Apparently, books on the use of human corpses as medicine are all the rage! Which is wonderful because my Facebook feed told me that duck nails are all the rage.
Duck nails are gross. Taking medicines made from dead humans is also gross, but if something’s going to be “all the rage” I’ll take the corpse medicine.
Book one is Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture and book two is Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. During the 16th and 17th century “many Europeans, including royalty, priests and scientists, routinely ingested remedies containing human bones, blood and fat as medicine for everything from headaches to epilepsy.”
So even though cannibalism was thought of as a “savage” practice of “natives” (this being the golden age of Euro colonialism), it was still fine to grind up an ancient Egyptian mummy to stop internal bleeding.
“Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate.”
If you know what’s good for you you’ll read the entire Smithsonian article about this practice because I’m not even scratching the surface of how fascinating this practice was.
Deathlings, far and near.
I will admit that I have been distant the past month. The warm, chummy embraces of mortality you have come to expect have been few and far between. I promise I will be much more dedicated to the blog/video projects in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime I present a totally random assortment of things that have been happening the past month, perhaps to act as penance (read: excuses) for my absence.
First, I married one of my best friends! By married, I don’t mean got married, I mean I literally performed the ceremony. I am now legally allowed, by various government licenses, to both marry and bury people. Love and/or death for all! Eros and Thanatos, etc.
I’ve also been at work on several LARGE-scale projects, larger than the Order has e’er seen the likes of before. They must remain hush-hush as of now (although I hate to be one of those people who posts sad lyrics on Facebook with no context so their friends will be like “Oh my god, what’s wrroonng?”) I tell you this only to prove I haven’t been sitting on my bed eating chocolate bon-bons and watching Masterpiece Theater… although, to be fair, I’ve totally been doing that too.
I also did two lectures, one at Cal State Los Angeles and one a panel discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center. The Cultural Center has the memento mori art collection of Richard Harris up until July, and GOOD GOD if you have not been you must must must. Is my emphasis clear here? I will write more on my time in Chicago very soon.
The cultural center and the fine organizers MeMo did very nice things like bring me in for this panel and describe me as a “L.A. based alternative mortician and activist” in the promotional literature. I feel like a real person, Mom!
A lot of you have inquired after the next Ask a Mortician episode. In a snarky voice, I answer you, “Why don’t you ask the trackpad on my Macbook?” That is to say, my shit is broken. I shot the episode, but now it lives on the dusty editing shelves of my computer until I can drag myself to the horror that is The Grove shopping center in LA and go to the Mac Genius Bar. Fie.
Order photog Darren Blackburn (with his fancy new website here) did another shoot of me, half for publicity things, half for being ridiculous. Here’s one of the raw shots.
Ah, nature corpses.
Vive la muerte until we meet again… which will be soon… omg I promise ok geeeeez get off my BACK you guys. xx
Jenn Park-Mustacchio is a funeral director and embalmer, horror movie nerd, and married mother of two in Haddon Township, New Jersey. She studied anthropology and human biology at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been in the funeral industry for 14 years — since she was 18. Here, she recounts her first Buddhist funeral.
It was a dark and blustery evening and, as the most recent funeral home licensee, I was saddled with the task of a 3 am embalming.
I clumsily fumbled for the key to the back entrance of the funeral home. Blindly searching for the light switch inside, I became aware of a low whisper. Upon flipping the switch, I realized the noise was coming from the occupied stretcher. Frightened, yet intrigued, I unzipped the bag on the stretcher and found a tape recorder playing a chant. Relief swept over me; everything was as it should be.
Upon further inspection, I noticed a bowl of rice with a hard boiled egg (placed at the head of the deceased) and a machete with plantains (placed upon the chest). There was also a note from the director, who did the removal, instructing me to leave the tape recorder on play and to place the food items back in their appropriate positions after embalming.
I removed the deceased gentleman from the stretcher and went about embalming, placing the items back in their assigned positions once the process was complete.
I returned to work sleepy-eyed the next morning and was told that funeral arrangements were to take place at 9 am and that I, as the novice director, would be assisting the senior director with arrangements. I quickly perked up at the thought of directing a funeral that I knew would be unlike any other I had worked on.
The doorbell rang promptly at 9 and the widow, the sister of the deceased, and an orange-clad monk followed us into the office to make arrangements. What proceeded was a very enriching lesson on Cambodian Buddhist death rituals.
The family explained that, ideally, a monk would be at the place of death to chant when the soul exits the body. Chanting calms the soul, which is in a state of confusion and fright after exiting the body. The food is there to nourish the soul, which is unaware that it has passed. The soul remains in transition for days, so the body must remain at rest in the funeral home for a number of days, and the soul of the deceased must be put at ease with food and chant throughout the difficult time of transition.
As per tradition, we kept the deceased for seven days. The food and recorder stayed there with him for the entire week before the funeral and, though it may have calmed the soul, it drove me a little crazy listening to that chant for seven days straight.
