A growing number of South Korean women are training to be morticians, a field from which they had long been excluded, amid changing views on gender roles and a rising preference for women’s bodies to be handled by women.
With recent deaths of female celebrities and prominent figures, as well as growing scrutiny of sex crimes against women, gender sensitivity is changing the way families of the deceased bid farewell to their grandmothers, mothers and daughters.
“I felt uncomfortable when my classmates of a different sex touched my body, even when I was fully dressed,” said Park Se-jung, 19, who is in her second year of funeral directing studies. “I sure wouldn’t want them to touch, wash and dress my naked body even if I were dead. I am determined I should be the one bidding those women a proper farewell.”
The trend comes amid growing calls for crackdowns of sexual violence against women, including a rash of hidden-camera crimes, “revenge porn”, and online networks that blackmailed women and girls into sharing sexual and sometimes violent images of themselves.
In the early 2000s, about a third of mortician students in the country were women, but today they make up around 60% of the class, said Lee Jong-woo, a professor of embalming at Eulji University in Seongnam near Seoul.
“With Confucian ideology, death was considered a taboo in South Korea in the past, and had negative perceptions of whether women could handle such work, but the perception has been changing,” Lee said.
Funeral companies say they have been receiving more requests for female morticians.
“Most of the deaths of young people are suicides, and the families of the bereaved, especially if it was suicide and a woman, feel more comfortable if we handle the body,” said Park Bo-ram, a funeral director of seven years.
“I recall a teenaged student, an only child … had committed suicide,” Park said. “Washing and dressing the body, I saw many signs of self-injury on her thigh, but none of her family knew.”
Park recalls that the girl’s parents were immensely grateful, even in the midst of sadness, that a female mortician handled their daughter’s body.
South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in the developed world: 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, compared with an OECD average of 11.3. That year, it was the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s.
More than 4,000 women committed suicide in 2019, including young female K-pop artists Koo Hara and Sulli.
In 2016, a quarter of the country’s 6,200 funeral directors were women, and with more than 130,000 girls and women dying each year, requests for female funeral directors are expected to rise further, Korea Employment Information Service said.
Yet some resistance to women in the mortuary business remains.
Shin Hwa-jin, 21, who plans to work at a funeral home after graduation, said she was shocked to hear a female mortician relate a conversation with her mother-in-law.
“Her mother-in-law asked her: ‘How dare you think of cooking my meals with the hands that touched a dead body?’” she said.
Demonstrating grief through wailing and song has long been a historic, sacred part of honouring and remembering the dead. From the Chinese to the Assyrians, Irish and Ancient Greeks, oral rituals of outward mourning were a responsibility that fell (and continue to fall) to women.
In Ancient Greece, while women may have lacked political and social freedom, the realm of mourning belonged to them. Their role in remembering the dead granted them their only position of power in a society where they possessed no autonomy. Yet this power was also believed to supersede mortal constraints, giving women the ability to do something that men could not.
The Greek funeral was composed of three parts: the prothesis, or preparation and laying out of the body; the ekphora, or transportation to the place of burial; and the burial of the body or the entombment of cremated remains. It was during the prothesis that the women began their ritual of lament. First, they cleansed the corpse, anointed it and decorated it with aromatic garlands as it lay atop its kline (bier). Once the body was prepared, scores of female relatives gathered around it to beat their breasts and tear the hair from their scalps as they sang funeral songs. They wished to communicate the awful weight of their grief in order to satisfy the dead, whom they believed could hear and judge their cries. In contrast, the men kept their distance to salute the dead, physically signifying their separation from the realm that belonged to women. Some art from the Geometric period suggests they may have joined the female mourners in writhing to the lament, though they were spared from the excruciating gesture of ripping out their hair.
The funeral song served as an extension of the physical pain women inflicted upon themselves during the prothesis. Its purpose was to communicate a cry of uncontrollable pain, a hysteric melody that was believed to be rooted in feminine emotions; thus, only women could be the vessels for this pain. In the depths of their sorrow and self-torture, female mourners in the Geometric period would have sung a melody from one of the four major funeral song categories: threnos, epikedeion, ialemos or goos. These songs were personal and meaningful to the bereaved. In her book Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (1979), which, through the art they have left behind, analyses how the Ancient Greeks viewed death, Emily Vermeule writes that goos was the most intense kind of funeral song. It might have been reserved for lovers or close family members, as its theme was centred on the relationship between two lives shared, the one now lost.
