Report: The Art of Mourning, at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum

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The guestbook at the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s disquieting, edifying, ultimately strangely heartening inaugural exhibition, The Art of Mourning, is,perhaps predictably, a hodgepodge of reactions running the gamut from the ecstatic—“Loved it—morbidity and all!” “Morbidly awesome!”—to the eccentric—“Now I’m hungry for pickles”; “I’ve been dead three years”—to the…well, just “Ewww!!!!” 

Yet as I lean in to examine a truly exquisite memorial diorama of a graveyard, its painted wood trees and wax obelisk tombstone encircled by ornate fence chains woven out of hair that (likely) once sprung from the head of the mourned, the comment that most sums up my feelings could have been written by the gothiest girl at Sweet Valley High…

I *heart* Victorian sentimentality!

Curated by Morbid Anatomy’s eloquent, hyper-incisive founder Joanna Ebenstein and Evan Michelson of the Discovery Channel show Oddities, The Art of Mourning promises a showcase of “decorative arts related to mourning culture from the 18th to the 20th century.” What it really delivers to this flourishing new Brooklyn mecca of weirdness however, is an immersive time machine tour of antique keepsakes once peddled on the outskirts of undiscovered country, procured by human beings genetically identical to us, but culturally almost another species entirely.

And what are these wares?

• Post-mortem photography and memorial cards depicting and commemorating the deceased, infant to elderly; the sorrowful gazes and prostrations of the living sometimes carefully posed alongside the dead, validating across the ages the Emily Dickinson quote posted at the entrance to the exhibit: “Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.”

• Hair art shadowboxes and jewelry, foreign to us in its raw materials, stunning in its execution. (For those taken with this art form, master jeweler Karen Bachmann will hold a hair art workshop at Morbid Anatomy on February 7.)

• Truly must see-it-to-believe-it mourning paraphernalia.

• A gorgeous ketubah-esque Hebrew death certificate. 

• Death masks.

• Spirit photography.

• Symbolic bunches of forget-me-nots hidden throughout the various representations like beautiful Easter eggs of doom.

“These aren’t aberrations from the past,” Ebenstein says, waving at the wall of post-mortem photos. “They are relics of a former way of life that was as normal to them as wearing black to a funeral is to us. We’re living in a moment right now when it is considered perverse to look at death. Extended mourning is generally regarded as pathological. But we’re the only culture that has ever had the luxury of largely ignoring death. We expect to live to eighty and we die in hospitals and our bodies aren’t laid out in our own parlors by family anymore, but at a funeral home by trained undertakers. At the time many of these pictures were taken, three out of five children died before adulthood. Photography was a new and expensive medium—for many of these people this might have been the only image of their loved ones they could afford to have captured. These hair art pieces could take months, years even, and they saw the act of making something as an aid to get through their loss.”

“So were they morbid?” she continues. “Or did they just have different priorities because of their closeness to death and dying? That’s obviously open to individual interpretation, but without a doubt we are in the middle of a huge cultural experiment, and many of us are beginning to feel as though the current rituals of death are not providing us the solace or closure or answers we naturally seek.”

The Art of Mourning will be put six feet under on Friday, January 16 after an evening ceremony, which will include a mourning-themed costume party, a final tour of the exhibition by Michelson and Ebenstein, music by DJ in residence Friese Undine, traditional mourning foods by Rachel Ridout and traditional mourning biscuits by funeral director Amy Cunningham, mourning film clips curated by David Cory and Meg Moseley, and complimentary drinks and snacks.

Don’t fret, though: The morbidity does not expire, but only changes form. In addition to the museum’s semi-permanent outré, perception-challenging displays, events, and oddball-as-hell classes—fancy chicken taxidermy class, anyone?—a new exhibit, The Collector’s Cabinet, will open on January 23, bringing together a bevy of privately held artifacts including Weimar erotica, a pre-1800 wax memento mori figurine depicting “a decaying corpse crawling with vermin,” an anthropomorphic taxidermy tableau, rare 19th century baboon arm candlesticks, and a Victorian scrap book filled with human hair.

And so, while it will be hard to say goodbye to The Art of Mourning, Ebenstein is satisfied that the shockingly popular exhibit has ushered a bit of enlightenment into a dark corner of the modern Western human experience that we, at turns, fear and ignore.

“If there has been one thing that surprised me, it’s the positivity of people coming out of the exhibit,” she says. “It makes me think maybe we did what we set out to do, which is help people question their attitudes and assumptions a little bit—not tell them what to think or beat them over the head with our interpretations, but just look at something a little different and…ask themselves to go a little deeper. 

“Maybe they go a little deeper and still think a wall of dead baby pictures is creepy and not right,” she adds, “but if we presented them an opportunity to think through to that conclusion, I’m happy to have done that.”

A full list of Morbid Anatomy Museum events, classes, and exhibits visit Morbid Anatomy Museum. Micro updates via Twitter and Facebook.