They say that death is the last great taboo in Western society. However death was the guest of honour in Philly last week. From October 4th-7th, we had the opportunity to attend the 5th instalment of Death Salon, hosted at the “disturbingly informative” Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Death Salon is an opportunity for artists, academics, authors, morticians, pathologists, and the general public to come together and discuss all things death related. Its format is based on the French salons of the Enlightenment period, where women and men gathered for intellectual discussion.
The setting for this deathly event could not have been more, well, deathly. The Mütter contains a large collection of medical oddities, anatomical and pathological specimens, antique medical equipment and even books bound in human skin (Anthropodermic bibliopegy, as we discovered). The large, wood paneled rooms adorned by “portraits of white men” (as jokingly referenced throughout the event) comfortably accommodated the crowd throughout the presentations as well as the Dark Artisans’ Bazar. We were left ample time and access to explore the museum throughout the breaks, not to mention the jaw dropping behind the scenes tour.
Dark Artisans’ Bazar
Open throughout the event, the Death Salon exclusive Dark Artisans’ Bazaar hosted and curated a collection of work from several different vendors. Blood Milk, Mechanique Macabre and Obscura Antiques were just a few of the vendors selling fantastic and curious jewelry pieces, prints, antiques, urns, and more. We were especially intrigued by Mechanique Macabre who makes jewelry from the bones of deceased, rescued animals- a beautiful and responsible way to give animals a good home post-mortem (bad joke?).
There was no lack of entertainment at Death Salon (exclusive artisanal beer included). During Sunday night’s private ‘haute macabre’ ball, The Divine Hand Ensemble played a haunting and beautiful set of 16th century funeral compositions. On Monday evening after Lavinia Jones Wright‘s presentation, we were treated to an incredible rendition of famous murder ballads.
Lastly, we don’t mean to brag, but we came in second (after tying for first) during the “Death Quizzo” pub quiz event.
Dr. Marianne Hamel
Dr Hamel opened the first day with her presentation: Hot Lights, Sharp Steel, Cold Flesh. A medical examiner in New Jersey, Dr. Hamel has been an expert witness in a few notorious murder trials. Her talk highlighted the differences between what you see on CSI and an actual forensic pathologists office. While she did not shy away from shocking pictures, her talk was funny and informative and set the tone for the rest of the event. Make sure to check out her Death Under Glass, project!
Prof Norma Bowe
Norma Bowe is a former nurse who now teaches at Kean University. Prof Bowe is the subject of The Death Class, a book which follows her incredible Death & Dying course in which students are introduced to death through personal reflection, hospice, funeral home and autopsy visits as well as charitable acts. Her presentation ran the audience through her course, her holistic approach to teaching death and some personal stories about her students. We were all left in silence, except for the sounds of noses blowing into tissue paper.
Dr. Paul Koudounaris
Dr. Koudounaris is an interesting person, to say the least. Rushing to the stage in an oversized hat (complete with feathers) and eccentric coat, Paul flew through his presentation without taking a breath of air. Author and photographer, Paul reported on his recent trip to Indonesia where he attended a mummy festival. His talk highlighted the differences between Western conceptions of death and our attitudes towards dead bodies versus most other parts of the world.
We highly recommend his Instagram account.
Ask a Mortician Live
You might remember Caitlin Doughty from our LIVE #TalkDeath event (or her New York Times Bestselling book, I guess), but she also hosts the wonderful Ask a Mortician series on YouTube. Lucky for us, Caitlin and fellow mortician, Sheri Booker, did a live version for Death Salon attendees. With anonymous questions from Death Salon guests, Sheri and Caitlin tackled a bunch of weird, interesting and well…unique questions about death and their profession.
Truthfully, there were no talks that disappointed. Highlighting the ones we have really does a disservice to all the other amazing presenters. We learned about modern potter’s fields, how to put the rave in graveyard, the deconstruction of skulls and much, much more. Our only complaint was that the 20 minute allotment for each speaker meant that many topics were brushed over quickly. We would have loved to know a lot more about “the medical gaze” for example.
If you are interested in meeting fascinating people, engaging in unconventional conversation and expanding your knowledge in many different fields, we highly recommend this event. While its unconventional subject matter may not appeal to everyone, the openness and positivity surrounding Death Salon was uplifting. A big thanks to Megan Rosenbloom, Sarah Troop, Caitlin Doughty and everyone else who made this event possible. We are already looking forward to next year! Keep your eyes peeled on their website and Twitter, as the next Death Salon is sure to sell out fast.