Published in The Wheeler Centre, 9th December 2014
Leah Kaminsky was recently the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, researching a book on death anxiety. She reports back (with pictures) on her unique writing residency.
A gorilla’s hand reaches out to welcome me. A mummified frog on an embroidered skeleton motif tablecloth lies splayed beside a red, diaphanous foetal bat which floats in a jar of formaldehyde. Beside it, a fluffy yellow duckling, mounted inside a glass bell, stares out at me with its cute little black eyes – all four of them − from either side of its two heads.
I am surrounded wall-to-wall by the dead here at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. You’d think as a doctor I’d be used to that. As the inaugural writer-in-residence, I am researching a book on the topic of death anxiety – my own included.
On my first morning in NYC, I step off the F Train at Gowanis and promptly get lost. Asking people for directions to a Morbid Anatomy Museum attracts unusual stares. I head down 8th Street, past the house with the sign on the gate saying Beware, Guard Chihuahua on Duty and make a right on 3rd Avenue till I hit the cafe Pies To Die For. Looking up, I see an imposing grey building on the corner sporting a stark, white sign − Morbid Anatomy Museum − across the road from New Millenium Motors, where dead cars are up on hoists, being resurrected.
The curator of this unusual museum, Joanna Ebenstein, is a petite woman with straight blond hair and black spectacles. She greets me and shows me around their current exhibition, The Art of Mourning, which showcases memorial photography, death masks and decorative hair art shadow boxes and jewellery from the past two centuries, all artifacts on loan from the Burns Archive, run by legendary physician-collector Dr Stanley Burns. Alone in the library, I pore over books with titles like Making an Exit, Stiff, Photography & Death, and Ars Moriendi, peer at stereoscopic diableries and flip through a card game calledHuman Freaks & Oddities. A broad cross-section of visitors, all curious to learn more, are not shy in asking Laetitia, the library curator, questions. Hundreds of people frequent the museum daily: couples who wander around hand-in-hand on death dates, seniors that come along on special-rate group tours and children who think the papier mache skeletons and anatomical drawings on display are cool.
Down in the cafe, opposite the red La Marzocco espresso machine, a diorama of stuffed chipmunks on a moving Ferris wheel once on display at the Cress Funeral Home in Madison, Wisconsin, is now on sale for a mere $1500. Alternatively, customers may prefer unusual patterned fine china tableware, imported from The Anatomy Boutique in London – choosing to serve Aunty Grace’s lemon cake on a cardiac tissue design plate, or sip Earl Grey from a testicular histology motif cup and saucer. If this is beyond budget or turns customers off their food, there’s always the mounted wolf’s paw for $135 or the fox heart on sale for $35. Resident taxidermist, Katie Innamorato of Afterlife Anatomy, assures me all her specimens come from road kill. I’ve learnt a new term today: Road Taxidermy.
Until recently this place would have creeped me out, but three years ago I decided to journey into the belly of the beast and explore my own fear of death. I hoped that writing on the topic would help me find calmness in the face of mortality’s inexorable specter. During my research, my dual role as physician and writer has afforded me a privileged vantage point to explore the profound choices we make about how we live when we allow ourselves to think about death. I have met morticians, artists, nonagenarians, children with terminal illness, grave diggers and medical colleagues, spending my time discussing life with people who live at the very coal-face of death. Drawing upon my years as a practicing family doctor, being witness to so many inspiring first-hand stories and insights from my patients, I have set out to ponder a question that has haunted human beings from the beginning of time: how can we accept our constant vulnerability, the truth that our days are numbered and our deaths inevitable?
Death seems to be having a moment again, after a hiatus of over 100 years since its glory days during the reign of Queen Victoria, one of the greatest mourners in history. Her husband Prince Albert’s sudden death in 1861, at the age of 42, saw her spend the remaining 40 years of her life in self-imposed seclusion, wearing only black. Death Becomes Her, the current exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum in NYC, showcases a fascinating sartorial display of the mourning industry the widowed queen’s grief spurred in her day, from fashion items and jet jewellery to fancy funereal umbrellas.
Back at The Morbid Anatomy Museum, staff and docents seem so comfortable talking about death. It is a stark contrast to what I am used to in a clinical setting and I’m beginning to wonder if the prevalence of death anxiety is possibly at its greatest amongst my medical colleagues, if I’m anything to go by. After all, the medical profession has played a huge role over the past 50 years in anaesthetising discussion about dying, excising and sterilising death from our everyday lives, from womb right through to tomb. Being writer-in-residence at this museum has helped me learn to cuddle up a little more to Death. I’m realising he’s not such a scary guy after all.