Categories
Death + Art / Architecture Death + Humor Monuments + Memorials

Day 23: Death Ref John as a 19th Century Postmortem Photograph

Professor Bellows Photography
Mall of America, Minneapolis, MN (USA)

In summer 2006, Argentinian artist Ana Lois-Borzi and I collaborated on a postmortem photography project.

Ana and I both lived in Minneapolis at the time and we had gotten to know each other through the local art scene. Our earliest encounters were at Gus Lucky’s Art Gallery on East Lake Street, which is sadly long gone.

We decided that we wanted to create 19th century-style postmortem photos of each other but we didn’t want to use her studio. So, we did the only logical thing we could. We went to the Mall of America’s old timey photo studio (linked to above) and paid to have one of their eager-to-please employees take our photographs.

The catch was this– we didn’t tell the photographer what we were doing so we became ‘dead’ right as the photo was taken.

Ana Lois-Borzi Postmortem Photograph

It was obvious to us both, that Ana was far better at becoming dead than me. It’s in the hands, we both agreed. My hands don’t look very dead. Ana’s hands = totally dead.

We had plans to travel around the United States so that we could visit as many old timey photo studios as possible.

Alas, I moved and we put the project on hold.

But one day, and hopefully soon, we’ll both go back to being photographically dead.

Categories
Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web Death Ethics

Selfies at Funerals: Why People Freak Out when Technology Mixes with Death

Selfies at Funerals
Jason Feifer, @HeyFeifer

 

RT If You’re 🙁 About Someone Dying
Katy Waldman, Slate (November 1, 2013)

 

A Passionate Defense of Selfies at Funerals
Caitlin Doughty, Jezebel (October 30, 2013)

 

When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts
Megan Garberoct, The Atlantic (October 30, 2013)

When photography was new, people used it to suggest the endurance of the departed.

 

Dark tourism: Why Murder Sites and Disaster Zones are Proving Popular
Will Coldwell, The Guardian (October 31, 2013)

 

Selfies at Serious Places
Jason Feifer, @HeyFeifer

 

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror
Series 2, Episode 1 Be Right Back (February 2013)

The kids today. They can’t catch a break.

I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.

And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.

The kids in the Selfies were damned left and right. It got a little thick at times.

But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.

My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.

We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.

Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’

Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.

Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.

Selfie of the Author
Selfie of the Author

But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.

Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.

The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.

Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.

What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.

Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:

Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…

Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.

So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.

But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:

The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.

Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:

I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.

Categories
Cemeteries Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death Ethics

The Future of Death, Dead Bodies, and Cemeteries talk on June 20 in London

Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath
20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7
The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP

This coming Thursday, June 20, 2013 I’m giving a public talk for the Morbid Anatomy Library and the Last Tuesday Society in London. The Morbid Anatomy Library talks are normally located in the lovely Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn (don’t pay any attention its Superfund site classification) but its Librarian-in-Chief Joanna Ebenstein is currently in London to organise this lecture series.

Joanna has been a good friend to the Death Reference Desk and one of our earliest supporters. Indeed, the very first Morbid Anatomy talk that I ever gave (in Brooklyn) was in July 2009. That was the same month and year that Death Ref launched.

It’s been an adventurous four years.

So come to this talk on Thursday if you can or, even better, go to one of the many other fantastic talks curated by Joanna at the Last Tuesday Society.

You will not be disappointed.

Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath

20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7

 

Approximately 1500 people die every day across the United Kingdom, roughly one person a minute. And unless you are a person who works in a profession connected to the dying, chances are good you rarely (if ever) see any of these 1500 dead bodies. More importantly– do you and your next of kin know what you want done with your dead body when you die? In the future, of course, since it’s easier to think that way. Dr. John Troyer, from the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, will discuss three kinds of postmortem futures: Future Death, Future Dead Bodies, and Future Cemeteries. Central to these Futures is the human corpse and its use in new forms of body disposal technology, digital technology platforms, and definitions of death.

 

Dr John Troyer

Dr. John Troyer is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. His interdisciplinary research focuses on contemporary memorialisation practices, concepts of spatial historiography, and the dead body?s relationship with technology. Dr. Troyer is also a theatre director and installation artist with extensive experience in site-specific performance across the United States and Europe. He is a co-founder of the Death Reference Desk website (http://www.deathreferencedesk.org) and a frequent commentator for the BBC. His forthcoming book, Technologies of the Human Corpse (published by the University of North Carolina Press), will appear in 2013.

 

The Last Tuesday Society is honoured to house this exhibition and lecture series cultivated in collaboration with Joanna Ebenstein of the rightfully venerated ‘Morbid Anatomy’ Library, Museum & Blog.

 

Talks take place at The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP

Categories
Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Postmortem Photography: The Aftermarket

I just happened upon a well-researched article posted to Boing Boing. Titled Ghost Babies, by Mark Dery, the post delves into the re-sale of postmortem photographs for sale on eBay and elsewhere with a little history on postmortem photography in 19th century America thrown in for good measure.

As a librarian, I found the sources to be a nice cross-section to begin further investigation. Here are the works mentioned and a brief description. These are of course but a few monographs on the subject of memorial/postmortem photography. Check your local public or academic library or interlibrary loan resource to delve further.

Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Jay Ruby.

Secure the Shadow is an original contribution that lies at the intersection of cultural anthropology and visual analysis, a field that Jay Ruby’s previous writings have helped to define. It explores the photographic representation of death in the United States from 1840 to the present, focusing on the ways in which people have taken and used photographs of deceased loved ones and their funerals to mitigate the finality of death.

Sometimes thought to be a bizarre Victorian custom, photographing corpses has been and continues to be an important, if not recognized, occurrence in American life. It is a photographic activity, like the erotica produced in middle-class homes by married couples, that many privately practice but seldom circulate outside the trusted circle of close friends and relatives. Along with tombstones, funeral cards, and other images of death, these photographs represent one way in which Americans have attempted to secure their shadows.

Ruby employs newspaper accounts, advertisements, letters, photographers’ account books, interviews, and other material to determine why and how photography and death became intertwined in the nineteenth century. He traces this century’s struggle between America’s public denial of death and a deeply felt private need to use pictures of those we love to mourn their loss. Americans take and use photographs of dead relatives and friends in spite of and not because of society’s expectation about the propriety of these means. Ruby compares photographs and other pictorial media of death, founding his interpretations on the discovery of patterns in the appearance of the images and a reconstruction of the conditions of their production and utilization. (Syndetic Solutions, LLC)

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Stanley Burns.

Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were often the only ones ever taken of their subjects and much pride and artistry went into them. It is astounding that although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen, and unknown. Today we struggle to avoid the topic of death; as a result we have closed the door on these images, which reflect an American culture in which death and mourning played a visible and active part.

These photographs were a common aspect of American culture, a part of the mourning and memorialization process. Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets, or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs.

Discussions of death in books are prolific, and we are accustomed to images of death as part of our daily news; but actual death, as a part of private lives, has become a shameful and unspoken subject.

This volume presents a chronological arrangement of postmortem photography 1840-1930; no other collection of this material has been made available despite recent interest in the American way of death. What emerges is a vivid visual history of the changes in American customs. (Excerpt from the preface of Sleeping Beauty I)

The Victorian Celebration of Death. James Stevens Curl.

In this beautifully illustrated and well-researched book, Professor Curl has rescued much fascinating material from undeserved oblivion, and his work fills a genuine gap. From humble working-class exequies to the massive outpouring of grief at the State funerals of Wellington and Queen Victoria herself, The Victorian Celebration of Death covers an immense canvas. It describes the change in sensibility that led to a new tenderness towards the dead; the history of the urban cemeteries with their architecture and landscapes; the ephemera of death and dying; State funerals as national spectacles; and the utilitarian reactions towards the end of the nineteenth century. Combining wit with compassion, Curl wears his learning lightly, and his taste for the eerie is delicately balanced by this literary personality. He has resurrected many valuable and extremely interesting aspects of nineteenth-century attitudes to death and the disposal of the dead; Curl’s achievement is as well-ordered as any sumptuous funeral, and is lucid as well as entertaining, with many surprises and associated delights. (Amazon product description)

Wisconsin Death Trip. Michael Lesy.

As the title suggests, this is a truly strange book. Published in 1973, it is essentially a collection of photos taken in Black River Falls, WI, by Charles Van Schaik between 1890 and 1910. The subject matter ranges from children in coffins, to farm animals, to family portraits of some of the grimmest-looking people imaginable; the photos are accompanied by snippets from newspapers. The whole package seems to confirm that the good old days were actually awful. (Library Journal)

A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. Michael Sappol.

In this groundbreaking new book, Sappol, a historian and curator at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, explores how professors and body snatchers, patients and physicians, and politicians and the public confronted the anatomical dilemma and forged a new consensus about the body and its place in 19th-century American culture. Body snatching has, of course, had its historians. Stories about the 1788 Doctors’ Mob in New York City (the angry mob of 5000 New Yorkers searching for medical students, physicians, and cadavers dispersed only after the governor called out the armed militia), the 1824 riot against the Yale medical department (spurred by the discovery of the partially dissected body of the recently deceased daughter of a West Haven farmer in the anatomy rooms), and the 1878 Harrison scandal in Cincinnati (when the body of John Scott Harrison, the recently deceased son of former president William Henry Harrison and father of president-to-be Benjamin Harrison, turned up in the dissecting room of the Medical College of Ohio) have long been a staple of American medical history and medical school anatomy courses. One of Sappol’s great accomplishments in this dazzling book is his creation of a new lens to view these well-known — and some lesser-known — episodes. It is as though we see them, and more important, understand them for the first time. The anatomical perspective, Sappol suggests, urges a serious reconsideration of the boundaries of professional medicine and popular culture in the 19th century. More than that, he seeks to explain how 19th-century anatomical view of the body led to the view of the body we know today. Crucial to Sappol’s argument is a redefining of what counted as anatomy in 19th-century medicine. With considerable verve and penetration, he explores orthodox anatomy in American medical education, advancing the claim that dissection and membership in the male fraternity of dissectors was critical to the formation of professional identity and legitimacy. (Partial excerpt, New England Journal of Medicine)