Curator Joanna Ebenstein gives a tour of Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Library, and shows why looking at collections of body parts and imagery, could help people deal with death. , Video muted: click volume for sound
In late October, millions adorn their homes with replicas of disembodied heads, or hang bloodied scarecrows by the neck from the branches of trees. White picket fences become cemetery gates, and nice suburban parents smile as their children ramble around miniature graves, sucking on Jell-O shaped like brains.
Artifice is one thing. But some people, either by accident or design, find themselves in possession of much more macabre objects than plastic Halloween decorations. This week a woman shopping at Goodwill found a lovely oak box that when opened, revealed what appeared to be human remains. (Goodwill says it has received urns in the past, which are usually marked with the name of the mortuary where the remains were cremated. In those cases, Goodwill returns the ashes to the mortuary..)
Earlier this autumn, journalist Mark Jacobson published a book about a lampshade he received in the mail unexpectedly—which he later discovered to be made of human skin. The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans chronicles his attempt both to find out the provenance of the shade—which his friend purchased from a yard sale for $30—thought to have originated during the Holocaust, and figure out what, in fact, to do with the thing.
But while the lampshade may have the most tragic origin, it is not the only macabre object that has found its way out of the murky past to end up in private collections or museums.
“We have in our collection several pieces of human leather,” said J. Bazzel, director of communications at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which specializes in medical oddities.“We hear human leather and think of the Nazi commodities trade, but there was a time where binding a book, a medical book, in human leather was seen as a sign of respect. Perhaps a patient helped you learn something, helped you understand something that you documented in this book, so commemorate them, to honor, to respect them.”
Included in the Mütter Museum is a wallet made of human skin, dating to the 1920s, once owned by a former president of the museum. (Though just 38 years old, and very much alive, Bazzel also donated his own body parts in the collection: his hipbones, both removed several years ago due to bone decay, a reaction to the medicine used to treat AIDS, and donated for the purpose of teaching visitors how complex and devastating even the treatment for disease may be.)
“There’s very little in the world that is black and white,” he said. “One person’s fear is another person’s joy; one person’s nightmare is another person’s reality.”
Take, for instance, the children’s author Roald Dahl. After hip-replacement surgery, Dahl kept the knob of his own hipbone for inspiration—as well as a jar containing several pieces of his own spine.
The question of what to do with these objects once they make it out of the operating room can be a puzzle for some who never imagined having to make such a judgment call. Joanna Ebenstein, a graphic designer, photographer, lecturer, and owner of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Library and Cabinet, a collection of books and medical specimens, recently debated whether to open her home to a collection of “babies in jars” recently.
The jars had been rescued from a decades-old collection of specimens in a hospital, as it was being destroyed. Torn about the idea of the babies being incinerated, an employee took them home, and, for lack of anyplace else, kept them on shelves in his kitchen before offering them to Ebenstein for her collection. She chose not to accept them, and is unsure of their fate. But she did take many photographs. There, museumlike, haunted, the waxy human skin of tiny faces and bodies float inside dozens of jars.
“There’s something very exciting about objects like that; so many directions you could go,” says Ebenstein. She is intrigued by the ways in which objects undergo chemical changes when they move away from life and become specimens.
“They may become significant objects, objects that speak,” she says. “Particularly human artifacts—there’s a sort of breathlessness to it.”
Of course, not all objects need once be human, or even alive, to capture the morbid imagination. “People are really drawn to things that straddle the line between living and dead,” says Evan Michelson, owner of Obscura, Antiques and Oddities, a little shop in New York’s East Village that specializes in objects some refer to as “Victorian macabre.”
“If you have a melancholy shade to your personality, you find comfort in things other people find sad,” she says. It has been her observation, too, as a dealer, that females seem to be drawn to this sort collection disproportionately more than males.
She carries “melancholy” objects, crime-scene evidence, medical instruments, prints of diseases and incurable lesions, specimens in jars, conjoined animals. “I have some conjoined piglets that are especially sad,” she says. “They look like they’re dancing.”
Some of the saddest objects, she says, are polio braces for small children.
“We get those all the time,” says Michelson. “Tiny, corrective braces for tiny legs and feet. One person brought a pair back because she said they were haunted, and she heard footsteps from little feet. And then another person immediately bought them because she wanted to hear the footsteps. She didn’t.”
Michelson also has a collection of baby coffins. “I have one at home that’s the smallest commercially made coffin there is,” she says. On it is written: “Suffer little children to come unto me.” “It’s got all the little hinges, and the hardware on it for pallbearers, as if pallbearers would be necessary.”
As for the lampshade, its journey continued, handed off from one horrified professional to another, repeatedly tested for DNA and other evidence as to its origin. Jacobson considered burying it, just to let it go, but in the end decided against it (though he’s been elusive about its current whereabouts.)
Some objects never leave us. They still have things left to say.
Caroline H. Dworin is a writer living in New York City.