ON A BLOGGING BREAK...
For quite some time now I've been on a blogging hiatus while I've been writing, editing, writing, editing. Thanks very much for dropping by.
MEET CARLA VALENTINE
Technical Curator of Barts Pathology Museum
“I consider the body a canvas that’s been painted on by various diseases or accidents and from them you can interpret and find out what happened to the person. That’s what I did in the mortuary and that’s what I do now at Barts.”
|by Rob Greig for Time out|
Carla Valentine knew she wanted to be a mortician from the age of eight. I spoke with Carla in her cosy office at Barts Pathology Museum surrounded by skulls and specimens. As her story unfolded I suggested that it was actually reading and literature that played a large role in the journey to her current position as curator.
She began reading when she was one and half years old. Once, when she was naughty, her mother sent her to her room as punishment, but several hours later when she hadn’t emerged, her mother grew worried and opened the door to tell her she could come out. But Carla said no, that’s all right, she didn’t want to. She was reading.
She read Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and remembered going to the library at the age of ten for horror books by John Saul and Stephen King.
The librarian suggested that these books weren’t suitable for her, but her interests in crime, the body, and pathology only grew.
“No one in my family was a mortician or a funeral director, and when I began there was no “CSI” or “Silent Witness”. In fact, I can’t stand a lot of those shows because they’re not realistic. It was just an odd thing that I wanted to do. If I saw a dead cat that had maggots on it I wasn’t automatically revolted, I was more fascinated by what was going on there. It was a mixture of being naturally interested and then having been shaped by the kind of literature I was interested in as I was growing up.
I got a microscope for Christmas when I was eight. I brought it to school for Show and Tell along with sliced up earthworms. I was surprised I wasn’t unpopular or picked on. I had quite normal friends and I think children are a bit weird and morbid sometimes because they’re trying to come to terms with huge grown up issues of life.”
Carla did a degree in forensic and bimolecular sciences at university. For a time she volunteered as an assistant to a female embalmer who was pregnant, and then returned to Liverpool for more education. Though she’d been an embalmer’s assistant, she’d had no experience with decomposition and became concerned that she was only looking at slides of decomposed bodies and bones and began to think:
“What if I can’t stand it? So I went to the mortuary to see if they’d let me volunteer. I turned up at the Liverpool City Morgue, and at the time someone was working there who was an old school mortuary technician. He wore big thick glasses and spoke like Michael Cane with loads of stories about the Krays that can’t have all been true. By the time I’d been volunteering there for about 6 months, they advertised for staff and I interviewed for the job and won it.”
Carla told me that her work as a mortuary assistant was exactly as she thought it would be.
“Many people enter the work with the completely wrong idea about what it will be like. They think it’s all about crime. The simple fact of the matter is that you will be covered in faeces. You will be covered in blood. You will be tired. I knew that, and was ready for it. The city mortuary was a Coronial mortuary, which means as a volunteer I will have seen many more types of death and levels of decomposition than someone who works in a hospital mortuary. I was in that mortuary for three years. I’ve seen a lot: mummification, bloating, people who’ve jumped in front of trains, hangings.”
On July 7, 2005, Carla was asked to join the big mortuary that was set up near Old Street when the London bombings occurred. Due to her experience there, she then went on to do a Master’s degree in forensic anthropology. She visited Belgium and Venice to work on skeletal excavations to gain both hard and soft tissue experience.
In a series of seemingly destined career moves, she worked at St George’s in Tooting for a year when she took a more senior position at St Thomas’s very busy mortuary for four years. Then she felt she no longer wanted to be a Senior in the morgue as her job had become more focused on paperwork. She took a temporary job as a tissue bank assistant at the cancer institute of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. About six months into that job, an internal advert appeared for the position she currently holds. When she saw the advert she realized that she never even knew Barts Pathology Museum existed.
Carla has brought fresh young eyes and a completely new generation’s view to her position. She doesn’t see human remains and pathology museums in the same way as the “old boys”.
“The difference is that museums like Barts seem to have a reputation that it should only exist for medical students, that there’s something nasty or untoward about the public seeing body parts. What’s weird about that opinion is that if you go back to the 1800s, you’ll see descriptions of anatomical museums described as places where intellectuals and interested people may come and have a drink and a discussion.
