Archive for the The corpse Category

Catch Me If You Can – Upcoming Conferences

Posted in Dissertation, Presentations, The corpse on January 27, 2019 by Diana S-V

Between a full-time job as an instructional designer and slowly (but surely) making meaningful progress on the dissertation, I’m not left with much time to develop and give conference papers. This year, however, I’ve been fortunate to be invited to give a few guest lectures in colleagues’ classes, and now, I’ll be presenting at my two favorite annual conferences: the ACLA Annual Meeting and Congress.

Although both papers concern Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, they take very different approaches. As the latter half of my first chapter (and one of my unpublished book chapter drafts) focuses on the exhibition, it’s nice to be able to dig into two specific aspects of Body Worlds that I may only be able to touch on in the dissertation. I’ve included abstracts below, in case anyone is interested in the details.

Exhibitionist Embodiment: Aesthetics of Morbidity and Vitality in Body Worlds (ACLA Annual Meeting, March 7-10, 2019)

In The Morbidity of Culture: Melancholy, Trauma, Illness and Dying in Literature and Film, Stephanie Siewert and Antonia Mehnert suggest that contemporary social and medical discourse is primarily defined by the relationship between cultures of morbidity and cultures of vitality. Rather than seeing morbidity as a negative value and a binary counterpart to vitality, Siewert and Mehnert argue that the generative power of morbidity becomes a site of ethical and aesthetic imagination. Few projects have captured the rise of classical and technical anatomy as an aesthetic better than the spectacle of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, an experience which combines the didactic components of public health presentations, the composition of an art show, and the visual and material motifs of anatomical practice. My paper argues that examining Body Worlds within the paradigms of vitality and morbidity allows us to describe the unique new relationship between health, aesthetics, and ethics that technological advances in anatomy and physiology have produced in the past fifteen years. From the radical shift in conceptualizing the public and private medical body to the political consequences of “democratizing” anatomy and narratives of health more broadly, BodyWorlds is a visual and physical manifestation of contemporary issues in biomedical ethics, health humanities, and theories of embodiment.

“But where, and how, and when did you come by it?”: Donation, Theft, and Contemporary Cadaveric Economies (ACCUTE/IGA Joint Panel – Congress, June 1-7)

In “The Body Snatcher” (1884), Robert Louis Stevenson introduced his Victorian audience to the shadowy figure of Dr. Wolfe Macfarlane, a shadowy anatomist who uses coercion and murder not only to supply himself and his students with cadavers to dissect but also to silence those who would expose his grisly work. Stevenson loosely based Macfarlane on real-life Scottish anatomist Robert Knox, whose involvement in the Burke and Hare murders rendered him a questionable figure among other mid-nineteenth-century medical professionals. While Stevenson depicts Macfarlane as a murderer, it was Knox’s participation in the economy of body-snatching homicides (rather than committing those homicides himself) that earned him the disdain of colleagues and the public in the wake of Burke and Hare’s arrests. Similar aspersions have been cast on Gunther von Hagens, whose Body Worlds exhibition combines the ambiance of an art installation, the didacticism of public health education, and the memorialization of medical body donors to great commercial and critical success. An exposé by German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that some of the specimens used in von Hagens’ exhibitions had come from executed Chinese prisoners. Von Hagens has also been accused of purchasing cadavers of prisoners, homeless people, and the mentally ill in Russia, charges that he has vehemently denied and which have not been proven. The triad of Macfarlane, Knox, and von Hagens — and the narratives surrounding their work — demonstrate how the discourse of cadaveric economies has changed even as anxieties about how educators source specimens have grown. Even without the direct exchange of financial capital for cadavers, systems of economy and exchange nevertheless inflect the sentiment and altruism of donating one’s body to medical science, and these notions (“sentiment” and “altruism”) are themselves burdened by an economic framework. Reading “The Body Snatcher” alongside the real-life cases of Knox and von Hagens, I explore the ways in which public perception of von Hagens and Body Worlds calls back to the Burke and Hare murders (and Knox’s involvement in them) as a paradigm for determining guilt, complicity, and responsibility in cadaveric economies. I then look to how this economy has changed with the advent of voluntary body donation as a moral practice in the late twentieth century. Tracing the transformation of specimen procurement from Gothic body snatching to contemporary medical donation, this paper examines the cadaveric economy as a determining principle of contemporary medical ethics as well as the suspicion that tempers the benevolent discourse of body donation.

