Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Embalming Room

Photographs of what goes on behind the closed doors of funeral homes and autopsy labs are rare and rightly so. But the empty spaces can be revealing, however. It is always interesting to compare past circumstances to contemporary ones. These windowless suites are usually hidden away in an unobtrusive part of the undertaker's complex, away from the prying eyes of the morbidly curious public. Only dedicated specialists work here. I came across two photographs from days of yore which illustrate the changes in these facilities in the first half of the 20th Century. The first is from 1910 (Mid-Western Canada) and looks like something from a bad Western movie. I can almost picture the sheriff and a country doctor examining the bullet riddled body of Big Bad Bart in this room.

Decades later, possibly in the 1950's or 60's (?) the embalming suite in this photograph has taken on a much more clinical and organized layout. Surfaces are smooth and white. A sense of sterility pervades. The equipment looks like it was designed for the task at hand, not something borrowed from a kitchen or bedroom as in the older photograph.

I have managed to find a couple of books that may have actually been on the shelves of the older room (top photo). One is this reprint I found on eBay of an 1897-1900 embalmer's manual. It is complete with bad half-tone images of various aspects of the process. The cover design is a modern conceit of the bookseller. It starts with a brief historical section describing ancient forms of preservation, mummification and embalming as practiced throughout the world. The "American" process itself hadn't been in practice for much more than 40 years when this was originally printed. After a major section of the actual process, it covers all the eventualities of "difficult" cadavers, either through illness or misfortune. It ends with a small section on "Funeral Etiquette" and the duties of undertakers in the 1890's.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Casket Catalogue - ca 1911

I found this amazing collection on good-old-eBay a few years ago. It is a casket catalog from the National Casket Company with a title page dated 1911.

The booklet contains a couple hundred halftone photos with the particulars on each page of the various caskets and vaults made available to the mourning public by the National Casket Company.

The biggest and best part of the collection was the hundreds of dog-eared linen-backed vintage silver-prints that accompanied the catalog itself. They seemed to be the sources for the halftone images within the catalog. Considering the overall condition, it is amazing that the two were found together. They also contain typewritten information on the back of each print, many with prices and penciled corrections.


There was only one photograph that was labeled as a child's casket. In the image below, the typewritten text from the back was copied and layered with the image to make a composite. I may use it  as a piece in my art practice, but have not come to terms with its inherent power and its relationship to the postmortem photographs in my collection. I'm thinking of making a large ink-jet print with a polymer-plate embossment of the text in letterpress over the surface of the image. This is a digital representation of how it might look.

The wonderful thing about a find like this is that it is likely unique. Like with the postmortem portraits, I inherit a lot of responsibility for how these images are used, how they are archived, and how they are disseminated. This blog is a start. I am curious as to what many of you might think. 

The Post-Mortem Portrait Archive
From my postmortem collection, I sorted through the dozen or so that included small white caskets and came up with one that is the closest to the one in the above catalog photo.

They both date to the same early 20th century period. The postmortem is in an embossed mat folder with an 11.1 cm x 16.2 cm image. The Edwardian room is likely in the USA.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Putting the FUN in FUNeral

The Dismal Trade is one based on a long tradition and a somber Gothic aesthetic, even today. White hearses and caskets took a long time to appear but eventually did, first with children's caskets. However, there are exceptions to the conservatism of Western culture. Best case in point are the amazing and elaborate fantasy caskets made only in Ghana, West Africa. It's like a Mardi-Gras parade. The hand-made sculptures are unique to this small area.  I am sure they may catch on in other places, though. Internet exposure does that to many things.

There are more examples at the National Museum of Funeral History.
(Another interesting site to bookmark.)
And go to these sites to see even more:  Ghanaweb  and  Ghana-net.

But what is it with some people? There are some sites on-line that seem to stretch the boundaries of taste and credibility. At the other end of the spectrum are the questionable casket calendars from Cofanifunebri, a casket maker in Italy. The calendars have evolved from pure titillation to Gothic center-folds. Still, it seems like a very weird selling strategy to me.

[click images for larger versions]

The Post-Mortem Portrait Archive
Today's photo from my postmortem collection is an odd little snapshot from Peru. Here the baby's coffin is surrounded by fresh local flowers and candles set in classic Coca-Cola bottle vases. That and the simplicity of the hand-made coffin may attest to the poverty of the family but equally well to the care and attention paid to honouring their lost baby.

