On Sunday April 26, 2015 folks sharing a passion for the morbid and knowledge of the final stages of life gathered at the Getty Villa overlooking the gorgeous ocean view of Malibu, CA. The Death Salon is a traveling series of informative lectures in the style of the 18th century salon, where great minds would gather to discuss important topics of the day. In this case, the topic was death. Now before you get the heebie jeebies and close the window for an article on the Avengers, here me out. Death is something that American culture shies away from with great skill. Forest Lawn Cemeteries have made this a special art form, and unlike our relatives about a hundred and fifty years ago, we no longer have viewings of the body in the home. Caitlin Doughty of Ask a Mortician, Sarah Troop of The Cabinet of Curiosities Podcast and Megan Rosenblum, the Director and Founder of Death Salon, gathered together a few years back to help explain what happens after we die to a culture that avoids death at all costs.
The Death Salon was not a doom and gloom event designed to ruin your day. It was a series of fantastic lectures on everything
from the Ancient Necropolis to modern burial practices to what actually goes on during a Medical Examiner’s day. Jokes were a plenty and guests were encouraged to “talk to someone you don’t know” during breaks and lunch. The whole event was followed up by a fantastic reception where guests could speak to the presenters. There was even a scavenger hunt to find the “Deathiest” items in the Villa.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been to an event where speakers were so easy to talk to. Even more so, the speakers were incredibly nice! Caitlin Doughty is the New York Times Best Selling Author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and she ended up taking pictures and signing books with delight, even when she was headed out to grab a pastry. What you see on Ask a Mortician is what you get from Caitlin. She’s funny, personable and just a delight to be around. Medical Examiner Judy
Melinek was delighted to talk to readers of her book Working Stiff and even showed us pictures of her adorable children on her cellphone while her husband TJ Mitchell watched on and offered humorous stories about their lives. Photographer and author Paul Koudounaris sat down on the stage to keep things informal and was delighted to sign books and talk about the fantastic catacomb saints he’s photographed.
For those unable to attend, here’s a brief overview of what you missed.
The Five Stages of Grief: A Getty Villa Guide featured historian David Saunders of the J. Paul Getty Museum describing the different stages of grief as found through the exhibits at The Getty Villa. Trust him, he curated Dangerous Perfection: Funerary Vases from Southern Italy, currently on display at the Getty Villa. One of the best parts of his talk was about the Orphic Tablets founds in tombs that appear to be instructions for how to survive in the afterlife. This was, of course, under the step of Bargaining.
Death and the Hollywood Ending: The Legacy of Forest Lawn and the Future of Death in Los Angeles featured Order of the Good Death member Sarah Elizabeth Troop speaking about growing up in Hollywood with parents who created fake movie deaths for a living and what it was like when real death reared it’s ugly head. She discussed the Forest Lawn concept of rebranding death and what the future holds for cemeteries in the future. She suggested checking out Future Cemetery, and I highly recommend it for the curious in how we may someday see cemeteries.
Consumption, Commemoration, and Caterineg in Etruscan Funeral Rituals sounds like a dry lecture, but Lisa Pieraccini of the University of California, Berkeley was anything but. Her talk discussed the importance of foods such as eggs and wine and their place in the funeral rituals and commemoration of the dead in Southern Italy.
Death and the Deli by Jonathan Gold was a delight. The Pulitzer-prize winning food critic of the Los Angeles times discussed the intricate concept of the last meal and the importance of Deli culture to Jewish families during time of grief. It was a good thing his talk was right before lunch because everyone was drooling after he finished talking.
After lunch, guests were offered a tour of the galleries and a chance to see a solo musical performance by The Mynabirds. Solo artist Laura Burhenn has
toured as a member of The Postal Service and Bright Eyes. She is an ethereal mix of folk and haunting lyrics. She played a few of her older songs and offered up a few from her upcoming album from Saddle Creek Records.
Megan Rosenblum of the Death Salon and Vice.com writer Josh Androsky live-recorded The Deathpod podcast, accompanied by comedians Megan Amram and Solomon Georgio. It was painfully funny and focused on topics such as last words and how you’d like to be embalmed.
Talks returned with Ancient Faces: Funerary Practices in Roman Egypt done by Marie Svoboda of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Svoboda battled technical difficulties to give an incredible lecture on the practices of a group that few even realized were a type of mummy. While we know the pyramid style of mummy, these were accompanied with painted wood faces and sometimes even mummified animals wrapped inside with them. Sadly, a great deal of this type of mummy were destroyed by the Victorians during their Egyptology craze. Those that are left are currently being investigated with less invasive methods to get an idea of the Roman Egyptian culture.
Nobody’s Perfect: Ancient Heroes in Funerary Art discussed the importance of just why so many figures like Hercules and Achilles can be found on ancient funerary vases and tombs. It was also interesting to go back to the concept that even the ancient world was filled with screw ups just like us.
Catacomb Saints was one of the best talks of the day and hosted by author, photographer and Dr. of Art History Paul Koudounaris. Koudounaris is not your typical speaker and approached the stage in a style to kill for. He sat on the stage, talked to the audience and was just so greatly delighted to tell the attendees the story of how the Catholic church battled the Protestant Reformation by repurposing that corpses of ancient Romans by making them into relics. Seriously, if these nuns back then had access to Pinterest we’d all be in trouble.
The talk on everyone’s minds was the double threat of Ask of Mortician/Medical Examiner at the end of the day. Drawing on questions written earlier in the day
by audience members, Caitlin Doughty and Judy Melinek took the stage and gave answers to questions on everything from how they’d like to be disposed of (Melinek wants her body eaten by dermestid beetles and her skeleton put on display) to the rate of decomposition in a human body. One of the best parts was when Melinek admitted that she couldn’t watch shows like CSI due to their inaccurate portrays and how she would never wear heels to a crime scene.
The Getty Villa is also one of those incredible organizations that recorded all the lectures for the general public who weren’t able to make it to the Villa. You can check out the talks here.
The next Death Salon will be in October at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. No pun intended, I’m dying to go. More details are to be released soon.