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Questinia On May - 1 - 2010

The man on the motorcycle is dead.  He was twenty-two, a motorcycle enthusiast, murdered and from Puerto Rico.  His wish was to be embalmed and posed this way and his wish, like the wish of another murdered twenty-four year old in this country (posed standing upright in his mother’s living room for three days), was upheld.  The secret to all of this, said a funeral director, is in the “special embalming”.

However bizarre this may seem, the practice of posing dead people in various tableaux is not new.  It was popular in the Victorian Era when family members couldn’t afford cameras and wanted their dearly departed to be immortalized, although it was also practiced by the wealthy.  It is suggested that upon Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria went into such an intense period of mourning that grief, now in vogue,  became literally showcased in the bereaved mainstream.  As a practice,  it can be seen as an extension of memento mori (“remember you will die”), a practice of inserting images of the dead in paintings and sculpture on tombs as well as on cathedrals.  Christianity embraced this sentiment as it is especially moralizing and wishes to teach the woeful idea that life is short, tempus fugit, and you better not sin.

Although creepy through modern eyes, it must not be forgotten that death was a frequent visitor in homes at this period.  Infant and childhood mortality were common and children saw death as a part of life.  Today, death and children are kept as remote from one another as possible as lost ones release their spirits in hospitals and nursing homes.

All of the people in the photographs, save a few, are dead.  The deceased were held upright using special stands with clamps, their eyes propped open or pupils painted unconvincingly on the photographs. The girl at the top of the article is a fourteen year old in her wedding dress.  Her name was Margaret Rose.  The bottom image of a man and child, ostensibly father and  son, are both deceased.

Categories: History

Written by Questinia

In the medical arts in NYC

157 Responses so far.

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  1. Khirad says:

    Unto Ashes -- Funeral March for Queen Mary; of Purcell, Clockwork Orange fame, reinterpreted in even colder tones:

  2. kesmarn says:

    The amazing Tim Eriksen:

    • Questinia says:

      He is great. It’s funny how this type of tune and it’s delivery does seem to mitigate some aspect of the “big sleep”. Shocking image at the end!

      • kesmarn says:

        Yes. Not the standard image of a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology. 😀

        He plays about five instruments and can do that Tuva dual-voice singing thing, too. I’m very jealous.

  3. Chernynkaya says:

    On a lighter note! Woody Allen, “Sleeper”

    (Fast forward to 3:06)

  4. Chernynkaya says:


    This whole thread is a keeper. (Not that what I am about to write will make add to that excellence but I just want to re-participate.)

    So in another lifetime I was a biomedical illustrator. There is actually a certification program for that, and I took some classes at UCLA. For our final drawing, we had to illustrate the circulatory system. Our instructor suggested we go to a butcher and try to obtain a cow’s heart in lieu of the human kind. I tried to do that, but was told by a couple of butchers that they are required to slice up the cow’s heart to look for any parasites. Hmmm, what to do?

    I got on the phone and called some medical departments at the university, saying that I was a student and explaining my assignment. In no time, I walked into some brain research office and the guy in charge listened to my spiel and said, “Come with me.”

    We walked down a few hallways and just before he pushed open some double doors he turned to me and asked, “You’ve been in here before, right?”

    “Oh, sure”, I said, having no idea where we were.

    As you may have guessed, it was the morgue. Thank God, I didn’t start to giggle, as is my pattern when I get nervous. It was amazing-- not at all what I expected. There was row after row of what I can only describe as giant steel breadboxes. Actually, gurneys with stainless steel domes over them.

    He opened a couple until he found a cadaver that still had an intact heart. None of these bodies was untouched-- it was the end of the semester and the medical students had pretty much messed them up. But here’s the thing-- they looked no more human to me than does meat. They were preserved; no blood or gore at all. I’m sorry if this causes nausea, but that’s the truth-- or maybe just my way of dealing with my first encounter with a cadaver.

    Anyway, he reached into the breadbox-type encasement and gave me a heart. It was smaller than I thought but he reminded me-- it’s fist-size.

    Before he put it into my art box, he looked at me and said he knew I would treat this with the utmost respect and that I would honor the person who had so generously donated his body. I assured him I absolutely would. Also, I was to return it to him for disposal.

    What an experience. I took it home for dissection the next day, but my then-husband freaked when he saw it in the refrigerator. And I had a very hard time dissecting it, but I did get an A in that class. No one else had used a real heart-- no one even tried.

    Sorry if that was too gross!

