‘Memento Mori’: USU exhibit focuses on the art of death and mourning

Michael Wolgemut’s 1943 piece “The Dance of Death”

By Sean Dolan

[D]ylan Burns doesn’t dwell on the fact that he will eventually die, but he is aware of the inevitable.

That’s one of the side effects of spending several months preparing an art exhibit that celebrates the macabre. Burns, the digital scholarship librarian at Utah State University’s Merrill-Cazier Library, is the curator of, “Memento Mori: The Art of Death and Mourning.”

The exhibit itself is a reminder of death. Black curtains beckon the viewer to stand in the center of tall white boards arranged in the shape of a coffin. Inside the display, images of skulls and centuries-old drawings of dancing skeletons hand-picked from rare books in the library’s special collections invite the silent contemplation of death.

“The whole exhibit asks this question — implores people to ‘memento mori,’ which is ‘remember that you’ll die,’” Burns said. “And that’s something that I think we don’t do that often in our contemporary world.”

Bruns found inspiration for the exhibit in a collection of Compton Studio photographs, a family-run company founded in Brigham City in 1884. In addition to documenting life in Utah, the Compton Studio took elaborate funeral photos.

Dylan Burns

In one photo, three young children stare bleakly into the camera as their deceased sibling lies motionless in a cradle.

“They’re extraordinarily striking and intimate,” Burns said.

At the time, Burns said funerals and the handling of the deceased was generally left to the family. When a grandmother died, for example, the body would be washed, dressed and displayed in the parlor. Friends would come and pay tribute.

Over the past 100 years, Burns said death has become more sterile. As soon as someone dies, they are whisked away and embalmed behind closed doors, only to be seen briefly by the family.

“We have funeral homes and they take care of everything and it’s all kind of sanitized and it’s out of the home and out of the family,” he said.

Burns isn’t suggested that everyone should go out and wash their next dead family member, unless they want to. But there is a movement in some funeral homes called, “The Order of the Good Death,” which encourages people to approach death with a different attitude. Instead of fear and anxiety, this movement reminds people that death is a part of life.

“It’s sad, but it is what it is,” Burns said.

Using the funeral photos as a jumping off point, Burns then took a deep dive into the library’s special collections to find old sources that reminded one to “memento mori.”

Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 publication called, “De Humanis Corporis Fabrica,” depicts scientifically accurate sketches of skeletons with an artistic flare.

Burns said Vesalius was a doctor who made a significant contribution to the world’s medical knowledge. In addition to scientific experiments and dissections, Vesalius posed and sketched skeletons in ways that gives the appearance of contemplation of demise and death.

‘Memento Mori’: The art of death and mourning

“Yeah, they’re weird,” Burns said. “The point that I’m making here is I’m talking about these memento moris, which are these objects that remind you that we are going to die.”

One of the most striking, and locally significant, example of a memento mori is the skull of Old Ephraim, the mightiest grizzly bear known in Logan Canyon.

“We’re reminded that even the most powerful can’t escape death,” Burns said.

Another section of the exhibit is devoted to the allegory of the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death, which depicts motifs of skeletons dancing with the living. The exhibit displays the work of Hans Holbein, a 16th century German artist. Holbein drew skeletons interacting with powerful people, like the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope.

“No matter who you were, it came for everyone,” Burns said.

The exhibit, which will remain on display until Dec. 10, coincides with the library’s Family Art Day this Saturday. The event’s theme is, “Telling a Spooky Story — With Art!”

Children are invited to create Halloween-themed silhouettes from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. If they desire to explore the morbidity of death, kids can check out the adjacent “Memento Mori” exhibit.

Burns said part of his intention was to just invite people to think and talk about death. It’s going to happen to everyone, but it’s rarely discussed.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for it to be a taboo subject that we never talk about,” Burns said.

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