The Problem with Bodies

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From DISSECTION (John Harvey Warner, James Edmonson)

Bodies–they have always been something of a problem. Even when in good working order, the body can be cumbersome, messy, demanding, and unpredictable. It runs down; it gets ill; it needs constant attention. Eventually, the body dies, but these adventures are far from over. Where do you put a dead body? Burial arose in part to combat the spread of disease, but death rituals vary with climate and geography. You can’t bury your dead in the frozen ground of Tibet, nor can you build a pyre where no trees grow for use as fuel. How we deal with bodies is therefore culturally specific, intrinsically personal–and yet, the body is also the epicenter of all medicine, and the medical body has problems all its own.

Want to read more? Check out my post at the Dittrick Museum Blog! This series is part of a unique exhibit we are hosting on anatomy art, but also a linked gallery exhibit by the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland–Dirge: Reflections on Life and Death.

The body, in its life and its death, has captured the imagination–the aspirations–the horror of our consciousness. I hope you will join the Dittrick and MOCA as we explore our relationship to bodies, in all of their medical and historical (and personal) complexity.

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Approaching Death: Victorian Grief Culture

Image reproduced from the collection of Steve DeGenero, all rights reserved.
Image reproduced from the collection of Steve DeGenero, all rights reserved.

It is a wistful image. A woman, sitting peacefully in a rocking chair, gazes reflectively into the foreground. Behind her is the obligatory wallpaper that graced the parlors of many a Victorian home. Her head rests upon lace, possibly her own handiwork, and behind is a shelf of small vials, the home-maker’s apothecary. Graceful, quiet, restive. There is only one problem—

This woman is dead.

The Victorians inherited a great deal from the Age of Enlightenment that preceded them, including a focus on rationality, a love of science, and a salon culture of politesse. However, unlike their eighteenth-century counterparts, Victorians had a horror of showing off and a sense of restraint that was nearly a religion. Nonetheless, they created a deeply complex series of mourning rituals that were anything but subtle. Mourning might last for two years, and mourning wear included elaborate gowns and hats and gloves. Ornate jewelry, woven from the hairs of the dead, became an unusual art form—and perhaps strangest of all, momento-mori photography (or taking photos of the dead) was all the rage.

Why go through all this trouble? Only decades before, the body would be wrapped and laid in a churchyard, dirt scattered directly on top of the remains. In the nineteenth century, however, a sudden vigorous interest in coffins and in public cemeteries arises, and with it a peculiarly popular craze: permanently memorializing and displaying the dead (or parts of them). From the clothing and jewelry to the new technology of photography, the Victorians turned death into a community event—not only among mourners, but among the clothiers, tailors, artisans, and curious viewers of the funeral parade.

I am presently working on a book called Death’s Summer Coat. Chapter 4 takes a long look at the Victorians and their versions of momento-mori. Interested in more? There are fabulous websites available, including Thanatos Archive and the Burns Archive. There is also a fascinating article on the Huffington Post UK, and many, many wonderful articles and books. I am pleased to be exploring a good proportion of them as we speak.

There are many approaches to death–it is often instructive not only to look at the mourning rituals of other cultures, but of our own, past and present.