exhibit at the museum, I will be focusing on the human skull found at John’s Lane, Dublin. The skull itself is place in a glass case with an accompanying label stating the skull is from a young man, and that a large wound to the side of his head may have been fatal. What is unsettling about the skull, is the fact it is placed as though found with a ‘slave chain’ that was recovered from a completely different context. It gives the impression that this individual was from the slave trade, despite not being found with the chains – I remember mentioned the issues with this display as a case study as part of my undergraduate visit. It may be that the placement of the chain is to provoke a reaction from the viewer. The chain was found in Roscommon and may have been made for a slave or hostage.  Although the placement is obviously to illustrate what it would have been like for someone to wear such a device, it does make one feel slightly uncomfortable knowing the man displayed with the chain was not a wearer in life. A question of identity and post-mortem bodily integrity comes to mind.

The skull and chain display

Ptolemaic Mummy, Provenance unknown (Egypt).

Date: c. 300 BC

There is a large number of objects from Ancient Egypt at the museum, with the Egyptian collection found in the upper galleries. Most of the items on display were acquired from excavations carried out between the 1890s and 1920s. There are a few mummies on display, but for this blog post I will focus on the Ptolemaic Mummy of unknown provenance which dates to c. 300 BC. Unlike the Leeds City Museum, there is no sign outside the exhibit warning people that human remains are on display. This may be because unlike the mummies in Dublin, the Leeds mummy is unwrapped (He was unwrapped by the surgeon TP Teale in the 1820’s), and his facial features are on display and very prominent to the viewer. The mummies in Dublin are still wrapped – providing a ‘layer’ between them and the viewer. The unknown provenance of the mummy is likely due to the retention of the remains outside of Egypt from a dig over 100 years ago – post excavation records were likely not as detailed, particularly during a time when colonial attitudes were rife. The mummy in question is displayed very well with as much information as possible attached to the exhibit – they are also well lit in an area that has dimmed overhead lighting. A great way to show respects but also highlight to artefacts of importance.

One of the mummies on display



The Archaeology of Quarantine: Four Examples of Disease Quarantining in the Archaeological Record

As I am writing this blog post, I am coming out of self-isolation after contracting Covid-19. It was frustrating but necessary, and we were lucky to be in comfortable surroundings with heat, water, food, and electricity. But quarantining to prevent the spread of disease is far from a modern concept. This blog post will explore the archaeology of quarantine by examining four case studies.

Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, Venice.

In the 15th century, Venetians inflicted with plague were subjected to periods of quarantine on the islands of Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo. Venice was first struck by the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, and these islands show archaeologists the measures took to avoid mass infection. At the start of the 15th century, Vecchio was used for isolating sick Venetians, and Nuovo was used for ships to remains in quarantine for 40 days until docking in Venice. In fact, the word quarantine comes from the Italian phrase quaranta giorni, which means 40 days. Archaeologists have examined the buildings left on both islands and have found that there was a system in place for infected and non-infected individuals and an area for cargo to be stored and aired out. The skeletal remains of inhabitants on the island revealed to archaeologists that people of all classes were struck with illness, as diets ranged from meat consumption associated with the rich and a grain diet associated with poorer members of society. Graves were opened numerous times to add more bodies of victims, illustrating extent of the pandemic and the mass graves needed on the island.

Lazzaretto Vecchio.

The Lazzaretto Station, Philadelphia.

Inspired by the Venetian Lazzaretto’s, the Lazzaretto Station was established in Philadelphia in the 18th century. Lazzaretto comes from St Lazarus, the saint associated with those afflicted with leprosy. The Lazzaretto Station was moved further down river from Philadelphia after the yellow fever outbreak in the 1790’s. The station has 500 hospital beds, an area for quarantine, an area for staff as well as a cemetery. As in 15th century Venice, any ships with a sign of illness were to stay quarantined for 40 days. The caption had to answer questions upon arrival and crew/ passengers were inspected for signs of illness. The quarantine season ran between June and October, and it is thought that up to 1 in 3 Americans had an ancestor come through the Lazzaretto Station. Although no extensive archaeological excavations have been carried out at the site many buildings still stand. The limited archaeological evidence suggests the site had been home to the Native American Okehocking tribe as far back as 1200 BCE and the site of a 17th century Swedish colony. The still standing building was threatened with redevelopment in recent years, with activists stepping in to prevent the site being knocked down. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970’s and is considered one of the oldest surviving quarantine hospitals.

