A few days after Elizabeth II’s death, a bizarre piece of news went around the world: the Royal Palace beekeeper, John Chapple, reportedly alerted the bees to the Queen’s death.
The strange custom of notifying these insects of their master’s death, as explained by several folklorists questioned on the matter, is a centuries-old tradition and stems from the superstition that if the event was not communicated, the bees might die or abandon the hives.
Indeed, even in the rest of Europe this type of funeral announcement is a well-documented tradition, and several studies have shown that there are stereotypical formulas for presenting the news to the hives. Sometimes these standard formulas served to incite the bees to produce more wax for candles to be used during the funeral, as in this little poem used in Navarre:
Little bees, little bees, make some wax!
The master is dead
and there is a need for light in the church.
It should be noted that bees in particular have always enjoyed a special status, compared to other domestic animals. The human-bee relationship has always been interwoven with dense symbolism, which is reflected in the sacred importance of wax and honey, and translated into a whole series of specific rituals and customs. In almost all traditions there are, for example, prohibitions and cautions regarding how to get possession of the first hive (it is said that it must be stolen, or on the contrary absolutely not stolen, that it must be a gift or categorically cannot be, etc.). The proper way to address bees is also codified, complete with words that are to be avoided and formulas of respect that prevent insult.
Bees, however, are not unique. In peasant cultures, with a rural-pastoral structure, life is spent in close contact with animals, on which subsistence depends; they are central to the daily concerns of the household, with which they share, willingly or unwillingly, labors and vicissitudes. Farmyard and barn animals thus become a true offshoot of the family.
It is not surprising, then, that mourning can also be “extended” to the other farm animals, which to some extent are reputed to be affectively close to those who care for them; what is more interesting, however, is how mourning can be extended even to objects.
Di Nola writes:
In the Lucanian territory, in Latronico (Potenza) and Miglionico (Matera) it is customary to put a black ribbon on mules and horses belonging to the family of the deceased. In Calabria in the area of Siderno (Reggio Calabria) the red stripe that supports the bell of sheep and oxen is replaced for thirty days or a whole year with a black stripe. In Bagnara Calabra (Reggio Calabria), when the master hunter dies, a black handkerchief is placed around the dog’s neck. If the dead man was a farmer, it is placed at the cow’s horns. It was also observed that black ribbon was applied not only to animals but also to bicycles and mopeds. In some villages a black band is placed on the back of the bed where the person died. The door of the house affected by misfortune is black-lined and the black band is left there until it is worn away by time and weather. In Sicily in some villages that observe strict mourning, black ribbons and cords are attached to the pack animals, and the halters, bows and other harnesses are dyed black. In Ucriva (Messina) strips of black cloth are attached to cats and dogs and to the feet of hens, and a bow is tied to donkey halters. In our days some people put it on cars. In Gallura, in Olbia, the dog’s collar is removed, and the clapper is removed from the bell that hangs from the necks of those beasts (goats, cows, sheep) that guide the herds. In Calangianus, a black ribbon is tied to the favorite horse and oxen of the deceased. Similar information appears in most Italian demological sources.
(Alfonso Maria di Nola, The Black Lady. Anthropology of Death and Mourning, 2003)
The custom of covering mirrors in the dwelling where someone has just died, though on the one hand related to some popular beliefs (the soul of the deceased person could be “trapped” in the mirror), on the other hand appears to be in line with this extension of mourning to the objects of the home, in this particular case going to prohibit a vanity — the gazing at oneself — that would be out of place during a social moment when a state of contrition and grief is required.
Such practices are intended to express a grief, a loss that is so great and irreparable that it also affects for a time all that surrounds the bereaved family, all those things that in one way or another had to do with the deceased person. In this sense, it is also a way for relatives to express the extent and depth of their affliction.
From a broader perspective, the relationship between individual and society is made explicit not only in life but also in lack, in the vacancy left by the deceased person. There is something terrible and at the same time poetic in all these black ribbons appearing, multiplying on animals and objects… in this image of death spreading, like a dark oil stain, all around the place from which the absence “springs.”
Welcome to this Easter edition of the column that collects various treats and bizarre delicacies from the internet. Depicted above is a party I’d really feel comfortable, painted by an anonymous seventeenth-century Tuscan artist.
And we’re off and running!
During the work to rebuild the Notre-Dame Cathedral, after a fire devastated it three years ago, a mysterious leaden sarcophagus was unearthed. The casket in all probability dates back to the 14th century, and it will be opened shortly: who knows if it contains a hunchbacked skeleton.
How would you react if, searching for your home on Google Street View, you saw mom and dad sitting on the porch… who have been dead for years? Would that image distress you, make you suffer? Or, on the contrary, would you look at it with emotion and affection, because that picture still makes you feel close to them? Would you ask Google to remove the image, or keep it forever in memory? With the growth of Street View, this sort of thing is happening more and more often, and it’s just one of the many ways the internet is changing grief processing.
