Wish I knew the backstory here.
Shanghai Corpse Backlog, December 1946. Photograph by John Florea for LIFE. Source: LIFE Photo Archive, hosted by Google.
I see a similarity in the way people approach art and death: they know each exists but may feel intimidated to try and understand them. It does not have to be this way.
“It seemed kind of kitschy and 50′s until it started talking about how ten thousand bodies would need 5.5 acres of space to spread out and probably half would be unrecognizable due to disfigurement from injury and fire. That’s when SHIT GOT REAL.”
An Australian murder-mystery from Rachael Weaver’s article “The Morgue” in Meanjin:
On 17 December 1898 three boys reported having seen a wooden trunk bobbing in the Yarra River near the Church Street bridge. The Richmond police soon managed to retrieve it—still floating though wired to a heavy stone. As they raised it from the water, the side of the box broke away, revealing a human leg, so they prised it open on the spot and found the naked body of a young woman. […] There was nothing to identify the woman’s body and so it was put on display in the hope that she would be recognised. Those who hurried to view it were described as ‘sensation-hunters eager to describe the appearance of the body to their acquaintances’. Parties of clairvoyants joined the throngs, offering their services to help unravel the mystery.
By 22 December, due to warm weather accelerating the deterioration of the corpse, authorities undertook to bury the body after first removing the jaws, which were missing several teeth, with a view to a future identification. But this was not to be. Two days after Christmas it was announced instead that the whole head had been severed from the body, plunged into a glass cylinder of methylated spirits, and placed on exhibition. The head alone continued to draw unparalleled public interest, but no useful information, so on 5 January 1899 two police detectives carried it to the General Post Office inside a cedar box. There it was removed from the spirits by cords that had been fixed to it for the purpose and mounted on a wire mesh partition in the letter carrier’s room where it was shown to all the city’s postmen that evening.
From the article “The Morgue” by Rachael Weaver in Meanjin.
Paris Morgue 1883.
A kind of dark tourism was commonplace in the nineteenth century, with a variety of different spectacles and events associated with violence, death and deformity often becoming framed or experienced as macabre and sensational forms of entertainment. Executions, the trials of infamous criminals, waxworks and anatomical museums, and even slums and opium dens could all be relied upon to draw fascinated viewers whose expressions of horror in response to what they saw most often equalled their curiosity and enjoyment. The newspapers played a crucial role in sensationalising the banal details of everyday life in the modern metropolis by embedding them within thrilling narratives of urban danger and excitement. Every fight or brawl, anonymous suicide, railway accident, murder or infanticide became not just an event to be reported in itself, but also a story of the community’s engagement with trauma, death and violence. News reports of the large crowds that flocked to the sites related to notorious crimes such as cemeteries, court houses, prisons and murder scenes confirmed the sensational nature of a case and, in turn, helped to draw increasing numbers of onlookers.
The Paris morgue was one of the most famous international sites for this kind of macabre voyeurism in the nineteenth century. From 1864 until 1921 the morgue was located on the quai de l’Archevêché near Notre Dame, nearly within jumping distance of the Seine (from the waters of which many of its subjects were retrieved). The bodies of the anonymous dead were displayed on black marble slabs behind a large glass window for members of the public to view, day or night, seven days a week. Green curtains were hung at either end so that authorities were able to obscure the public’s view when changing the exhibits, intensifying its resemblance to a stage show. Comparisons to waxworks, the theatre and even department store windows were made regularly in sensational newspaper commentaries, which always accompanied the appearance of a new corpse, while the morgue itself was included along with the city’s other tourist attractions in all the guidebooks of Paris.
A Frankfort family is suing cemetery owners after they say workers dropped their mother twice during her burial, causing her body to roll out of its casket.
A very sad story from NPR:
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office was so far behind in burials for the poor that bodies have been stacking up. Conditions at the overcrowded morgue have been described as inhumane and unsanitary, and there are reports that the department has lost track of bodies. Following efforts to change its practices, the morgue is now trying to catch up and clean up.
Photograph by Andreas Larsen Dahl. De Forest, Wisconsin, ca. 1880. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.
Funeral wreath of Caroline Keyser Preus, the wife of Lutheran minister Herman Amberg Preus.
The digging up of a buried body is called exhumation, and is considered sacrilege by most cultures that bury their dead. However, there is often a number of circumstances in which exhumation is tolerated:
- If an individual died under suspicious circumstances, a legitimate investigating agency (such as a police agency) may exhume the body to determine the cause of death.
- A body may be exhumed so that it may be reburied elsewhere.
Once human remains reach a certain age, many cultures consider the remains to have no communal provenance, making exhumation acceptable. This serves several purposes:
- Many cemeteries have a limited number of plots in which to bury the dead. Once all plots are full, older remains are typically moved to an ossuary to accommodate more bodies.
- It enables archaeologists to search for human remains in order to better understand human culture.
- It enables construction agencies to clear the way for new infrastructure.
Frequently, cultures have different sets of exhumation taboos. Occasionally these differences result in conflict, especially in cases where a culture with more lenient exhumation rules wishes to operate on the territory of a stricter culture. For example, United States construction companies have run into conflict with Native American groups that wanted to preserve their ancient burial grounds from any form of modern construction.
In folklore and mythology, exhumation has also been frequently associated with the performance of rites to banish undead manifestations. An example is the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident of Rhode Island, which occurred in 1892.
Excarnation consists of exhumating the remnants to give them to animals. It was probably part of the bronze age death rites. Dogs and other scavengers gnawed on human corpses, reducing most of the bones to small fragments in the process.
Since ancient times, Zoroastrians have disposed of their dead by leaving the corpses in the open air, to be devoured by carnivorous birds and beasts. The Towers of Silence (Doongerwadi) have existed in Bombay since 1673. In modern Bombay there can be no beasts, but the vultures remain, ready to swoop down at the appointed times for their daily meals.
Secondary death rituals
In these rites, the body is treated one way and additional remains are treated another. For example, in modern, rural, south China, the corpse is buried with ceremony. After enough time has passed for the flesh to decompose, the bones are exhumed, cleansed, ritualized again then reburied.
It is suggested that dual rituals serve dual purposes with the specific purposes varying among cultures. When considering the dual rituals of contemporary Western cremations, it may be that one ritual addresses “community or family problems of social reintegration and the other resolves personal problems of bereavement.
Skeletons, mummies, bog bodies, exhumations. The dead, and what happens to them.
Meet This Dead Person
Feats of Preservation
Skulls and Skeletons
Ossuaries and Bone Architecture
Incorruptibles and Saintly Relics
When Famous People Die
When Dead People Turn to Soap
Skeletons in Clothes
Dead People Sitting, Standing, or
Made to Look Alive
Death in Art
Accidents and Disasters
Morgues, Funeral Homes, and the
Business of Death
Mourning Customs and Imagery
Handling, Disposing of, and Storing
Posthumous Travels and
Cemeteries and Graveyard Scenes
Personal Details and Opinions
Just Plain Weird or Uncategorizable