Sunday Sundries 8

Image from A.K. Rockefeller on Flickr (CC2.0)

Image from A.K. Rockefeller on Flickr (CC2.0)

It’s that time of the week again when we do a wrap-up of interesting death stuff from around the web:

Yesterday, we had the great pleasure of attending the Digital Legacy Conference in London (a full recap coming soon!) where we heard a range of excellent talks from speakers in the fields of death, medical care and the tech industry on how the digital age is changing dying, grief and memorials. Now let’s all go and make a Social Media Will!  Dead Social has a whole bunch of free tutorials to help you get your digital affairs in order.

In other news, scientists in South Africa may have just found the world’s oldest preserved human skin, on a 2 million year old fossil of Australopithecus sediba. This could offer new insights into our evolutionary ancestry and is possibly the oldest human soft tissue ever discovered.

Hyde Park pet cemetery. Image from "19th century photographs" online. Photographer unknown.

Hyde Park pet cemetery. Image from “19th century photographs” online. Photographer unknown.

The BBC ran an article on the rising popularity of pet cemeteries in the UK. Instead of burying Rover in the back garden, more and more people are looking for a permanent memorial and funeral for their companion animals. Of course, this is not a new thing, as this article on London Insight on the beautiful Victorian Hyde Park pet cemetery shows.

Ever wondered what actually happens to your body after you die? Of course you have! Ars Technica gives you all the details.

Finally, how did we miss this? Everyone’s favourite mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty, examines the hidden dead of London along with Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, medical historian and all-round lovely person. Check out Lindsey’s channel, Under the Knife, as well.

Sunday Sundries 7

Image from Buzzfeed.

Image from Buzzfeed.

It’s been a while since we did one of these, but there’s been some interesting articles about death online recently, so here’s what we found this week:

The Death Projects is a brilliant deathly site that we’ve only just come across, and are now happily devouring their articles. Of particular interest was the “6 reasons you should be thinking more about death“. Turns out, a healthy interest in the end of life can make you healthier, happier and more caring as well as giving you a new appreciation of life.

The same site also shared some of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts about death, which are profound even if you’re not a Buddhist:

“I view death as a normal process, a reality that I accept will occur as long as I remain in this earthly existence. Knowing that I cannot escape it, I see no point in worrying about it. I tend to think of death as being like changing your clothes when they are old and worn out, rather than as some final end.”

When I (Ryan) spent some time living and volunteering in North Dakota, I learned that burying the dead in winter was impossible due to the permanently frozen ground. Bodies were kept in a morgue until spring, when the ice thawed, and then burials were held at a rate of several a day. Vice Magazine shares a similar tale of the difficulties of burial in Alaska.

Buzzfeed has a fascinating list of 31 strange and disturbing facts about death. Enjoy!

And finally, a reminder that the Digital Legacy Conference is happening next Saturday (23 May) at UCL, London, looking at death and dying in the modern, digital age. It’s free to attend too!

Deathly days out: Forensics at the Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

How did the first crime scene investigators find clues? What can an autopsy tell us about a person’s last moments? If a body is stuffed into a suitcase, can maggots still get to it?

These questions and more are answered in a brilliantly morbid exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London (billed as the destination of choice for the “incurably curious”). Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime takes you on a journey over five rooms from crime scene to morgue, to laboratory and courtroom, exploring the many unusual ways forensics experts uncover evidence.

Of course, we at Deathly Ponderings just had to go along! It was utterly fascinating, and provided a rare look at real forensic items and techniques as well as historic photographs and archive material of some of the Victorian era’s most grizzly murders.

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

Bizarrely, the first thing we saw was an oddly-adorable dolls’ house. On further inspection, it was a mini model of a crime scene, known as a “nutshell study”: a brutal diorama used to teach criminology students in the skills of observation and inference.

The personal highlight for me was the “morgue” room, with specimens of skulls and brains with bullet wounds, and an original marble dissection table from the 1920s. You can sit and gaze at this slab while listening to the squelchy hacking sounds of a recorded autopsy, which makes for quite an unsettling experience.

Videos throughout the exhibit examine some of the questions about the forensics process, including one from the ever-wonderful Carla Valentine of St Bart’s Pathology Museum.