Leading the funeral lament was the song leader, also called the eksarkhos gooio, or the chief mourner. In early times, she was a professional mourner, but could also be the mother or close female relative of the dead. The song leader served as the liaison between those who mourned and those who had passed, guiding the bereaved through the proper course of remembrance in order to mollify the dead. As she led the female mourners in lament, she was careful to cradle the head of the corpse. Touch was necessary in order to open the ears of the dead. But once the ears were opened, the living women had to tread carefully. Not only could the dead hear funeral laments sung for them during the prothesis, they could also determine whether the presence of the living was good or malevolent. This is the reason, writes Robert Garland in The Greek Way of Death (1985), that Odysseus is advised against participating in Ajax’s funeral. Mourners entrusted their song leader with the responsibility of appeasing the dead to ensure their smooth transition into the spirit world.
As time went on, the role of female song leader would serve as the predecessor to an occult offshoot, the goes, who used song as a vehicle to transcend mortal constraints. Under the goes, funeral songs were no longer songs: they were spells, used to lure the dead back to earth. The goes was akin to a witch, due to her supernatural powers; she had even mastered the art of necromancy and could temporarily bring corpses back to life. Yet, even before the goes and the eksarkhos gooio, women in Ancient Greece had ties to the occult side of death. If the eksarkhos gooio was the mother of this occult tradition and the goes the maiden, the egkhystristriai was the crone. Before the classical period, the egkhystristriai was believed to have officiated at the burial of the body. Like an occult high priestess, her powers stemmed from the ritual of making blood sacrifices to the dead. Later, these sacrifices turned into the more modest ritual of offering libations, exemplified as Antigone pours offerings over her brother Polyneikes after she performs rites over his body.
By the fifth century BC mourning rituals had become less elaborate and deliberately reduced the importance of the female role. The number of female lamenters who surrounded the dead dwindled from scores of close relatives to only a few. Laments became more antiphonal and grew to involve men. Gestures such as tearing the hair were replaced by the symbolic gesture of cutting the hair short. These later changes suggest that the Greeks believed their dead were in less need of appeasement, eradicating the need for a song leader with supernatural inclinations. But they attempted to diminish the role that women had in the death process, thus dismantling a space in which women held dominance. In the classical period, women were relegated to the background of the funerary ritual, writes Maria Serena Mirto in Death in the Greek World (2012), because men feared it would threaten social cohesion and their desire for death to be pro patria, for one’s country. This is evident from Greek state funeral records, such as that in Kerameikos, the Athens cemetery, in which female lamenters are only briefly mentioned, suddenly peripheral to the ritual they had previously orchestrated.
The trend of removing women from the centre of death is not exclusive to Ancient Greece. While some cultures, such as the Assyrians, fought to preserve the role of female lamenters, others have been unable to do so.As Richard Fitzpatrick reported in the Irish Examiner in 2016, in Ireland, the tradition of female keeners, who wail in grief, began to die out in the mid-20th century. In the United States, male funeral directors replaced the long-standing tradition of female layers-out. Women were left behind, as the funeral directors attempted and succeeded at monetising the death industry, a legacy that continues to haunt the recently bereaved, who must deal with costly funeral arrangements.
Today, however, we find ourselves in the midst of a death renaissance, spearheaded by morticians, activists and artisans alike – a majority of whom are women. Ancient mourning rituals and traditions are resurging. Perhaps the role of the female song leader as a spiritual caster of spells will find its way back, too.
One needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand the mind frame of the ancient Greeks and to understand why they did the things that they did. Also, one needs to live an ancient Greek death following all the rites of passage and the burial laws.
The ancient Greeks held certain ideas about death. One of the most characteristic motifs that people find on ancient Greek tombstones is the handshake between the living and dead. Both figures invariably exhibit a dignified calm. That’s what Greek tragedy is all about—looking death squarely in the eye. As a Greek, they knew that terrible things happen; and they knew, too, that by confronting them head-on, they’d be able to deal with them and get on with life. One could posit that the Greeks got it just right.
But one needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand it. It’s an unpleasant thought, but there’s no escaping it if one wants to fully experience the other side of history.
The Role of a Physician in Death
Let’s assume one is dying in one’s home, surrounded by one’s relatives, including young children. There won’t be any physician at hand to give painkillers.
A physician may have offered treatment in the earlier stages of sickness, but once it became inevitable that there could only be one outcome, the medical profession had nothing to offer anymore.