    • LiseLives says:

      Fascinating story Cher -- very cool about the consciousness toward retaining the ex-live one’s (cadaver’s) respect & very debrouillard (a great French word for which there’s no real English translation, but) meaning : figuring it out & solving it) ….of you to have gone to the actual source.

      I think I’d have a hard time seeing the dead, esp. chopped up !, but in the way you describe it, it might seem much more clinical & less macabre than it sounds --

      & I agree : a keeper of a thread !

    • Khirad says:

      That actually didn’t gross me out. It’s pretty much the blood, gore, and actual scalpel work that does.

      I also really appreciated that he put importance to respecting the person it came from.

      Still, I have more years to deal with this, but I still can’t deal with having my body cut up like that.

      I know my shyness will be of no concern then, but imagining it… just takes me to Poescapes.

      The weird thing would be the refrigerator. Actually, it was all pretty weird. But, weird is interesting!

      I know what you mean about the fist thing. You know it, but still. Never held an actual one though… that would probably give me weird dreams too, like the Telltale Heart or something.

      Thanks for the warning though.

      I’m a contradiction -- drawn to the funereal and vampires, but get squeamish with blood, and when a friend tried to show me the morgue in Oregon Health and Science University, I totally chickened out and got pale.

      I can’t figure myself out sometimes…

      • LiseLives says:

        LOL -- this made me laugh because I guess we always remain contradictions in a way --
        I keep thinking I have solid views on many things, esp. those that affect me personally, but then, I’m also apt to change my mind occasionally --
        With regards to gore, I’m right there with you and (though I’m not particularly proud of this) :) I can also get grossed out by “too much human” in live folk, meaning, if it’s gross (body odor, bad breath etc.), I get disgusted easily.
        Another admission : I wasn’t cut out (no pun intended) to be a nurse or doctor at ALL !
        Have no bent toward clinically delving into human bodies, except in that fun way 😉

        As for my body parts when I’m gone ?
        Have at ’em, but a disclaimer : don’t laugh at my freckles, moles or wrinkles -- otherwise, I want my body back !

        • Khirad says:

          That’s two of us that weren’t cut out (!) for the medical field (especially surgery).

          Yes, I’m with you on the body odor and general hygiene. I don’t always judge someone by it (I was stinking the other day with the humidity and airport nightmare when I caught wind of myself) -- but if you have access to a shower, -- take one. I know I couldn’t wait to.

          Donating is the right thing to do. What will I need anything for? I can’t explain it, I just maybe don’t like to think about it -- and perhaps maybe I should think more about the person I could help instead, like a non-selfish person.

          The thing with my body parts is that I could also try donating my lungs and liver as a joke? 😆

    • kesmarn says:

      Cher, that was not at all gross! When I take the final nap, I think it would be a great consolation to know that a medical student or medical illustrator was going to make some legitimate use of my “parts.” What else would they be good for at that point?

      That said, I have to admit that I find the photos with this article inexplicably creepy. Possibly because — unlike the learning process of dissection or the artistic process of depiction in medical illustrations — these seem to have little or no “redeeming value.” Or if they do, I guess I’m too thick to get it. Maybe they were, in some way, consoling to the survivors. But somehow, for myself, I must say I would be completely weirded out by posing for a photo with a standing, embalmed family member beside me. Just me…

    • Questinia says:

      Not gross! By the end of first year in med school, we were eating lunch with our cadavers. I only ventured tea and Drake’s coffee cakes. It’s really the formaldehyde that is gross.

      By the time the cadavers are up for dissection, they are kind of a greyish brown and pickled.

      You had the privilege of holding a human heart. That can never be gross!

      Should we call you Mme Netter? 😉

  5. Khirad says:

    I too was once fascinated with this, Q. By the way, ever heard of these guys? What was ancient is now New Age, go fig.


    • Chernynkaya says:

      That just seems so egotistical, no?

    • Questinia says:

      I never knew one could be mummified these days, commercially. That it takes 90 days intimates cost. I do like the idea of being encased in bronze. I would love the patina!

      • Khirad says:

        These guys I found out about from this:


        Turns out, I pulled down a copy I have of the Kybalion, and was right, Their Seven Aphorisms are drawn from this book I picked up at a local book sale and stashed in the back of my bookcase near other crazy crap (why I pick up this stuff, I don’t know, it’s a compulsion).

        Now me, and everyone will think it horrible, would -- if money were no object -- have a fabulous mausoleum, housing family and everything. To me it’s art, and having visited old graveyards, many crumble and are forgotten in time, anyway. I used to think of it as wasting space, but I think of graveyards as parks, in a way. During a stressful day, the graveyard can be the most peaceful place to be, and a great place to reflect. I would also have benches and encourage people to sit on them (I love people that have marble benches in lieu of a traditional stone).

