Will coronavirus forever change the American way of death & the meaning of life? – Interview with Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein

Why is toilet paper the thing Americans happen to be hoarding? Will coronavirus forever change the American way of death? How is this similar to plagues of the past?

In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Digital Dying connected with Morbid Anatomy artistic director and co-founder Joanna Ebenstein for a conversation about our present times that was both carefree and profound. While Joanna lives in the world’s coronavirus pandemic hotspot, New York City, she is keeping bright and keeping busy. Morbid Anatomy posts ongoing content on their website, including lectures and illustrated essays. A few years ago Joanna edited the singular book, “Death – A Graveside Companion” and she has a new one in the works. Plus she has been teaching a pretty awesome online class on how to make your own Memento Mori.

Our conversation touched on Mexican folk saints, embalming Abraham Lincoln, struggling with anxiety, how to display grief in the time of the coronavirus, and yes, of course, what the toilet paper frenzy means for the American psyche, and so much more. Enjoy, and stay well and stay safe everyone~

How are things in New York City?

I know New York seems like the epicenter and maybe I’ll die of the virus and I’ll be sorry one day, but I like being here. It’s my city and I love it, and it’s where my friends are, which are my family essentially. I know there are people suffering and I don’t at all want to make light of that, I very well might be suffering at some point. I live in a big building, it can enter the building, I am not ignorant of that. But there is also a beauty to this moment at the same time that there’s a horror to it. I guess if there is anything that Morbid Anatomy is really trying to say it’s that there is a more nuanced approach to death. There is a beauty in horror, and there is a horror in beauty, and together that is the world. Death is not just horrible, gross, and bad, it has other qualities as well, and beyond anything it just is, and we have to find a way to make peace with that fact.

So you believe some good can come of this moment?

I am an introvert. I am used to living this way, and I don’t mind it. I am very saddened to know that there are people suffering, and that so many people are anxious. Struggling with anxiety is really difficult, even for me, and I’m someone who has practiced that. It is really, really hard to retain the necessary grounding to enjoy what there is to enjoy about this moment. It’s spring, we’re still alive, we’re in our bodies.

In a bigger way what I think is really interesting about this is I am someone who has done a lot of work around contemplating death in order to live a better life, I am even working on a book about that, and now I am seeing that we’re all, as a global society, starting to think that way. Western people are not accustomed to thinking that way, but we are being forced to confront death in a way that I never ever could have predicted.

Do you think the virus, and its regular reminder of death, has caused people to reexamine their lives?

This is what I am always trying to do through Morbid Anatomy—by showing images and ideas from the past, I am trying to encourage people to think more critically about our current worldview. And with death, as far as I can see from my research, we are unique. The way that we live now and have lived for the past 150 or so years is unprecedented in the history of humanity. The fact that we live in a purely material universe that has nothing else to offer makes death much more traumatic. Because if there is no spiritual reality then this physical life is all we’ve got. And I think paradoxically, what that does to us is creates fear, which makes us unable to live lives that we can enjoy fully.

That is the other thing I find really interesting about this moment. I was in Mexico when it started and there was a different attitude about what’s going on. Middle-class people have an expectation of what life is going to be and that means living to a ripe old age with very little real stress or trauma. But we think of what our grandparents went through, with the Holocaust, and the Blitz. We have had it very, very easy. We are very lucky.

What is it about the present moment that has enabled people to open their minds?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it is for everyone. This is a question that I had when I was walking in the park. But right now I am very interested in shamanistic cultures and more traditional ways of living and rites of passage they still have in places like Mexico. There, facing death is part of growing up. And I think as a culture we have not really had to face death. I find myself wondering if this might be some sort of global initiation, for those who choose to accept it for that. I don’t think everybody will, I think you have to be somewhat open-minded. But I think for those who are on the edge, or who are inquisitive introspective people, there is a real possibility of being changed. This is our near-death experience. The formerly abstract idea that I could die tomorrow is now much more immediate. In light of that, how do I choose to live today?

And I think because of Morbid Anatomy—I should say, because of my obsessions that led to Morbid Anatomy—this is what I do every day. I have been contemplating death for a long time, and because of this, because of asking myself for the past 20 years what I would do with my life if I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I am living the life I want to live, I wouldn’t change anything. I don’t want to die of this virus, but if I did, I’d feel really lucky for the life I’ve had. I feel lucky in a weird way to have this strange pause to explore the things I want to explore as I wish without being harassed too much from the outside world.