It’s also extremely unlikely that a physician would be called in to put one out of one’s misery by euthanasia, a coined word of Greek etymology meaning ‘good death’, but which has no ancient Greek equivalent. In fact, the Hippocratic Oath, which was probably widely adopted, enjoined upon those physicians who took it “not to administer a poison to anybody who asked for one and not to propose such a course”. So let’s hope that one’s final illness is short and painless.
The Role of Gods in Death
The poet Keats has a wonderful line in Ode to a Nightingale: “I have been half in love with easeful death”. The Greeks conceived of easeful death in the form of the God Apollo, who came to strike them down with his so-called ‘gentle arrows’. That’s the best that he or any other of the gods had to offer. They certainly didn’t have any consolation to give someone.
In Euripides’ play the Hippolytus, when Hippolytus is dying, the goddess Artemis, to whom he has devoted himself exclusively all his life and with whom he’s had a very close relationship, bids him farewell. She explains to him that it’s not lawful for a deity to be present at the death because the pollution that a corpse releases would taint her.
The one god who may have taken some slight interest in the fate of the dying is the healing God Asclepius. When Socrates passes from this world to the next in Plato’s dialogue the Crito, he has this to say, “I owe a cock to Asclepius. See that it’s paid.” Cocks were sacrificed to Asclepius. Socrates may be indicating that Asclepius eased his passing, although it’s possible, too, that he’s merely suggesting philosophically that death is a ‘cure’ for life.
The First Rite of Passage: Prothesis
in ancient Greece, as soon as one died, the women in one’s family began keening and ululating so that everyone in the neighborhood knew of the individual’s demise. It was the women, too, who took charge of one’s body and prepared it for burial. They closed one’s mouth and eyes, tied a chin strap around one’s head and chin to prevent the jaw from sagging; they washed the whole body, anointed it with olive oil; they clothed the body and wrapped it in a winding sheet, leaving only one’s head exposed.
Then they laid the body on a couch with one’s head propped up on a pillow and one’s feet facing the door. After getting all this done, they sang dirges in one’s honor.
This is the scene that is depicted on the very earliest Greek vases with figurative decoration. It’s called the prothesis, which literally means the laying out of the body. It represents the first stage in the process that will take one from this world to the next, ‘from here to there’, as the Greeks put it. Meanwhile, relatives and friends would call at the house and join in the grieving.
The Second Rite of Passage: Ekphora
The second rite of passage is the ekphora. Ekphora means literally ‘the carrying out of one’s body’—specifically from one’s home to one’s place of burial. According to Athenian law, the ekphora had to take place within three days of one’s death, although in hot weather it’s likely that it would have taken place much sooner. The ekphora had to take place before sunrise so that it wouldn’t create a public nuisance.
If one was wealthy, one’s body would be transported in a cart or carriage drawn by horses. This scene is also depicted on the earliest vases with figurative decoration. Professional undertakers might also be employed to bear the corpse and break up the ground for burial. These professionals were known as ‘ladder men’ klimakophoroi, because they’d lay one’s body on a ladder, which they carried horizontally.
If professional undertakers were employed, they wouldn’t have any physical contact with the family members before this phase. The Greeks would have been shocked and appalled by the idea of handing over one’s body to professionals to prepare it for burial.
The Third Rite of Passage: Burial
It was one’s relatives who conducted the burial service. No priests were present either. Priests were debarred for exactly the same reason that Artemis absented herself from the dying Hippolytus, so as not to incur pollution. Because if they incurred pollution, they might transmit it to the gods.
Absolutely nothing is known about the details of the burial service. Truth be told, it’s not even known if there was a burial service as such. If any traditional words were spoken, they were not recorded. Both inhumation and cremation were practiced, although cremation, being more costly, was seen as more prestigious. If one was cremated, then one’s relatives would gather the ashes and place them in an urn, which they then would bury along with the grave gifts.
The commonest grave gift was pottery. In fact, that’s why so many high-quality Greek vases have survived intact—because they were placed intact in the ground.
Over time, however, the Greeks became more stingy. Chances are, if one died in the 4th century B.C., all one would get is a couple of oil flasks known as lêkythoi filled with olive oil—olive oil was regarded as a luxury item. Some Greeks, however, were so stingy that they purchased lêkythoi with a smaller internal container to save them the expense of filling the whole vase with oil. Supposedly, they thought the dead wouldn’t notice.
