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Morbid curiosity

Krieger_Dianeby Diane Krieger
Megan Rosenbloom heads Death Salon, a collective of morbidly curious artists and intellectuals. (Photo/Elli & Polly Photography)
Megan Rosenbloom heads Death Salon, a collective of morbidly curious artists and intellectuals. (Photo/Elli & Polly Photography)

Once a year, around Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, we dwell on death. That isn’t nearly often enough, according to Megan Rosenbloom, for whom the “undiscovered country” is a year-round scholarly pursuit.

The USC medical librarian heads Death Salon, a new collective of morbidly curious artists and intellectuals. In mid-October the group held its inaugural event to a rave review from The Atlantic. The three-day conference was such a hit that Rosenbloom plans to take it on the road — a London Death Salon, called Death Salon UK, is slated in April, followed by Cleveland in 2015 and New York in 2016. A smaller “pop up” Death Salon will be held in San Francisco around this time next year.

“Questions about death and mortality are really in the zeitgeist right now,” said Rosenbloom, who oversees the history of medicine and rare book collections at USC’s Norris Medical Library.

There is nothing creepy about Death Salon. Inspired by theorist Ernest Becker’s 1974 book The Denial of Death, the group is on a mission to bring back the dead … as a perfectly respectable and crucial topic of conversation. Not to be confused with spiritualists and paranormal enthusiasts, Rosenbloom’s group focuses purely on historical and anthropological aspects of mortality.

Pop horror does, however, help shed light on “our culture of death denial,” she noted. “The fact that zombies are so popular right now, I think, has a lot to do with our disconnection with what real dead bodies look like.”

It also says a lot about our terror of contagion — not unreasonable with the spread of HIV/AIDS and rise of antibiotic resistance.

For years now, Rosenbloom has been documenting how and why death went underground. In September, she gave a lively presentation through USC’s Office of Religious Life. Until modern times, she explained, Americans died at home, in plain view, and were buried in shallow graves wrapped in a cloth shroud. Two 19th-century developments put a stop to such “natural burials,” killing off our healthy acceptance of death as an ordinary part of life.

The first was the flowering of medical schools, which produced an oversized demand for cadavers. A dearth of dissectible corpses spawned the profitable new profession of “resurrectionists” — or grave robbers. So widespread was the problem that families took to guarding their recently deceased with graveyard vigils. Enterprising merchants responded with cast-iron coffins and cement vaults, antitheft measures that soon became ubiquitous in the American funeral industry.

The second development was the Civil War. In just four years, 620,000 soldiers were killed — more than in all the other American wars combined — and the undertaker’s profession was born. Bodies embalmed on the battlefield could be safely shipped home for proper burial. Embalming remains part of traditional American burials to this day.

But these practices are being challenged as baby boomers confront their own mortality.

“Having lived their lives by their own rules,” said Rosenbloom, this generation is questioning the need to pump their corpses full of toxic formaldehyde and enclose them in steel and concrete. There is increasing demand for “natural burials.”

Rosenbloom advocates for similar introspection at USC, where she recently organized a Visions and Voices event with science writer Mary Roach, whose lighthearted New York Times best-seller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers has done a lot to demystify death.

As for Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, Rosenbloom is a fan.

“Having children engage with death is great,” she said. “They will only be terrified of death if you teach them to be. If they’re exposed at an early age, in a nonthreatening way, that’s way healthier than trying to shelter children so much they feel they can’t ask questions.”