Category Archives: cadaver

Bodies in the Museum

The presentation of art/artifacts in museums involve the art’s value, respect for the artist[s], and accessibility by the public, but how does this change when presenting subjects such as human remains? Everyone handles the subject of death differently which applies to how people handle seeing death as well, especially human remains. How can a museum handle the issue of presenting human remains? One interesting experience I have had for the display of human remains is of the bog bodies in the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, Ireland.

My expectations differed greatly than what I saw. I expected to see glass cases throughout the room with the bodies inside. However, there were tall painted cylindrical columns with information about the bodies interspersed throughout the room. These information panels on the outside of the columns told the viewer everything about the body itself, the history and also had a faint sketch of the body. If someone wanted to learn about the bog bodies but did not want to see the bodies themselves, this way of presentation benefited their interests. If one wanted to view the actual body, they had to enter the opening in the column which went down inside of the column to where the body was located.

"Bog Body" by Mark Healey

Bog Body” by markhealey is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Before this visit I had never thought that the presentation of human remains in a museum may disturb some individuals but I think this way of presentation done by the National Museum of Archaeology was very sensitive and thoughtful for all visitors. It allowed those who wanted to see the bodies to see them but also hid the bodies away so those who did not want to see the bodies didn’t have to see them.

This sensitivity to presentation is also apparent in the Michael C. Carlos museum. The mummy that is on display is located in one of the side rooms so if a visitor does not want to see it they do not have to enter this offset room. The sensitivity to the presentation of deceased is an important aspect museums have to face when wanting to display human remains.

Frozen in Time

Kim Suozzi died in January of 2013, but she may have a second chance at life—in 100 years or so. According to a recent New York Times article, Suozzi, who died at age 23 of an aggressive form of cancer, chose to have her brain cryogenically frozen in the hopes of one day being revived (possibly with her memories and personality still intact).

Suozzi and long-term boyfriend Josh Schisler were about as realistic as possible regarding the idea of cryogenics: they hoped that Kim would eventually be able to come back to life in an artificial body, using a computer to feel and sense things. Despite the decidedly unappealing prospect of living without a body (immediately after her death, Kim’s head was detached from her body in order to expedite the freezing process), Suozzi and Schisler were enthusiastic and hopeful. Said Schisler, “I just think it’s worth trying to preserve Kim.”

As is the case in many situations involving death, Kim’s loved ones were at odds with each other. Her father, who ultimately was not given power of attorney, reportedly told Kim, “Dying is a part of life…we don’t life forever.” But Kim and Josh persevered, eventually securing the money for the procedure, mostly through anonymous donations.

Currently, Kim’s brain remains frozen

at a private facility in Arizona.

Aside from the science fiction-y overtones in the article, I think the story raises some very real questions about the role of medical technology in overcoming death. Is freezing the human brain really a triumph over death? By all accounts, Kim Suozzi most definitely died on that January day. But if the possibility of coming back to life—in whatever form that may be—is real, then can we really write her off as dead? And how close is science actually to being able to achieve what Kim and Josh had hoped? I was simultaneously disturbed and intrigued by this article; I found myself wondering if in the future death will even exist at all.

Delicious Corpses

Marina Abramović , a famous performance artist who now lives in New York, is a prominent figure in the art community.  To understand her work I had to first understand performance art. Basically, it is a form of art that incorporates real personal emotions and interactions usually in the forms of public performances and videos. In one interview, Abramović , who self-identifies as the grandmother of performance art, stated that a performance artist never hesitates to cut or harm his or her own body for the sake of the artistic message because the body is only a canvas. Most of her work consists of very unusual public acts, including nude performances with skeletons and interacting with museum visitors in a previously constructed display, like a large table.


In regards to this class, Abramović’s most relevant art performance was at the MOCA Gala LA in 2011. The event was set up with a large stage in the middle of the room with oval-shaped banquet tables stationed around it, each set with plates and place settings to instruct guests where to sit.  Though this set up seems traditional, it was the details of the event that Abramović used to send her artistic message.  All servers wore long white coats similar to a doctor’s white coat and each table had a centerpiece either of a skeleton or of a live actor’s head (a hole was cut in the table for the actor to stick his or her head through). For the actors in the tables, I believe they were instructed to act as lifeless as possible. I say this because the footage of the event shows the actors staring at guests with “dead” facial expressions.