As soon as the filling of the grave was done, they’d erect a grave marker over it. After completing the third and final rite of passage, all the mourners would return to the grieving home for a commemorative banquet.
The Burial Laws
Since one’s corpse was regarded as a source of pollution—the Greek word for the pollution is miasma, which means much the same in English—one had to be buried outside the city walls. In the ancient Greece, burial within a settlement was extremely rare after the 8th century B.C. The same was true of Rome. The earliest Roman law code, the Law of the Twelve Tables, dated 450 B.C., contains the provision, “The dead shall not be buried or burnt inside the city.”
It is not certain, but the origins of the belief in pollution may be connected with a kind of primitive sense of hygiene. Dead one’s relatives and anyone else who had come into contact with the corpse were debarred from participation in any activities outside the home until the corpse had undergone purification.
Reintegration into the community for mourners didn’t take place until several weeks after the funeral. One’s relatives also had to take measures to prevent the polluting effect of one’s corpse from seeping into the community. That included providing a bowl of water brought from outside the house so that visitors could purify themselves on leaving.
Common Questions About Living the Ancient Greek Death
Q: What are the three stages of an ancient Greek funeral?
The three stages are the laying out or the prothesis, the funeral procession or the ekphora, and the burial or the Interment.
Q: How did the Greeks honor the dead?
Greeks honored the dead by following the three rites of passage, by building the tombs in Ceramicus, the Potter’s Quarter, and by offering the grave goods.
Q: How did Greeks prepare for the afterlife?
Greeks prepared for the afterlife by following the three rites of passage and offering the grave goods.
Q: What was the burial law in ancient Greece?
According to the burial law in ancient Greece, one had to be buried outside the city walls.
Humanity has done a pretty good job of recording its collective history over the past two or three thousand years. Earlier time periods, though, are still very much shrouded in mystery. Now, a groundbreaking new archeological discovery in Indonesia is revealing secrets from 8,000 years ago.
Archeologists from The Australian National University have discovered an ancient child burial site located on Alor Island, Indonesia. While a funeral for a child is no doubt a morose and depressing event in any century, this unearthing is providing some invaluable insight on early mid-Holocene era cultural and burial practices.
Stunning burial practices unearthed
According to lead researcher Dr. Sofia Samper Carro, it’s clear that the child was laid to rest with a formal ceremony of some kind. The research team estimates the child was between four and eight years-old at the time of death.
“Ochre pigment was applied to the cheeks and forehead and an ochre-colored cobble stone was placed under the child’s head when they were buried,” she says in a university release. “Child burials are very rare and this complete burial is the only one from this time period,”
“From 3,000 years ago to modern times, we start seeing more child burials and these are very well studied. But, with nothing from the early Holocene period, we just don’t know how people of this era treated their dead children. This find will change that.”
Of particular note is the fact that the child’s arms and legs appear to have been removed and stored elsewhere before the rest of the body was buried. This sounds rather odd from a modern perspective, but researchers say it isn’t wholly unprecedented.
“The lack of long bones is a practice that has been documented in several other burials from a similar time period in Java, Borneo and Flores, but this is the first time we have seen it in a child’s burial,” Dr. Carro adds.
Why did ancient cultures remove arms and legs before burials?
The answer is probably lost to the sands of time, but researchers theorize some form of religion or spiritual belief is a likely explanation.
“We don’t know why long bone removal was practiced, but it’s likely some aspect of the belief system of the people who lived at this time,” Carro adds.
While teeth examinations project the child as being around six to eight years-old, the full skeleton appears to be closer to four or five years-old.
“We want to do some further paleo-health research to find out if this smaller skeleton is related to diet or the environment or possibly to being genetically isolated on an island,” the lead researcher comments. “My earlier work from Alor showed adult skulls were also small. These hunter-gatherers had a mainly marine diet and there is evidence to suggest protein saturation from a single food source can cause symptoms of mal-nourishment, which affects growth. However, they could have been eating other terrestrial resources such as tubers.”
“By comparing other adult burials we have found from the same time period with this child burial in a future project, we hope to build a chronology and general view of burial practices in this region from between 12,000 to 7,000 years ago which at the moment is still scant.”
The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is an ever-evolving holiday that traces its earliest roots to the Aztec people in what is now central Mexico. The Aztecs used skulls to honor the dead a millennium before the Day of the Dead celebrations emerged. Skulls, like the ones once placed on Aztec temples, remain a key symbol in a tradition that has continued for more than six centuries in the annual celebration to honor and commune with those who have passed on.