On the sixth day, we dressed the gentleman and were instructed to remove the buttons on his clothing (to make it easier for the soul to escape, if it hadn’t already). On the day of disposition, the sister of the deceased, his wife, and their 3-year-old son arrived clad in white, the traditional color of mourning in southeast Asian cultures. The little boy’s hair was freshly shorn, as per tradition. The widow and sister of the deceased left their hair intact.
As the monks chanted and recited the sermon, they burned incense. I was told that wealthy Buddhists burn money, too — a tradition that struck me as similar to the Ancient Greek tradition of placing money on the eyes of the deceased in order to pay Charon to cross the River Styx into Hades.
After the funeral ceremony, we formed a procession to the crematory and I watched from the side view mirror of the hearse as mourners threw popcorn from the windows — a trail for the soul to follow.
At the crematory, the whole procession joined us inside and the wife of the deceased ignited the retort. Igniting the fire that would consume her husband’s human remains — the process that would allow his soul to leave the body and to go on to the afterlife and await reincarnation — was her final gift to him.
After the service, I joined the family back at the Buddhist temple for a meal of fish and a discussion of their culture (which included an explanation of how they fled Cambodia when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were killing their families). One of the mourners explained that once the cremated remains were returned to the family, they would be kept in a stupa, a dome-shaped structure that holds Buddhist relics, in the temple compound. There, she said, the deceased would be close to Buddha and to the monks who would help his soul be reborn sooner.
Bearing witness to the very personal journey of this family and their deceased loved one was truly an honor, and one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. I was so pleased to be welcomed so warmly by the family and to learn firsthand about a culture with which I previously had very little familiarity. The family was thrilled with my willingness to learn, and the monks even asked me to explain the principle of Christ in Western culture. I admired the family’s peaceful nature in the face of great hardship — it was their faith that had provided them with strength when faced with the horrors of genocide, and it helped them now through the loss of their loved one.
Order member Sarah Wambold weighs in on holographic mourning.
It cost money, but they raised the dead. And so close to Easter, how fitting.
Of course, I’m talking about Tupac’s holographic appearance at Coachella, where his image was recreated to blow the minds of everyone, including his inimitable partner Snoop Dogg who appeared to be freaked out and totally absorbed all at once.
Watch the video.
If you have no sentimentality towards Tupac, Snoop, the rap game or live music in general, that’s ok. Eventually, what made a bunch of nostalgic fans/the entire internet lose their collective shit is where funeral service needs to take some SERIOUS NOTES. People want that last dance, last laugh. If your funeral home puts up the cash (or dare I say, asks for it) for a hologram of Grandma laughing like no one else- you’re gold, Ponyboy.
Looking through one of my old notebooks from 2007 I found an entry called “FROM WITCH TO KITSCH.” It was trying to explain the timeline of when a horrific instance of mass death transforms into campy cultural fluff.
During the European witch trials, which lasted from the late 1400s to the mid 1700s, anywhere from 40,000-60,000 people were executed. The victims, mostly older women, were accused of wild sexual orgies with the Devil, whom they allegedly made a pact with to do harm to other members of their village. For these accusations these people were brutally tortured and made to confess, at which point they were often burned alive at the stake.
And yet our current perception of witches has been overrun by campy Halloween crones and Disney movie villans. A child goes for Halloween dressed as a witch (as I did when I was 5) with NO sense of the bloody, grotesque history. I’m not making any judgement as to whether or not this is a problem — it is what it is.
The fascinating part is the culturally enforced “waiting period” before something is appropriated as campy or comedy. For example, the Holocaust. Much like the witch trials, a minority group is decided to be “problem” to the general population. Again, people are executed in the most terrible ways imaginable. Another dark spot in European history.
Yet, since the Holocaust happened 60 years ago, as opposed to 250 years ago, the rules are drastically different. Think of a 5-year-old going as a Holocaust victim for Halloween. The thought is abhorrent. Or a Bewitched style comedy about a plucky young woman at a concentration camp. You may remember a few years back when Prince Harry went as a Nazi for Halloween. There was an uproar. He apologized, but it seems he was a young man who was now two generations removed from WWII and just didn’t see the Nazis as anything other than caricatures to be mocked in a Halloween costume.
The same principle applies to mass death via natural disasters or war. The Titanic sunk exactly 100 years ago today. The 1,514 passengers that died were drowned, crushed, and frozen by the violent wreck. It was a huge blow to the Western world’s perception that mere mortals could build an unsinkable ship.
Yet that has not stopped us from creating lavish Broadway musicals about its passengers.
And this especially amazing (I’m on popular culture’s side on this one) Falco video.
Compare this to the events of September 11th. Yes, there was the element of terrorism that makes 9/11 far more brutal than the Titanic. But there is a similar narrative in how great symbols of man’s technological progress — towers and ships — were brought down. But the public sentiment is such that any entertainment making light of 9/11 is considered in extremely poor taste.
Thus far through history, it seems like 60-70 years is the gold standard for making death campy. Long enough for most people alive during the disaster or persecution to now be dead. But will the lightening-quick world of the internet change the timeline on that? This was brought up in the museum post from last week as well, where the argument was made that it appears ethically acceptable to tastefully display the dead in a museum setting as long as anyone alive while the corpse was alive is now dead.