One more thing I will say is that I had a realization while I was dealing with anxiety at the beginning of this because I was very, very anxious and it suddenly hit me—life is a mystery. And it’s a gift and it’s not a promise. And I’m 48, I’ve had a really good life, I have been very, very lucky. I have been able to, even though I am quite poor, do the things I want to do. And yes, I have stress about my resources and money, but at the end of the day, so far I’ve survived and I’ve been okay. And I think at the end of the day what something like this makes me think about is how that is the important thing. We are told in our culture because we’re capitalists that a safety net is a financial thing, but what I’ve learned is it’s not, it’s a relationship thing.

What have you learned visiting other cultures in terms of how to live a life and how to face death?

Well, I think what I have learned cumulatively is that the West is the most hubristic, and the ones with the greatest distance to fall and crash. Because we really have this crazy illusion that we are above nature, and I don’t feel like people in Mexico think that they are above nature. Well, maybe rich people do, I wasn’t hanging out with rich people to be fair. But in my experience, in Mexico they don’t seem to have the expectations of life that we do. That we are going to be happy, and safe. A very immediate reality in Mexico is violence.

Something I am really interested about in Mexico is Santa Muerte. This literally means, Saint or Holy Death, and it is a folk saint that has developed there. You have probably seen it before if you go to botánicas (shops that sell folk medicine, religious candles, amulets). Basically, it’s a female Grim Reaper. She is usually holding a scythe, sometimes she has an owl at her feet, and she is venerated just like a Catholic saint. And you will often see her with the other Catholic saints, with the Virgin of Guadalupe, or San Judas Tadeo. No one is exactly sure when she came to prominence, but I think it was in the 1980s, at a time when violence with drug cartels was really affecting a lot of people. So I think there is a sense in Mexico that death is omnipresent. There isn’t the sense of safety that we have here. Death is more out in the open, and they are not afraid to talk about it. There is a distinct possibility that your life will be violently cut short.

That’s fascinating, can you tell us a bit more about Santa Muerte?

What I find so interesting is she is a folk saint who is happening now. She is changing and there are many different sorts of iconography and every time I go there I see something new. She can be sexy, she can be nurturing. One that I found the last time I was in Mexico was a figure of a skeleton embracing two children, almost like you would think of with a precious moments sculpture. And children pose with her. There is no sense that there is anything macabre or dark at all. She is not seen as dark, I would argue.

Life and death are opposite sides of the same coin and I think in Mexico because they can venerate death they can also live life in a stronger way. And I think because we are so violently trying to cut off death here, we can’t actually live life. You need to have both. And that is what I really love from a cultural history perspective or an art historical perspective, seeing this folk goddess or folk saint manifest now at this moment when she is needed. I just find it really fascinating and really rich in a way—I don’t like to say better or worse, but I would like to say that I think we have a lot to learn from the worldview of Mexicans and other cultures that have not lost their roots to something pre-Judeo-Christian. Here there is this idea of light and dark, and light is the only thing worthwhile, and the dark is just bad. There is just something much more sophisticated and more shades of gray about the Mexican perspective that I find very attractive, and I think that most cultures who are still in touch with their older traditions have this. I think this is a worldview that we have largely lost in the West.

I feel like I left Mexico realizing that there is something really important about tradition, and I think our lack of one leaves us in a very precarious psychological situation when encountering something like this. I would guess the people in Mexico are not as devastated emotionally the way we are.

How has the coronavirus changed the way of death in the United States?

My art interest is in the Bubonic plague and that is what this reminds me of. Death traditions changed very significantly then, too. Basically, before that priests were expected to come and give the last unction and do all these other things, and that was considered a good death. But then with all of the dying there weren’t enough priests to go around and they didn’t want to get infected, so they had to create new traditions to help people. One of those was a book called the Ars Moriendi, (“The Art of Dying”), which seems to me it was something like home death rites for those who could no longer have a priest.

I just did an interview yesterday with my friend John Troyer for our Patreon, and he had some really interesting perspectives on this. He just did a book called Technologies of the Human Corpse, which is coming out with MIT Press later this month. What he was saying, which I thought was really interesting, is that times like this are when these new technologies get pushed very quickly forward, and that they would have probably taken a very long time to be accepted otherwise.