Once the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century, the Catholic Church moved indigenous celebrations and rituals honoring the dead throughout the year to the Catholic dates commemorating All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1 and 2. In what became known as Día de Muertos on November 2, the Latin American indigenous traditions and symbols to honor the dead fused with non-official Catholic practices and notions of an afterlife. The same happened on November 1 to honor children who had died.
Day of the Dead Traditions
In these ceremonies, people build altars in their homes with ofrendas, offerings to their loved ones’ souls. Candles light photos of the deceased and items left behind. Families read letters and poems and tell anecdotes and jokes about the dead. Offerings of tamales, chilis, water, tequila and pan de muerto, a specific bread for the occasion, are lined up by bright orange or yellow cempasúchil flowers, marigolds, whose strong scent helps guide the souls home.
Copal incense, used for ceremonies back in ancient times, is lit to draw in the spirits. Clay molded sugar skulls are painted and decorated with feathers, foil and icing, with the name of the deceased written across the foreheads. Altars include all four elements of life: water, the food for earth, the candle for fire, and for wind, papel picado, colorful tissue paper folk art with cut out designs to stream across the altar or the wall. Some families also include a Christian crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint in the altar.
In Mexico, families clean the graves at cemeteries, preparing for the spirit to come. On the night of November 2, they take food to the cemetery to attract the spirits and to share in a community celebration. Bands perform and people dance to please the visiting souls.
“People are really dead when you forget about them, and if you think about them, they are alive in your mind, they are alive in your heart,” says Mary J. Andrade, a journalist and author of eight books about the Day of the Dead. “When people are creating an altar, they are thinking about that person who is gone and thinking about their own mortality, to be strong, to accept it with dignity.”
Celebrating the Dead Becomes Part of a National Culture
Honoring and communing with the dead continued throughout the turbulent 36 years that 50 governments ruled Mexico after it won its independence from Spain in 1821. When the Mexican Liberal Party led by Benito Juárez won the War of Reform in December 1860, the separation of church and state prevailed, but Día de Muertos remained a religious celebration for many in the rural heartland of Mexico. Elsewhere, the holiday became more secular and popularized as part of the national culture. Some started the holiday’s traditions as a form of political commentary. Like the funny epitaphs friends of the deceased told in their homes to honor them, some wrote calaveras literarias (skulls literature)—short poems and mock epitaphs—to mock living politicians or political criticism in the press.
“This kind of thing happens alongside the more intimate observation of the family altar,” says Claudio Lomnitz, an anthropologist at Columbia University and author of Death and the Idea of Mexico. “They are not in opposition to one another.”
The Rise of La Catrina
In Mexico’s thriving political art scene in the early 20th century, printmaker and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada put the image of the calaveras or skulls and skeletal figures in his art mocking politicians, and commenting on revolutionary politics, religion and death. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, or Elegant Skull, is a 1910 zinc etching featuring a female skeleton. The satirical work was meant to portray a woman covering up her indigenous cultural heritage with a French dress, a fancy hat, and lots of makeup to make her skin look whiter. The title sentence of his original La Catrina leaflet, published a year before the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1911, read “Those garbanceras who today are coated with makeup will end up as deformed skulls.”
La Catrina became the public face of the festive Día de Muertos in processions and revelry. Mexican painter Diego Rivera placed a Catrina in an ostentatious full-length gown at the center his mural, completed in 1947, portraying the end of Mexico’s Revolutionary War. La Catrina’s elegant clothes of a “dandy” denote a mocking celebration, while her smile emerging through her pompous appearance reminds revelers to accept the common destiny of mortality.
Skulls of Protest, Witnesses to Blood
Over decades, celebrations honoring the dead—skulls and all—spread north into the rest of Mexico and throughout much of the United States and abroad. Schools and museums from coast to coast exhibit altars and teach children how to cut up the colorful papel picado folk art to represent the wind helping souls make their way home.
In the 1970s, the Chicano Movement tapped the holiday’s customs with public altars, art exhibits and processions to celebrate Mexican heritage and call out discrimination. In the 1980s, Day of the Dead altars were set up for victims of the AIDS epidemic, for the thousands of people who disappeared during Mexico’s drug war and for those lost in Mexico’s 1985 earthquake. In 2019, mourners set up a giant altar with ofrendas, or offerings, near a Walmart in El Paso, Texas where a gunman targeting Latinos killed 22 people.
