Why Death and the City?


Liquide d’embaumement or Eau de Mortuary by Sarah Beste


It’s been said that choosing to be a funeral director is a calling. It’s a calling to care for people who are going through a very stressful and emotional time. The loss of a loved one, by natural death or otherwise, is a very trying time for a family that requires many quick decisions in a relatively short period of time. The job of the funeral director is to help with the decision making process with regards to how to celebrate the life once lived through culturally appropriate ritual as well as how and where the final disposition of the deceased is to take place.

For those who feel this calling, there are a few schools in the United States that teach the trade; Wayne State University being one of them. When I felt that I was called after the devastating loss of my mom, I pursued a career in funeral directing without considering the more unpleasant aspects I would be confronted with, such as the sights and smells of decomposition. All I thought was that I would be able to touch the lives of people the way the funeral directors, Valerie and Danielle, touched my family during an incredibly rough time.  

It was the fall semester in 2003 in downtown Detroit at Wayne State University’s Mortuary School. For me, it was the first semester of a year long program. I was apart of a rather large cohort (I think around 50 of us) that started funerary training that year. There were students who had well-established family-owned funeral homes who were looking to take over the business one day, students who were new to the funeral industry and wanted to set their career path in it, and others who were looking to complete a bachelor’s degree of some sort. I was one of those students who was fairly new to the industry and looking to make this a career.

For those of us who were full time students, we were given a full load of classes the fall semester which included anatomy, thanatochemistry (chemistry of death and decay), psychology, a small business class, and embalming I. I remember the first day of embalming class vividly despite the amount of time that has past. Our cohort was divided in half so that some of us would go to the embalming lab in the morning and the rest would go to the embalming lab after lunch. I’ll be damned if I could the time of day I was assigned to, but anyway, when my lab time came we were all gathered in the hall outside the lab. The embalming lab was on the same floor as the anatomy lab, histology lab, and a plastination lab. The plastination lab was a huge curiosity for me since right around then that Gunter von Hagen was becoming popular for his plastinated body gallery Body World. The hallway had the faint fragrance of embalming fluid that was coming from the anatomy lab.

Ms. G was our embalming lab instructor. She was a very tall, slender woman who readily took command of the class. She lead us into the lab showing us where we could put our book bags and where the PPE’s (Personal Protective Equipment) were so that from then on we would show up, gown up, and get ready to work. The lab was quite large with a very sterile feel to it. There were 4 (or 5) stainless steel tables lined up perpendicular to the back wall. Each table was anchored to an embalming station equipped with a stainless steel sink with counter and drawer  storage space. The drawers were supplied with the tools that would be necessary: scalpels, trocars, scissors, hemostats, forceps, and more.

Ms.G’s first lecture in the lab was walking us through a typical day during our embalming lab. She told us we would be divided into 4 to 5 smaller groups that we would work in for the rest of the semester. She let us know that every lab day, we would come in gowned up, get our case assignment from her, get the case from the walk-in fridge, and get to embalming.

The first day of the lab was dedicated to a demonstration of the basic steps of embalming. Ms. G grabbed a case from the fridge and started explaining how to wash the body, close the eyes and mouth, which all seemed pretty tame. Then she got to the bloody part. She made an incision along the clavicle to get to the jugular vein and carotid artery. As a side note, embalmer’s will typically use this vein and artery because they’re easily accessible and they’re big enough to make the process of injecting the embalming fluid and draining the blood fairly quick. Back to the story, as Ms. G was injecting the carotid and draining the jugular she pressed down on the chest of the decedent and blood shot into the crowd of students. Milliseconds after, one of our classmates fainted, collapsing to the ground. Now, there are many physiological reasons why fainting happens: low blood sugar, lack of oxygen, the slightest surprise, etc. I don’t want to assume that the sight of blood affected this student, but her fainting was well timed.  

This definitely wasn’t the last time we were presented with the exceptionally grotesque during the semester. There was a decomp case that had a human form but no sign of human flesh because of all the maggots. There was another instance where one of the residence in the walk-in created a rather large puddle of themselves that we were asked to clean up. In my mind, all these different cases built us up as part of the learning experience. It built up our fortitude against the sensory factors of decomposition and decay almost like a rite of passage for caregivers of the dead.