The American Lazzaretto today.

Kamau Taurua, New Zealand.

Kamau Taurua/ Quarantine Island was the site of a quarantine station between 1861 and 1924. The site was used for two major quarantine phases – during the 1870’s and during the First World War. Over 40 ships and around 9000 people quarantined at the island, and over 70 known people are buried on the island in a cemetery. The last ship to quarantine at the station was in 1902. During WWI, the island was used to quarantine and treat soldiers who were suffering from venereal disease. Between 1916 and 1919 almost 800 men were treated for syphilis and gonorrhoea. The decision to keep the men on the island was met with criticism in the press, with many questioning the need to keep the soldiers ‘out of sight’ from the general population. Rationale behind the quarantine included protection the ‘woman and children of the country’. There are ongoing efforts by conservationists to preserve and restore some of the original buildings, including the Married Quarters. Several middens on the island show evidence of occupation hundreds of years ago by the Māori. Today, the island can still be visited. You can stay overnight, participate in walking tours and ecological activities. There have been many archaeological surface finds on the island, comprising of glass, pottery vessels, clay pipes, a pocket watch, bottle stopper and a bullet cartridge.

Quarantine Island seen in the 1880’s

Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island, New York.

These two artificial islands were created in the 1870’s off the coast of New York to tackle the outbreak of disease. They were commissioned by the federal government, and all ships coming from regions associated with infectious disease were expected to drop their anchor at the islands for inspection. The ship would be boarded by an inspection officer and if any sign of disease was present onboard, then the passengers would be sent to Swinburne Island for treatment. Bu the 1890s, the facilities on Swinburne had grown to numerous hospital wards (mainly for the treatment of yellow fever and cholera), a mortuary, and a crematorium. Hoffman, much like Quarantine Island off New Zealand, became a place to treat venereal disease in WWI soldiers. Both islands were decommissioned in the 1920’s. The islands are not open to the public today but are home to nesting birds and other wildlife. Vascular fauna has been sampled on the island, and the remains of the buildings are still visible from the shore – the archaeological investigations have been limited, but it is fair to say that there is great potential for future excavations to reveal more about quarantine in the past.

Swinburne Island is seen from Chopper 880 – July 10, 2013 (credit: Tom Kaminski / WCBS 880)


Quarantine Island, Port Chalmers – Nearshore islands – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Veneto – The Land of Venice – Il motore di ricerca degli eventi a Venezia e in Veneto

Check It Out: NYC’s Abandoned Swinburne Island – CBS New York (

Preservation of the Lazaretto, America’s oldest surviving quarantine center, finally gets underway – WHYY


Dead Merry: Traditions from the past and present that remember the dead at Christmas

Christmastime is the time of the year that we feel the loss of our loved ones the most. The festive season often pushes the importance of family, and the loss of a family member feels even more apparent. Many omit from Christmas decorations and traditions after the death of a loved one as a sign of mourning, however this does not always feel right for some people, with Christmas often a time the deceased loved one may have enjoyed. To honour those who have died, many cultures past and present partake in certain traditions. In this blogpost I will discuss some of these traditions and how some are still implemented today. Remembering the dead does not have to be sad, particularly during the happiest time of the year, but it can help us remember those who are gone and appreciate those who are still with us.

Christmas graveyard visits and candle lighting

Growing up in Catholic, rural Ireland, my family and I visited the graveyard after Christmas morning mass. Christmas wreaths are often placed on the grave of loved ones as well as Christmas decorations of various kinds (see the addition we made we made to my father’s grave, a civil engineer, a few Christmases ago in the next picture)– this is still practiced all over the world, although it is often attributed to being an Irish tradition. I remember connecting and chatting with various family members Christmas morning at the grave of our loved ones, and it was not a dreary or depressing experience. In Finland it is also traditional to visit the grave of a loved one during the festive season – this is usually on Christmas Eve and families light a candle in remembrance of those who have died. The tradition of lighting the candles is thought to date back as far as pagan times, but easily links in with Christian traditions. Candles were also lit and used to adorn Christmas trees during the Victorian period – many may have been in memory of a loved one (Although I don’t recommend this today due to the huge fire risk!).