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

As well as forensics, the exhibit looked at how people respond to death, with sculptures inspired by victims of genocide and the intriguing Japanese art of Kusōzu, delicate paintings showing the body of a young woman in various stages of decomposition.

I don’t want to give too much else away, because this is an exhibition full of fascinating little details and you really need to experience it to get the full sense of being immersed in the world of forensics for a couple of hours. While you’re at the Wellcome Collection, the exhibitions on the other floors are also definitely worth checking out: I recommend the room of miscellanea from Henry Wellcome’s personal collection, including shrunken heads, preserved mummies and Napoleon’s toothbrush.

The exhibition is free and open Tuesdays-Sundays until 21 June. If you’re going to the Digital Legacy Conference looking at death and grief in the digital age, the Wellcome Collection is just around the corner, so you can do both!

Death in Cambridge: Medieval hospital burial ground unearthed

In my professional life, I work for Cambridge University doing media things. This story came up this week, and I thought it had relevance to our deathly interests. Enjoy!

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Archaeological investigations have discovered one of Britain’s largest medieval hospital cemeteries, containing over 1,000 human remains, when excavating beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College. One of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds in Britain, containing an estimated 1,300 burials, once stood on the site of what is now part of St John’s College, according to a report published in the latest issue of the Archaeological Journal.

The report marks the first public release of evidence gathered by an archaeological dig beneath the Old Divinity School, conducted as part of the Victorian building’s refurbishment in 2010-2012. The report reveals that the complete skeletal remains of over 400 medieval burials were uncovered by a team from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, along with “disarticulated” and fragmentary remains of what could be as many as 1,000 more individuals. Images from the dig are available on the St John’s College website HERE.

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Death in Cambridge: the Duckworth Laboratory

As soon as I saw this video, I knew we had to feature it as a Death in Cambridge post. I had no idea that the Duckworth Laboratory even existed! It is part of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and contains amazing collections including skulls, skeletons, death masks, mummies and much more besides. Sadly it is not open to the public as a museum, but it is still an incredible research resource. In this video, you can watch Dr Ronika Power from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology take you on a behind the scenes tour of this hidden deathly treasure:

I could not stop for death…

(Apologies to Emily Dickinson for the title of this post!)

So it’s been a while since I posted about my mother’s death and the arrangements I have to make. It took a few days for the death certificate to be released from the coroner, and I travelled back “home” (not that it feels like it anymore) on Monday to do my duty as sole next-of-kin.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but the past few days have been such a whirlwind of paperwork, phonecalls, bank appointments, letters, meetings and other such administrative annoyances that I simply have not had the time to really stop and let the basic fact of the situation sink in: my mother, the last remaining member of my immediate family, is dead. That leaves me, and some uncles that I am rarely in touch with. Right. It’s hard to remember the human connection when dealing with names on forms and account numbers.

Today I finally had a bit of time to process this, and I feel…surprisingly OK about it. I worry that this makes me some sort of heartless sociopath, but I’m also glad that I am not utterly devastated by this event and can still function at something resembling basic normal-ish.

I’ve arranged the funeral thanks to a very helpful local funeral director who knows the family well (big shout out to independent funeral firms. You are awesome.), and dealt with the confusing feeling of writing a Catholic service when I left that religion years ago, but hey…Irish family tradition and all that. I am now awaiting relatives to turn up over the next couple of days, and the inevitable deluge of awkward small talk and emotional sympathies that I really could do without at this stage, but I’ll go along with for everyone else.

I did a very small and low-key naturalist memorial in the local woods by a lake today, which was my way of saying goodbye without the pomp and ritual of churches, and which meant more to me than any formal funeral ever could (thanks especially to well-timed local wildlife appearing). I feel at peace with death generally, and her death in particular, but am still pretty stressed about the upcoming funeral and managing everyone’s expectations.

I have some more I want to write about, like how it was visiting the house to sort through her (many) possessions, and the odd and sometimes guilty sense of relief I have now she is gone, but those are for other posts soon.

When death comes home

It’s one thing looking at death in the abstract, as an academic interest or a quirky curiosity, and quite another when it turns up on your doorstep when least expected.

