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.

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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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Celebrating the season

This post was inspired by a quite beautiful conversation that I overheard on a public bus last night. A young girl was asking her mother about a friend of the family who had just died. The girl was confused as to what had happened and the mother was gently explaining how the friend had been ill for some time and that her dying was actually a relief for her.

The girl piped up: “So death is a good thing then?”

Her older sister interjected: “Not always…”

The mother settled things: “Sometimes it is the best thing, especially if someone is suffering. Someone dying can be a good thing and death isn’t always sad”

I’m paraphrasing a lot but in her wonderful education of her children, the mother used “death”, “dying” and “dead” multiple times, never relying on less clear words such as “passed on” or other euphemisms. Her young daughters listened in rapt attention and the younger sister seemed relieved and happy with the outcome of the family friend’s death. She obviously knew her well and her mother’s frank and simple explanation helped with clearing up what could have been a very confusing and scary time.

This whole conversation made me think of recent events and the people that have died in recent months. Whether that is the awful events in Sydney, Glasgow or France, or simply the loss of family members such as Ryan’s mother back in September. We will all be touched by loss in our lives and this time of year can often open old wounds and remind us of those who are no longer in our lives.

Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, or whatever other festivals (if any at all) that folk celebrate during the winter months are designed to bring people together. Yet the emphasis on family and close bonds can be distressing for those who do not have that idealised life. Religion, grief and trauma can make this time of year one of the hardest for many so spare a thought for them if you are fortunate enough to be spending a few days with your loved ones.

One positive death activity that can be carried out at this time of year is remembering our loved ones. Many more pagan practices focus on ancestor worship, and while Halloween is a great time for this sort of thing, winter holidays can also be a useful time to think back to those who have come before us. So rather than being overcome with sorrow and loss (even though these are important emotions and should never be hidden for the sake of others), think of those who are no longer around. Think of the good times that you have had together and when you are having your Christmas meal (or other appropriate feast), have a place set out with a photograph of your loved one(s) nearby so that they can celebrate with you, even if in your memory.

Everyone has different traditions and associations with this time of year, and I can only wish you a happy and peaceful time, whatever you’re doing. Keep being death positive and we thank you for your fantastic support over the past year!

Here’s to a good and productive new year!

Deathly reading: Rest in Pieces

Book cover

Book cover

There are countless examples of people who have become far more famous after their deaths than they ever were in life. Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau and Galileo Galilei are just a few who became (more) famous for their respective work even though they experienced very little of this fame while they were actually alive enough to benefit from it.

These names are just a handful of the various famous folk that are covered in Bess Lovejoy‘s excellent book Rest in Pieces: the curious fates of famous corpses which has just been published in the UK by Duckworth. The US version of the book has been hugely successful and it is easy to see why, especially with the exciting new addition of Richard III’s car park resting place tale.

Lovejoy has made the clever choice of categorising the various people that she writes about into themed chapters, ranging from the sensible Science and Medicine to the more intriguing Collectable Corpses. Each section is beautifully divided and illustrated by the utterly brilliant Mark Stutzman, who also did the book cover and inside covers, giving a wonderful overall reading experience.

You can dip in and out of this book quite easily, but Lovejoy’s engaging writing means that it is hard not to read the book in almost one sitting due to the inability to tear oneself away from finding out more astounding and truly peculiar facts about famous people that many will have had heard of, as well as those more niche individuals who still had fascinating tales to tell. Lovejoy is especially impressive with her ‘Body Politics’ chapter that covers not only Adolf Hitler and Eva Peron, but the more recently deceased Osama Bin Laden. When asked about this particular section, Lovejoy explained that:

“…if you’re going to talk about the history of famous corpses you have to take the bad as well as the good… the corpses of villains, like Bin Laden or Hitler, were actually some of the most interesting to me. I was interested to see how political regimes will go to some length to make sure there’s no shrine, no place for worshippers to gather, where the flame of their memory can be kept alive.” (Deathly Ponderings author interview)

Rest in Pieces is not just about the notoriously famous, it also covers those who had colourful lives and whose memory reflects that life such as Hunter S. Thompson, Lord Byron and LSD-advocate Timothy Leary. With additional tales of skulls being stolen by phrenologists, different body parts travelling across the globe, bodies going missing and remains being found again by pure chance, the heady and often confusing world of the dead is conveyed to the reader by Lovejoy through excellent research, writing and an obvious passion for finding out the truth to some of the more bizarre mysteries that surround certain peoples’ remains.

