Author Archives: Nysa Noelle Loudon

The Funeral Selfie

A fellow archaeology focused student at Tulane found this:

The fad of taking selfies spreads to going to funerals.

As odd as this is. It shows some expected views of grief i.e. some of the girls in the photos frowning, dressing in black, and the captions with “cried off all my makeup”. But it all seems so contrived and the comments on my friend’s post of this were mostly negative concerning these people’s lack of respect for a funeral, or that this is another reason they have lost faith in humanity. Maybe this is another way for grief expression for this generation. It obviously does not fit with many others’ view of grief and expression of it. How do these pictures differ from our prescribed views of how to  grieve and how are they trying to conform?

Ophelia: Making Suicide Beautiful

Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, 1852

Above is the famous painting by John Millais of drowned Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Her face his soft and almost restful with her “weedy trophies” floating alongside her. But hold on a second and think of what has happened in this painting. She has just drowned, whether by accident or her own doing, we don’t know. But the fact remains that this is a corpse, however, to me, she still looks distinctly alive and human. Drowning is not pretty. But this depiction is.

L’inconnue de la Seine, Death Mask

New York Public Radio’s Radiolab has a podcast that has a similar occurrence. It’s called Death Mask and you can listen to it here . The death mask of a young woman is passed around the aristocracy of France in the 19th century and across Europe, because of the beauty of the face. The story goes that this girl was abandoned by her lover and because of her misery she flung herself in the Seine River. She was taken to the morgue and displayed behind glass so that someone might recognize her and reclaim the body. The man who ran the morgue was so struck by her beauty, he made a plaster cast of it.

The similarity of both of these cases is that these women still look very graceful and beautiful  but they have drown. As explained by one of Radiolab’s interviews in the podcast, it is amazing that the women looks so peaceful because when a body has been drown, the skin will swell and the face no longer resembles the way it looked in life. So why make them beautiful? Even the Queen in Hamlet cannot help but give a beautiful description of Ophelia’s death as she drift to her watery grave: “Her clothes spread wide,/And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up” and “Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious for/To muddy death.”

Are there any more examples of this kind of phenomenon that you can think of? And why exactly do we do this? Especially it seems to scorned or love sick women? Is it because we cannot bear the harsh reality of their death or that we want to remember some idealized version of the face of death? Does doing this kind of give them back their dignity in a way even though it doesn’t tell the true story?



Dead Men Do Tell Tales

The last two weeks in class have been spent on grief and mourning, with last class getting started on looking at rituals of burial. On Friday, we looked at the PBS documentary, The Undertaking, which showed a very emotional and personal look at the way survivors are experiencing death and the rituals that the little Michigan town inhabitants take after the death of someone.

There is a book by the late Florida forensic anthropologist William R. Maples, Ph.d. called Dead Men Do Tell Tales. This look at death, it seems to me, is distinctly different from the way that the PBS documentary sees it. To Dr. Maples it is another day on the job and a puzzle to solve. In first chapter, called “Everyday is Halloween”, he says, “I have gazed on the face of death innumerable times, witnessed it in all its grim manifestations. Death has no power to freeze my heart, jangle my nerves or sway my reason. Death to me is no terror of the night but a daylit companion, a familiar condition, a process obedient to scientific laws and answerable to scientific inquiry” (Maples 2). His attitude towards death is very different from the average American, to him it a fact of life as he is around it daily. It is scientific, it can be quantified. Whereas the Lynch family in The Undertaking, who also deal with death on a daily basis, experience the emotional and ritualistic side of death. They understand that their death is about the survivors whereas here, Maples seems incredibly connected to the scientific dead body, mostly the bones. And there comes out of this attitude a sort of ruthlessness for the truth: “All too often in the past, under the old coroner system, the innocent have died unavenged, and malefactors have escaped unpunished, because investigators lacked the stomach, the knowledge, the experience and the perseverance to reach with both hands into the rotting remnants of some dreadful crime, rummage through the bones and grasp the pure gleaming nugget of truth that lies at the center of it all. Truth is discoverable. Truth wants to be discovered” (2).

But though he fancies himself very much connected the dead body, after all he is around it all day and, as he says, reaches in with both hands into those rotting remnants, how much is his work really for the living? Do the dead care if their case is solved? Do the dead care if the murderer is caught or is it the living? His search for the truth pertains as much to the living if not more as he believes it pertains to the dead. Think of the show Bones on Fox, it is about a forensic anthropologist, the same as Dr. Maples. Dr. Temperance Brennan constantly hallows the truth as her main objective and the things she fights tooth and nail to discover. How much do these scientists understand that their job is also so connected to the living as much as it is to the dead?