The gentleman above is one of the founding fathers of the United States, Gouverneur Morris, who had a particularly odd and eventful life: at the age of 28 he was run over by a carriage and lost a leg; he later helped write the Constitution, then was sent to France where he had a string of lovers and managed to escape the Revolution unscathed. Back in the US, he finally decided to put his head straight and marry Ann Cary Randolph, his housekeeper, who incidentally some years before had been accused of infanticide. In short, how could such a man close his existence with a flourish? In 1816 Gouverneur Morris, who suffered from prostate, died as a result of internal injuries caused by self-surgery: in an attempt to unblock the urinary tract, he had used a whale bone as an improvised catheter. (Thanks, Bruno!)
Ten years ago I posted an article (Italian only) about the Dylatov Pass incident, one of the longest-running historical mysteries. In 2021, two Swiss researchers published on Nature a study that would seem to be, so far, the most scientifically plausible explanation for the 1959 tragedy: the climbers could have been killed by a violent and anomalous avalanche. Due possibly to the boredom of last year’s lockdown, this theory did once again trigger the press, social media, conspiracy theorists, romantic fans of the abominable snowmen, and so on. Before long, the two researchers found themselves inundated with interview requests. They therefore performed three new expeditions to Dylatov Pass and published a second study in which, in addition to confirming their previous findings, they also report in an amused tone about the media attention they received and the social impact of their publication.
On April 22, 1969, the most hallucinatory and shocking opera of all time was staged at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies. The protagonist of the drama is King George III, who suffered from an acute mental illness: consequently, the entire composition is intended to be a depiction of the schizophrenic cacophony inside his head. The six musicians (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano/harpsichord, violin and cello) played inside gigantic birdcages; interpreting the verses, the cries and the sudden changes of mood of the mad King, was a baritone with 5 octaves of extension (!) dressed in a straitjacket. The opera, lasting half an hour, was a completely unprecedented assault on conventional rules, as well as on the ears of the spectators who had certainly never heard anything like it: the one-act play culminated in the moment when the king stole the violin from the player and tore it to pieces. If you have 28 minutes and want to try your hand at this disturbing representation of madness — a unique example of classical punk music, at least for its attitude — here is a 2012 video in which the solo part is played by Kelvin Thomas who, at the time of filming, was 92 years old.
Now, two pieces of slightly more personal news.
The first is that my upcoming online lecture (in English) for Morbid Anatomy will take place on May 14, and will focus on the cult of the dead in Naples. Info and tickets here.
Secondly, if you can read Italian, I would like to remind you that the Almanacco dell’Italia occulta, edited by Fabrizio Foni and Fabio Camilletti, has been published by Odoya: following the line of the previous Almanacco dell’orrore popolare, this volume collects several contributions by different authors. If the first book, however, focused on the rural dimension of our country, this new anthology examines the urban context, exploring its hidden, fantastic and “lunar” face. Among the essays by more than 20 authors included in the Almanacco there is also my study of the weirdest, most picturesque and unexpectedly complex newspaper in the history of the Italian press: Cronaca Vera, which with its pulp and fanciful titles has left an indelible mark on our imagination.
In conclusion, I wish you all the best and I take my leave with an Easter meme.
Until next time!
Part of the pleasure of collecting curiosities lies in discovering the reactions they cause in various people: seeing the wonder arise on the face of onlookers always moves me, and gives meaning to the collection itself. Among the objects that, at least in my experience, evoke the strongest emotional response there are without doubt mourning-related accessories, and in particular those extraordinary XIX Century decorative works made by braiding a deceased person’s hair.
Be it a small brooch containing a simple lock of hair, a framed picture or a larger wreath, there is something powerful and touching in these hairworks, and the feeling they convey is surprisingly universal. You could say that anyone, regardless of their culture, experience or provenance, is “equipped” to recognize the archetypical value of hair: to use them in embroidery, jewelry and decoration is therefore an eminently magical act.
I decided to discuss this peculiar tradition with an expert, who was so kind as to answer my questions.
Courtney Lane is a real authority on the subject, not just its history but also its practical side: she studied the original techniques with the intent of bringing them back to life, as she is convinced that this ancient craft could accomplish its function of preserving memory still today.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a Victorian hair artist, historian, and self-proclaimed professional weirdo based in Kansas City. My business is called Never Forgotten where, as an artist, I create modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis as well as making my own pieces using braids and locks of antique human hair that I find in places such as estate sales at old homes. As an academic, I study the history of hairwork and educate others through lectures as well as online video, and I also travel to teach workshops on how to do hairwork techniques.
Hairwork by Courtney Lane.
Where does your interest for Victorian hairwork come from?
I’ve always had a deep love for history and finding beauty in places that many consider to be dark or macabre. At the young age of 5, I fell in love with the beauty of 18th and 19th century mausoleums in the cemeteries near the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even as a child, I adored the grand gesture of these elaborate tombs for memorializing the dead. This lead me to developing a particular fondness for the Victorian era and the funerary customs of the time.
Somewhere along the line in studying Victorian mourning, I encountered the idea of hairwork. A romantic at heart, I’d already known of the romantic value a lock of hair from your loved one could hold, so I very naturally accepted that it would also be a perfect relic to keep of a deceased loved one. I found the artwork to be stunning and the sentiment to be of even greater beauty. I wondered why it was that we no longer practiced hairwork widely, and I needed to know why.