If you want to read about some of the most famous writers, philosophers, actors, scientists, politicians, composers and other historical figures, then this is the book for you. Not only will you discover new facts about these individuals’ lives, but you will also explore the often unknown and untold fates of their remains after they died. Often, these tales are far more fascinating than any biography of a person’s life ever could be and it sheds some light on the cult status and often crazy lengths that people have gone to to idolise, venerate and study the earthly remains of some of the great names of history.

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:

Author interview: Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

We were delighted to be contacted by Bess Lovejoy’s publisher (Duckworth Publishers) to ask if we would be interested in interviewing her ahead of the UK release of her excellent book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses on 25th September 2014. Of course we said yes! I’ve already read the US edition of the book and know it to be a fantastic read. I will post a review of the book in the next few days so watch this space.

So we sat down with Bess (albeit at different computers situtated at different geographical locations halfway around the world from each other) and got down to business.

DP: Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to answer some of our questions. So you have a new book coming out in the UK called Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses and it is a fascinating read. What inspired you to write this book?

Bess: I used to work on a series called Schott’s Almanac, and we would spend a lot of time reading the news to try to find things to write about. In December 2008, a co-worker sent me a Guardian article about the painter Francis Bacon that really piqued my interest. According to the article, before Bacon died in 1992 he told a barman at the Colony Room Club in Soho, “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” Bacon never actually ended in the gutter, but after he died a friend photographed him inside a plastic bag at the morgue. The photo became the centerpiece of a show used to raise money for the Colony Room Club, and that caused a bit of an uproar about bad taste, etc. A few days after that, the BBC ran articles about the pianist André Tchaikowsky, who willed his skull to the Royal Shakespearean Theatre Company, and people got very upset about that too. It got me wondering about the last wishes of famous people, particularly artistic people whom I admired. I started looking into those stories and quickly realized the most interesting stories were not about what people wanted to happen after they died, but what did happen. And then I realized that no one had collected a whole bunch of those stories in one book before.

DP: Doing the research for the book must have involved a lot of work and chasing down obscure references. How did you find the whole process and would you do it all again?

Bess: I loved it. I’m a research nerd, and finding out some of the facts in the book just filled me with sheer joy. I wrote most of it on the tenth floor of the Seattle Public Library, in their writers’ room, which was really a wonderful space. It was right above the floor for biographies, which was well-stocked, and I would start a lot of my research with whatever seemed to be the most authoritative biography of the individual in question and then follow their sources. If I had another idea for a project that I thought I would enjoy as much, and that I thought would be successful enough that I could convince publishers to back it, I would definitely do it again. Writing a book is gruelling and exhausting and lonely, but the day it came out was one of the happiest of my life.

DP: There are some truly wonderful and bizarre characters in this book, my personal favourite being Emanuel Swedenborg and his mysterious travelling skull. Which historical figure did you enjoy writing about the most?

Bess: Swedenborg was fun, although his story is extremely complicated. I’m glad it came out as being fun to read! I also really enjoyed writing about Rasputin. Those photos of him, with those eerie pale eyes, and all the mystery and intrigue in his story. There’s what people thought was happening with him and the czarina (sex) versus what was really happening (he was healing her haemophiliac son when he wouldn’t stop bleeding, but that was kept from the public). And the myth that he was so hard to kill, when in fact more recent research suggests died from a bullet wound, not after being thrown in the river. And of course, the idea of his penis being worshipped by some Russian émigrés in Paris and then going on display in a St. Petersburg proctology clinic—I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.

DP: You definitely do not shy away from including controversial figures in this book, such as Adolf Hitler and the more recently deceased Osama Bin Laden. Did you feel it was important to include these individuals in the book and have you had any negative reactions as a result?

Bess: I think if you’re going to talk about the history of famous corpses you have to take the bad as well as the good. That doesn’t mean I approve of their actions while alive! I was just trying to get a 360-degree view of the phenomenon. And the corpses of villains, like Bin Laden or Hitler, were actually some of the most interesting to me. I was interested to see how political regimes will go to some length to make sure there’s no shrine, no place for worshippers to gather, where the flame of their memory can be kept alive. Because memory can be a political act. You have to be careful about what you let people remember.

DP: Were there any famous folk that you really wanted to include in the book but couldn’t for some reason?

Bess: I wanted to talk about Kurt Cobain, mostly because I came of age in Seattle in the 1990s, and I thought getting in a more modern rock star would be good. But most of Cobain’s story is bound up with Courtney Love’s version of things, and it’s pretty hard to fact-check.

DP: What do you hope people will get out of reading this brilliantly deathly collection of famous corpses?

Bess: Thanks for the kinds words. I hope it gives them some moments of delight, a delight mixed with a sense of wonder, or a delight that provokes a kind of curiosity. I hope it makes people realize that the way we now do death in the Western world is culturally specific—it hasn’t always been this way. And because it’s culturally specific, that means we get to choose how we want to do it, to some extent. People have more choice in these matters than they might think, particularly as society becomes more secular.