Maples, William P.h.d. Dead Men Do Tell Tales. New York: Broadway, 1994.

The Undertaking:

State Investigates Hospital Incident: Body Removed Without Consent

The Emory Wheel for Tuesday, September 24, 2013 reported an incident at our very own Emory University Hospital. The body of Leon Anderton, 68, was removed to be embalmed at Gregory B. Levett & Sons Funeral Homes reportedly without the consent of the hospital or family.

This is an example in everyday life that involves the problematic nature of a corpse. Can someone own a corpse? Who has the authority to handle this corpse? Why would something like this happen and why is so problematic that it did happen?

Something that also came up in this article is that the embalming process does not adhere to Orthodox Christian beliefs, which the family of the deceased is. But the process was already done by the funeral home when the body was returned. How does one rectify this situation when rituals so personal to a family are overlooked? Are there measures set up for this in their culture? Should there be? Why is it that embalming is the go-to ritual in American funeral homes? Since we have such diversity in our country, shouldn’t funeral directors cater to the diversity that exists in funeral rituals?

Beautiful and Macabre Meet in Art

Look at this page, it’s on tumblr. This person makes porcelain figures of young, beautiful, 19th century-looking women with organs or their heads in their hands. This reminds me of our discussion of the idea of death being mixed with sensuality or beauty in the 17th and 18th centuries. The best way that they seemed to have represented this was with young women of a marriageable age coming into contact with the personification of death, or sometimes being that personification of death. These porcelain figures bring this gruesomeness of death and adds it to these beautiful women, who seem to be the picture of femininity. What are y’all’s thoughts on this? What message is this sending? and is it a good one? Does it speak to some nonchalance on our part about death? Does it discredit or support our pairing of beauty with death?

Seems almost zombie-like to me.

Marrying a Corpse


I recently just watched the Tim Burton movie The Corpse Bride and it got me thinking about the two worlds of the living and dead that Burton had created in the movie.

If you don’t know plot, a young Victorian man named Victor is supposed to marrying an woman, named Victoria, from an upper-class but unbelievably poor family that is using Victor’s rich merchant family to keep themselves from going bankrupt. Victor afraid of his wedding vows, runs away from the rehearsal in the woods, where, reciting his wedding vows, finally gets them right and put the ring on what looks like the root of a tree. Little does he know he actually put the ring on a corpse of a young bride who was murdered on her wedding night, becoming her husband. And the plot thickens…

What is interesting in this movie is the stark contrast between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The world of the dead is colorful, full of raucous jazz and laughter and is almost poking fun at the way each person died by making jokes about a man cut in half, the head of a waiter, etc. etc. And the way the Corpse Bride was betrayed and killed by her lover is made into a fantastically fun song that a skeleton named Bone Jangles sings. Comparatively, the world of the living is black and white and filled with organ music. The living appear more dead than the dead, with their sunken-in eyes and grey lips.

This is a story where the dead have this life in them that the living lack. The world of the living is restrained and limited, dark and grey, whereas the world of the dead is raucous and fun, jazzy, bright and coloful.

Update: In light of our discussion today on 17th and 18th century views on death, I would like to point out that the love and sensuality of death that is brought out in these centuries, is apparent in this movie. We are not particularly disgusted that Victor will marry the corpse bride, we’re still banking on Victoria, but we feel sorry for the dead bride who was killed by a person she loved and trusted. What we might find problematic in relating to the bride is that she is dead and we are not, but look at the song lyrics of “Tears to Shed”, a song she sings:

The Corpse Bride – Tears to Shed

I know, it’s a spider and maggot telling her how special she is, BUT the message of the song is that she can still feel and do everything a living human can except breath (and she’s rotting, of course). She is still seen as beautiful and mostly marriageable and Victor promises to marry her. Of course this is post 17th and 18th century so Victor can’t be married to a dead person, but has to kill himself in order to be with her (so no real necrophilia here) and eventually Victor and Victoria do end up together so it’s living with living and dead with dead as it should be. Still it has that same sensuality of death that was beginning to be represented in the 17th c. then carried on to extremity in the 18th c.