So it’s exactly what I’m doing here now.
I have a different constitution to what you might consider gory. Television and literature has changed in my generation, but also my background is in a mortuary, so I think this is actually really clean, it’s all natural. If you really want to offend someone take them to a mortuary.
I don’t want to only have a toxicology lecture, let’s talk about Marilyn Monroe’s death, too. We’ll have academics in to talk about organ transplants, and then we’ll have someone talk about Frankenstein.
The ultimate aim is to make people aware that we are all human and these specimens belong to everybody”.
|by Tim Hook|
I asked Carla about her interest in the topic of sex and death.
“At the very basic level, one begins life and one ends it. You have these two polar opposites. My interest is about our relationship with human remains in general, because I’ve always read about the different ways in which people treat their dead. Some people have a good relationship with the remains of human beings and some have a bad relationship. For example, in the UK I think we have a bad one. We don’t want to see specimens; we seem to associate them with something untoward. We don’t lay out our own dead anymore. When you think about those two polar opposites of sex and death, isn’t it odd then that we live in a very gory culture and a very sex and death-obsessed culture. It seems to be one or another.
|Lovers Surprised By Death by Hans Burgkmair|
Freud said that we have two instincts, the sex instinct and the death instinct. In my research I found that when a female has an orgasm, part of her brain shuts down, so it is as if she’s experiencing a little death. There are animals that have sex and then kill their mate, or they die having sex. I am not creating the links between sex and death. They are already there and I’m exploring them.
She certainly is exploring. Ultimately, Carla would like to write a PhD thesis on the subject, though it may have to wait. She’s currently writing a memoir about her work in mortuaries and as a mortician. On top of that, and along with her many responsibilities at Barts Pathology Museum, she runs Dead Meet, the dating site for death professionals.
You can learn more about Carla, Barts, and Dead Meet through the links below.
Many thanks to Carla for sharing her fascinating path to Barts.
|Image by Lozzy Bones Art|
Death and the Maiden is a new project created by Lucy Talbot and Sarah Troop.
In their words:
“The founders’ aim with this project is to create a space of exploration: examining the relationship between women & death by sharing ideas & creating a platform for discussion. They hope to create a supportive and inclusive community, and to amplify the voices of those actively creating the future of death.”
I was so pleased they asked me to contribute by writing their inaugural post.
My guest post, WOMEN IN THE MOURNING, can be found HERE
HEARTS AT BARTS
Nestled in a corner of buildings behind the Henry VIII gates in West Smithfield is the Grade II Listed Victorian built Barts Pathology Museum the home of three mezzanine galleries of medical specimens.
This week there were hearts everywhere.
From the carefully curated anatomical hearts that looked as if they might once again beat inside their glass specimen containers,
to the artwork of Robin Lee, whose hearts hang gloriously from the third floor.
A lively crowd arrived on Wednesday night for my alternative Valentine presentation.
I baked heart shaped Southern cheese biscuits. A few of them died in the flaming fires called The Timer Did Not Go Off Fires. But thankfully most survived.
The Superhero Volunteers kept a private stash under the table.
And to quench the thirst brought about by the salty cheddar and hot cayenne, the good people at Hendrick's Gin sent over a load of goodness. GIN PUNCH!
The same Superhero Volunteers created this beautiful table brightened by Valentine cards made by Lozzy Bones Art - alternatively smashing.
We gave the skeleton a heart transplant. I grabbed a chunk from this specimen and chewed a mouthful during my presentation, to illustrate a point about eating one’s heart out.
All of these hearty things occurred due to the tireless work of the woman on the left, whose name, and I really mean this, is Carla Valentine, the curator of Barts.
An interview with Carla will soon be posted on this blog. To say she’s an interesting woman would be an understatement.
After all the snacking and drinking the audience settled in their seats and the room went dark – both literally and otherwise when I began my presentation on...
Afterwards, the wonderful people from Waterstones London Wall kindly sold the first copies of the UK paperback edition of my memoir THE UNDERTAKER'S DAUGHTER, which was mighty good of them.