We see what could be a small toy and a clay ocarina by her head and a little bottle at her feet. She has a plaited band across her forehead and is dressed in her best satin Christening gown. It looks like she is clasping white flowers in her hands. There is a saucer of something on the right side at the foot of the coffin. Maize?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Collecting: Art vs. Memorializing

Another aspect of this blog is to examine the act of memorializing the dead. Is it to dampen our fear by surrounding ourselves with reminders of our own mortality? It's inevitable, so get over it. The memento mori will be a future topic, but it may tangentially relate to the following collections.

The broad topic of accumulating a collection of artifacts can span interests as far reaching as art-making to archaeology; from hobbies to archives; from obsessions to instinct. The collections of artist Barton Lidice Beneš fit all of these categories. His 2003 book, Curiosa: Celebrity Relics, Historical Fossils, & Other Metamorphic Rubbish (Abrams) is a fascinating journey through his life-long obsession (art?) (archive?). Exploring it make it our obsession as well. Here we find a huge collection of artifacts and specimens, each displayed in its own little wooden cubicle with a hand-written notation on a paper card. Most seem to have more power by their association with someone or something we often recognize, or with the items in the surrounding cubicles. Each item provides a physical "touch-stone" to a world of people and places we may never actually experience. One has to accept the provenance, but the book's essay seems to indicate that it is trustworthy.

One particular piece is entitled Death Museum and consists of 56 little compartments, each containing an item that relates to mortality or the dismal trade. Individually, many mean nothing, but the collection has power and poignancy.

A detail (below) of items related to our topic. The book does reveal something of his collecting process, but not enough to fully appreciate how amazingly difficult it must be to make collections like these. I am amazed that Beneš has a circle of friends and acquaintances that are so "prolific" and connected to so many other well known people and events. The sheer mass of items-of-note almost begs credibility. But then his international reputation as an artist provides many more opportunities than we mere mortals could hope for.

Another page (below) shows a thematic collection related to artists and the personal items that were once physically connected to them. Is this a form of memorializing? Or does that happen only after the artist is deceased?

I get a little shiver when I look over these pages. I feel like I have been given something intimate, private, special. Even the most mundane item becomes important in this context. How is it that a lost button, a burnt match or a nail clipping can become so charged when we relate it to a person or event? There is a psychological link between this collection and the relic in a monstrance. I can empathize with the pilgrim who sees the fragment of a saint's bone. It must be a powerful experience for a believer.

I think this book could be a good jumping-off point for me to produce some new work with the ever-growing collection of detritus that fills my studio. I will post the results if they materialize.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Wisconsin Death Trip

A great book from 1973 was Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip (Pantheon/Random House)(reissued in 1990 and 2000). It fits really well here because it examines both the photographic and written record to illustrate the life of the average person in this part of the world between 1890 and 1910. There is much evidence of tragedy in the reprinted newspaper excerpts and in the eyes of those pictured. It was a dark time, when murder, accidental death and disease were common occurrences. People faced it daily and in tragic ways.

The portraits in this book (originally his PhD thesis) are many and wonderful. Lesy has played around with some of the imagery, albeit in a 1970's kinda way.....  The text is a great read, too.

The portraits in this book are very much like the photographs that I collect: nineteenth century views of long-gone people. I find that it is especially poignant to look into the eyes of someone who lived more than a century ago; to see their expression, clothes, and posture as if standing before them in life. Roland Barthes discusses the impact of the snapshot in this way in his great book: Camera Lucida.

The Post-Mortem Portrait Archive
I also collect post-mortem portraits, a specialized yet somewhat common form of portraiture from the late 19th C and early 20th C. We can get philosophical here and say that all photographic portraits are post mortem....eventually. But what is even more interesting, is that the post-mortem portraits of babies and children seem to far out-number those of adults. One could say that this was because at that time, when photography was in its infancy and in the hands of a few professionals, there may not have been a chance for a child or young person to have had a studio portrait made. Their time of death would be the last opportunity to capture a likeness, so many photographers offered their services, either in their studio, the funeral home, or even at the home of the deceased or at the grave-side. On the back of early cartes-des-visite and cabinet cards, we sometimes see advertisements that offer these specific services. The 20th century saw the growth of the Kodak and a notion that these portraits were no longer appropriate for open and public display. The Cabinet card post-mortem portraits were no longer being displayed on the wall or piano top. They became more private. As we progressed through the 20th C, and even into the 21st, we find that these photographs are still being made by immediate families, especially with the invention of the Polaroid, and now with the ease of a digital camera.

In this blog, I will regularly feature portrait samples from my collection. There are many websites that maintain an archive of these as well, and I will also post links. For example, go to the Thanatos Archives to see their wonderful collection of 19th C material. Today, we will start with this fine portrait, an excellent example of early 20th century studio work.