I studied for years trying to find the answers and eventually I learned how to do the artwork myself. I thoroughly believed that the power of sentimental hairwork could help society reclaim a healthier relationship with death and mourning, and so I decided to begin my business to create modern works, educate the public on the often misunderstood history of the artform, and ensure that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”.
How did hairwork become a popular mourning practice historically? Was the hair collected before or post mortem? Was it always related to grieving?
Hairwork has taken on a variety of purposes, most of which have been inherently sentimental, but it has not always been related to grieving. With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep mourning which lasted the remaining 40 years of her life. This, in turn, created a certain fashionability, and almost a fetishism, of mourning in the Victorian era. Most people today believe all hairwork had the purpose of elaborating a loss, but between the 1500s and early 1900s, hairwork included romantic keepsakes from a loved one or family mementos, and sometimes served as memorabilia from an important time in one’s life. As an example, many of the large three-dimensional wreaths you can still see actually served as a form of family history. Hair was often collected from several (often living) members of the family and woven together to create a genealogy. I’ve seen other examples of hairwork simply commemorating a major life event such as a first communion or a wedding. Long before hairwork became an art form, humans had already been exchanging locks of hair; so it’s only natural that there were instances of couples wearing jewelry that contained the hair of their living lovers.
As far as mourning hairwork is concerned, the hair was sometimes collected post mortem, and sometimes the hair was saved from an earlier time in their life. As hair was such an important part of culture, it was often saved when it was cut whether or not there was an immediate plan for making art or jewelry with it.
The idea of using hair as a mourning practice largely stems from Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the power of saintly relics in the church. The relic of a saint is more than just the physical remains of their body, rather it provides a spiritual connection to the holy person, creating a link between life and death. This belief that a relic can be a substitute for the person easily transitioned from public, religious mourning to private, personal mourning.
Of the types of relics (bone, flesh, etc), hair is by far the most accessible to the average person, as it does not need any sort of preservation to avoid decomposition, much as the rest of the body does; collecting from the body is as simple as using a pair of scissors. Hair is also one of the most identifiable parts of person, so even though pieces of bone might just be as much of a relic, hair is part of your loved one that you see everyday in life, and can continue to recognize after death.
Was hairwork strictly a high-class practice?
Hairwork was not strictly high-class. Although hairwork was kept by some members of upper class, it was predominantly a middle-class practice. Some hairwork was done by professional hairworkers, and of course, anyone commissioning them would need the means to do so; but a lot of hairwork was done in the home usually by the women of the family. With this being the case, the only expenses would be the crafting tools (which many middle-class women would already likely have around the home), and the jewelry findings, frames, or domes to place the finished hairwork in.
How many people worked at a single wreath, and for how long? Was it a feminine occupation, like embroidery?
Hairwork was usually, but not exclusively done by women and was even considered a subgenre of ladies’ fancy work. Fancy work consisted of embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, and more. There are even instances of women using hair to embroider and sew. It was thought to be a very feminine trait to be able to patiently and meticulously craft something beautiful.
As far as wreaths are concerned, it varied in the number of people who would work together to create one. Only a few are well documented enough to know for sure.
I’ve also observed dozens of different techniques used to craft flowers in wreaths and some techniques are more time consuming than others. One of the best examples I’ve seen is an incredibly well documented piece that indicates that the whole wreath consists of 1000 flowers (larger than the average wreath) and was constructed entirely by one woman over the span of a year. The documentation also specifies that the 1000 flowers were made with the hair of 264 people.
Why did it fall out of fashion during the XX Century?
Hairwork started to decline in popularity in the early 1900’s. There were several reasons.
The first reason was the growth of hairwork as an industry. Several large companies and catalogues started advertising custom hairwork, and many people feared that sending out for the hairwork rather than making it in the home would take away from the sentiment. Among these companies was Sears, Roebuck and Company, and in one of their catalogues in 1908, they even warned, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” This, of course, deterred people from using professional hairworkers.
Another reason lies with the development and acceptance of germ theory in the Victorian era. The more people learned about germs and the more sanitary products were being sold, the more people began to view the human body and all its parts as a filthy thing. Along with this came the thought that hair, too, was unclean and people began to second guess using it as a medium for art and jewelry.
World War I also had a lot to do with the decline of hairwork. Not only was there a general depletion in resources for involved countries, but more and more women began to work outside of the home and no longer had the time to create fancy work daily. During war time when everybody was coming together to help the war effort, citizens began to turn away from frivolous expenses and focus only on necessities. Hair at this time was seen for the practical purposes it could serve. For example, in Germany there were propaganda posters encouraging women to cut their long hair and donate it to the war effort when other fibrous materials became scarce. The hair that women donated was used to make practical items such as transmission belts.
With all of these reasons working together, sentimental hairwork was almost completely out of practice by the year 1925; no major companies continued to create or repair hairwork, and making hairwork at home was no longer a regular part of daily life for women.