        I love epitaphs, what people choose as their final words. What they choose to represent themselves.

        Yes, the practice of burial is ancient, and in its Christian form ridiculous (I think the same God that created you could do it over again without a body or fragments of bones). But, I still see myself being buried, though it’s not a religious thing, and does go against my sensibilities like others mention when choosing cremation (the zirconium is another option that is pretty cool).

        Come to think of it I’ve never gotten to my copy of the Book of the Dead… I should study up in preparation for the weighing of Anubis and so I know the correct incantations (the ultimate secret society passwords).

        But yes, patina is always an extra plus! I want the sarcophagus with fancy painting, gold and jewels too! 😆

        Talk about a fabulous way to spend the afterlife!

  6. Chernynkaya says:

    Whoa there Q and Lise! The baby is the one still living, right? You’re so right-- we look mahvelous!

    • Questinia says:

      No, both father and child are dead.

      • Chernynkaya says:

        Oh god, that’s a tearjerker!

        • Questinia says:

          I can’t imagine being the wife.

          Segue-ing into your Photoshop piece, I could see how retouching becomes a hyper-ideal spin on what can be, on the face of it, a very painful reality. The more one is able to look at the ultra-processed (embalmed really) and get lost in it, the more remote the crude “Photoshopped” people, like the ones above, seem.

  7. LiseLives says:

    O/T : I got stuck here in the office, watching the Correspondent’s dinner --

    You guys HAVE to watch it -- President Obama is in top form funny !

  8. KQ says:

    I never understood the whole displaying the dead body thing myself.

    My wife and I decided we would both be cremated and turned into lab made diamonds. All that’s left over is carbon and some salts anyway. We both think trying to saving a dead body is just a waste.

    I don’t now if you ever caught one of Dr. Boden’s “Autopsy” series episodes where this freak named Dr. Carl Von Cosel kept” his lover’s dead body for decades. There were signs it was “violated” regularly as well.


    • Chernynkaya says:

      Did anybody see this exhibit? It was actually awesome.

      • Khirad says:

        I’m squeemish at the sight of blood, and that was an informative, but incredibly uncomfortable exhibit to go through for me. Plus, the ethical thing seemed exploitative to me (though none were the dissidents, they said, at least one was of a German woman who drowned herself before the waivers legality). I had bad dreams for like a week.

        But, for those studying anatomy, it’d be cool. All I could think throughout was who their mothers, sisters, etc were, and with the young athletes, what untimely demise they had to have met. I couldn’t help but imagine the story of their lives. In the state I saw them, they were so anonymous. I know this was their wish, but I just couldn’t disassociate and compartmentalize cold science from humanity.

        This is why being a doctor was never even entertained by me, ever. I don’t have that ability.

        • Questinia says:

          You’d be surprised how desensitized one becomes. By the end of the year, we were having lunch next to our cadavers.

          I could never get used to the buckets of hands and feet though.

    • Questinia says:

      Wow! Reminiscent of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”.

  9. LiseLives says:

    Yes indeed -- that’s what tears & grieving are all about --
    I wouldn’t want to experience life without even its most grave set-backs. Utopia doesn’t exist & if it did, we might not have been afforded the wisdom to develop empathy & compassion.

  10. LiseLives says:

    If I were sent such a picture after death, I’d have a strong urge to draw a Groucho nose or Alfred E. Newman face on them ….& think of them smiling, happy & vital in life 😉

  11. Questinia says:

    Often these photographs were turned into “cartes de visites” and sent to distant relatives. Perhaps to relatives who never saw their kin alive.

  12. whatsthatsound says:

    What a topic, Q, and such strange photos! Wow! In Japan, it is customary for immediate family members, including the lil’ones, to sleep in the same room, alongside the deceased, until the funeral. By our thinking, we might assume it is to impress upon people the transience of life, but I am pretty sure the Japanese don’t see it that way at all. I think it’s more the feeling that the deceased person has not fully made the transition, and wants to have his/her family around until that happens. So although it might, and frequently does, scare the children, it’s not really about them, but about the needs of the departed. On the other hand, as a foreigner, it’s probably more accurate to confess that I don’t fully understand the practice,

  13. Kalima says:

    Good Lord Q, I’d rather just be stuffed and mounted!

  14. LiseLives says:

    Note the interesting photographic treatment in the background of the album cover once you click on it --

    Blood, Sweat & Tears -- And when I die ….

    Embedding not allowed but a good soundtrack --

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