A Stateside jaunt for our offering today as Cemetery Club member and London tour Guide Tina Hodgkinson writes of her visit to the the Death Salon Conference in Philadelphia earlier this month!
Megan Rosenbloom welcoming delegates to the Death Salon
I recently attended the Death Salon Conference at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, USA (4 – 6 October 2015). Although death is an inevitable part of life, in many cultures it is still a taboo topic, and is something that many of us feel uncomfortable discussing. Death Salon is inspirational as it engages in the topic in a respectful and meaningful way by providing a platform for academics, death professionals and the general public to meet and discuss death matters.
The conference included a diverse range of death and mourning related events including themed talks, a death ball, musical performances, special late night opening and behind the scenes tour of the Mutter Museum, quiz night and the Dark Artisans’ Bazaar, selling a range of death related gifts. It was an amazing couple of days covering a diverse range of themes, it was truly inspiring, thought provoking and at times quite emotional.
Putting the Rave in Graveyard, was a special cemetery themed talk, by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern’s about Laurel Hill Cemetery. The cemetery, which is located in Philadelphia’s suburbs, was founded in 1836 as an alternative to the city’s overcrowded burial grounds. It 78 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens has thousands of funeral monuments, tombs and mausoleums.
From its very earliest days the public were encouraged to visit and this picturesque site became so popular venue for strolls, sightseeing, picnics and carriage rides that tickets were issued – see above.
Among the notable people buried there is Henrietta Garrett, a multimillionaire heiress who died in 1930 without leaving a will. Over 25,000 people came forward to try to claim her fortune and rumors spread that Henrietta’s will had been buried with her in her casket. Armed guards were employed to watch her grave for fear of body snatchers. Eventually in 1937 her body was exhumed but no documents were found. Most of the fortune ended up being spent on legal fees but eventually three distant cousins were identified as legitimate heirs.
Author, Sarah J Hale is also buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. She wrote the well-known nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb. She’s also the person credited for helping to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States; originally it was only celebrated in New England but she advocated and campaigned to several Presidents until it became a national holiday in 1836.
Robert Cornelius, a pioneering photographer and the creator of the first “selfie”, was also buried in Laurel Hill. In 1839 he took a photo of himself at his family’s shop and this is considered to be the world oldest self-portrait.
Moving on from cemeteries to music, on Monday evening Lavinia Jones Wright (The 78 Project) gave us a talk about Murder Ballads. These are traditional ballads with lyrics that describes the events of a murder, often from the point of view of the victim or the murderer. While these songs about death are fascinating and macabre they also impart a warning message to other as they usually end with the murderer going to jail or being executed.
We were treated to a musical performance of historical murder ballads by Rosie Guerin (Vandaveer), J. Tom Hnatow (Vandaveer, The Mynabirds) and Justin Craig (Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway) – video clip above.
If you’d like to hear another Murder Ballad, I would suggest listening to Pretty Polly by Vandaveer (above) it is probably one of the most gruesome, as it tells the tale of premediated murder, as Willy has dug Polly’s grave the night before he takes her for a walk in the woods to kill her.
On the second day Dr. Norma Bowe talked about her “Death in Perspective” class at Kean University. Since teaching the class she has re-written the syllabus to provide a very practical and hands on approach with visits to hospices, undertakers and cemetery scavenger hunt – see photo above. Norma’s warmth and compassion really came across as she shared some very personal stories about how a course about death has been so life affirming for so many of her students.
All the speakers were extremely knowledgeable and engaging and below I’ve made a list of the ones I have not mentioned already.
Historical Skeletal Preparations by Ryan Matthew Cohn, osteologist
Death Spaces Panel with Colin Dickey, author, on American Civil War battlefields and Bess Lovejoy, author, on Hart Island, NYC which is a mass public burial ground with approximately 1 million bodies
The curious story of One-eyed Joe and the 1867 Anatomy Act by Evi Numen, artist, photographer and Mutter Museum exhibitions manager
Mummie Dearest by Dr. Paul Koudounaris, author and photographer
Breathing New Life into Old Mummies: Conservation of Egyptian. Mummies at the Penn Museum by Molly Gleeson, Penn Museum Project Conservator
Skin Deeper: Identifying & Analyzing the World’s Books Bound in Human Skin Panel with Anna Dhody, Mutter Museum Curator, Dr. Daniel Kirby, analytical chemist, Dr. Richard Hark, Juniata College Chemistry Chair and Megan Rosenbloom, Death Salon Director
Los Angelitos: The Rituals and Art of Child Death in Mexico by Sarah Troop, Curator for the Lindsay Museum
Preserved in Perpetuity: The Art and Science of Incorrupt Saints by Elizabeth Harper
Perfect Vessels by David Orr, artist
Death from the Doctor/Daughter Perspective by Death from the Doctor/Daughter Perspective, at University of Pennsylvania
Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialog with the Dead in Museums by Robert Hicks, Mütter Museum Director
Dying Trans: Preserving Identity In Death by Christine Colby, Penthouse Magazine Managing Editor
The next Death Salon is going to be a Film Festival in Houston, USA in September 2016.