I found out this weekend that my mother has died suddenly in hospital. She had various illnesses on and off for many years, including alcohol issues, but was recently very stable. She was rushed into hospital the other night, and died soon after. As I live hundreds of miles away, I was unable to be there for the death and so I got a phonecall from a relative to inform me the following day.

As it’s a Bank Holiday weekend here in the UK, nothing can be done until tomorrow at least. So there’s no death certificate as yet, and the coroner will be doing a post-mortem, so I have no idea when the body and certificate will be released.

But I will have to travel back at some point in the next few days. As the only surviving next-of-kin, organising the funeral and dealing with the estate (such as it is) is up to me. I won’t lie, it’s bloody terrifying as I have no real experience of this. I did help (along with Georgina) to organise my grandfather’s funeral a few years back, but estates and wills are a new minefield for me.

So what I was thinking of doing was blogging the process as I go. Both as a form of catharsis for me, and hopefully to be able to help others in a similar situation negotiate the legal and personal difficulties of a parent’s death. From dealing with funeral directors and solicitors to trying to organise a funeral in a religion I no longer identify with to dealing with family and the platitudes of well-wishers, it will all be here, so watch this space in the next few days/weeks.

Sunday Sundries 6

As you may know, we’ve been away for a bit, but we’re getting back into our regular posting schedule again now. So here’s what we found online this week:

The Huffington Post discusses why cremation is more popular than ever in the US. There are a number of factors contributing to this change in funerary practice, including the fact that as people become more mobile, the traditional ‘family plot’ is becoming less relevant. Changing religious practices also seem to play a role, with less social pressure to have a traditional Christian funeral. Check out the article, it also has a lovely infographic!

"Sylivia" at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

“Sylivia” at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

The Tumblr “Strange Remains” has a great post looking at some of the more bizarre ways human remains have been displayed over the years, not just in museums but in curiosity shops, restaurants and even public bathrooms. Given the controversy of displaying human remains even in more traditional museum settings, it’s eye-opening to see how people’s attitudes to corpses-on-display can be so different. Quirky or distasteful? What do you think?

In weird news, my favourite story of the week has to be the man who was arrested and fined in Portsmouth, UK, for pretending to be a ghost in a local cemetery. Oh dear, that’s my weekend plans gone then!

If you’re in the UK (or can do some sneaky stuff online) you can watch the new series “The Beauty of Anatomy” on BBC iPlayer. The first episode discussed the legacy of the ancient anatomist Galen and how his ideas held sway until Leonardo da Vinci and others began to practice human dissections.

If you can’t view that, but still want a cool anatomy fix, the first edition of Vesaluis’ famous De Humani Corporis Fabrica is available as a digitised copy from the US National Library of Medicine. Seriously, check this out. It’s some of the most beautiful and interactive digitisation of a text I’ve ever seen!

And finally, I leave you with this charming and very funny animation about a couple of very dedicated undertakers:

 

Robin Williams and depression

I was going to write about the ancient burial chambers on the Isles of Scilly today, so expect that to come later this week. Instead, I feel compelled to write something about the sad news today. As I’m sure you know by now, one of the most talented comedians and actors of our time, Robin Williams, has died aged 63. His death is apparently due to suicide, the end result of years of severe depression compounded by alcohol and drug problems.

I probably first encountered Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, and then grew up with his films being always there, a comforting background presence, whether comedic or dramatic.  What Dreams May Come was one of the first films that really made me and many others of my generation think about death, life and what it all means. Dead Poets Society remains one of the most profoundly life-affirming, and death-accepting, films of all time.

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What Robin Williams’ tragic death reminds me is that mental illnesses like depression are very real, and can be fatal.

Already on the internet, I’ve seen amongst the outpourings of grief, people saying he was ‘weak’ or ‘selfish’ and that he ‘gave in’. No, he was ill. Is a cancer sufferer weak or selfish if their illness kills them? It’s time mental illness was understood as a real illness and talked about openly, instead of in hushed whispers of shame or stigma.

Depression is not the same as sadness, and it cannot be cured by success, money, happiness, or positive thinking. If one of the funniest and most thoughtful people in the world can’t think themselves out of it, then nobody can.

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