19th century hairworks have become trendy collectors items; this is due in part to a fascination with Victorian mourning practices, but it also seems to me that these pieces hold a special value, as opposed to other items like regular brooches or jewelry, because of – well, the presence of human hair. Do you think we might still be attaching some kind of “magical”, symbolic power to hair? Or is it just an expression of morbid curiosity for human remains, albeit in a mild and not-so-shocking form?
I absolutely believe that all of these are true. Especially amongst people less familiar with these practices, there is a real shock value to seeing something made out of hair. When I first introduce the concept of hairwork to people, some find the idea to be disgusting, but most are just fascinated that the hair does not decompose. People today are so out of touch with death, that they immediately equate hair as a part of the body and don’t understand how it can still be perfectly pristine over a hundred years later. For those who don’t often ponder their own mortality, thinking about the fact that hair can physically live on long after they’ve died can be a completely staggering realization.
Once the initial surprise and morbid curiosity have faded, many people recognize a special value in the hair itself. Amongst serious collectors of hair, there seems to be a touching sense of fulfillment in the opportunity to preserve the memory of somebody who once was loved enough to be memorialized this way – even if they remain nameless today. Some may say it is a spiritual calling, but I would say at the very least it is a shared sense of mortal empathy.
What kind of research did you have to do in order to learn the basics of Victorian hairworks? After all, this could be described as a kind of “folk art”, which was meant for a specific, often personal purpose; so were there any books at the time holding detailed instructions on how to do it? Or did you have to study original hairworks to understand how it was done?
Learning hairwork was a journey for me. First, I should say that there are several different types of hairwork and some techniques are better documented than others. Wire work is the type of hairwork you see in wreaths and other three-dimensional flowers. I was not able to find any good resources on how to do these techniques, so in order to learn, I began by studying countless wreaths. I took every opportunity I could to study wreaths that were out of their frame or damaged so I could try to put them back together and see how everything connected. I spent hours staring at old pieces and playing with practice hair through trial and error.
Other techniques are palette work and table work. Palette work includes flat pictures of hair which you may see in a frame or under glass in jewelry, and table work includes the elaborate braids that make up a jewelry chain such as a necklace or a watch fob.
The Lock of Hair by Alexanna Speight and Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment by Mark Campbell teach palette work and table work, respectively. Unfortunately, being so old, these books use archaic English and also reference tools and materials that are no longer made or not as easy to come by. Even after reading these books, it takes quite a bit of time to find modern equivalents and practice with a few substitutions to find the best alternative. For these reasons, I would love to write an instructional book explaining all three of these core techniques in an easy to understand way using modern materials, so hairwork as a craft can be more accessible to a wider audience.
Why do you think this technique could be still relevant today?
The act and tradition of saving hair is still present in our society. Parents often save a lock of their child’s first haircut, but unfortunately that lock of hair will stay hidden away in an envelope or a book and rarely seen again. I’ve also gained several clients just from meeting someone who has never heard of hairwork, but they still felt compelled cut a lock of hair from their deceased loved one to keep. Their eyes consistently light up when they learn that they can wear it in jewelry or display it in artwork. Time and again, these people ask me if it’s weird that they saved this hair. Often, they don’t even know why they did. It’s a compulsion that many of us feel, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it in our modern culture, so they think they’re strange or morbid even though it’s an incredibly natural thing to do.
Another example is saving your own hair when it’s cut. Especially in instances of cutting hair that’s been grown very long or hair that has been locked, I very often encounter people who have felt so much of a personal investment in their own hair that they don’t feel right throwing it out. These individuals may keep their hair in a bag for years, not knowing what to do with it, only knowing that it felt right to keep. This makes perfect sense to me, because hair throughout history has always been a very personal thing. Even today, people identify each other by hair whether it be length, texture, color, or style. Different cultures may wear their hair in a certain way to convey something about their heritage, or individuals will use their own creativity or sense of self to decide how to wear their hair. Whether it be for religion, culture, romance, or mourning, the desire to attach sentimental value to hair and the impulse to keep the hair of your loved one are inherently human.
I truly believe that being able to proudly display our hair relics can help us process some of our most intimate emotions and live our best lives.
This article originally appeared on The LondoNerD, an Italian blog on the secrets of London.
I have about an hour to complete my mission.
Just out of Liverpool Street Station, I look around waiting for my eyes to adapt to the glaring street. The light is harsh, quite oddly indeed as those London clouds rest on the Victorian buildings like oilcloth. Or like a shroud, I find myself thinking — a natural free association, since I stand a few steps away from those areas (the 19th-Century slums of Whitchapel and Spitafield) where the Ripper was active.
But my mission has nothing to do with old Jack.
The job was assigned to me by The LondoNerD himself: knowing I would have a little spare time before my connection, he wrote me a laconic note:
“You should head straight for Dirty Dicks. And go down in the toilets.“
Now: having The LondoNerD as a friend is always a sure bet, when you’re in the City. He knows more about London than most of actual Londoners, and his advice is always valuable.
And yet I have to admit that visiting a loo, especially in a place called Dirty Dicks, is not a prospect which makes me sparkle with enthusiasm.