Happy Alternative Valentine’s Day
JANUARY 2015 IS PUBLICATION MONTH IN THE STATES FOR
THE UNDERTAKER'S DAUGHTER
I'm a bit excited...
I thought it would be a good time to do a round up of all the strange and unique locations in which my book events were held in the UK in 2014. Gallery Books has hosted the story on their XOXO After Dark site and it can be read HERE.
GHOST WRITING FOR CHRISTMAS
Please find my Christmas post on Gallery Books'
XOXO After Dark website here.
MY TERRIFYING THANKSGIVING
I’d been living in New York for three years. I survived a slap in the face from a complete stranger on drugs, three years of school at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, the demise of a relationship, an attempted mugging and an unfriendly landlord. What next, I wondered.
I received a call from one of the executives at the Academy offering me the opportunity of an audition. I stifled a squeal and said yes of course thank you very much. The address was a bit odd; not the normal stage door, or even a West Side casting director’s office. All I knew is that the audition had something to do with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yippee.
I arrived at a Mad Man’s office: Big desk, perfectly pressed shirt, gleaming hair, intimidating. He invited me to sit down to talk about Raggedy Ann. Did I know of her? What did I think of her? Yes, of course I knew of her and, “I think she’s just adorable, a gift to children the world over,” I say.
How would I like to be Raggedy Ann in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? $200 for my trouble. Why yes, I certainly would. Immediately I imagined myself glowing from a stellar makeup job revealing Raggedy Ann-ness, waving from a huge float, appearing child-friendly and adored by every toddler in Manhattan.
This was a far cry from my first ever paying job – playing the organ for funerals in my father’s funeral home.
I arrived at West 69th Street at awfully early o’clock on Thursday morning wearing my disappointingly just okay costume. Underneath I wore a pair of 80-year-old man longjohns. No fool I, there was sure to be a breeze on that float.
There was no Raggedy Ann float. I would be walking in the parade. There was no makeup artist. Instead, I went slack-jawed to see a representative making his way towards me carrying a massive head in his arms. My head. My Raggedy Ann papier-mâché head, the size of a city block. Just as I was adjusting to this remarkable change in circumstances, a wild-eyed young man staggers over reeking of the previous night’s alcohol binge and announces himself as Raggedy Andy. Another representative quickly hides his unshaven face in the Andy version of the papier-mâché monstrosity.
Suddenly the thumping drums of high school bands, the blaring noise of organized chaos is muted.
What had once been my view of hundreds of feet now became inches with no peripheral vision. It was like trying to function inside a tree trunk.
Off we go! Andy grabs my hand and jerks me along; on and on we skip down the streets of New York sandwiched between two floats filled with celebrities, comfortable in their special seats.
Children wave, parents point at us, or no, maybe they’re pointing at the dancers.
We turn the corners and our section hits the 40’s near Times Square. We enter the Blade Runner version of the parade. Suddenly the sun hides behind a dark sky. I’ve worked up a sweat inside the massive head by skipping half the length of Manhattan in longjohns, which are damp underneath the dress, pinafore and pantaloons.
There are three times as many people along this part of the route and most of them are young children herded by comparatively few fully stressed adults. When Raggedy Andy-with-the-hangover and I appear the children go absolutely wild.
They scream our names and scream some more. Then they break loose from their parents, scramble under the barriers and Good Great God they are on top of us! Andy and I are separated at once. Children tear at our clothes, they reach up to smack at our huge heads, they hold on to our legs. For one terrifying moment I thought I would be knocked down completely and right there on Thanksgiving morning die a death from child attack on 42nd street.
Say what you will about big burly intimidating New York City policemen, but thank the heavens they were alert to our distress. They pulled the children off us and performed human barrier technique in a very satisfying way.
I never saw Andy again. It took months to wrangle the $200 from the Mad Man.
Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the parade.
A SHROUD STORY
When I recently gave a talk in Birmingham in the newly restored Coffin Works Shroud Room, I became engulfed in a beguiling sense of synchronicity. I grew up in a funeral home. My father was an undertaker in a small town in southern Kentucky and that means that most mornings, before I skipped off to school, I could be found peering into a casket in which the deceased was dressed in a shroud.