Authors own image

Christmas tree decorations

The tradition of the decorated Christmas tree becoming widespread in the UK has, in part, links to a death. Prince Albert brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to prominence in the UK during the reign of Queen Victoria, and in remembrance after his death, Victoria encouraged the carrying on of the tradition. The tradition of the evergreen tree dates back much further than that however, with suggestions that the evergreen wreaths used for decoration in Ancient Egypt during the time of the solstice were to represent life after death. Today, loved ones are often immortalised at Christmastime in personalised Christmas decorations. This is something that I have seen on the rise in recent years, particularly with the popularity of online sites such as Etsy. Personalised Christmas ornaments can be inscribed with the name of loved ones, or possibly their image or photograph put on the decoration. With new technology, it is obvious to me that these decorations will be a new tradition found on Christmas trees all over the world. With Victorian Christmas decorations often being handmade, it likely many personalised decorations were made by families which incorporated mourning practices such as mourning photography and funeral cards. Even Victorian Christmas cards depicted death related topics such as deceased birds – many suggesting this was a nod to anyone who may have died in impoverished conditions at Christmastime.

Memorial wreath

Wreaths are ancient in origin – dating back to before Christianity and the widespread celebration of Christmas. Herbs and berries are/ were often added to represent things such as remembrance and prosperity. Ancient gold laurel wreaths have been excavated by archaeologists in Greece, which were often worn on the head and given out as prizes to athletes and orators. The diadem was worn on the head by royalty in Ancient Egypt, and the wreath was also given out as a prize in Ancient Rome. The leaf used on the wreath in ancient society was significant – often representing different gods. The wreath is incorporated into Christmas familial celebrations today, having been adopted into Christian celebrations such as the advent wreath. The wreath as memorial was quite common at funerals during the Victorian period, with a wreath being hung on the door in memory of the deceased. The wreath eventually migrated from a memorial decoration to a Christmas decoration – a memorial wreath was hung on the door and a holiday wreath was hung in the window. Wreaths were sometimes even made from human hair, much like the mourning jewellery of the era. Now, the Christmas wreath is a staple in homes all over the world, and many are now memorialising their loved ones as was done in the past. Memorial wreaths can be personalised and hung in homes or placed on graves.      

How will you remember your loved on this Christmas?



Public interactions with human remains: Sedlec Ossuary

I had the privilege of visiting Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago. The ossuary is in Kutna Hora and is known as the ‘bone chapel’ or the ‘chapel of bones.’ Between 40,000 and 70,000 individuals are thought to be on display – all the remains are skeletal. The ossuary has a long history that stretches back as far as the 13th century. An abbot scattered soil from the Holy Land on the site and it became a desirable place to be buried in the region. Thousands of people were buried there before they were moved to a crypt after the cemetery became too full. Many of the deceased were victims of the Black Death or were killed during the Hussite Wars. It was around the 16th century that exhumation of the bones begun.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the so-called macabre art was created from the remains. A local woodcarver called Rint arranged the bones in an artistic manner in 1870, before signing the wall with the bones themselves. Rint bleached the bones and created the famous bone chandelier, a coat of arms, candle holders and large bone pyramids. The resulting artwork attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and even in the short time I was there in the off season I could not help but observe the different reactions to the remains.

I was travelling with a group of archaeologists, who are all well acquainted with skeletal remains but still understand the respect that needs to be shown towards these displays. Upon entering the ossuary, we were told not to take any pictures. This is a recent rule that had to be enforced in January 2020 as many who visited the site were asked to take photos in a respectful manner and did not comply. A press release from the ossuary stated that many were taking derogatory photos, inappropriate selfies and were touching/ manipulating the remains for a picture. Now, you must apply for permission to take photos in the ossuary at least 3 days in advance of your visit with reasons outlining your intentions regarding the distribution of the media.* I was intrigued to see if everyone followed the rules as we entered the chapel.

The reactions to the remains were polarising, even though there was only a small number of visitors at the time we went. One young couple were taking pictures pretty much straight away, with the young woman posing with her hand placed on the bones of the candle holders whilst her partner snapped the image. They were not reprimanded by any staff members as there was not many working there on the day we were there, but it was shocking to see a blatant disregard for the rules straight away. Touching of the bones is forbidden and outlined on the ossuary website. The bones were used as a prop in a picture, exactly how was described in the press realise.