But then again, this proposal must conceal something that has to do with my interests. Likely, some macabre secret.
For those who don’t know me, that’s what I do for a living: I deal with bizarre and macabre stuff. My (very unserious) business card reads: Explorer of the Uncanny, Collector of Wonders.
The collection the card refers to is of course made of physical obejects, coming from ancient times and esotic latitudes, which I cram inside my cabinets; but it’s also a metaphore for the strange forgotten stories I have been collecting and retelling for many years — historical adecdotes proving how the world never really ceased to be an enchanted place, overflowing with wonders.
But enough, time is running out.
Taking long strides I move towards Dirty Dicks, at 202 Bishopsgate. And it’s not much of a surprise to find that, given the name on the signs, the pub’s facade is one of the most photographed by tourists, amidst chuckles and faux-Puritan winks.
The blackboard by the door remarks upon a too often ignored truth:
I am not at all paranoid (I couldn’t be, since I spend my time dealing with mummies, crypts and anatomical museums), but I reckon the advice is worth following.
Dirty Dicks’ interiors combine the classic English pub atmosphere with a singular, vintage and vaguely hipster design. Old prints hanging from the walls, hot-air-balloon wallpaper, a beautiful chandelier dangling through the bar’s two storeys.
I quickly order my food, and head towards the famous restrooms.
The toilets’ waiting room is glowing with a dim yellow light, but finally, there in the corner, I recognize the objective of my mission. The reason I was sent here.
A two-door cabinet, plunged in semi-obscurity, is decorated with a sign: “Nathaniel Bentley’s Artefacts”.
It is so dark in here that I can barely identify what’s inside the cabinet. (I try and take some pictures, but the sensor, pushed to the limit of its capabilities, only gives back blurred images — for which I apologize with the reader.)
Yes, I can make out a mummified cat. And there’s another one. They remind me of the dead cat and mouse found behind Christ Church‘s organ in Dublin, and displayed in that very church.
No mice here, as far as I can tell, but there’s a spooky withered squirrel watching me with its bulging little eyes.
There are several taxidermied animals, little birds, mammal skulls, old naturalistic prints, gaffs and chimeras built with different animal parts, bottles and vials with unspecified specimens floating in alcohol that’s been clouded for a very long time now.
What is this dusty and moldy cabinet of curiosities doing inside a pub? Who is Nathaniel Bentley, whom the sign indicates as the creator of the “artefacts”?
The story of this bizarre collection is strictly tied to the bar’s origins, and its infamous name.
Dirty Dicks has in fact lost (in a humorous yet excellent marketing choice) its ancient genitive apostrophe, referring to a real-life character.
Dirty Dick was the nickname of our mysterious Nathaniel Bentley.
Bentley, who lived in the 18th Century, was the original owner of the pub and also ran a hardware store and a warehouse adjacent to the inn. After a carefree dandy youth, he decided to marry. But, in the most dramatic twist of fate, his bride died on their wedding day.
From that moment on Nathaniel, plunged into the abyss of a desperate grief, gave up washing himself or cleaning his tavern. He became so famous for his grubbiness that he was nicknamed Dirty Dick — and knowing the degree of hygiene in London at the time, the filth on his person and in his pub must have been really unimaginable.
Letters sent to his store were simply addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse”. It seems that even Charles Dickens, in his Great Expectations, might have taken inspiration from Dirty Dick for the character of Miss Havisham, the bride left at the altar who refuses to take off her wedding dress for the rest of her life.
In 1804 Nathaniel closed all of his commercial activities, and left London. After his death in 1809 in Haddington, Lincolnshire, other owners took over the pub, and decided to capitalize on the famous urban legend. They recreated the look of the old squallid warehouse, keeping their bottles of liquor constantly covered in dust and cobwebs, and leaving around the bar (as a nice decor) those worn-out stuffed and mummified animals Dirty Dick never cared to throw in the trash.
Today that Dirty Dicks is all clean and tidy, and the only smell is of good cuisine, the relics have been moved to this cabinet near the toilets. As a reminder of one of the countless, eccentric and often tragic stories that punctuate the history of London.
Funny how times change. Once the specialty of the house was filth, now it’s the inviting and delicious pork T-bone that awaits me when I get back to my table.
And that I willingly tackle, just to ward off potential kidnappers.
The LondoNerD is an Italian blog, young but already full of wonderful insights: weird, curious and little-knowns stories about London. You can follow on Facebook and Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death. I have already written, here and here, about the death positive movement, to which this post is meant as a small contribution.
“As soon as the grave is filled in, acorns should be planted over it, so that new trees will grow out of it later, and the wood will be as thick as it was before. All traces of my grave shall vanish from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will vanish from the minds of men”.
This passage from the will of the Marquis de Sade has always struck a chord with me. Of course, he penned it as his last raging, disdainful grimace at mankind, but the very same thought can also be peaceful.
I have always been sensitive to the poetic, somewhat romantic fantasy of the taoist or buddhist monk retiring on his pretty little mountain, alone, to get ready for death. In my younger days, I thought dying meant leaving the world behind, and that it carried no responsibility. In fact, it was supposed to finally free me of all responsibility. My death belonged only to me.