When I left Kentucky and went abroad for the first time, I didn’t go to London or Paris, like most Americans. I landed on the shore of the Nile in Luxor and crossed that ancient river by ferry to the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of all burial grounds. Enamored with the ancient Egyptians’ burial practices, I learned about the single length of cloth used to wrap around the body of the deceased.
These shrouds were sometimes inscribed with the name of the deceased, whole chapters from The Book of the Dead, and spells, like this shroud, inscribed with spell number 64:
In 680 BCE this netted, beaded shroud was created for an Ancient Egyptian mummy.
The arms of the net are tubular faience beads.
The word "shroud" originated in fourteenth century England to describe the clothing used to dress or wrap a corpse prior to burial, derived from older words scrud meaning garment and screade - a piece or strip of fabric.
The early shroud contained the decaying corpse and covered the body. During the eleventh century, ordinary people would have clothed their dead in a loose shirt before wrapping them in a sheet, sometimes wound tightly with extra bands of cloth - a winding sheet.
The sixteenth-century shroud, a length of linen or plain wool, like the one seen here on John Donne in his funerary monument was also tied at the head and foot.
Donne’s effigy at St. Paul’s Cathedral was the only statue to survive the Great Fire intact.
In his final sermon in 1630 at Whitehall, Donne’s spoke these words:
"We have a winding sheet in our mother's womb, which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
In the United States, there is no doubt that the homemade shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs.
Notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor were listed in the newspapers. There are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. Women from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth.
In the mid 20th century the Shroud Room of the Newman Brothers Coffin Works buzzed with the hum of the Singer sewing machines.
I imagine these ladies talking about their children, or their plans for the weekend. I imagine the shrouds boxed up, ready for delivery.
Today in the Coffin Works’ newly refurbished Shroud Room there are splendid spools of brightly colored thread and shelves filled with bolts of fabric.
While the shroud makers at Newman Brothers kept their fingers busy, a woman who lived far away from Birmingham on a farm in Kentucky needed a way to earn extra money. She was quite a good seamstress, a fact that a lady in a haberdashery recognized, and she suggested to the farmer’s wife that she consider making burial shrouds.
In this small, seemingly sleepy southern town where the town square has not changed for decades and where the funeral business is fiercely competitive, as a child I waited anxiously on the swing on the veranda of our funeral home for the appearance of the woman I called the Shroud Lady. She opened her green cardboard boxes to reveal her hand sewn shrouds, similar to this.
She sold shrouds to my father for many years until one day an elderly woman decided she wanted to be buried in her own clothes and thus changed a long held burial practice in our town. And there you have it, from the north of England to the Southern United States, a shroud story.
MEET THE LONDON UNDERTAKER:
An Interview With Brian Parsons
Brian Parsons is a funeral director and training consultant to funeral directors, trading under the name Funeral Training Service London. He trains new funeral directors and works to enhance skills of existing funeral directors. Brian researches, lectures and writes about the British funeral industry, particularly regarding the latter part of the 19th century up to the present day.
I was delighted to sit with Brian and pose a few questions.
When did you know you wanted to be an undertaker?
I was about fourteen or fifteen when I got to know a cemetery superintendent and he introduced me to a funeral director. I’d never been to a funeral at that point, but then I went to a neighbor’s funeral and was very intrigued about it all. There was a hidden world that worked seamlessly. It was all going on somewhere, but you weren’t exposed to anything, and didn’t see anything apart from big vehicles, people in black doing certain tasks, and nobody would say much about it.
The intrigue has never ceased. Because when I left school at sixteen, I started a three-year apprenticeship scheme for a funeral directing firm. I began in the workshop finishing coffins.
Coffins would be brought in ready-made, but empty, so you had to learn how to line them and put the handles on, they were all different. Some of them had the most beautiful linings. There was quite a range of caskets because the firm I looked after held many Travellers’ funerals and they would always buy the best casket available. They wanted the most expensive caskets in the range and they wanted the best for the person who died. This was in no way the undertaker encouraging people to spend more money; this was the family saying, ‘this is what we want, this is what we do’.