One woman started laughing loudly at the site as she turned to leave, stating ‘this is not for me!’ Another rule outlined on the website is to keep the noise down to show respect for the dead. It was likely this woman was very uncomfortable and didn’t know how to react to the remains. I heard the rest of her group say outside that they weren’t ‘expecting whatever that was!’ and that they expected the bones ‘to have been ground up and used as cement rather than displayed’ (both comments have been edited for clarity). Obviously, the group were not keen on the visit, and did not research the site properly before visiting.

As an archaeologist who studies the dead, it was hard not to cringe at some of the reactions of others at the site, but we must understand that not everyone will grasp the fact that these disarticulated remains were once people and are not objects. The fact that the remains have been arranged in such a manner may make it difficult for those who do not often come in contact with the deceased not to see them as objects, or perhaps become extremely uncomfortable with display. However, we must encourage those who intend to visit the site to research it before hand and become acquainted with the rules – something which evidently didn’t happen on the day we visited. The defleshed body can often leave us far removed from the deceased, as skeletal remains are not something we see every day, but we should always treat them with respect – whether they are arranged in a manner you do not agree with or not.

If you are interested in human remains and studies of death, then I would definitely recommend a visit to the ossuary. You can find the list of regulations in the resource list below – just remember the ‘chandelier’ or ‘candle holders’ were/ are human and should be treated as such.

(*Images used in this blog post were taken by an archaeologist before the ban on photography was introduced.)



Irish Women and Death Series: Dr Dorothy Stopford Price and the Introduction of the BCG Vaccine.

Perhaps one of the lesser-known Irish heroines is Dr Dorothy Stopford Price. Born in Ireland in 1890, Dorothy became of pioneer of the BCG vaccine and the tuberculin test in Ireland. Although this blog post series is entitled ‘Irish Women and Death’, this is about an Irish woman who prevented death and dying amongst the Irish people. She was credited by her peers with playing a huge part in helping bring an end to the tuberculosis epidemic in Ireland. Often referred to as ‘Ireland’s rebel doctor’, this is the story of Dr Dorothy Stopford Price and her battle against death in Ireland.

Dorothy went to study medicine in Trinity College Dublin in 1916, a very tumultuous year in Ireland in which the Easter Rising took place. The execution of the rebels caused her to swing her sympathies towards the nationalists, even though she was very friendly with a key figure in the British administration. After the Rising, Dorothy joined Cumann na mBan (League of Women/ Irish Women’s Council), a nationalist group for Irish women as she began to question to British regime in Ireland. She even trained some Cumann na mBan members in first aid at the West Cork IRA stronghold – risking her career in the process. She treated the wounded during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, working as a medical officer for the RIC barracks.

Whilst in her third year of medical school, the Spanish Flu epidemic hit Ireland after the First World War. Dorothy was exposed to huge amounts of death and dying, tending to the inflicted living as well as conducting post-mortems on the dead. The rate of death and infection no doubt had a huge impact on Dorothy’s later championing of vaccination. As part of her MD thesis, she investigated the diagnosis of tuberculosis in early childhood.

After witnessing a huge amount of child mortality in the 1920’s in Dublin whilst working as physician in a children’s hospital, it was in 1931 that came was a defining moment in Dorothy’s career. In Vienna, she saw Dr Franz Hamburger use tuberculin to diagnose tuberculosis by observing a skin reaction. Dorothy brought a tube of tuberculin back to Ireland, and by 1934, she had managed to carry out over 500 tests. Her findings concluded that vaccination needed to be implemented in Ireland (as many had not been exposed to tb so immunity could not develop), and in Sweden in 1936 Dorothy saw the use of the BCG vaccine. She was the first person to use the vaccine in Ireland in 1937, around the same time of the Ring Disaster – this brought the effectiveness of vaccination into question as a group of children who had been vaccinated against diphtheria had developed tuberculosis.