An intimate, sacred, wondrous experience I would try my best to face with curiosity.
Impermanence? Vanishing “from the minds of men”? Who cares. If my ego is transient like everything else, that’s actually no big deal. Let me go, people, once and for all.
In my mind, the important thing was focusing on my own death. To train. To prepare.
“I want my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet”, I would write in my diary.
“I’d prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone. Without leaving any trace of my passage”.
Unfortunately, I am now well aware it won’t happen this way, and I shall be denied the sweet comfort of being swiftly forgotten.
I have spent most of my time domesticating death – inviting it into my home, making friends with it, understanding it – and now I find the only thing I truly fear about my own demise is the heartbreak it will inevitably cause. It’s the other side of loving and being loved: death will hurt, it will come at the cost of wounding and scarring the people I cherish the most.
Dying is never just a private thing, it’s about others.
And you can feel comfortable, ready, at peace, but to look for a “good” death means to help your loved ones prepare too. If only there was a simple way.
The thing is, we all endure many little deaths.
Places can die: we come back to the playground we used to run around as kids, and now it’s gone, swallowed up by a hideous gas station.
The melancholy of not being allowed to kiss for the first time once again.
We’ve ached for the death of our dreams, of our relationships, of our own youth, of the exciting time when every evening out with our best friends felt like a new adventure. All these things are gone forever.
And we have experienced even smaller deaths, like our favorite mug tumbling to the floor one day, and breaking into pieces.
It’s the same feeling every time, as if something was irremediably lost. We look at the fragments of the broken mug, and we know that even if we tried to glue them together, it wouldn’t be the same cup anymore. We can still see its image in our mind, remember what it was like, but know it will never be whole again.
I have sometimes come across the idea that when you lose someone, the pain can never go away; but if you learn to accept it you can still go on living. That’s not enough, though.
I think we need to embrace grief, rather than just accepting it, we need to make it valuable. It sounds weird, because pain is a new taboo, and we live in a world that keeps on telling us that suffering has no value. We’re always devising painkillers for any kind of aching. But sorrow is the other side of love, and it shapes us, defines us and makes us unique.
For centuries in Japan potters have been taking broken bowls and cups, just like our fallen mug, and mending them with lacquer and powdered gold, a technique called kintsugi. When the object is reassembled, the golden cracks – forming such a singular decoration, impossible to duplicate – become its real quality. Scars transform a common bowl into a treasure.
I would like my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet.
I would prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone, and tell my dear ones: don’t be afraid.
You think the cup is broken, but sorrow is the other side of love, it proves that you have loved. And it is a golden lacquer which can be used to put the pieces together.
Here, look at this splinter: this is that winter night we spent playing the blues before the fireplace, snow outside the window and mulled wine in our glasses.
Take this other one: this is when I told you I’d decided to quit my job, and you said go ahead, I’m on your side.
This piece is when you were depressed, and I dragged you out and took you down to the beach to see the eclipse.
This piece is when I told you I was in love with you.
We all have a kintsugi heart.
Grief is affection, we can use it to keep the splinters together, and turn them into a jewel. Even more beautiful than before.
As Tom Waits put it, “all that you’ve loved, is all you own“.
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.
The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.
But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.
When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind. Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.
And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.
I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).
If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.
The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.
The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.
The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.
My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.
Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.
As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.
We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.
This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.
And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.
Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.
Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.
The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?“
I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?
Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.
The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.
Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.
The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had their own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.
And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.
Death is damn interesting
Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).
Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.
Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.
Death tells us some incredible stories Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.
Death is a dialogue Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, including our own until recent times, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).
Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead. David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.
Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes along with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.
My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.
Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little flickering lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
“Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.
In the past years we have already delved into love stories that surpass the barrier of death (the case of Carl Tanzler and a similar story which took place in Vietnam).
Perhaps less macabre than these other two incidents, but just as moving, was Jonathan Reed’s passion for his wife Mary E. Gould Reed.
When Mary died, she was buried in her father’s crypt, at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. But Jonathan, who then was in his sixties, could not abandon his wife. He kept telling himself that maybe, by showing her his unconditional love, things could go on like before.
His visits to her grave began to be judged excessively frequent, even for a grieving widower who, as a retired businessman, had plenty of free time. As the neighbors began to murmur, Mary’s father asked Reed to behave in a more discreet manner: he therefore reduced his apparitions at the graveyard. But when his father-in-law passed away, for Jonathan there were no more obstacles.
He bought a new mausoleum in another section of the cemetery in which he transferred his dead wife’s body. Beside Mary’s casket he positioned a second empty one, where he himself would be lying when time came to join her.
Eventually Jonathan moved into the crypt.
He took some domestic furniture to the vestibule of the tomb, and hung a clock to the funeral cell wall; he equipped the mausoleum with a potbelly stove, complete with chimney tubes carrying the smoke out through the roof. He decided to decorate the small room with all the things Mary loved – flower pots, picture showing her at different ages, fine paintings on the walls, her last half-finished knitting – and even found place inside the tomb for their pets, a parrot and a squirrel.
