I just returned to work after 2 fascinating days of Death Salon: Mutter Museum, an event filled with presentations, speaker panels, Q&A sessions, murder ballads, a Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, and Death Quizzo.
I have attended many conferences, but none quite like this one. There were a wide variety of speakers presenting on topics related to death, how different cultures deal with death (both past and present), and our relationship to death and mortality. I spoke on the first day about my work on the mummies here at the Penn Museum – mostly about how we treat them today and how this has changed over time, using examples including PUM I, our baby boy mummy, Wilfred/a, and Nespekashuti. But you’ve heard about all of them before. Let me provide a brief outline of all of the other speakers, with links as appropriate.
- Dr. Marianne Hamel is a medical examiner who spoke about what it’s really like to be a forensic pathologist vs. what you see on TV. She also was a consultant for the wildly popular podcast Serial and co-founder of Death Under Glass, which also had a booth at the Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, selling watches, umbrellas, notepads, etc. featuring beautiful forensic microscopic images.
- Alexis Jeffcoat (Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Emma Stern (Laurel Hill Cemetery) spoke about the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and their efforts to make Laurel Hill a place for the living as well as for the dead, with vibrant community programming.
- Ryan Matthew Cohn spoke about historical skeletal preparations and models of the human body, along with his own work to make exploded and dissected skulls.
- A panel discussion about American death spaces with Colin Dickey about the battlefields of the American Civil War and Bess Lovejoy on Hart Island: The World’s Biggest Tax-Funded Cemetery. I had never heard of Hart Island before, where unclaimed bodies and bodies of the poor and stillborn are soon to number one million. There are recent efforts to document the burials and transfer jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.
- Evi Numen, Mutter Museum exhibitions manager, spoke about the Curious Story of One-Eyed Joe and the 1867 Anatomy Act, discussing the struggle to legislate cadaver dissection and ownership.
- Dr. Paul Koudounaris (a now 5-time Death Salon speaker!), who has extensively researched charnel houses and ossuaries, discussed various cultures’ relationships with the dead. He specifically shared information about Indonesian communities who mummify family members and exhume them each year to care for and celebrate them, and sometimes even keep them in their homes.
- A panel discussion about anthropodermic bibliopegy (books bound in human skin) with Mutter Museum Curator Anna Dhody, analytical chemist Dr. Daniel Kirby, Juniata College Chemistry Chair Dr. Richard Hark, and Death Salon Director and USC medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. Their project is aimed at surveying and creating an inventory of books bound in human skin, and they are using peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to determine this. So far they have tested 22 books – 12 are actually human, while the others are sheep, cow, and even faux skin. The Mutter has the largest known collection in the world, with 5 authentic human skin books.
- A presentation by Sarah Troop about the rituals and art of child death in Mexico. She discussed the tradition, which used to be practiced in many Latin American countries, where dead children become a hybrid between saints and angels called angelitos, and the most famous angelito, Miguel Angel Gaitan from Argentina, who died in 1967.
- Dr. Norma Bowe discussed her death class at Kean University which she has been teaching for 15 years and has a 3-year wait list. She uses experiential learning in the class and they make several field trips, including to a hospice care facility, a Ronald McDonald house, a funeral home, a cemetery, a maximum security prison, a crematory, and a medical examiners office. A book has been written about her called The Death Class and its currently being turned into a TV show.
- Elizabeth Harper spoke about incorrupt saints, which apparently aren’t very easy to identify just by looking at them. Her presentation included images of saints she’s visited and a little game of “Incorrupt or Nah”.
- Artist David Orr presented his work photographing human skulls from the Mutter Museum collection and mirroring one side to create perfectly symmetrical results. This project, Perfect Vessels, can be viewed on his website.
- Penn physician Dr. Erin Lockard spoke about death from the doctor/daughter perspective in a conversation with Death Salon Director Megan Rosenbloom. She shared her experiences both as a physician who specializes in geriatric medicine and how experiencing her mother’s illness and end of life has affected her work.
- Mutter Museum Director Dr. Robert Hicks gave a presentation entitled Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialog with the Dead in Museums. He spoke about our relationship and discomfort around post-mortem imagery, and how other cultures are ahead of us in terms of articulating an aesthetic of death, decay, and mortality.
- Christine Colby discussed the issues for transgender people in how to preserve their identity in death and and the work that is being carried out to assist transgender people and their families and friends.
- The formal presentations of the conference concluded with a session entitled Ask a Mortician LIVE. Two morticians, Sheri Booker and Caitlin Doughty (Death Salon co-founder), fielded audience questions about their work.
The talks were incredibly interesting and often quite inspiring (and even tear-provoking), and there was an enthusiastic audience of at least 200 people by my count (probably more). The engaging day-time programming was supplemented by some terrific evening events, including behind-the-scenes tours of the Mutter, a Death Ball with a performance of 15th-century funerary music by The Divine Hand Ensemble, murder ballad performances, and a Death Quizzo. This conference had some of the best opportunities for people-watching too. Unfortunately I didn’t capture many photos but if you’re interested you can see some on the Death Salon Instagram account.