Home Funeral Practicum – this weekend!

Posted in Death midwifery, Education, The corpse on May 30, 2016 by Diana S-V

I’m incredibly excited to be participating in a two-day home funeral practicum with the wonderful Don Morris and Shannon Calvert this weekend in London. Don was one of my instructors for the VSDM and the week that he taught was one of the highlights of the course.

The workshop will tackle legal and logistical issues, health precautions, body preparation, rituals, vigiling, ceremony, and more. I can’t wait to be able to put some of my online training into physical practice and to connect with others in the London area. Look out for a blog post about my experience in the weeks to come.

Information about the Practicum can be found here!

Forthcoming publication | Writing the Transitioning Body

Posted in Professional, Publications, The corpse with tags , , on October 21, 2014 by Diana S-V

I woke up to some lovely news this morning. My book chapter proposal “(Dis)figuring the Aporetic Subject: Body Worlds, Derrida’s Archive, and New Materialism” has been accepted as part of an anthology called Writing the Transitioning Body, which will be coming out some time in 2016. You can find the abstract here.

Review | Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory

Posted in Reviews, The corpse with tags , , , , on October 20, 2014 by Diana S-V

Image courtesy of The Order of the Good Death

For those who do not wish to read realistic depictions of death and dead bodies, you have stumbled onto the wrong book. Here is where you check the metaphorical blindfolds at the door. The stories are true and the people are real.

Chief among the many reasons that I admire Caitlin Doughty is the fine balance she achieves through her role as a death theorist. I suppose I’m a death theorist, too, or I am at least working to become one, but I also want to be a death educator, a death visionary, and a death guide. Doughty’s own work (the “Ask a Mortician” web series, her excellent blog, and her founding of The Order of the Good Death in January 2011)  and her involvement with affiliated projects such as Death Salon sees her take up these roles with the intent to change the West’s death-phobic culture through public education. From the biomedical to the technical to the sociocultural, Doughty’s pedagogical approach to deathcare and dying is consistently accessible—entertaining, topical or vignette-style information sessions during which common foundational/technical questions about deathcare practices and traditions are addressed. For the layperson to the rigorously self-educated and everyone in between, Doughty’s approach carefully orients readers and viewers towards the realities of deathcare and says, “Here’s how we do it. And here’s how we can do better.”

In some ways, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is no different. Longtime followers will recognize Doughty’s trademark style: frank, thoughtful, precise when it comes to details and terminology but lively, too, with a healthy dose of black humour. I suspect that for some, Doughty’s levity will be deemed too much to handle or inappropriate. Yet the relationship between humour and the topic of death and dying need not (and should not) be one of mutual exclusion. If there’s one thing that Doughty’s book reveals in jarring detail it is the absurdity and, indeed, the failure of contemporary deathcare practices in a society too terrified of death to remember what it means to “take care” of the dead into our own hands and, in turn, to take care of ourselves in the face of our own inevitable death. If I could point to one statement in Doughty’s book that encapsulates this, it would be the end of the chapter “Pink Cocktail,” which covers the history of chemically preserving corpses and a detailed description of contemporary embalming from reception to viewing. Doughty begins the chapter with the example of the Wari’ people of western Brazil and their practices of mortuary cannibalism, which not only provided total disappearance of the body but the opportunity to strengthen communal bonds and effectively grieve in the wake of a death.