Jonathan Reed’s routine knew no variation. He came to the cemetery when gates opened, at six o’clock in the morning, entered the mausoleum and lit the fire. He then went up to Mary’s coffin, which he had especially equipped with a small window, at eye level, that he could open: through that peephole he could see his wife, and talk to her. “Good morning Mary, I have come to sit with you”, was his morning greeting.
Jonathan spent his whole day in there, chatting with his wife as if she could hear him, telling her the latest news, reading books to her. The he would dine in their wedding china. After lunch, he would pull out a deck of cards and play some game with Mary, laying down the cards for her.
Whenever he wanted some fresh air, he sat before the entrance in a rocking chair: he looked just like a classic old man on his front porch, always politely saying hello to whoever was passing by.
At six o’clock in the evening the cemetery closed and he was forced to leave, after wishing his Mary goodnight.
This strange character quickly became a small celebrity in the district. Some said he could communicate with the afterworld. Come said he was crazy. Some said he was convinced that his wife would wake up sooner or later, and he wanted to be the first person for Mary to see when she came back. Some said he developed complicated theories about the “heat”that would bring her back to life.
The story of the widower who refused to leave his wife’s grave appeared in several short pieces even on international press, and litlle by little a curious crowd began to show up every day. In his first year as a resident at Evergreens some 7000 people came to greet him. Many women, it is said, intended to “save” him from his obsession, but he always kindly replied that his heart belonged to Mary. According to the reports, Reed even received the visit of seven Buddhist monks from Burma, who were convinced that he might have acquired some secret knowledge on the afterlife. Jonathan had to disappoint them, confessing he was just there to be close to his wife.
The everyday life of Evergreens Cemetery’s most famous resident went on undisturbed for ten years, until on March 23, 1905, he was found unconscious on the mausoleum’s floor, in cardiac arrest. Jonathan Reed was transferred to Kings County Hospital, where he died some days later, aged seventy. He was buried in the grave he had spent the last decade of his life in, beside his wife.
An article on the New York Times claimed that “Mr. Reed could never be made to believe that his wife was really dead, his explanation for her condition being that the warmth had simply left her body and that if he kept the mausoleum warm she would continue to sleep peacefully in the costly metallic casket in which her remains were put. Friends often visited him in the tomb, and although they at first tried to convince him that his wife was really dead, they long ago gave up that argument, and have for years humored the whims of the old man”.
The article on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which appeared the very day of his admission at the hospital. had a similar tone; the author once again described Reed as obsessed by the idea of keeping Mary’s body warm, even if it was noted that “in spite of this remarkable eccentricity in regard to his dead wife, Mr. Reed is in other respects an unusually intelligent and interesting man. He converses on all subjects with a degree of knowledge and insight rare to a person of his age. It is only upon the subject of death that he appears to be at all deranged”.
Clearly, the story the papers loved to tell was one about denial of grief, about a man who rejected the very idea of death, too painful to accept; what was appealing was the figure of a romantic, crazy man, stubbornly convinced that not all was lost, and that his Beauty might still come back to life.
And it could well be that in his last years the elderly man had somewhat lost touch with reality.
But maybe, beyond all legends, rumors and colorful newspaper articles, Reed’s choice had a much simpler motivation: he and Mary had been deeply in love. And when a relationship comes to be the only really important thing in life, it also becomes an indispensable crutch, without which one feels completely lost.
In 1895, the first year he spent in the cemetery, Jonathan Reed replied to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewer with these words: “My wife was a remarkable woman and our lives were blended into one. When she died, I had no ambition but to cherish her memory. My only pleasure is to sit here with all that is left of her”.
No whacky theories in this interview, nor the belief that Mary could come back from the grave. Simply, a man who was sure he couldn’t find happiness away from the woman he loved.
Every now and then we come across news reports about bullying acts that involve, among other things, the complete shaving of the vexed person.
In these pages we have often drawn attention to the fact that human beings are “symbolic animals”, namely that our mind acts through symbols and frequently – sometimes unconsciously – relies on myths: therefore, why do people consider cutting someone’s hair by force as a disfigurement? Is it only an aesthetic concern, or is there more to it?
First of all, this kind of violence damages somebody’s appearance, and the hairdo has always been one of the most important ways of expressing personality. Since ancient times, every hairstyle has been assigned more or less explicit meanings.
For example, to wear one’s hair down was normally considered as a sign of mourning or submission. Yet, in different contexts such as ritual ceremonies, to leave one’s hair down was a crucial element of some shamanic dances – the irruption of the sacred that wildly sweeps social conventions and restrictions away.
Consider that women have always regarded their hair as one of their most effective weapons of seduction: the hairdo –to hide or show the hair, to wear it up or down – frequently marked the difference between available or modest women; therefore, some cultures go as far as to forbid married women to show their hair (in Russia, for example, there is a saying that “a girl has fun only as long as she is bareheaded“), or at least oblige her to hide it every time she enters a church (Christian West), in order to inhibit its function as a sexual provocation.