It was shot after the slow disappearance of traditional symbolism where the casket or coffin, bassinet or carriage, flowers, and lace were the usual language of these images. It is fairly large, (5" x 7") and mounted on an even larger gray card, so it was meant for display, even in the pre-WWI period from which it may have come. Its stark and clinical approach is a bit of an anomaly, but there is a professionalism and clarity of purpose that I find quite intriguing. This is a simple visual statement: "This child is dead. But she once looked like this." I cannot look at this image without thinking that I am looking at a corpse, so I can't imagine a family member using this image as a fond visual remembrance of their baby. How did they do it? Yet, with the distancing of time and anonymity, I can find it beautiful.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Body and its Dissolusion

When we think about death it is impossible to not consider the effect the end will have on the human body. How are we any different from the other organic materials we find around us? Entertainment media is quick to exaggerate the grotesqueness of decay, the scary corpses, and animated skeletons, the afterlife. But what is it really like for human remains? If you wade through the trash written for shock value out there, you can still find some very clear, informative and even entertaining books on the subject.

Let's start our journey with a pop-culture book by Mary Roach entitled STIFF (W.W. Norton and Co., 2003). In this little book, she addresses "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". Strangely enough, it is written in a witty and somewhat irreverent style but maintains an accurate and informative structure throughout. It is really mainly about the body, as most of the chapters explore how cadavers are used for research, from medical and dental schools to manufacturers of safety gear and military/forensic testing. Some chapters address historical cases of body snatching for anatomists, the physiological and philosophical difficulties of how to determine the moment of death, and even the author's own decision about being a body donor. This book is an excellent introduction to the cadaver as a resource and how this amazing organism continues to inform us after its death. For those not comfortable with the more graphic and disturbing literature that is out there or even the general idea of death, this book would be a good practical start.

For a more complete picture of "What Happens to Dead Bodies?", find Kenneth V. Iverson's sizable tome Death to Dust instead. (Galen Press, 1994) It seems to have been the source for most of Roach's information, but here it is fleshed out, scholarly, and comprehensive ... and heavily footnoted. Chapters are:
  1. Dying to Know: Introduction
  2. I'm Dead—Now What?
  3. Help for the Living: Organ, Tissue, and Whole Body Donation
  4. My Body and the Pathologist: The Autopsy
  5. Beauty in Death
  6. The Eternal Flame
  7. Souls on Ice
  8. Wayward Bodies
  9. Nightmares
  10. Going Out in Style
  11. Black Tie Affairs
  12. From Earth to Earth
  13. A Hand from the Grave
  14. Say it Gently: Words, Sayings and Poetry about the Dead
  15. plus a Glossary and ten Appendices
A good Australian website with similar information is at Death: The Last Tabboo. Again, nothing gross or sensational here, just good information from the Australian Museum. You can also find links and reference pages.

In future blogs I plan to explore how we picture death, how we collect artifacts and memorialize the dead. If you can suggest topics or resources that would be appropriate here, please feel free to submit them.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Starting something New about something Old

This first day of a New Year brings my attempt to start a blog about endings ... death.

"Health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die".

In this blog you will find articles about various items in my thanatos/taphophillic collection: books, post mortem portraits, artifacts, and oddities I find elsewhere that are worthy of your attention. I will highlight items from my own collection(s) with the idea that the very examination of symbols of our mortality is enough to prepare us for the end. Why do we collect? What of ourselves do we leave for others to collect and therefore remember?

We begin with a book that says it all.

The Philippe Ariès book, The Hour of Our Death is one of the definitive texts on the subject, written in 1977. (This cover is of the 1981 Oxford University Press edition) Here Ariès traces the human understanding of death within culture from the earliest Christian times to the modern day. All aspects of how we treat the dead, the trappings and symbols of death, the afterlife, and our tangle of beliefs in the mysteries of the process of ceasing to be are researched and discussed here with a wealth of authority and skill.

For anyone wishing to pursue thorough research of the concept of physical death and its place in our culture, this is the book from which to start the journey. Others will be suggested in later blog entries. Please stay tuned.

Another aspect of this blog is to periodically send you on a journey to a website that opens more doors to the subject of death and remembrance, the odd and macabre, collecting and archiving, and how we might leave a trace of ourselves in the world we will someday leave behind.

Step One: Have a safe and Happy New Year.

and Step Two: For an introduction, be sure to visit: Thanatorama.

In this French site (with English subtitles) an inter-active audio-visual presentation will guide you through the immediate "afterlife" where you are the recently deceased. It is a fascinating journey through the cultural constructs of the funeral: embalming or cremation, and rites of burial as practiced in France today. Extremely well done. BUT be forewarned. There are images of actual corpses here...nothing gross or disrespectful, but very informative and worth the journey.