I follow a lot of artist and interest groups on twitter and because of this I came across posts about a series of events running through October exploring death, through history as well as exploring our current attitudes to it. London Month of the Dead is running throughout October (including all souls day) and is running in conjunction with a fund raising campaign to raise vital money for the restoration of Brompton Cemetery.
I booked tickets to two of the events, although I would have loved to attend others.
12th October 2014
Brompton Cemetery Chapel
This event was held during the late afternoon which gave me a fantastic opportunity to spend over an hour walking around the cemetery. This is a truly amazing space part eerie but also extraordinarily magical too. A densely packed cemetery with a good proportion of it overgrown with weeds and ivy, which for me adds to the whole otherworldly feel of the space.
There were two speakers for this event:
Dr. Marek Kohn – who spoke about the history of burial. How the fact that we bury our dead sets us apart from animals and is fundamental to our humanity. But he also talked about the history of burial as cities started to get bigger, the problems this then created and how cemeteries such as Brompton were introduced as a way of getting the dead out of the centre of London. This talk tied in with ‘Necropolis, London and it’s dead – Catherine Arnold‘ that I read during the summer.
Dr. Richard Barnett – spoke about anatomical art in an age before photography. Dissection and body snatching as a way for surgeons to learn how the human body worked. As grim as this all was, we forget the importance of this today, how far medicine has come. Dr. Richard Barnett wrote ‘The Sick Rose’ a book I have recently finished reading. Beautifully illustrated anatomical plates that is wonderfully explained. What stuck me was that whilst we think photography is by far the best way to show reality, he explained that often it is hard to show minute detail and changes in subtle colours easily in photographs and in some ways these illustrations are examples of this. Also we should never forget that these illustrations are of real people who once lived and for some this may be the only lasting memory of them.
SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET – A guided tour of the City’s forgotten burial grounds and a private view of the Museum of London’s bone archive
18th October 2014
The first part of this visit was a walking tour of cemeteries and burial grounds close to The Museum of London. A fascinating insight, with Robert Stephenson as our guide we visited St Pauls Cathedral, Greyfriars, and Postman’s park. All of these spaces now resemble parks rather than burial grounds but the history is rich. The headstones have long gone in most places but the bodies do remain.
After the walking tour we had the most amazing opportunity to visit the human bone archive at The Museum of London. Accumulated from excavations carried out before building work, this collection consists of archived skeletons kept for particular historical interest.
Located in the bowels of The Museum of London this huge dark store room contains thousands of labelled boxes containing human remains. Jelena Beklavac is the Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum of London and gave the tour of this archive. She was fascinating and so enthusiastic. We saw and held the neck vertebrae of a man who had been beheaded. You could see clearly the clean slice.
Jelena Beklavac had also laid out a full skeleton of a man who had died during the black death. interestingly for me was the metal staining on some parts of the skeleton, greens from copper. This skeleton had been buried beneath the Royal Mint. For my research I was interested in the texture and colour of the bones. We learnt about the ways that it is possible to research some parts of their lives. The detail that can be acquired from samples taken from calcified plaque from teeth. Previous trauma could be seen in some of the bones, old breaks that had mended naturally almost certainly with no medical intervention. We saw how bones can fuse in certain situations either through illness but also in one example after an amputation that was apparently medieval, amazingly this person had survived the amputation. we saw how disease can manifest within the bones by way of scaring. An absolutely amazing visit and such a wonderful opportunity.
What struck me on the way home is our disassociation with bones and death. We are happy to handle the bones of someone and view them in a gallery or museum but these are the remain of someone who once lived. I can understand the struggles of seeing a dead body but where does the difference come between bones and a body. Is it simply the fact that we do not immediately associated the two as the same? Bones are not visible to us in the living.