The way people comb their hair reflects their individual psychology, of course, but also the values shared by specific social contexts: fashion, the beliefs widespread in a certain period, precepts of religious institutions or a rebellion against all these things. Hairdos that challenge the dominant taste and knock down barriers have often come with social or artistic rebellions (Scapigliatura, the beat generation, the hippie movement, punk, feminism, LGBT, etc.).
Therefore at the end of the 1960s – a period marked by strong social tensions – longhaired people were often charged by the police, in most cases for no other reason than their look:
Almost cut my hair, it happened just the other day.
It’s getting’ kinda long, I coulda said it wasn’t in my way.
But I didn’t and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly,
Cause I feel like I owe it to someone. (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Almost Cut My Hair, 1970)
Have you ever changed the colour of your hair, your haircut or hairdo at crucial moments in your life, as if by changing the appearance of your hair, you could also change your inner self? Obviously nowadays hairdos are still strongly connected to personal emotions. But there’s more to it.
Like nails, hair has always been associated with sexual and vital force by the public imagination. Therefore, according to magical thinking a powerful empathy exists between people and their hair. It is a bond that can’t be broken even after the hair are severed from the body: the locks that have been cut or got stuck between the comb’s teeth are precious ingredients for spells and evil eyes, whereas a saint’s hair is normally worshipped as a very miraculous relic. Hair preserves the virtues of its owners and the intimate relationship between human beings and their hair outlive its severance.
Hence the custom, within many families, to keep hair bunches and the first deciduous teeth. The scope of such practices goes beyond the perpetuation of memory – in a sense they attempt to guarantee the survival of the condition of the hair’s owner.
(Chevalier-Gheebrant, Dictionnaire des symboles, 1982).
The hair bunch that a man receives from the woman he loves as a token of love is a recurrent fetish in nineteenth century Romanticism, but it is during the Victorian era that the obsession with hair attains its summit, especially in the field of jewellery and of accessories connected with mourning. Brooches and clasps containing the hair of the deceased, arranged in floral patterns, complicated arrangements to be hanged on walls, bracelets made of exquisitely plaited hair… Victorian mourning jewelry is one of the most moving examples of popular funeral art. At the beginning the female relatives of the deceased used his/her hair to create these mementos to carry with them forever; photography wasn’t always available at that time, and many people couldn’t afford a portrait, so these jewels were the only tangible memory of the deceased.
Over time, this kind of objects became part of the fashion of the period, especially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when queen Victoria and her courtiers dressed in mourning for dozens of years. After the example of the Royals, black turned out to be the most popular colour and mourning jewellery became so widespread that it began to contain hair belonging to other people as well as to the deceased. In the second half of the nineteenth century, 50 tons of human hair were imported by English jewellers to their country every year. In order to establish a connection between the jewel and the deceased, the name or its initials started to be carved on the object.
All this brings us back to the idea that hair is connected to the essence of its owner’s life, and holds at least a spark of his/her personality.
Let’s go back to the victim mentioned at the beginning of this article, whose head was shaven by force.
This is a shocking insult because it is perceived as a metaphorical castration for a male, and as a denial of femininity in the case of a female victim. The hair is associated to certain powers, such as strength and virility – consider Samson, for example – but above all to the concept of identity.
In Vietnam, for example, a peculiar divinatory art was developed, that may be called “trichomancy”, which allows to understand somebody’s destiny or virtues by observing the arrangement of hair follicles on the scalp. And if hair tells many things about individual personality, to the monks that renounce their individuality to follow the ways of the Lord, shaving is not only a sacrifice but a surrender, a renunciation to the subject’s prerogatives and identity itself.
To cut the hair is not a trivial act.
In the past centuries a thick head of hair was a sign of power and nobleness. So the aristocratic privilege to wear long hair in France was exclusively reserved to Kings and Princes, whereas in China all that wore their hair short – which was considered as a real mutilation – were banned from some public employments. According to American Natives, to scalp the enemy was an ultimate mutilation, the highest expression of contempt. In parallel, within some cultures to cut the hair during the first years of somebody’s life was a taboo because the new-born babies may run the risk to lose their soul. Countless peoples consider a baby’s first haircut as a rite of passage, involving celebrations and propitiatory acts to draw evil spirits away – after part of their vital force has gone together with their hair, babies are actually more exposed to dangers. Within the Native American tribe of the Hopi in Arizona, the haircut is a collective ritual that takes place once a year, during the celebrations of the winter solstice. Elsewhere, the haircut is suspended during wars, or as a consequence of a vow: Egyptians didn’t shave during a journey and recently the barbudos of Fidel Castro swore not to touch their beards nor hair until Cuba would be freed by dictatorship.
All this explains why to cut the enemy’s hair by force is regarded as a terrible punishment since antiquity, sometimes even worse than death. People always assign deep meanings to every aspect of reality; even today a mere offence between kids that, all things considered, could be innocuous (the hair will quickly grow back) is usually a shock for the public opinion; maybe because in the haircut people recognize – with the obvious differences – the echoes of cruel rites and practices with an ancestral symbolic significance.