“On an average day, visitors might encounter Dr. Couney’s Infant Incubators, where premature babies were kept alive by novel technology that had yet to be adopted by hospitals,” writes Joanna Ebenstein of the medical miracles once tucked away inside New York City’s most famous amusement park in her new book, Death: A Graveside Companion. “Although it is best remembered today for hot dogs and roller coasters, both of which originated there, Coney Island at the time of Freud and Jung’s  visit was a far more surprising place.”
Out of the chaotic din of various sideshows, carnival barkers, creaky wooden rides, and hundreds of 20th century New Yorkers at play rose the most fascinating and surprising Coney Island attraction of all—Night and Morning: or, A Journey Through Heaven and Hell. Ebenstein explains that this particular attraction starkly illuminated the relationship between primal fear and compelling amusement, which characterised many of the park’s most memorable offerings. Night and Morning (which opened to in 1907) offered visitors the chance to experience their own premature burial in the form of what Ebenstein terrifyingly terms “an immersive recreation.”
Death: A Graveside Companion is chock full of such morbid tidbits and revelations, its sprawling collection of memento mori memorabilia paired with illuminating essays by death industry professionals, academics, and journalists. The book skips merrily from topic to ghoulish topic, exploring the mechanics of those Coney Island death traps; peering at the lurid attractions of the sideshows of old; weaving a story about Victorian hair art; poking away at humanity’s curious impulse to “play dead;” and delving into the emotional intricacies of collecting other people’s mourning objects.
The untimely demise of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum in late 2016 left a crater-sized hole in the city’s morbid art scene, which had brought together a lively (albeit monochrome) community of oddities collectors, taxidermy artists, cemetery aficionados, and generally macabre souls. Now, each lavishly decorated page of Death is haunted by the museum’s former mission to dissect and display the webs of connective tissue linking art, sex, and death.
A meditation on decay: One side of this 18th-century vanitas tableau in wax resembles Queen Elizabeth I of England; the other half is a bare skull crawling with insects, snails and reptiles, representing the decay of the body in the grave. The text is drawn from Ecclesiastes 1:2 in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, is all vanity.’ Wellcome Library, London
Death: A Graveside Companion spends a good deal of time delving into the more ephemeral, spiritual, and artistic sides of the great beyond, but I was particularly interested in the more scientific, medical, and even mechanical elements of death the book explored. Centuries of history skip by as we’ve confronted with the realisation that things haven’t changed all that much since people first started thinking, really thinking, about what it means to be dead. Even as modern science has laid to rest some of our oldest fears, death remains as inscrutable as it ever was—and Ebenstein is here to act as your own personal Charon.
Gizmodo: While the subject matter discussed flits from art to ritual and back again, I’m especially interested in the mechanics of death. Can you tell me a bit about what drew you to Death-Themed Amusements, and how you went about researching this bizarre blip in entertainment history?
Joanna Ebenstein: Yes! The medical and scientific aspect has always been very important to me. Morbid Anatomy developed in support for a photography exhibition I did about artifacts in medical museums. One of the main points of the exhibition—and, in fact, the entire Morbid Anatomy project—was to approach such artifacts not just as antiquated science, but also as artistic and cultural objects that had something to tell us about the times and cultures in which they were created. Further, I saw them as objects that—if unconsciously—express the fears and imaginings of death as at a time where scientific professionals were replacing religious leaders as our arbiters between life and death, maintainers of health, and alleviators of suffering.
Science and medicine are human cultural activities shaped by the societies in which they operate; one can, for example, see strong links between the Catholic culture of the saints—with its preserved body parts of the saints, called relics, many of which are believed to possess powerful healing properties—and the preserved body parts in medical museums, related to the human acquisition of powers of healing.
The piece on death themed amusements had its genesis in the time I spent as Artist in Residence at The Coney Island Museum in 2011. For the residency, I did a bunch of research—and, with Aaron Beebe, developed an exhibition—about the the sorts of largely forgotten amusements that were common at turn of the 20th century Coney Island, many of which involved immersive spectacles revolving around death, disaster, and destruction. I view these attractions within the larger framework of ways in which people have attempted to imagine and make sense of death, in this case through immersive entertainment and popular culture.
