Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Death Salon

Yes, that's right, the Death Salon. Wonder what that’s all about? Back at the beginning of October, 2015, my daughter Julie texted me and asked if I was attending the “Death Salon” at Philadelphia’s Mütter museum. I had heard of the Death Salon, but its big conference in Philadelphia slipped by me. Grateful as ever to Julie, I jumped at the opportunity.

What is the “Death Salon,” you may ask? Allow me to quote from their website:
Welcome to Death Salon. We hold events that bring together intellectuals and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality by sharing knowledge and art. Death is sanitized and hidden in contemporary culture to the point of becoming a taboo subject. We aim to subvert this death denial by opening up conversations with the public about death and its anthropological, historical, and artistic contributions to culture. In the spirit of the 18th-century salon, our curated intellectual gatherings hosted in cities worldwide.”
After some preliminary calls and Web searches, I saw that I had already missed the first day of the conference. Would I be able to attend just the second day? I drove over to the Mütter at 8 a.m. on Monday, October 6, and bumbled my way to the conference area on the second floor.

The Mütter is a fine place to hold a Death conference. The place is all about death – or rather medical research that has been advanced through the study of dead bodies. The Mütter is the museum (open to the public) of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The best way to describe it is via this quote from their website:
"America's finest museum of medical history, the Mütter Museum displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a nineteenth-century "cabinet museum" setting. The goal of the Museum is to help visitors understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease."
Sounds rather tame, but, trust me – the Mütter is not for the faint of heart (nor is finding the umlaut key on your standard keyboard!). So after a discussion with the ticket desk, it turned out they would not give me half price admission even though I missed the first day. The full $150 price tag seemed a bit steep for me to listen to speakers go on and on about death – God knows, I can understand how people want to flee after I’ve gone on about it for twenty minutes.

The program (view online) did seem fascinating; however, what I hoped I could do was somehow cajole or finagle my way in to the exhibitors’ area, the so-called “Dark Artisans’ Bazaar.” While death-related ephemera interests me, I noticed as I perused the vendor lineup (click to view) that my friend Greg Cristiano from TearDrop Memories would be there.

Greg Cristiano of "TearDrop Memories" at the Death Salon's Dark Artisans’ Bazaar

Teardrop Memories is a New Hope, Pennsylvania storefront business (and Internet retailer) specializing in Victorian mourning memorabilia (among other things). It would be nice to at least peek in and say hi to Greg. As it turned out, they would not even let me in to the Bazaar if I didn’t pay full admission! Kind of weird. You would think the organizers would have allowed the vendors to sell to anyone visiting the Mütter, not just those who paid for attendance to the conference. The crowd in the lecture hall that morning didn’t look that big – maybe a hundred people.

Lecture Hall at Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, for The Death Salon, Oct. 6, 2015

I asked if I could at least pop my head in and say hi to Greg. After checking with his higher-ups, the young gentleman at the registration table led me to the huge conservatory where maybe twenty-five vendors were set up on the periphery of the room. Greg was just inside the door and we both said our enthusiastic hellos (I have written about Greg Cristiano’s "TearDrop Memories” on the Cemetery Traveler in the past) then without thinking, dove into a mourning arts discussion as only true believers can.

Example of framed Victorian artwork made from hair of the deceased (ref)

We just went on and on about death things to the degree that the young fellow must have given up on me and returned to his post. This left me alone to roam around the Dark Artisans’ Bazaar for a bit. There were no other customers, as all the attendees were in the lecture hall next door. I poked my head in to see what aspect of death was being discussed at that moment. I got the idea that I might not actually want to sit through two solid days of death lectures.

Luxurious Victorian library in which Dark Artisans' Bazaar was held (Mütter Museum)

Terry Skovronck, "Death Midwife
I may have stayed for an hour, roaming from one exhibitor's table to the next. TearDrop Memories had many examples of antique Victorian-era mourning  jewelry (many unique and fabulous pieces), hair wall hangings (see photo above), coffins, and other memento mori items. Greg's neighbor was Terry Skovronck, a self-proclaimed "Death Midwife."  

Obscura Antiques and Oddities from New York City had a variety of interesting faux 3-D, Fresnel artwork - death-related, of course. Some people (whose business cards are in the selection in my opening photo at top) were selling such truly bizarre goods and services that I simply did not know what to say to them! "IWantAFunFuneral.com?" "Urns by Artists?" There were various types of death-related art, including Caitlin McCormack's crocheted (cotton string) skeletal specimens, as well as the typical t-shirts, buttons, and books.

One of the more interesting books I saw was called Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive, by Jack Mord - a "compilation of more than 120 extraordinary and haunting photographs and related ephemera documenting the practice of death and mourning photography in the Victorian Era and early twentieth century." The book is available on Amazon.com for $20 – which is quite a steal. Jack Mord has a large Facebook presence with his vintage postmortem photography.         

Note my antique white gold "wizard" wedding ring!

Then I came to the conference table, of sorts. Here I purchased my "Death Salon" enameled pin (see above), and a copy of the decidedly atypical book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (also available from Amazon.com). Now, I'm a sucker for just about any death book, but with a title and cover graphic like this, who could possibly resist? The author, Caitlin Doughty, seemed to have something to do with the Death Salon; the woman at the table said she was one of the organizers. Well, after purchasing and reading the book, it seems Caitlin is pretty much the driving force behind Death Salon (as well as its sister organization, The Order of the Good Death.

Death tables in the exhibit hall
Caitlin Doughty is on a mission to get us to face the reality of our eventual demise. Many people ride this bandwagon, but to Caitlin’s credit, she’s got the street cred to back it up. In her twenties, she took a job burning people in a crematorium, partly to come to terms with her life-long curiosity about death. Not satisfied that her interests and understanding of death had been rounded out, she went to school and became a mortician. In 2011,with her founding of The Order of the Good Death, her goal has been to bring “the realistic discussion of death back into popular culture.” (All the more reason to hold the Death Salon at the Mütter Museum!)

So while I barely touched the coffin handle of the Death Salon in Philadelphia, I got a taste of what the organization is all about. Through Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I learned a great deal. The book is a fabulous read, and, I might add, a New York Times bestseller. I do hope to attend a Death Salon in the future, this time as a registered, paid attendee. I have a great deal of respect for what Caitlin Doughty and friends are doing and I sincerely hope the young man whose grip I eluded to get into the Dark Artisans’ Bazaar will not be too severely punished.

References and Further Reading:
Death Salon website
The Mütter Museum website
TearDrop Memories website