After guests were seated, the live performances began. This part of the event included different performances by varying artists, along with Abramović’s reading from a section of her manifesto about the role of the artist in society as an entertainer and a selfless teacher. After this reading, Blondie took the stage and performed her song, “Heart of Glass.” As her performance came to an end, shirtless men brought out two large planks each carrying a large object draped in an opaque shroud. When Blondie finished her song, Abramović came on stage and unveiled the objects. The objects were life-sized naked corpses that each resembled one of the artists on stage. It turns out they were cakes. After handing Blondie a knife, the two artists moved to her own replica cake; Abramović, a brunette, moved to the brunette cake and Blondie moved to the blonde one. Each performer proceeded to stab the woman cake in the heart and hold up handfuls to the audience.  It was this action that struck me the most.


Would simply cutting the cake not send a sufficient message? The stabbing act was extremely unsettling for me, and the video of the event made sure to include the reactions of the celebrity guests. The video of the event ends on an image of the devoured woman cake with the serving knife sticking out of its chest; a very unsettling image due to the life-like appearance of the woman cake’s face and the color of the cake.


During this large dinner event, which doubled as a performance art piece, I believe that the corpse cakes were meant to symbolize an artist’s body of work. This is a great example of the symbolism that a corpse can have. Because it is an inanimate object, it innately represents victimization and helplessness. Does this mean that Abramović wished to state that she felt viciously devoured by her audience and fans? But doesn’t she enjoy being an entertainer? Why else would she choose that career? Maybe this was meant to symbolize that she wanted herself to be consumed by her audience, which would mean the corpse cake simply represented herself and her dreams.

Overall, the performance succeeded at evoking profound emotions from the audience, including myself. Abramović’s belief that an artist’s body is a canvas was brought to a new level with the cutting of the cake. I can imagine the discomfort that guests would have felt while eating a cake that was so human-like, which I’m sure Abramović understood. The whole event was raw and unusual, which art should be. Her message was stark and I applaud her methods of pushing the envelope.







Animal Mummies: How we cherish pets beyond life

In the time of ancient Egypt, mummification was a common tradition for the treatment of human remains after death. Less frequently discussed is the inclusion of animal remains in the practice of this rite. Mummified animals were often meant as offerings to the gods or goddesses, of which they were representative (cats for Bastet, crocodiles for Sebek, baboons for Thoth, just to cite a few examples), and were even bred specifically for such a sacrificial purpose. But animals were also mummified for other intents and motives.

Cat mummies and Bastet statues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Cat mummies and Bastet statues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The practice of mummification was used for the remains of the cherished pets of Egyptian individuals, signifying the affection that Egyptians, just like modern Americans, feel towards their animal companions. Although this may be a matter of projection in terms of attributing our values to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, evidence would suggest that the emotion, the feeling of mourning felt with the passing of a human relative, could also be felt in response to the death of a non-human associate, a pet. In these cases, the Egyptians performed the same rituals with respect to the preservation of remains on animals as were used on humans.

Crocodile mummies at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Crocodile mummies at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

I think this topic of animal mummification provides an opportunity to reflect on how our society deals with the death of pets, and in which ways we differ with and are the same as the Egyptians. I would argue just on my own personal, anecdotal account that we lack the same sort of tradition to deal with this aspect of life (and death). Funerals for pets are relatively infrequent and are often not regarded with the same formality and ritual as that of a human. I would assume these differences might stem from our contradictory perspectives on the state of the after-life. For the Egyptians, their pets would join them as companions in the next realm of paradise. But I am not aware of any similar concept held by those who believe in the Heaven of the Christian faith.

I also know of a semi-recent small trend that has developed with the taxidermizing of pets, so that their memory is practically frozen in place. I thought it was amusing when I visited the museums in Vienna, that in Naturhistorisches Museum is Empress Maria Theresa’s stuffed dog. So in a way, taxidermy of pets is almost a more modern form of pet mummification.


I would also be interested in hearing the perspectives of individuals with other cultural backgrounds on how the treatment of animal corpses differs not just between two societies from vastly separated time periods, but also within a more modern, contemporary context.

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?




Finally about the Walking Dead

The Walking Dead has been a hit TV show for the past four years. While I have watched it religiously, the theme of death in the show never stood out to me before. There have always been themes of staying alive and sticking together as a group, but the zombie as a character had never been discussed. The show is based around the main character, Rick Grimes; an ex-sheriff who wakes up as a patient in an abandoned hospital and quickly learns that he is in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. For three full seasons, Rick has lead his group into different battles and through a variety of adventures while simultaneously trying to avoid being bitten by a zombie. Although at least one zombie has been present in each episode, these undead characters and their hunger for human flesh have been a side-story to the drama and strife between “survivors.”