It’s a client led interaction. To quote a cliché, it’s the ultimate stress purchase. The funeral director starts off on a bad foot because people are distressed and they’re purchasing something they don’t want to pay money for because they don’t want people to die… let alone be landed with a £6,000 bill for the funeral. It’s a transaction that the vast majority of people don’t want to enter, but have to. At the same time, the funeral director takes instruction. We offer a huge range of options to get from point A, when the person has died, to point B, when the person is laid to rest. There’s a huge amount that can happen in those days, weeks, sometimes months between the two. There are no rules - we can keep a body as long as necessary.
I didn’t do the second year of training because I wasn’t particularly interested in the stone and monument side of it. I went straight on to the funeral directing side and at the same time I trained as an embalmer. Within a two-year period I did quite a bit of training and began funeral arranging.
It was a learning curve. It was one thing to read about the possible ways people might react to a death, and another to actually interpret what was happening. I learned to tread carefully, negotiate tactfully, to use the right words, particularly when there is a dispute within the family, or when there is a very tragic circumstance. It’s an art, it’s not a science, and you can’t always get it right. Sometimes you’re left in situations where you can’t win.
Someone once said that a funeral director is a bit like a meteorologist in that the meteorologist gets blamed for bad weather and we get blamed for the loss.
How long have you been an undertaker and in which aspect of the business are you most involved?
I’ve been an undertaker since 1982. Now I attend to training needs and spend quite a bit of time looking after staff, but I still get involved with undertaking.
I do a great deal of interviewing. We’ve become good at weeding out people who think they might be good at the job, but maybe their reasons or motivation for doing the job is not in line with our expectations. Maybe they want to work as a funeral director to in some way resolve the aspects of their own loss, particularly if they’ve been recently bereaved. The last thing we want is for people to get emotionally involved in someone’s loss. We don’t know the client we’re dealing with. They’re not engaging us to become counsellors or to take the emotional strain on our shoulders. It’s the practical, immediate necessities that have to be managed. The churn of staff is probably not high as you might imagine.
What type of training is involved in the mentoring role?
Some training can be delivered in a classroom setting, such as telling people about recent changes to legislation and how that impacts upon the funeral arrangements that they will be carrying out, to training new funeral directors where you have to carry out mock funeral arrangements with them, or where you’re teaching them how to direct funerals. You go out and shadow them. The art to teaching is to get them to actually do the work. You give then the skills and then a push. You’re there in the background, but they’re actually doing it, pointing them in the right directions and giving them confidence to do it.
I asked Brian about the role of women in the undertaking industry.
There have always been women working in the industry. There’s a hidden area here because particularly in the smaller firms, and the vast majority of firms in the 1950s were small, the husband would be the funeral director and the wife would assist in an administrative capacity. And we mustn’t forget that women have had a very important end-of-life role because they assisted in the preparations for laying out the dead. There was a formal network of layer-outers that existed in the community right up until the 1950s. Someone would notify the local lady who would come along and wash the body and prepare it and the reward was probably a fish and chips supper.
But as fewer deaths occurred at home and people died in hospital, that tradition died away. The male paid-for carer in the form of a funeral director really took over the responsibility for the dead.
There are a significant number of women embalmers. Probably around 1/4 to 1/3 of the membership of British embalmers is female. Embalming was a way of professionalizing the occupation by stating that we have an effective scientifically based treatment that’s inexpensive and can be used to halt any deterioration until time of the funeral. Women have a significant place in funeral directing today. Not only do large corporations have equal opportunity policies and some have had those in place for many years, but also it’s recognized from thirty to forty years ago that women have a role as funeral arrangers and conductors. There are many funeral arrangers and conductors and women in senior management.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about your job?