Dorothy attempted to set up an Antituberculosis League in Ireland in the 1940’s, but unfortunately the Archbishop of Dublin at the time protested against the number of protestants who were present in the league. The league was never established, but Dorothy still campaigned for vaccination against tuberculosis in Ireland and across Europe. In 1949, the Irish health minister asked Dorothy to lead a new committee to implement vaccination in Ireland. Dorothy was also nominated for a WHO prize for her contribution to social medicine. She suffered a stroke in 1950 and died in 1954 from a second stroke. Many attributed her stroke and death to stress and overworking. Dr Dorothy Stopford Price is one of the unknown heroines of the Irish healthcare system who worked herself to death in an attempt to prevent death on a mass scale in Ireland.   



The Archaeology of Assassination: Grief, Gore, and Glorification.

In this blog post I will look at three examples of assassination and the material that has been left behind from them. These objects and archaeological sites are poignant reminders of the grief the loved ones of those targeted felt upon their death, as well as the intense fear of those present when these assassinations occurred. These objects are emotionally charged, with some containing the biological material of the assassinated. Often these types of archaeological artifacts are controversial regrading their display, but they seem capture the public interest in museum settings. These examples are just some of the famous archaeological materials, sites, or ‘relics’ left behind from some of the history’s most famous assassinations. 

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1864)- Objects: The Derringer pistol of John Wilkes Booth and the lead bullet from Lincoln’s autopsy.

John Wilkes Booth entered the theatre box of Lincoln and his wife on the 14th of April 1865. This was a mere 5 days after General Lee had surrendered to General Grant, bringing an end to the American Civil War. Booth shot Lincoln once in the head using a 5.87-inch tiny derringer pistol. The tiny ‘pocket pistol’ was only armed with one shot, and the lead ball fired from the gun entered below Lincolns left ear before it was retrieved during his autopsy at the White House by Dr Edward Curtis. The bullet is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, with the pistol itself on display at Ford’s Theatre. In 1940, the War department allowed the weapon to be displayed along with other relics associated with the assassination. 

Interestingly, there is a poll on Ford Theatre’s website asking whether the murder weapon should be on display, and if so, how should it be displayed? Four presidents have been assassinated in the US (all with guns), with two of the firearms used on display whilst two are not. The Buffalo history museum currently displays the pistol used to assassinate William McKinley in 1901. Are these weapons a gruesome oddity, or are they important artifacts associated with death that should be put on display? Are they glorifying the assassins who pulled the trigger, or are the glorifying the ones who were shot by these weapons? We may never know the answer to these questions, and whilst these artifacts are undoubtedly significant historical archaeological artifacts, the loved ones left behind and their grief should always be considered in the display of such trauma related objects – in the case of Lincoln, over 100 years has passed since his death, meaning immediate loved ones have died also.

The pistol used by John Wilkes Booth (Source:
The bullet that killed Lincoln (Source:

2. John F. Kennedy (1963)- Object: The blood-stained dress of Jackie Kennedy.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy at the hands of Harvey Lee Oswald is perhaps the most famous assassination of all time. Kennedy was shot in the head on the 22nd of November 1963 as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Bullets struck both his head and neck, and he slumped onto his wife who held his head as they sped to the hospital a few minutes away. Nothing could be done to save JFK, and he was pronounced dead less than an hour after the motorcade had commenced in Dallas. One of the most iconic images surrounding the assassination is Jackie in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. Jackie kept the blood-stained suit on hours after her husband’s death. She was seen wearing it as she accompanied her husband’s body to Air Force One and as she stood beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the oath of office. Jackie was sending a clear message, stating ‘I want them to see what they have done’ – the first lady wanted the world to know what had happened to her husband. The pink suit became iconic, an outward display of glamour as well as grief. So where is the suit now?

The pink suit was brought to the National Archives for safe keeping, and Caroline Kennedy agreed in 2003 that the suit could go on display once 100 years had passed. The suit is kept in a controlled environment for preservation and will be shown to the public in 2103. What a fascinating piece of archaeology this suit is and will become, with the bloody remains of one of the most famous men of all time splattered across the garment. The suit is shown in the iconic photographs of a formidable, grieving widow. The suit will serve as a reminder of the distress Jackie must have felt having been seated next to her husband and sprayed with his blood upon the impact of the bullet that killed him. Jackie suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident, suffering from nightmares, suicidal thoughts and drinking problems in the time that followed. That pink Chanel suit is both a physical and emotional reminder of traumatic death and dying as well as the strength of one woman, showing that even the most powerful in the world are not immune to such tragedies.  