Spaces Between by Maria Pallas

Baudelaire’s tomb, photograph from the archives of the French National Library. 
On his first trip to Paris, Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher and cultural critic, stayed in the hotel Floridor, located around the corner from the Montparnasse Cemetery, where the poet, Charles Baudelaire was buried. It was Baudelaire’s exploration of the flâneur, the casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city, that inspired Benjamin to write his famous work on Paris, The Arcades Project. Benjamin was born decades after the death of the poet, but during his stay at hotel Floridor, Benjamin and Baudelaire were neighbors and contemporaries, interacting in the fabric of city life. In cities, the world of the living and the dead is interconnected and the lines are blurred. The urban space offers a possibility of an honest, raw, and dynamic relationship between the living and the dead.

Architect Alison Killing works to explore those relationships in her exhibition Death in Venice. According to her TED talk, the presence of death is ubiquitous in cities and it shapes them in a variety of ways. In this project, let us be the casual wander, observer and reporter of the nuances of urban deathscapes, let us become Baudelaire’s flaneur.

Since I was a child, I have always loved cities, the looming architecture, the dark alleys, and the crowds. I grew up in a large industrial city in Siberia, and although I have not been back in over a decade, I still remember the way the the city was laid out. One of the largest rivers in Siberia traverses the center, like a giant artery, dividing the city into Right and Left Bank. The Left bank resembled the suburbs, with endless high rises, playgrounds and city parks. We passed the Left Bank when we visited the cemetery. We would drive miles out the city to visit a cemetery to tend to the graves of my grandfather and other relatives. It always made me wonder why the cemetery was not located closer. On Parent’s Day ( the Russian version of Memorial Day), crowded buses carried sweaty and annoyed families outside of the city, to take them to an enormous burial ground. We always had to call relatives to confirm that our maps were correct and we know where our family’s plot was located. I wonder if there is an app for that now…

It was a day’s event to take time to visit your family’s graves, and people came prepared. On those busses, people carried picnic baskets, large thermal containers with tea, as well as stronger beverages and flowers, always flowers.  We spent the day  gardening on my grandfather’s’ grave ( and later, when both my grandmother and great grandmother joined him, we extended the plot and the garden). There was a birch tree and a picnic table in our allotted space, and we ate and drank with the dead, after a hard day’s work. Sometimes, we tended to the “neighbors”, if the graves looked overgrown and abandoned. Even though we live in Detroit now, my still family has an affinity for grave-side picnics.

When I lived in Russia, I did not know that cemeteries could exists alongside busy city streets. It was not until I visited Savannah, that I saw a completely different relationship between the spaces of the living and dead. What caused this vast difference? Was it the dead themselves, our relationship to death, sanitation concerns, or something else entirely? Were the people buried inside the city gates, more loved, more taken care for? Was someone having picnics on their graves? Of course, answers to those questions are complicated. I am still fascinated with cities as an adult, that is why I do what I do. As an urban anthropologist, I walk the city streets and look for answers to those complicated questions. And as a scholar who studies city life, I can not ignore a large aspect that shifts and shaped it- city death.

Cities never work out the way they are planned; they change, grow, shrink and even die. Death is one of the many forces that affects the way a city evolves. Urban historian Lewis Mumford believed that burials were some of the early sedentary places at the dawn on humanity. They were permanent landmarks, to which the living returned consistently. He claimed that the city of the dead was indeed the forerunner of for the cities of the living. With its avenues, and landmarks, a cemetery landscape is a good place to start, when exploring the urban domains of the dead and the living. And while I do not know for sure, I might imagine that Benjamin strolled through the Montparnasse cemetery,  looking for Baudelaire’s grave. I imagine him standing next to the looming headstone, in silent communion with his intellectual ancestor. Cemeteries, it turns out, are not only for the dead. Next time, I would like to start my exploration there, the most obvious of the urban themes related to death- an urban cemetery.