Once, walking back from school, I found a dead sparrow and took it home with me. My mom screamed when she found it lying on the floor of my pink-and-white bedroom. The bird was buried in the backyard.
Joanna Ebenstein did the same thing when she was growing up, but her dad gave her a bottle of formaldehyde and her bedroom filled with animals in jars. Her collection has only grown since then, becoming what’s now the Morbid Anatomy Library: a cramped studio in Brooklyn, New York, filled with emu feet, mummified frogs, a human skeleton, and books upon books about death, medicine and science.
“At a certain age, especially as a girl, one realizes that [death] is seen as sort of creepy or weird, but I never thought it was creepy or weird. I always thought it was interesting,” says Ebenstein. “I think children don’t make a distinction. Death is just another thing. It’s not something to be reviled.”
This is the point that Ebenstein and her one-room library are trying to make. Happy developments in the world of medicine have allowed people to live for decades before dealing with death. The unfortunate result, however, is that when the inevitable happens many of us seem flat-out clueless about how to handle it. (This is not true of all cultures, obviously. The Malagasy people of Madagascar deal in an almost ebullient way, dressing up the bones of their ancestors and dancing with them to live music, as part of the Famidihana ritual.)
“I find it really perverse that we live in a society where to discuss death, to have an interest in it, you’re called morbid,” says Ebenstein. “I’ve been called morbid my whole life.”Ebenstein is anything but. When I visited her last month, I met a woman in her late 30s, bookish and bespectacled with a blonde bob of hair and light freckles, seated quietly in her library while sketching the skull of a deer. Morbid Anatomy is fittingly situated in what appears to the casket-building district of Brooklyn. To get there, one must first pass by warehouses with open doors looking onto walls of stacked coffins, while navigating around grim-looking guys loading them onto trucks. Once inside the library, though, the friendly and articulate Ebenstein will cheerfully direct you to books on pickled heads or charnel houses, should you ask. Death has never had a better spokesperson.
“If you can figure out a way to think about death on a conscious level, for me it has helped me choose a life path that I’m happy with,” she explains. “That’s why people did memento mori in the Middle Ages. Back then, it had more a religious feeling, but I think the modern interpretation of that is that if you keep thinking that you could die at any time, you make more considered decisions about your own life. I think about this all the time – maybe that makes me morbid, I don’t know – but if I could die at any time and if I really want to go to Italy and photograph medical models then I have to do it.
That’s exactly what Ebenstein did, and, indirectly, how Morbid Anatomy began. A freelance photographer and designer by trade, in 2007 she went on a month-long pilgrimage across Europe and the United States, photographing medical museums. She returned home, thoughts of death swirling in her head, and began organizing her reams of research on a blog. Then Damien Hirst displayed For the Love of God, his diamond-encrusted skull sculpture and something clicked.
“I just thought this is so interesting, so Zeitgeist-y. He’s doing this at the same time that I’m thinking about this stuff. This is something in the contemporary world that I’d like to talk about. And that’s how it started and how I did my first post,” she recalls. Within days, the blog, signed only with her initials, had circulated the Internet and a friend in the museum world cracked her cover. (The blog now receives close to 3,000 page views per day.) A year later, she moved her books, taxidermied animals and other oddities into a newly available studio and opened her collection to the public. Much of what she documented during her medical museum journey is on display here, like photographs of medical moulages (wax casts of antiquated skin diseases) and beautifully worked models of our inner workings.
The library now has an adjoining event space where curators give talks and classes are held; titles include “Dissection as Studio Practice” and “Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy.” The latter sells out weeks in advance to a mainly female crowd, who learn how to preserve small animals with Borax and stage them in miniature tableaus of mice drinking cocktails or wearing dresses.
“Obviously we’re interested in the spectacle of death,” says Ebenstein, referring to the millions made by exhibits like Body World that display real corpses preserved in plastic. “Obviously people are curious about death and their own bodies and they should be. I think the pendulum is switching back.
“From Meghan O’Rourke’s Slate essays on grief (now a book called The Long Goodbye) to Seth Rogen’s recent cancer comedy 50/50, death is creeping back into the conversation. Ebenstein has seen that shift take place just in the time since Morbid Anatomy began.
“When I started my blog, I wanted to keep my involvement with it anonymous. I wasn’t sure I wanted people I work with to know I was into this creepy stuff,” she remembers. “But now, they think it’s cool. Really, something major has changed.
“Whether that has meant a significant change in people’s ideas about death, Ebenstein can’t say for sure. Death might never be fit for the dinner table, but we do ourselves an injustice when we look away entirely.
“I had a grandmother who died a few years ago and she would talk to me about how she wanted to die,” says Ebenstein. “She said I was the only one she could talk to about that. It made me sad, but at the same time this is a reality and I was very honoured that she could talk to me about something you’re not supposed to talk about.”
Laura Trethewey is the assistant editor at Broken Pencil magazine. You can find out more information about Morbid Anatomy‘s blog.
Photography by Shannon Taggart.