“Every culture has death rituals with the power to shock the uninitiated and challenge our personal web of significance,” Doughty reminds us, and after detailing the tools and techniques of the embalming trade, anyone unfamiliar with these practices may well be shocked. It’s difficult to come to terms with the image of an embalmer firmly and repeatedly stabbing a trocar into the body cavity to puncture the internal organs, sucking out the body’s fluid and gaseous materials to make room for the pink cocktail of embalming fluid. Elsewhere, we learn that corpses’ jaws must be wired and pinned shut, their lips superglued together around a mouth former, their eyelids propped up with spiked eye caps, all to produce a purportedly “natural” effect. How is this less shocking, less disturbing, less grotesque than mortuary cannibalism or the excarnation-by-exposure of traditional Tibetan funerals? Doughty’s answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Furthermore, she adds,

[T]here is a crucial difference between what the Wari’ did and the Tibetans do with their deceased compared to what [embalmers do] . . . The difference is belief. The Wari’ had belief in the importance of total bodily destruction. Tibetans have the belief that a body can sustain other beings after the soul has left it. North Americans practice embalming, but we do not believe in embalming. It is not a ritual that brings us comfort; it is an additional $900 charge on our funeral bills.

If we don’t believe in it, why do we go through with it? At its core, Doughty’s book seeks to outline the reasons why our practices are divorced from belief, and to demonstrate that the common denominator of all of these reasons is fear: fear of bodies, fear of time, fear of loss, and fear of death. It is a fear exacerbated by the gradual development of euphemisms, empty rituals, the funeral business as business, and (if I may be frank) the entitlement that most North Americans feel to the longest life possible for themselves and for their loved ones. How can we retain the love and care that sits at the heart of loss while facilitating healthy grief? How can we remove the corpse from systems of capital exchange and euphemism? How can we envision a return to practices of caring for dead bodies that acknowledges the truth of their material condition instead of hiding it, running away from it, or manipulating it into a facsimile of the living?

Doughty’s book, and her broader project, seeks to answer these questions by providing us with information about how and why deathcare is the way it is, and encouraging us to seek an alternative. One such alternative is Undertaking L.A., a culmination of the vision developed over the course of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Doughty’s current project. “The principle behind Undertaking LA is placing the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, the death itself, and the subsequent care of the dead body,” and while I can only imagine how difficult it must be to navigate the state laws that govern what can and cannot be done with bodies, this project could have a tremendous impact on how we approach deathcare. It could set a precedent for similar funeral services in other states (and even here, in Canada) and contribute to making deathcare more affordable and community-oriented. I am eager to see the project as it develops, especially given my burgeoning interest in the kinds of deathcare and funerary practices available in my own city.

However, my greatest motivation for vocally promoting Doughty’s vision of what deathcare could and should be has less to do with deathcare and more to do with end-of-life care. I was wondering if Doughty would address hospice, palliative, and old-age care practices and their relationship to the funeral industry, and I was not disappointed. In the book’s penultimate chapter, Doughty speaks plainly: “[B]ecause of advances in medical science, the majority of Americans will spend the later years of their life actively dying.” For the few lucky enough to have access to and receive adequate care in these years, the end of one’s life may be comfortable. But Doughty’s account of her experiences with corpses bearing decubitus ulcers (bedsores) brought me to tears, and I quote it here at length:

[T]he decubitus ulcer presents a unique psychological horror. The word “decubitus” comes from the Latin decumbere, to lie down. As a rule, bedridden patients have to be moved every few hours, flipped like pancakes to ensure that the weight of their own bodies doesn’t press their bones into the tissue and skin, cutting off blood circulation. Without blood flow, tissue begins decay. The ulcers occur when a patient is left lying in bed for an extended period, as often happens in understaffed nursing homes.

Without some movement, the patient will literally begin to decompose while he or she is still living, eaten alive by their own necrotic tissue. One particular body that came into the preparation room at Westwind [the funeral home and crematory where Doughty began her career] I will remember for the rest of my life. She was a ninety-year-old African American woman, brought in from a poorly equipped nursing home, where the patients who weren’t bedridden were kept in cheerless holding pens, staring blankly at the walls. As I turned her over to wash her back, I received the ghastly surprise of a gaping, raw wound the size of a football festering on her lower back. It was akin to the gaping mouth of hell. You can almost gaze through such a wound into our dystopian future.

We do not (and will not) have the resources to properly care for our increasing elderly population, yet we insist on medical intervention to keep them alive. To allow them to die would signal the failure of our supposedly infallible modern medical system.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about the deaths of four of my grandparents, who all died within a short span of one another and who had vastly different end-of-life experiences. I wish that I would have had Doughty’s book in my hand to help me articulate my thoughts when my grandparents were dying, to put my anger into words when my mother told me about my Oma’s bedsores and how she would cry at being touched when they were at their most painful.

