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The End, Our Only Friend

Posted on 27 Oct 2017

Artist, writer and founder of the Morbid Anatomy blog, Joanna Ebenstein opens up about our relationship with the Grim Reaper

This miniature mortuary tableau greeted viewers who put a coin in an early 20th century penny arcade automaton. [Credit: Skinner, Inc.]

‘Laughing at or playing with death is a time-honoured strategy for making friends with it,’ says Joanna Ebenstein, whose book Death: A Graveside Companion presents centuries of humankind’s attempts to come to terms with mortality, from eye-boggling art and artefacts, to paintings to mummies to effigies, and including a multiplicity of differently stylized skeletons.

How do the attitudes of the past compare with 21st century western culture’s terror of death?

Until very recently, death was a prosaic, visible part of everyday life. The ideal death was to die at home surround by loved ones. Many children died before reaching adulthood, people butchered their own animals, and mourning was a ritualized practice with its own costume and handicrafts. Today, in much of western culture, death has become invisible, exotic, other. It tends to happen discreetly offstage, behind the closed door of the hospital. Without the frame of religion or meaningful rituals, death is now seen as the hated enemy, something to be conquered, rather than a meaningful life transition experienced by all. It’s no wonder death has become so terrifying and, at the same time, so fascinating.

Essays on ‘Poe and the Pathological Sublime’ and ‘Eros and Thanatos’ and images of eroticized skeletal matter, showcase the relationship between death and sensuality. Does such an approach to death exist in the present day?

Images linking eros and thanatos, or sex and death, became popular in the west in the 17th century, but they go back much further in other cultures. I think they are an attempt to grapple with a paradoxical, half-glimpsed truth that has something to do with the intimate relationship between life (including sex) and death, evoking larger themes of death and rebirth, fertility and decay, and the cyclical nature of time. One can still see this trope in the realms of popular culture; the beautiful corpse of Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is a perfect example. Lovely corpses also abound on TV shows such as Law and Order, and, of course, slasher films rely on the frisson of the death and/or mutilation of beautiful, sexualized women. The depth of the relationship between sex and death is also hinted at by the French term for orgasm, ‘La petite mort,’ or ‘The Little Death.’

A 17th-century miniature Christ, with removable chest-plate, one of author Joanna Ebenstein's favourite pieces [Credit: Museo dell’Agricoltura e del Mondo Rurale, San Martino io Rio (Reggio Emilia, Italy).]

Which objects or images stand out for you?

It’s so hard to choose, but there are two that come to mind. First, the enigmatic 17th century miniature anatomical Christ, with a chest plate that lifts off to reveal his tiny wax ribcage and entrails. Another favourite is Mexican artist Dr Lakra’s Mujer Sobre Buró (Woman on Bureau), a contemporary take on the Death and the Maiden genre, in which a figure of death is seen seducing a beautiful, voluptuous woman.

How would a compendium of modern images of death compare to historical representations?

That’s a great question. First of all, it would not be very beautiful. One of the most remarkable things to me about historical images of death are the ways in which death and beauty can coexist in a single object. This can be surprising or even shocking to the contemporary eye. I think you would see a lot of journalistic images of war and disasters which were very unsettling but had little aesthetic gloss or interest.

What originally drew you to such a morbid subject?

My whole life, I’ve been called morbid for being interested in death. But why, I began to wonder, should such an interest be deemed morbid? Death is, after all, the great mystery of human life; everyone who has ever lived has died, and, despite all our enviable scientific advances, we have not managed to vanquish death, nor do we know what happens to us after we die. The more I looked at the cultural practices of different times and places, the more convinced I became that contemporary attitudes were the exception rather than the rule. The over 1,000 images in the book seem to suggest the same thing: that rather than it being strange to contemplate images of death, historically speaking, it’s much more strange not to.


A Graveside Companion Joanna Ebenstein