As Lomnitz explains, one reason why more and more people may be taking part in Día de Muertos celebrations is that the holiday addresses a reality that is rarely acknowledged by modern cultures—our own mortality.
“It creates a space for communication between the living and the dead. Where else do people have that?” Lomnitz says. “These altars have become a resource and connection to that world and that’s part of their popularity and their fascination.”
A UCLA librarian on why you’ll want to read about them
By Leslie Pariseau
That a librarian has written a book about rare leather-bound books and a major literary imprint has published it is a triumph for bibliophiles everywhere — especially when you consider the source of the hide. “Dark Archives,” a deep dive into the history and mechanisms of sourcing, tanning and binding human skin into books, won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But if you take comfort in reading Stephen King and Shirley Jackson on a stormy night or watching medical procedures on YouTube or you were the kind of kid who stole off to the occult section of the library (130 in the Dewey Decimal System, if I remember correctly), then Megan Rosenbloom’s strange history might be for you.
With sincere curiosity and clear-eyed analysis, Rosenbloom, a librarian at UCLA with a specialty in the history of medicine, unfurls the stories of the binders of the skins and their previous inhabitants: Mary Lynch, a young Irish widow who in 1868 died of trichinosis in a dreary Philadelphia hospital, her thigh skin saved in a chamber pot for decades; a Civil War soldier whose skin was stolen by Dr. Joseph Leidy and eventually became the binding for his “Elementary Treatise”; the highway robber George Walton, who planned for his own transformation into two books after his execution in 1837.
Over Zoom Rosenbloom jokes that she didn’t set out to be the “human skin book lady.” But her interest in rare books, combined with an early job in a medical library, led her down a winding path. “The things that I learned were just so shocking,” she says. “You mean medical students used to literally dig up graves and steal bodies, and their teachers were pretty fine about that?” Indeed, a good deal of “Dark Archives” engages with questions of consent around human bodies, especially during and after death — down to the most banal-seeming of our organs.
Growing up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia, Rosenbloom was attracted and repelled by “darker things” from an early age. This specific curiosity was first piqued in 2008 as she wandered around the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which houses (among other bodily obscura) Einstein’s brain and a chunk of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra. Rosenbloom came upon a case of leather-bound books whose display text claimed they were made of human skin — via a process called anthropodermic bibliopegy, practiced by 19th century doctors who wanted to give their own collections a special touch.
“A dead person’s skin had become a by-product of the dissection process,” Rosenbloom writes, “like a piece of animal leather after a butcher’s slaughter, harvested solely to make a doctor’s personal books more collectible and valuable.” Imagine a veterinarian keeping her feline patients’ hides and then covering her most prized medical books with them — except, in this case, the veterinarian would also be a cat.
In earnest pursuit of answers, Rosenbloom formed the Anthropodermic Book Project, which sets out to test as many books purported to be bound in human skin as possible. So begins her jaunt across through the U.S. and Europe to harvest samples. Rosenbloom’s project takes her to the library at the Los Angeles County Medical Assn., the site of a book supposedly bound in the skin of a white man captured by Native Americans; to Harvard, whose library holds not one but two prospects; to Cincinnati, home to a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s poems bound in 1934; and elsewhere, with often surprising test results.
Her travels extended to other relevant sites, from an old-fashioned tannery in upstate New York to understand the leather-making process to a Cleveland nonprofitdedicated to preserving tattooed skin once its (consenting) owner’s soul has departed their earthly vessel.
Rosenbloom is well aware that morbid curiosity can read as glibness. “The book walks a line,” she says, acknowledging the timing of the book’s release, in a year of multifarious horrors, with characteristic good nature. “I thought it was effective to have a guide because you should have someone you can trust.”
The author earns that trust. The result of Rosenbloom’s probing travelogues, lively histories and deep study of book stewardship is an incongruously bright-eyed view of a subject that, in the hands of another scholar, might be either plodding or gruesomely sensationalistic. The true story of how people became books is surprisingly intersectional, touching on gender, race, socioeconomics and the Western medical establishment’s colonialist mindset.
“Every time I tried to research a book, I would almost always find a doctor involved,” Rosenbloom says. “And the sort of disconnect between the way our society views doctors and then how this got done … is fascinating to me.” She says she spent time with texts like Ruth Richardson’s “Death, Dissection and the Destitute” to understand the rift between famous male doctors and the patients they treated: “People who didn’t have access to assert themselves or have agency around their bodies. What of them? It’s a harder story to tell.”