Jackie Kennedy in her blood stained Chanel suit (Source:

3. Julius Caesar (44BC)- Place: Curia of Pompey.

Caesar was stabbed to death by Roman Senators at the Curia of Pompey (built in 55BC) – a meeting place at Pompey’s Theatre. Led by Brutus and Longinus, Caesar was stabbed 23 times by the senators after tensions rose when Caesar was named dictator perpetuo. He was stabbed on the 15th of March – infamously known as ‘the Ides of March’ in 44BC. In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) claimed to have found the spot where the assassination took place. In Largo di Torre Argentina square, Rome, a 3m wide structure was found by archaeologists. Augustus (Caesars’ adopted son) is known to have built a structure matching the description of the concrete building described by researchers – allowing excavators to confirm the significance of the site. The site was a cat sanctuary before researchers began to carry out excavations of the complex – and continues to house cat colonies today. At present, the ruins can only be observed at the street level above.

In 2022, the area the Curia of Pompey is located, known as the Area Sacra, is to open to the public as an open-air museum. Restorations will begin in the area, where the ruins of other Republican era temples are located, with the aim of opening after the Covid-19 pandemic to attract tourism. Is it wrong to use the site as a tourist attraction, knowing that this is where one of the most infamous assassinations took place? Is this an element of dark tourism? These are questions that many will consider as the structure becomes accessible to the public, but there are many other archaeological sites that ‘showcase’ assassination or public execution. Such sites may include gallows or beheading sites that can be found in many historical places across the UK. What the Curia of Pompey does is highlight and humanise the death of a world leader who has become more than a mere man in the two thousand years since his murder. Perhaps the archaeology associated with his assassination will allow the public to think more about his death, and the bereavement of his family and allies that followed.

Area Sacra where the Curia of Pompey is located (Source: Lonely Planet)



The Victorians as Dark Tourists: Mortality, Morbidity, and the Macabre.

Dark tourism is an umbrella terms that usually refers to sites, archaeology, museums, and other aspects of heritage linked to the themes surrounding death, tragedy, and destruction. It is quite difficult to define what exactly counts as dark tourism, but usually it counts places such as medical museums, graveyards, disaster sites such as Chernobyl, or murder trails (Jack the Ripper comes to mind). According to Psychology Today, the reasons people visit these sites vary. A ‘dark tourist’ may feel drawn to a site/attraction as they may be feeling curious, empathetic, nostalgic, or perhaps they have an interest in horror or simply want to educate themselves. Whatever the reason, dark tourism is on the rise in recent years (I would probably describe myself as a dark tourist)- but when we think of a past population fascinated with the macabre, who do we think of? The Victorians are usually top of the list.

Whether you think the Victorians had a morbid fascination with death and the macabre, or whether you think they were simply realistic about their own mortality, it cannot be denied the Victorians DID death to an extreme by modern, western standards. Mourning and the dead played a large role in everyday life, with much influence stemming from Queen Victoria’s 40-year mourning period of her husband Prince Albert. In this blog post, I will highlight some examples that can be used to call Victorians the ultimate ‘dark tourists’. Even though death played an important role in their everyday, personal lives (with extended mourning periods the norm and showy funerary monuments sought after), it can be said the Victorians sought out the macabre as a means of entertainment as well. These are just a few examples I have highlighted- there are many more I simply cannot fit into a blogpost.