If for no other reason than that no one (elderly or otherwise) should have to endure that kind of pain, I highly recommend that you read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and become acquainted with The Order of the Good Death. For most of us, death is terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be, and this remarkable book by Caitlin Doughty tells us why.

Archaeology, Human Dignity, and the Fascination of Death

Posted in Film, The corpse on April 3, 2014 by Diana S-V

Archaeology and Material Culture

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs) An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds.  The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state.  Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.

At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect.  When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed…

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Catch me if you can | Upcoming Conferences

Posted in Literature, Presentations, Professional, The corpse, Theory on January 9, 2014 by Diana S-V

ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) Annual Meeting | March 20-23, 2014 | New York University

“‘Okay, Warden, let’s do it’: Executed Offenders’ Last Statements and the TDCJ Digital Archive”

Panel: Death Sentence
Date and time: March 22 | 8:30am-10:20am
Location: West 4th C-19

ACCUTE (Associations of Canadian College and University Teachers of English)/International Gothic Association Joint Session, Congress 2014 | May 24-30, 2014 | Brock University

“The Abject Rhythm of De-composition: En(crypt)ion of the Body as Gift in Mary Shelley’s Mathilda

Panel: Gothic Temporalities
Date and time: May 27 | 10:30am-12:00pm
Location: East Academic 108

Derrida Today 4th Annual Conference | May 28-31, 2014 | Fordham University

“Spectre, Substrate, Cipher, Skin: The Absent Body in Derrida’s Archive”

Panel: Technicity and the Body
Date and time: May 29th | 3:30pm-5:30pm
Location: Room LL506

Theory Session | Embodiment and the Archive: Perspectives, Traces, and Peripheral Thinking

Posted in Literature, Presentations, The corpse, Theory on November 13, 2013 by Diana S-V

Poster credit to Dr. Peter Schwenger

On October 26th, I took part in a speaker’s series organized by the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism (CSTC) at Western University. The series is called “The Theory Sessions,” and it is a student initiative that promotes interdisciplinary research in theory at the CSTC and in other departments across campus. I’ve always been a great admirer of these sessions, not just because they provides an avenue for graduate students and faculty alike to present an in-depth public talk about their research interests but also because the sessions feature two confirmed respondents for each presenter. The respondents have access to the talk beforehand and are able to make exciting and informed contributions to the presentation, not to mention setting the stage for what is always a lively and thought-provoking question and answer period to close the session.

I was asked to present on fairly short notice because the original presenter was busy organizing the Apps and Affect conference, and wished to reschedule their talk for the winter term. Fortunately, I already had the foundations for the talk prepared (my peripheral thinking, as it were) in the form of an article-length paper written for one of my last courses. That paper represented my first real thinking about the shape my dissertation was going to take and so was an excellent opportunity to get feedback on my broader research from an interdisciplinary audience at a very early stage in the game. After all, I’ve not even written my field study or thesis prospectus yet.

That aspect was a bit terrifying, I’ll admit. It’s the same kind of terror I get when asked what I do at conferences and other social occasions in academia. Granted, I’ve become much more adept at articulating what it is I want to do, how I envision the project in this early stage, and what kind of questions I’d like to ask, but I always feel slightly guilty that I can’t fully flesh out what the project actually is. This was an excellent first step in trying to sketch the outline of what I was doing, a litmus test with a room full of people with very different perspectives about what bodies do and archives do, and how writing stages these “doings” and reconfigures their relationships to one another.

I ended up getting some incredible feedback from both my respondents and from the (fairly large) group that came to the session. A few folks actually wrote messages with several observations, more fully descriptive questions, and tips and/or resources to help me with some of the aspects of my work about which I’m only just beginning to think. I’m very grateful that I was able to have such a productive and positive experience with my first foray into the “big-picture” aspect of my research, and the feedback I did get from the session has already helped me to work out a few kinks in other aspects of my work.

An abstract and the full text of the talk can be found here on my academic webpage.