DP: Of course, your new book is not your first foray into the world of death and the macabre as you are a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon. Has your work with these two organisations helped you and your writing about what can often be a rather tricky subject area to most people?

Bess: I think so. The book came out in the US in March 2013, and I got involved in these groups while I was initially writing it. My involvement came naturally because of some of the conversations that were happening on Twitter, and it was very refreshing to find other, more-or-less young people who were having smart, fearless conversations about what it means to be mortal. That sounds heavy, but we were also having a lot of fun. And of course it was about finding other people who were delighting in the same kinds of macabre stories and facts that I was uncovering, who could appreciate them and also understand that sharing them doesn’t mean you have a mental disorder. People who understand that an interest in mortality is common and healthy, which is a message we want to convey to others.

DP: With your new book coming out, and the increase of a death positive movement seen through Death Salon, the popularity of death cafes and an increase in people simply talking more about death and dying, do you see the way in which we as a society perceive death changing in the coming years?

Bess: Definitely. At least in the US, we have a rapidly aging population, and one that is becoming more secular. We’re going to have a lot of dead people on our hands—we already do—and a society that is in many ways ill-equipped to deal with it. We lack the scripts that previous generations had to tell them how to deal with the dead and how to mourn, and so we’re making our own scripts, figuring it out as we go along. It’s just like the other changes that have happened since the social movements of the 60s and 70s; for decades now, many people have been re-thinking some fundamental ideas about things like birth, sex, family, work. Death is a part of all of that. Embalming is on its way out, natural burial is in, cremation rates are sky-high over here, cemeteries are overcrowded, and as you pointed out, people are having some real conversations about death in ways they haven’t before. But we probably need those conversations to continue spreading even more.

DP: The death community is certainly unlike any other that we’ve ever been involved with but we’ve found it to be one of support and friendship. What would you say is your favourite part of being involved in all things deathly, whether that’s through your writing or working with organisations such as Death Salon?

Bess: The community aspect is really important. And the community shares a lot of news and resources, which in turn feeds my writing and sometimes prevents me from getting too lonely. So everything works in a kind of symbiotic relationship. I think that actually my favourite part is being inspired by what other people come up with, and then seeing the impact they are having, and realizing that I’m privileged enough to know them!

DP: Having written a wonderfully successful book (I believe the US version was one of Amazon’s best books of 2013!), do you have any new and exciting projects planned?

Bess: I am working on an overly ambitious book about the state and history of death in America, and what changes in our relationship with death means. I might have bitten off more than I can chew! I really have no idea what will happen with it, but time will tell.

DP: Thank you for answering our questions and good luck with the UK release of Rest in Pieces.

Bess: Thank you!

——-

Thanks again to Bess for taking the time to talk to us. It was great fun and I hope you all go out and buy her book today! US folk…why haven’t you bought it already?

Book cover

Book cover

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.

Going back home for death

Hi all, Georgina here. So for those of you who read Ryan’s last post, you will know that his mother recently passed away and it has fallen to us to sort everything out.

Since the last post, we have been manically busy hence the long silence on the blog. Thankfully Ryan’s mother did not have to have a postmortem but the various delays and other bits and pieces meant that her death was only registered last Monday. As soon as we knew that that was going to happen, we jumped on the next train to start sorting through things.

So far we have managed to get things going with a funeral director. Thankfully the chap in question knows the family and has helped with the funerals of Ryan’s grandparents so he was really easy to deal with and is taking care of so many things which is a huge help.

We are currently wading through a lifetime’s worth of paperwork and other bits and pieces, trying to get some semblance of understanding of what everything means. This ranges from bank accounts to electricity bills and everything in between.

Reassuringly, everyone that we have had to deal with so far has been massively helpful and things are moving slowly but surely which is good. It is just rather surreal coming back to Ryan’s home town to sort out something we didn’t think we’d have to deal with for a good few years yet.

So far, we’ve discovered that there isn’t a will which means everything is up in the air. However, we’ve managed to get a lot done without having to pay a solicitor which is surprising yet empowering.

Anyway, Ryan will write another post soon to fill you all in on how things are going from his perspective. I’ve just been kicking ass and taking names with regards to getting all the paperwork sorted as that is the sort of thing I’m good at. Working together on this is way easier than one person doing it all alone so my only advice at this stage is, if you’re having to arrange all of this sort of thing alone…try and get a friend or a relative to help you out and if possible, make sure that they are someone you can trust and that you get on well with. Tensions and emotions run high with this sort of thing, so knowing that the person who is helping you has your back the whole way is important.