Medical Museums

One of the most famous examples of the Victorian medical museum is that of Dr Joseph Kahn’s. In the first half of the 19th C there was a growing interest in anatomy amongst the public for a couple of reasons. One was the case of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare in the 1820s, and the other was the incorporation of waxworks to display anatomical structures. Kahn opened his anatomical and pathology museum on Oxford Street in the 1850s, and consisted of specimens preserved in fluids, as well as wax models. Initially the museum was highly praised by the Lancet, but there was some distaste shown concerning the sections showing venereal disease and embryology. Ladies were admitted separately and were not allowed to view some specimens. The museum collection toured around Britain, with separate sections only allowed entry by ‘medical men’. The tour was extremely successful amongst the Victorian population but failed to turn over a lot of financial prophet. Kahn’s downfall came with his involvement in quackery, particularly surrounded his selling of venereal disease cures on site. The medical profession began an anti-quackery campaign against Kahn, and many suggested he should have been prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 (the Kahn Museum under the Jordan’s was prosecuted in 1873). Eventually the museum closed and was broken up, but there are surviving accounts from the general public on visiting the museum. Many members of the population described their visits as a harmless day out, and it is thought that many likely learned the facts of life there as well as other anatomical aspects of the body. ‘Medical dark tourism’ is a category defined in dark tourism and describes visits to medical museums with human specimens amongst other medical related sites. It is clear many Victorians fell within this category in the same manner many do today.    

Medical Museum of Dr Kahn

The Morgue

When one thinks of death as spectacle in the 19th century- the Paris Morgue stands out. The Morgue became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris by the late 19th century – around 40,000 people are thought to have visited a day at its height. Public access initially allowed members of the public to view unidentified dead to see if they were a missing family member. However, most viewers simply went to the morgue as a means to view death up close. Cold water dropped from the ceiling to stall decomposition before refrigeration, and visitors were protected from the smell of decomp by a viewing screen. They went to the morgue as a ‘dark tourist’, and often the crowds became so large that the police had to be called to keep everything in order (This often happened if it was a child on display). Guidebooks of the time mentioned the morgue as a tourist attraction, with many vendors outside selling snacks to the visiting crowds- it sounds almost like a fairground. Many described the morgue as ‘theatre’ which often became the case when police publicly brought suspected murderers to the morgue to confront the sight of their victims on display. Victorian high society in London was aware of the morgue, attracted to the idea of death as entertainment, but afraid to engage in a typically working-class activity. Dickens wrote about the Paris Morgue in his travel writings, which London society members read about. In London at the time, a morgue opened but did not allow public access like Paris- any unidentified dead were described on paper and put up outside. Although the London morgue was not a tourist site like Paris, the London Victorian population obviously revealed in death, with public execution and Madame Tussaud’s executed criminals wax works attended by large crowds.

People visiting the morgue in Paris to view the cadavers
Viewing at the Paris Morgue

Mummy Unwrapping

In times past, a trip to Egypt would not have been complete without bringing home a mummy or a piece of a mummy as a ‘souvenir’. ‘Egyptomania’ swept across high society, with archaeological human remains at the centre of the fascination. In the mid-19th century, Egyptologist Thomas Pettigrew was interested in the cranial shape of mummies and staged public mummy unwrappings (often at the Royal College of Surgeons). Many paying spectators attended these unwrappings, with audience members allowed to sometimes handle the mummy and its wrappings. Many referenced ‘mummy dust’ that would be inhaled upon the unwrapping and handling of the remains – Dickens himself also referred to ‘mummy dust’ in his writings. It is debated how many of these mummies were unwrapped at Victorian parties, but one cannot deny the mix of archaeology, anatomy and death would have been irresistible to the Victorians if these parties did indeed take place. The Duke of Hamilton was so taken with ancient mummies that he asked Pettigrew to mummify him upon his death – Pettigrew obliged, and the duke is apparently still sealed in a sarcophagus. Pettigrew went on to become a founding member of the British Archaeological Society, with mummy unwrappings eventually falling out of favour. It is suggested that Victorians did not feel ‘shocked’ after numerous unwrappings – if you had seen one, you had seen them all (They were probably onto looking at modern specimens at the medical museum as a means to entertain their morbid curiosity). Again, we see the Victorian fascination with death as entertainment, as a mean to satisfy the ‘dark tourist’ within them.     


A ‘mummy unwrapping’


Bates, A. W. (2006) ‘Dr Kahn’s Museum: Obscene Anatomy in Victorian London’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(12), pp. 618–624. doi: 10.1177/014107680609901209.

Classen, C., 2014. Touching the deep past: The lure of ancient bodies in nineteenth-century museums and culture. The Senses and Society9(3), pp.268-283.