The episode that aired this past Sunday was the season premiere for Season 4. In one of the opening scenes, a bunch of the children from the group are standing by the chain-link fence that encloses the group’s camp. As they stand and giggle at the zombies struggling against the fence to get in, one girl starts to name the zombies and encourages the other children to remember the names. At the same time, Rick’s son, Carl, storms up to the group of children and yells at them for naming the zombies. He states that they can’t have names because they aren’t people anymore. They are dead. The young girl replies that they are still people because they walk and are hungry but they are just different types of people now. This is the FIRST time during the show that the zombies have been discussed in a non-violent and contemplative manner.

A bit later in the episode, a few individuals from the group decide to go on a grocery run at the nearest corner shop. While they are there, several zombies break in to the building and start attacking them. The cinematography during this scene is unlike any that has been used in the show before. Instead of filming different shots far enough to include the zombie and the “living” person it is attacking, the camera focuses on the zombie’s missing limbs as they move to illustrate their animated death. I believe that this focus on the animation of an incomplete and rotting corpse forces the viewer to re-evaluate what it means to be “living.”

The past three seasons, which have been marked by drama between the “survivors,”  has included infidelity, murder, racism and deception… But has always seemed a bit average. However, this new focus on the zombies as the “living dead” instead of soulless animals is sure to bring a new layer to the show that will make the fourth season new and inventive.




Over the break I watched the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” which follows the story of a woman FBI agent on her mission to stop a serial killer, being aided by a convicted cannibal along the way. This movie raised many interesting questions about the symbolism of human flesh in the public consciousness.


(but really why haven’t you seen Silence of the Lambs?)

For those of you ignoring the spoiler warning, the main issue I found with the movie was the sacredness of human flesh, particularly of the skin. Part of what makes the movie so disturbing is that the serial killer uses the skin of his victims to form a sort of skin suit so that he can become a woman. I found this defilement of human flesh to be particularly disturbing, so I wanted to think about why I experienced such a strong reaction to this abuse of flesh.

Possibly part of the reason the tampering of skin is so disturbing is because skin is what constitutes a person’s unique physicality. A person’s facial features are integrated into their skin, and after having seen a body without skin, the person is basically unrecognizable without their skin. Thus, when a person loses their skin, they lose an important part of their identity. To add onto this, the serial killer dons the skin of his victims, in a sense robbing and adopting part of their identity.

Compounding this disrespect for flesh is the character of Hannibal, who is a cannibal. Cannibalism occupies a particularly heinous place in public consciousness by being almost beyond comprehension. Why is this? One of the most violent scenes in the movie occurs during a scene in which Hannibal eats part of a man’s face. Building off of the idea of the skin as an important part of a person’s identity, imbibing skin could be seen as both a flagrant disregard for someone’s identity and as a disregard for the sacredness of the human body as a whole. Even when dead, the human body retains part of its status as a person through the imposition of moral limits on treatment of the dead body. Eating human flesh will always be disturbing, regardless of if the body is dead or still alive.


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:

Carpe Mortem: Seize Death!

“Carpe Mortem”…. reads the title of this post. It is certainly not a popular or well-received saying for that matter. The phrase definitely has its share of negative connotations, and this past week I stumbled upon an interesting comedy clip, Don’t Fear Death, that defies the typical responses to mortality and instead glorifies the concept of death!


Courtesy of Dice Productions, this twisted humor features a male narrator who boasts of the benefits of dying. The narrator claims that with death comes freedom and the lack of responsibility. His obsession with death essentially implies that the fear of death is irrational. Although he aims to present his views in a positive light, the video clip is riddled with dark imagery, which does not necessarily seem like a strategic way of convincing audiences that death is as glorious and advantageous as the narrator perceives it to be. Every scene displays human corpses, bodily fluids, and there are also multiple appearances from Grim Reaper. However, this is an animated clip, so this imagery somewhat adds to the underlying humor of the overall story. It also decreases the affect that the concept of death and this perceived glorification may have truly had on general audiences if, say instead, real humans had been cast to portray the narrative.