“Dark Archives” confronts the myth of Nazis turning human skin into gruesome objects, concluding the infamous lampshade (whose existence remains unproven) had become “an outsize emblem of the brutality of the Nazi regime.” She turns this conflation of history into an ironic twist on the banality of evil: “It’s easier to believe that objects of human skin are made by monsters like Nazis and serial killers, not the well-respected doctors the likes of whom patients want their children to become someday.” More than a tromp through a bizarre subset of bibliophilia, “Dark Archives” is a truth-telling expedition.
Rosenbloom’s nuanced approach is intertwined with her work as the cofounder of the Death Salon, an organization whose mission is to “[encourage] conversations on mortality and mourning and their resonating effects on our culture and history.” Styled after an 18th century salon, the event series is part of the Order of the Good Death, a group that works to promote the death positive movement — which aims to destigmatize dying.
“Basically everything that you take for granted and think is normal around death is totally culturally relative,” says Rosenbloom. She remembers having“a seed of fear” planted after attending an uncle’s funeral around 11, observing family members as they approached and retreated from the open casket. Eventually, she understood the necessity of confronting her own anxieties around mortality from an intellectual perspective. “I’m a bit of a control freak, anxious person, and if there’s something I can do or if I can learn about things and try to understand them, that helps with the anxiety thing.”
In many ways, “Dark Archives” feelslike an extension of Rosenbloom’s death positive work, urging us to confront not just what happens to physical bodies after they die but the memory of people who occupied them — and a society that has systematically brushed them aside. “We can’t go back in time and stop anthropodermic books from being created,” writes Rosenbloom, “but since they exist, they have important lessons to teach us — if we’re willing to reckon with their dark past and all that it tells us about the culture in which they were created.”
In 2012, Alua Arthur quit her legal career to become a death doula. The problem was that she had no idea such a job existed. “All I knew was that there had to be a better way to give support during one of the most lonely and isolating experiences a person can go through,” she says. Now 42, she is a leader in the field of death work and has guided thousands of people and their loved ones through the end-of-life process. She has also trained hundreds of other death doulas through her company, Going With Grace, and is on the board of directors at the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance (NEDA)
This year, as COVID has forced so many Americans to cope with sudden loss and their own mortality, Arthur has been inundated with new clients and students as well as larger questions about how to handle constant grief. She lives in Los Angeles. Here’s how she gets it done.
On her morning routine:
I usually get up around 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. I’m a night owl, and it helps me in my work because people tend to die between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m. I’m not sure why; there are a lot of different theories about it. But I’m most awake and alert at that time. The witching hours. I love to burn my incense at 4:00 a.m. and greet the crows.
Most mornings I meditate right after I get up. After I meditate, I fill up my gallon jug of water and exercise. I need to sweat and move. I love anything where the instructor is like, “Faster! Go! Only ten more seconds!” Since we can’t do group fitness in person right now, I have to re-create it in my house. It doesn’t work quite the same, because I will stop and eat snacks in the middle of a video. But I’m trying. Exercise and meditation are the things that keep me sane and grounded. They’re the baseline.
On being drawn to end-of-life care:
Being around death has made me more honest. I see that what we don’t say chokes us as we die. People always think they have more time, and when they realize that they don’t, they have regrets about things they haven’t done. I try to do what I feel like doing right now. And if that means eating white-cheddar Cheetos for breakfast, I will. Which is what I did this morning. I won’t always be able to taste delicious things, so let me do it now.
On managing her clients:
I don’t take on more than one client at a time who is imminently dying, because I want to be on call for them. Whatever they need, I will do. When a client with just a couple of weeks or months left first comes to me, we’ll go through the long list of items to consider in death and dying, and then we’ll create a plan. That usually happens over the phone. Then I go to visit, put my hands on them, really see what their physical condition is, and see what kind of support they have.
I continue to visit every week or so until their condition starts deteriorating fast, and then I’m there more often. I might be there when they die, and if I’m not, I’ll come sit with their family or caregivers afterward until the funeral home comes. I may also help wrap up practical affairs — possessions, accounts, life insurance, documents. It’s exhausting for a family to have to think about that when they’re also grieving, and I’m equipped to help. I’ll sit on hold with insurance companies, make funeral arrangements, all that stuff.