We have Charles Dickens to thank for the biggest misconception of the undertaking business. It’s thought that we’re trading off the vulnerable bereaved. Or maybe there were just too many undertakers in the 19th century and they were all trying to get work. Maybe some of them did manipulate. But you can’t tar everybody with the same brush, and particularly one from over one hundred and twenty years ago. Yet that seems to be the legacy. It’s very easy for the press to accuse funeral directors of manipulation, but the clients’ experience isn’t that. The large majority of the clients know what the funeral is going to cost before it takes place, because everyone gives an estimate. So there’s transparency there, and if the client feels there isn’t enough money they can make adjustments to the cost of the funeral.
It’s not in people’s interest to manipulate because in the funeral directing business it could lead to bad debt and publicity. People may jump too quickly to say we take advantage because we’re in a business with an endless supply. We’re not here to ruin people, at the same time we have fixed costs of running a business and they’re very high. Staff must be paid and trained and investment has to be made in the business.
I asked Brian’s thoughts about Jessica Mitford's controversial views on the American undertaking trade.
Last year was fifty years since Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death and it was one of the most successful books to be published. The Americans got their knickers in a twist.
You’ve got to ask the question, from what perspective is this being written and why is it being written? Mitford’s book came out in 1963; months after Ruth Mulvey Harmer published a much better book called The High Cost of Dying. Mitford’s book eclipsed Harmers’, which was much more rigorous in terms of research.
My theory was that Mitford had a problem with death. And the problem was that she had lost both of her children. If you read her autobiography, there is the briefest mention of the most horrendous death of her 10-year-old child in a London road accident. This would splinter most people. She endured this, and she also lost another child. This brings me back to the funeral director being that convenient person who is on the firing line after loss. I can’t take credit for this theory because Thomas Lynch, the great American writer, poet and funeral director, pointed this out after she’d died.
Her work concerned America and also England. She writes in a homely and endearing way about funerals in England in the 1960s. The most disappointing aspect of her book was that she permitted it to be updated, which appeared in the 1990s just after she died. What was produced was a poorly researched and inadequate version of what was happening in the industry. At that stage the industry was under predatory attack by an American organization and wasn’t looked at in a sophisticated way. It sunk and was not rigorous enough.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
Again, it’s a cliché, but looking after people in great need, solving problems and difficulties. Death is a hugely complex area, not only emotionally, but also the bureaucracy of death that has to be dealt with.
Thirty years ago when I started work, we never saw the burial or cremation of the foetal remains, or a very young child under twenty-four weeks. Today we’d see a funeral for such children. We also deal in the funeral of body parts. A leg or a brain may be reunited with a person after that person has been interred, or buried, or cremated. Perhaps the reason being the body part was held back for examination.
How did you become interested in the history of undertaking? And what inspired you to write your book, The Undertaker at Work: 1900-1950?
I had a break in day-to-day embalming and went to do a degree in business. I was very inspired by a lecture about the sociology of business and in the first term the lecturer discussed how business and society had changed. I found that fascinating and could see how the industrial revolution and technology instigated change and impacted the work of the funeral director. So I embarked on the research of the organization of funerals and delved in to the history of undertaking.
I discovered that no one had really looked adequately at the 19th century. There’s one or two bits of writing and literature, but there hasn’t been a really serious study of the 19th century undertaking business and certainly no one had looked at the 20th century. That became the principal focus because I was interested in how the organization of funerals had changed, particularly from the war period to the 1990s.
The increase in cremation and the increase in people dying away from the home, the introduction of embalming, the shift from the manual craft of coffin-making to mass production, the introduction of the motorized vehicle to replace the horse drawn hearse, the increased responsibility of the undertaker, and the increase in transportation across the world - all these factors came together as well as the business factors. Here was an industry that was dominated by the small trader, the family business, yet this family business was suffering because families were smaller, sons and daughters didn’t want to go into the business. So what did they do? They sold them to realize money for their retirement. That gave the organizations an opportunity to use a centralized form of operations to manage funerals and costs and still provide a service. It all came together and it needed codifying.
Many thanks to Brian whose new book The Undertaker at Work: 1900-1950 is now available here from his website.
Brian joins The Memento Moriatas for an evening of Tales of Ritual and Remembrance at the Coffin Works in Birmingham on October 8. It promises to be a special night in the Shroud Room of the former Victorian coffin fittings factory where we three will present illustrated talks on all things funereal. Tickets and more information here.