The Morbid Anatomy Museum on a Sunday afternoon, hungover from a debaucherous Saturday night out, I wander with a friend through the smallest museum I’ve ever been inside. It’s made up of two rooms–one a spare gallery with photographs and paintings hung on the wall that could look like any other gallery save for the images depicted in the pictures and one smaller room, half library of books on death, dying, the occult, and oddities, and half cramped display of all things unnerving, from taxidermy to medical drawings. We don’t need much time to walk the circumference of the museum, slowing down to take in the particularly bizarre items.
The current exhibit, “The Art of Mourning” displays rare collections of death-related artwork, from post-mortem photography to death masks to brooch’s made of loved ones’ hair. The collection comes from the “mourning culture” of the 18th to the 20th centuries in America and Europe. Post-mortem paintings and photographs were prized possessions that commemorated a deceased love one while simultaneously helping with the survivors’ grieving process. Looking at the pictures now, many of them depicting dead children and babies, I’m taken aback by the need some people felt to immortalize a loved one’s mortality. The children, forever captured in their state of stilted innocence, frozen purity, look asleep in the pictures. Other artworks depict the children with eyes open sitting in heavenly-seeming clouds–artistic license to give grieving parents a hopeful fantasy of the afterlife.
Death has a nasty way of worming itself into all aspects of our lives, down to our artistic expressions. Or perhaps it is the other way around–we need to apply art to death in order to infuse it with meaning. Earlier yesterday, while my friend and I philosophized over brunch and endless cups of life-renewing coffee, she told me of Albert Camus’s theory of absurdism–the world is absurd, chaotic, and meaningless, but we as humans desire to find meaning and apply it to this meaningless world. I couldn’t help but revisit this thought as I wandered through the museum and stared at the artwork created out of grief, made with the good intention of helping people cope.
Close to one year now since my brother died, I think of the way I’ve memorialized him, the tattoo etched into my ribs, my writing, and the locket I hope to someday find to hold my favorite picture of him, one from when he was a blond toddler in a bow tie, so new and unbetrayed by the world. We can’t escape the need to turn death into a trinket, something material we can grasp in our hands when there is nothing left to hold. We have a human impulse to make a public display of death–from obituaries to Facebook grieving, Dia de los Muertos to this blog post. If we let our loved ones slip silently into the darkness, are we letting them down? Without our mourning clothes and our funeral buffets, do we worry we haven’t properly expressed our grief? Or are we simply trying to apply meaning to the meaningless, make art of death so at the very least we have something tangible to hold when we’re left to our own darkness?