Beyond those who are imminently dying, I often have several clients who need end-of-life planning consultations. I can take on a couple of those at a time. That could be someone who has just gone on hospice and it doesn’t look that bad yet, or someone who just received a diagnosis and wants to prepare.
On winding down after an intense day:
I’ll drink wine and hang out with a lover. I’ll go out dancing until 5:00 a.m. Sometimes I just want to shut the brain off after a long day, and the best way to do that is by spending time with friends and people who tickle me. But it’s also good to spend a lot of time alone, which is the default these days. I like silence.
On becoming a death doula:
I spent the bulk of my career in legal services in L.A., working with victims of domestic violence. Then there were some big budget cuts, and I wound up getting stuck doing paperwork in the courthouse basement. I was already depressed and burnt out, but it blossomed into an actual clinical depression. So I took a leave of absence and traveled to Cuba. While I was there, I met a German woman who had uterine cancer and was doing a bucket list trip. We talked a lot about her illness, and her death. She hadn’t been able to discuss a lot of those things before, because nobody in her life was making space for her to talk about her death. Instead, they’d say, “Oh, don’t worry. You’re going to get better.” I came back from that trip thinking I wanted to be a therapist who worked with people who were dying.
I applied to schools to become a therapist, but in the meantime, my brother-in-law got very sick. So I packed up and spent two months in New York with him. That experience gave me a lot of clarity on all the things we could be doing better in the end-of-life processes. It was so isolating and I couldn’t understand why. Everybody dies — so why does it feel so lonely? After that, I did a death doula program in Los Angeles, called Sacred Crossings, and then I founded my company, Going With Grace.
On leaving her law career (and a steady paycheck):
It wasn’t a hard decision to leave my job as an attorney. The challenging part had more to do with identity and what achievement means. I was born in Ghana, and we’re all raised to be doctors and lawyers and engineers. So I was going against societal expectation and parental expectation. It was also tough to be broke for a long time. My student loans were in forbearance. I spent a lot of nights lying on my mom’s couch wondering how I was going to make things work. If my friends were going out, they’d have to pay for me or else I couldn’t join them. To support myself while I was starting my business, I worked part-time jobs at a hospice and a funeral home.
Eventually, I started hosting small workshops about end-of-life planning. I charged $44 dollars for people to come together and learn how to fill out the necessary documents. Now I have my own doula training programs. I have about 100 students at the moment, all online.
On charging for her services:
I have to navigate the financial conversations with a lot of directness. Part of the challenge is that our society doesn’t see the financial value of having somebody be kind and supportive. Being able to hold so much compassionate space when somebody’s dying — that is a skill. It needs to be compensated highly.
On living with grief:
I’m constantly grieving with and for my clients and their family members, all the time. There’s no fixing it. I have to be present with my feelings and let them wash over me, in whatever expression they take. If I try to shut off that part of myself, it becomes much harder to function in everyday life. Grief doesn’t always look like crying. Sometimes it looks like anger, promiscuity, or eating everything under the sun. Like all things, it’s temporary.
On how COVID has changed her work:
We have to rely much more heavily on technology and remote communication. There’s also a lot more interest in the death doula training program. Death is on a lot of people’s minds, and I’ve seen a lot more people starting to do their end-of-life planning — mostly healthy people in their 40s with young kids. A lot of people have seen younger people die suddenly, and it’s changed their perspective.
On her own end-of-life plan:
I would love to be outside or by windows. I want to watch the sunset for the last time, and I want to have the people I love around, quietly talking, so that I know they’ve got each other after I leave. I want to have a soft blanket and a pair of socks because I hate it when my feet are cold. I want to smell nag champa incense and amber. And I want to hear the sound of running water, like a creek. I’d love to enjoy all those senses for the last time. And when I die, I want everybody to clap. Like, “Good job. You did it.”
I want my funeral to be outside, and I want all my jewelry to be laid out. As guests come in, they grab a piece and put it on. I want my body to be wrapped in an orange and pink raw silk shroud. They’ll play Stevie Wonder — “I’ll be loving you always” — and everyone will eat a lot of food and drink whiskey and mezcal and red wine. There will be colorful Gerber daisies everywhere, and they’ll take me away as the sun goes down. And when they put my body in the car, the bass will drop on the music, and there will be pyrotechnics of some sort. I hope my guests have a grand old time and dance and cry and hug each other. And then I want them to leave wearing my jewelry.