At one point during the clip, the narrator questions our innate fear of death, and then proceeds to answer. Humans are “wary of that bright light and scared of the unknown.” Yes. This is certainly true considering the fact that generally as a culture, death is inevitably stigmatized and talk of it can be unsettling. That being said, humans are instinctively apprehensive of what awaits them: the nature of the death process, what it does to our bodies, how it affects the survivors, as we talked about in class, and how we, as a society, perceive death from that moment forward. Humans do not have control over such a phenomenon, which, in turn, can be frightening.

The end of the clip is comical and features an unexpected twist. The viewers discover that the male voice is that of a flight attendant on a plane, full of passengers, and that the plane has actually caught on fire. When the flight attendant concludes his unusual and for all intensive purposes, disturbing banter about the wonders of death, he is met with a silent and disapproving reaction from the passengers, who are also distraught about their life-threatening situation. Frustrated, the flight attendant takes the last available parachute, and he himself escapes death and lands safely, leaving the poor passengers destitute.

I am completely certain that the flight attendant is in denial of death. It is amusing that the he had never experienced death, but interestingly enough felt it necessary to speak so highly of the concept of death.  Perhaps a logical explanation for his behavior was that he was unsure of how to confront the issue of death that soon awaited him. Maybe he wanted to convince himself to accept his fate, something he probably still feared even though he claimed otherwise. The fact that he selfishly left the passengers and escaped contradicts his entire argument that death is not the curse it once was. I believe that the writer chose to end the clip this way to reinforce this idea of mocking the public’s fear of and reactions to death. In all, the social implications of death, as illustrated by the flight passengers and ironically the actions of the attendant himself, demonstrate that culturally, there is much discomfort when dealing with and engaging in discourse concerning death.

View the clip here:

Fear of the Rising of the Undead

Eating your way out of your grave sounds like something from an old kooky horror television show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; in renaissance Venice, it was a terrifying reality.  According to folklore, a corpse-turned-vampire would chew its way through its funerary shroud and emerge from the grave as a fully-fledged “traditional” vampire.  The only way to defeat the vampire was to wedge a brick in the corpse’s mouth to prevent it from chewing.  This particular myth of the vampire was perpetuated by the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Plague victims were buried in mass graves; when another person died, the grave was reopened to add their body and once opened, the gravediggers met with a very unfortunate surprise.  The corpses already inside the grave seemed to have already attempted to eat themselves out; the shroud covering the mouth had been worn through and stained very dark.  The terrified grave diggers would shove a brick into the “vampire’s” mouth to make it unable to chew and then re-bury it.  Had the shroud been stained by the draining blood that the vampires had drunk before being buried?


Skull of an “exorcised” vampire

Not really. This dark stain was caused by a fluid created from the decay of the gastrointestinal tract contents and lining that had then poured out through the nose and mouth.  The worn cloth was the result of putrid gases and moisture produced by the decaying corpse.  Even the gaping mouth is natural.  Everything that made the corpses “vampires” was really just the normal process of decomposition.

You can read more about the Venetian vampires here:

The superstition surrounding these particular vampires resulted from a misunderstanding of the process of decay.  In whatever time you live in, digging up a grave and exposing a bloated corpse with a black gaping chasm in place of its mouth would be terrifying, but at least now we have the medical knowledge to understand that the corpse has only undergone natural processes of decomposition.  Without our modern information though, how would you possibly explain this horrible discovery?

People had to come up with a reason of why this corpse was so terrifying.  Postmortem changes such as algor mortis (the cooling of the body) and rigor mortis (the temporary stiffening of the muscles) were known at this time but the corpse was usually interred in the ground while they were still in effect, especially if it was the body of a plague victim.  Naturally then, the corpse had to be alive to move.

The fear of these “vampires” embodies our fear of the corpse.  As a quasi-object, nothing is really definite about the corpse, except that it is dead.  So when a corpse comes back to life, our world turns on its head because now we don’t know anything for certain at all.  That death was apparently not permanent prompted thoughts of evil or Satanic involvement.  Since 16th century Italians were strongly Christian, the Devil’s interferences in the human world were real and terrifying.

Vampire folklore is not peculiar to 16th century Venice.  Other “vampire burials” have been discovered by archaeologists in places like Bulgaria, Poland, and even the Greek islands.  Many of the old cultures of Europe as well as around the world have their own version of the vampire.  They all also had their own ways of dealing with them.  Bulgaria, for instance, buried their vampires with iron stakes through their chests (read more here: Did all of these cultures come up with the idea of a vampire based on the misunderstood decomposition of the corpse?  Or is it simply our imagination running away with the personification of our fear of death?