Gizmodo: Some of these sound absolutely horrifying—especially the Night and Morning “ride,” in which visitors could watch themselves being literally buried alive through a glass coffin lid and then led off into Hell.
Ebenstein: Night and Morning was even more horrifying than you suggest—you would actually experience being buried alive, at a time when this was a common (and not entirely unfounded) fear!
In this attraction, you would start out in a room topped with glass lid through which you would look up and see mourners throwing dirt upon you. Then, the room would be lowered into the ground, and you would, among other things, travel through a hell peopled with monopolists frying in pans and see talking and smoking skeletons. It’s unclear—as it’s not terribly well documented—exactly what techniques they used to create these sorts of illusions, but it is probable that some elements utilised a 19th century technique called Pepper’s Ghost; this technique involves a large plane of very clean glass and an off-stage actor. The same technique was also used to animate the ghosts in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride and to bring a dead Michael Jackson back to perform at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.
Gizmodo: A few other essays veer towards the tactile rather than the ephemeral as well. Liselotte Hermes da Fonseca’s The Anatomy of Holy Transformation addresses how, in the 1700s, the church used anatomical wax figures of Christ to reveal the mysteries of the human body and gives us a view into a time when the church controlled the sciences. Dissection in particular sent them into a tizzy, which created a shortage of educational bodies and helped spawn the dreaded resurrection men of later centuries. Why were people so aghast at the idea of being dissected after death?
“Anatomical Christ.” This 17th-century polychrome wax figure created by an unknown artist is a Christus Anatomicus, or Anatomical Christ. Little is known about these miniature figures, which have a removable panel in the chest, but it seems likely that they are tools for meditating on Christ’s paradoxical nature of being both man and God. ©Museo dell’Agricoltura e del Mondo Rurale, San Martino io Rio (Reggio Emilia, Italy). Photo: Costantino Ferlauto, IBC Emilia-Romagna
Ebenstein: What I learned while working on The Anatomical Venus is that the church’s attitude towards dissection it was actually a bit more complicated than straightforward damnation. The first anatomical wax museum was founded in the mid 18th century Bologna by a pope who encouraged the scientific verification of miracles and encouraged his laity to donate their bodies for dissection. Of course, in the Christian worldview, human dissection is necessarily complicated, as it is believed that, on Judgement Day, one’s soul will be reunited with one’s physical body.
Dissection really became fraught and controversial in the 19th century when a rise in the number of medical schools and new methods of instruction involving the body led to the need for many more cadavers than could be legally sourced. This lead to grave robbing by what were sometimes called “resurrection men” or resurrectionists. Some people, as in the case of Burke and Hare, even resorted to murder to acquire bodies for the lucrative cadaver trade.
Gizmodo: What kind of work went into creating one of these anatomical waxworks? How did they end up with such a realistic, even spookily lifelike final product, and how have said waxworks survived for so long?
Ebenstein: An Anatomical Venus is a life sized, wax woman demonstrating the anatomised female body; some are dissectible, others in a fixed state of auto dissection. They were created to teach a general public about human anatomy. The best known and finest Anatomical Venuses were created by the workshop of The Imperial-Royal Museum for Physics and Natural History, better known as La Specola. This was the first truly public science museum in Florence, Italy; founded in 1771 in Florence, Italy, it was open to all, so long as they were “decently dressed.”
Each element of an Anatomical Venus was crafted by an artist and anatomist working together, from observation of cadavers sourced from a nearby hospital. The wax workers of Florence had long been famous for exceptional fine anatomical waxes crafted for sacred use, in the form of effigies or anatomically shaped ex votos left at a saint’s shrine to commemorate or request divine intervention. Fascinatingly, these sacred works were being phased out by the ecclesiastical and political authorities at the very same time the same authorities were founding the first anatomical wax museums. We know that at least some of the artists who made anatomical models also created wax pieces for liturgical use.