Martens, B. (2008). Death as Spectacle: The Paris Morgue in Dickens and Browning. Dickens Studies Annual, 39, 223-248. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from


Coffin Ships: Death whilst trying to escape death during the Irish Potato Famine

‘Coffin Ships’ were the name given to the emigration ships that carried members of the Irish population across the Atlantic to North America and Canada during the Irish famine. Emigrants were trying to flee from the devastating potato famine which began in 1845, when the potato crop began to fail from blight (P. infestans). Ireland’s population has never gotten back to the numbers it was before the ‘Great Hunger’ (An Gorta Mor as Gaeilge). Between the years of 1846- 51 one million people died in Ireland due to starvation and disease, with a further two million people emigrating to places such as North America and Canada between 1845-55. Growing up in Ireland, we were always taught about the devastating effects of the famine, even as far back as primary school. I remember reading the fiction book ‘Under the Hawthorne tree’ by Marita Conlon-Mckenna. This was a children’s book, but it was set during the Irish Famine and dealt with death and dying during this period. The famine is often a politically charged topic, as it is often questioned how effective the British government were in assisting the Irish. Debates surrounding the inaction of Queen Victoria, and around that fact that exports to Britain during the famine may have actually increased during the years of starvation, are often discussed by historians. Tony Blair issued a formal apology to Ireland for the British governments mishandling of the crisis in 1997 when he was prime minister.

There is an extremely rich narrative surrounding the Irish Potato Famine, but for this blog post I will be focusing on ‘Coffin Ships’. I grew up outside the town of New Ross in Wexford which has a replica of the Dunbrody famine ship, so my interest in these floating ‘coffins’ has a long history. JFK visited New Ross five months before his assassination, as his great grandfather sailed from New Ross to Boston during the famine in 1848.

Due to the large number of evictions of poor Irish tenants during the famine, many ended up on the streets. This resulted in many having no choice but to flee the country on a ship, or it was often more economical for a landlord to pay for a poor family’s crossings- making false promises of a better life. The ships immigrants boarded in the hope of a new life during the famine were often not seaworthy, as well as being overcrowded, and unsanitary. There was a severe lack of food and clean water on board, and it was clear the people who set sail on these ships were in a desperate situation. The ships during the famine also set sail during the winter months to accommodate the demand (and to make more money) of those wishing to flee, meaning they were sailing during icy, bad weather – before this, transatlantic crossings were mainly done during the Spring and Summer months. Death was all around the Irish population at home, and now it was all around them as they hoped to sail to a better life. On board the ship there was no escape from disease, dehydration, and starvation either- the very things they were trying to flee. Steerage passengers were only allowed outside on deck for a very limited amount of time each day.

Artwork showing steerage conditions- Below Deck by Rodney Charman (1970) – Image:

Thousands of ships left the country full of passengers, mostly setting sail from the west coast. Disease such as typhoid, typhus, dysentery, and cholera would spread rapidly throughout steerage- the average death rate on board was 20% but could be as high as 50%. Bodies were usually buried at sea. The British built ships were not required to have doctors on board, and even those who were ill upon inspection by doctors before boarding were still allowed to travel. Passenger shipping laws were neglectful of the passengers, with many taking double the number of passengers the ship was meant for.

If passengers managed to survive the six-week journey, the were often infected with disease and extremely weak upon arrival – they were not exactly welcomed with open arms when they reached their destination either. Families had been surrounded by death and dying, and now found themselves in a new country where they were poor and illiterate. Many were thought to spread disease amongst the Canadian and American populations, thus resulting in shunning of these immigrants – there was also a lot of anti-Catholic sentiments at the time.

These ‘Coffin Ships’ are an important aspect in Irish history that touches upon the themes of death, dying and bereavement – all over the world we see memorials to those who died during the potato famine. Many were trying escape death, but instead died upon these ships. Many died when they reached the shores, and many were accused of causing death in the populations they newly inhabited. Bereavement was everywhere, with families even holding an ‘American Wake’ for those who purchased a one-way ticket to America – as it was highly likely they never see their family again (and that is if they survived the journey). Many mourned their dead, for the life they once had, and for those who left Ireland.

Famine memorial in Custom House Quay, Dublin- Image:



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, 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



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

Arnold, C., 2008. Necropolis: London and its dead. Simon and Schuster.


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

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



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.  



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 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 sag 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 done some training in a funeral home setting, I cannot help 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 a 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.

Follow me on Instagram


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.