Beauty in Death: Joanna Ebenstein on the Morbid Anatomy Project
Joanna Ebenstein laments that we now live in an age where many of us have lost a sense of wonder that once surrounded human physiology, seeing the body's inner workings as disgusting instead. She believes that we can, and ought to, regain that sense anew by taking another look at the intricate handiwork of nature — our morbid anatomy.
Ebenstein explores this and, more broadly, the macabre as well as the medically gruesome, through a project known as Morbid Anatomy. Its primary expression is a blog Ebenstein founded in 2007, were she writes on all things death-centric, and that which exists at the “interstices of art and medicine, death and culture.” This can range from aesculapian oddities and bygone relics to taxidermies and obscure works of art and craft.
She also maintains the Morbid Anatomy Library, a research library and collection that she founded in 2008. It was initially housed at the now-defunct Morbid Anatomy Museum, which she cofounded with her colleague Tracy Hurley Martin in 2014. Even though the New York Times reported that the exhibition was opened “to much fanfare,” Ebenstein thinks that it's remembered as “more of an anomaly, rather than something representative of our history.” The museum closed it's doors in 2016.
The aforementioned library, along with its changing temporary exhibits, is now located at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, under the stewardship of program manager Harry Weil and vice president of programming Lisa Alpert. It also continues to produce a series of events and programs held throughout New York City, and around the globe. As Ebenstein's longtime collaborator and co-organizer Laetitia Barbie put it, the project lives on in the physical world as a “cultural institution without walls.”
But, what arguably remain at the project’s heart are the Morbid Anatomy blog as well as Ebenstein's love for and writing on death as a whole. Through her work, she is dedicated to changing the way people view death, particularly the revulsion and denial with which many regard the inevitable end of life, especially in contemporary Western society.
She points out that for most of history the vast majority of people believed that souls or spirits inhabited bodies, whereas today’s medicine has no regard for the concept. “Fewer and fewer people have religion, mythology, or a belief system to make sense of death, life, and suffering,” she argues. “This idea that we have today, that we are just bodies with no soul, is really, really, really, new.”
Ebenstein notes that her comments are not a plea for religiosity, but for the recognition that there is something truly beautiful, intriguing, and magical about death. When asked whether she thinks people are tossing away the body’s mystique, not to mention the mystique surrounding death’s transformation of the human form, she replies that we may have, quite simply, “thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”
"Without a system of belief to make sense of death and suffering and this body we inhabit, it seems many people experience a crisis of meaninglessness,” she observes. Did this crisis, Ebenstein wonders, lead us to fear the body, both alive and dead? She seems to think so. “Our audiences are all seeking,” she says. “Many of them are looking for another way of understanding life, death, and the body.”
What comes from an aesthetic appreciation of the mechanics and makeup of the human body? What appeals to those of us who see and embrace the beauty of death?
A quick glance around the former Morbid Anatomy Museum gives us hints. Photos reveal jarred animal specimens engulfed in formaldehyde and children’s skeletons (some sporting genetic defects) encased in glass; a trophy cabinet full of death masks, bones, and skulls of animals and humans; full length wax figures with real human hair and innards; statuettes of Catholic saints and freakish taxidermies including those of animal mutants, like a two-headed duckling.
Though billed as “death-centric,” the Morbid Anatomy project is so unique that at times it’s somewhat difficult to characterize. “There’s really no proper word for what we do,” says Ebenstein. “It’s complicated… but I want to say we’re cultural producers based around a certain topic.” That topic, if anything, is morbidity. “Part of what I wanted to do with the name Morbid Anatomy was to reclaim that word.”
But how did Ebenstein, a native of suburban California, fall in love with the ghastly and ghoulish, the grimly medical and hideously death-centric?
She reveals that she had grandparents who survived the Holocaust, and that her grandfather was a doctor that made house calls in Peekskill, New York, routinely seeing "people to their death.” He “kept medical books, which he left lying around the house”; books a young Ebenstein eventually found and became engrossed with. She also shares that when her mother was 16, her other grandfather was killed while playing softball by a plane that crashed into the field. “Death is not distant in my family,” she states.
As a child, Ebenstein had a keen interest in anatomy “right from the beginning." She eventually became obsessed with anatomical venuses, intricate wax figures, and female anatomical models. It wasn't until college, while studying intellectual history, that she began to think of death “from a cultural perspective.”
After graduating, she went to Europe where she visited museums and famous churches that had “images and depictions and art objects that straddled the line between beauty and death.” Then, in 2005, she made “a pilgrimage” to Europe to photograph medical museums in support of an exhibition she was developing for the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences. When she returned, with thousands of photos and many new books and articles in tow, Ebenstein decided to start the Morbid Anatomy blog.
Of course, Morbid Anatomy would not exist without the fascination Ebenstein experienced as a child, an intrigue she maintains to this day: "I am very lucky to have parents who supported my weirdness." She wishes more children were better acquainted with the the aesthetic side of our earthly demise. “It’s understood that children should be protected from death in contemporary society... Why do we think it’s ugly? Why do we think it can’t be beautiful?”
Ebenstein strongly believes that things like corpses or severed body parts can inspire an appreciative reaction in people of all ages. “It’s an aesthetic feeling,” she notes, mentioning that when she herself views these things, or things like them, she feels “rooted” in her body.
One of the most popular exhibits at Morbid Anatomy Museum was a strikingly uncanny piece by taxidermist Walter Potter (1835 — 1918) called The Kittens’ Wedding (circa1890). The work consists of a series of taxidermied kittens, two of which are dressed in a bride and grooms’ wedding attire, about to be married. The couple is flanked by a throng of other taxidermied kittens making up the expectant audience, and stand before another kitten who is the wedding’s officiant.
"Once we’d come up with a theme [for an exhibit] we’d reach out to a community to borrow things [related to it],” recalls Ebenstein. “We also got a hold of a lot of the things in the museum through private collectors.” The museum may be closed, but fans of of the grizzly, gothic, and gorgeously grim can still flock to the Morbid Anatomy Library and blog to stay updated on the project and Ebenstein’s works.
In addition to writing her blog, Ebenstein co-authored Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy (2013),edited The Morbid Anatomy Anthology (2014), as well as wrote The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death, and the Ecstatic (2015 )and Death: A Graveside Companion. She is currently working on two more books.
Note* All images curtesy of Joanna Ebenstein.