Bruce Goldfarb’s The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death touches on a similar theme with an exploration of early forensic science’s most famed teaching tools. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were vividly rendered dioramas of sudden and/or violent deaths that were used for decades to hone the skills of homicide detectives. What lasting impact do you think these tools have had on the way we investigate death?
Ebenstein: Created as teaching tools in the mind 20th century, the Nutshell Studies continue to impact death investigation today; they are, in fact, still used for police training, which is why they are housed at the Baltimore medical examiner’s office. Their creator, Frances Glessner Lee, was a fascinating woman. She is called the “mother of forensic science,” and it is said that she was even the model for Jessica Fletcher, the main character of the TV show Murder, She Wrote. Lee constructed these intricate and atmospheric doll house miniatures depicting gruesome crime scenes in order to train police to decode the clues they might find at a real crime scene.
Death: A Graveside Companion is your first big project post-Morbid Anatomy, and it must be a little bittersweet to see it come to fruition. What planted the initial seed for this book?
Ebenstein: It is a bit bittersweet. In many ways, this book is the best summation of what I was trying to express with the entire Morbid Anatomy project, which was interested in exploring images related to death. Rendered bizarre to the contemporary eye because of changing attitudes towards death, the were once, as I tried to make clear, extremely common. Taken together, they constitute a sort of alternative art history, functioning as artifacts illustrating the vast range of humankind’s attempts to imagine, respond to, or find meaning in the mystery of death from many times and places, and within perspectives ranging from the metaphysical to mythological to the scientific.
I had always wanted to do the big “Book of Morbid Anatomy” and, many ways, this book is the best expression of the project. The lens of Morbid Anatomy was to present a preponderance of images from many times and places—and created within perspectives ranging from the metaphysical to mythological to the scientific—related to humankind’s attempts to imagine, respond to, or find meaning in the mystery of death.
As your book helps to illustrate, the dead have always been extremely useful to the living—whether that’s been in cadaver labs, at body farms, or even as artwork. This is something that I think is often lost in our modern grieving process, and modern (specifically Western) approach to death. Do you have any thoughts on that concept - the utility of the dead?
Ebenstein: The dead body has a special power, meaning, and utility to the living. We see this most obviously is anatomical science, where dissecting the cadaver has taught us invaluable things about our bodies, leading to great medical advances. But the importance of the dead does not end here. The dead body was also, for many centuries and in many different places, the subject of art, contemplation, and metaphysical meaning.
Once upon a time, people created what were called memento mori: objects or artworks created for the purpose of reminding the viewer that they, too, will die. This practice stretches back at least to ancient Rome, where its message was akin to our contemporary idea of carpe diem—i.e. eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die. The pieces we are most familiar with in the Western world were created in a Christian context, in which the memento mori was meant to remind the viewer of death in order to urge them to live a pious life in order to avoid divine punishment. Many of these used images of the cadaver or skeleton as their subject.
Guild of Surgeons: Like other trade guilds in Amsterdam in the 17th century, the Surgeons Guild commissioned paintings of its members and activities, such as The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz, 1619, by Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy (top). Later in the 17th century, the leading anatomist was Frederik Ruysch, seen here in Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch, 1683, by Jan van Neck. Ruysch was famous for developing revolutionary techniques for preserving the human body and for memento mori artworks using human foetal skeletons. © Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam
Today, at a time when death has moved from the domain of mythology or religion to that of science, the dead body continues to mean but what precisely it does mean is unclear. In some ways, I see objects in medical museums as sort of science-age memento mori, objects that allow us to come close to and contemplate the mystery of death in a time when dead bodies are rarely seen. Hopefully, this book will serve something of the same function; by contemplating these images, and by engaging with the many ways in which our ancestors imagined a death that was not antithetical to beauty, we might rediscover what they knew so well: the seemingly paradoxical notion that it is precisely by keeping death close at hand and coming to terms with its inevitability that we are able to lead full, rich lives.