Death Like You’ve Never Seen It Before: Joanna Ebenstein at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

Joanna Ebenstein – Producer

I grew up in California in the 1980s, which was a very sunny, extroverted culture. And I had an interest in darkness and death, which did not make me very popular. I kept dead animals in my room, thanks to my father back there. And I started clubs where we wrote essays for fun and I loved books where – spoiler alert – the main character dies. I don’t know why so many young adult novels are like that, but they are.

The antidote to my life in California were summers spent with my grandparents in Peekskill and Mahopac, New York. My grandparents were both Holocaust survivors and they both studied medicine. And they provided my sisters and I with a love for art and culture, and also a no-nonsense approach to life, death and the body.

When my grandmother was in her 90s and her health very much in decline, and having lost her husband of 60 plus years, she would often tell me that she wanted to die, that she was ready to go, and that she couldn’t tell anyone else but me. And she would call me her father confessor.

And I remember marveling at the fact that it had become so difficult to talk about such topics in our society and wondering how that could’ve come about. How did it become taboo to talk about, as I saw it, just about the most important thing you could say to another human being? Much of my work over the past 20 or so years has been trying to grapple with these questions, and my techniques were to research and photograph as many of these ways of dealing with death as possible with an eye towards practices that were once prevalent and high culture that now seem bizarre or morbid.

The more I looked around, the more I began to believe that the way we look at death in America today is by far the exception rather than the rule. It seems to me that every other time or culture has had a dignified discourse around what is essentially maybe the universal problem – the fact that we’re all going to die and the mystery of that fact.

I really got into this stuff when I went to Europe for the first time in my youth, and when I was there, I got introduced to a lot of objects that kind of merged death and beauty in ways that really shocked my California sensibility. For example, on the obligatory Sound of Music tour, right behind where the Von Trapps got married are these five jeweled skeletons. I had never seen anything like this.

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What were these? And it’s Salzburg Cathedral. I was introduced to the concept of the memento mori via this wax anatomical Jesus Christ, a dead Jesus. Memento mori are essentially objects created for the sole purpose of reminding viewers that they will die, with the hope that they will live a holy life and thus avoid the fires of hell. They were very popular in the 17th century when Europe was wracked by plague.

I was also introduced to objects made from human hair, usually that of the deceased, like this piece. Portraits of dead nuns and post-mortem photographs, which were popular in the Victorian age when child mortality was very high. They say three in five children died before reaching adulthood, and photography was very expensive, so this might be the only photograph the family had of a child.

I also went to ossuaries or charnal houses such as Sedlec Chapel outside of Prague and this one, which is San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. These are quite common in Europe where until very recently to be buried was more like a temporary rental than a purchase, so as soon as your body was clear to flesh, it would be moved aside to make room for new bodies and your bones would be used in these kind of decorative arrangements in holy spaces where they could still be visited.

As I got older, I continued to do these kind of trips. I went to the Palermo catacombs, which is in Sicily. It’s been a tourist attraction for well over a hundred years, and here the Capuchin monks mummify and display in their Sunday best the bodies of those wealthy enough to afford it in the 17th and 18th centuries. And I began to travel the churches to look at objects from the Catholics called the saints, things like relics which are body parts, remains of saints and martyrs that are believed to have usually magical healing properties. Or corpus sancti, which are essentially effigies of saints that also house their sacred remains – that’s an arm bone, and those are her real teeth.

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If anyone has gone to see St. Theresa in Rome, she is directly across from that. And also incorruptible saints whose body is a sign of their sanctity, simply don’t decay, so that’s Saint Catherine of Siena. I also began to be interested in what sort of things might be happening today in other cultures, so I started an annual trip to Mexico, where death is very famously embraced with the humor and whimsy, very unlike our attitudes here today. This is best known through its ceremonies of Day of the Dead, which is essentially a hybrid between indigenous practices and Catholic All Saints’ or All Souls’ Day, with a bit of Halloween thrown in for good measure. On this day, children are given sugar skulls with their names written on them, and children, adults, and sometimes even pets are dressed as skeletons.

People also make altars to their deceased loved ones in public places and at the cemetery. Then they head to the cemetery where they spend the day. And a candlelit night, eating, drinking, singing, laughing, crying, hanging out with their families and welcoming intruders like myself. I was also in Seoul; I went to the Seoul cemetery for Korean Thanksgiving Day or Chuseok, which is not that unlike Day of the Dead. On this day, people go to the cemeteries, they tidy the graves of their ancestors and eat, drink, play with the children and engage in ritual bowing. I also stumbled upon this interesting thing going on today in Fontanelle cemetery. This is an ossuary in Naples and here women adopt these abandoned skulls – abandoned, anonymous skulls – and they clean them, they care for them and they make them these little houses and they pray for the soul’s speedy trip through the purgatory in the hopes that when they get to heaven, they might help their friends on Earth. This is still going on today.

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