Another example John talks about is embalming, which got accepted because during the Civil War there were so many people dying far away that the bodies couldn’t last to be brought back. Then Lincoln got embalmed and everyone was like, ‘Oh, now it is cool to get embalmed,’ and that kind of pushed things forward.

Interesting, so following that line of thought, where do you see death traditions going in the United States as we eventually come out the other side of the current crisis?

When I was in Mexico a very beautiful tradition that I loved that felt very Victorian to me is you would see these big black bows hanging on people’s front doors. I assumed that it was death related but finally I asked my friend, “Is that because someone died in the house?” And he said yes. There is a whole color language and I am trying to remember—the bows are gray, black and white. White is a child, black is an old person, I think, and gray is someone middle-aged.

The Victorians had similar traditions. You would know when you walked into someone’s home if a person had recently died. You would know when you had met someone if they had lost a person from their clothing. It would be interesting if something like that re-emerged. I don’t think it will, but part of mourning costume is about communicating to the people that you meet that you are in a tender state and you should be treated with care and I think maybe that would be a nice thing to do right now. Wouldn’t it be nice if you met someone on the street, even at the park, and you knew from their dress that they had lost someone—I think that would be lovely.

We began our talk by discussing the difficulties of watching the news in our present time, and I am wondering, as someone who runs a museum about history, just when the news goes from being something gossipy and in-the-moment that tends to squelch reflection, to something profound that actually expands your brain? I guess what I am saying is, just when does “news” become “history” and thus worthy of being included in Morbid Anatomy?

I think what history does is, because something has passed, allows you to see it without fear. I think part of the thing about living through this moment that is so disconcerting, and fascinating, is that nobody knows. Nobody knows how this is going to end. Nobody knows if this is going to mutate and become some super-virus that kills us all, or if we are going to find a vaccine tomorrow and everything is going to be okay. Nobody knows what the world is going to look like in a month or two months or three months and so it’s very, very hard to see the big picture right now because we’re living through it. When you look at things in the past that’s very different. Like now we can say, ‘Oh, the Bubonic plague lasted from this year to this year and it killed this many people’ but at the time it was like, ‘Oh my god, is this god punishing us for not praying enough, we should do more processions, or maybe we should flagellate.’

I think when you live in the moment the news is a big mess because it’s like our psychology, it’s going up and down. And we live in a time when news is commerce. They are selling commercials, or they are selling newspapers. There is a vested interest in our being anxious, because it means that we’ll keep watching or reading. So, we don’t have an answer yet. We don’t have anything to look back on and tell us what happened. It’s going to take time.

If you could create one Morbid Anatomy exhibit out of the present moment with regards to the coronavirus, what would it be?

I would probably make it out of rolls of toilet paper, because there is something interesting about what that triggered. It’s very non-rational, really. Even I was like, ‘Does this mean toilet paper is going to disappear? I better go buy some.’ I am not a great symbolic thinker, but I think there is a lot of richness in the fact that it is toilet paper, and not food, not even hand sanitizer, it is toilet paper. Why toilet paper? We could play around with that. To me I would say there is some anxiety this brings up that reminds us that we’re animals, that we’re linked to the animal kingdom. And shitting and pissing is part of that. And the shame of the body—I don’t know.

I’m not a religious person and I’m not saying we should pray to saints but my friend’s essay we recently posted on our Patreon was really interesting. In former plagues, people would make offerings, which is the opposite of hoarding when you think about it. Sacrificing something for a greater good. And I think there is something very grasping and individualistic and small about hoarding. Not to say that I didn’t also stock up on canned goods and things like that, because you just don’t know right. So, I get it, but I think it is interesting to read a culture about what they are freaking out about. I don’t know what happened in other cultures, like what sold really well in China?

What do you think comes next for the human race?

I think if anything the present moment has shown us that our interest in keeping the economy strong is the opposite of wanting to live healthy lives on the planet earth. Maybe in the best case scenario whatever comes out of this will lead to another way of being on the earth that allows for a more ecological approach. That has to do with a different system. I don’t know what that is, and again I feel in over my head trying to discuss how to fix it. My father is a big capitalist and he would say, ‘Well, what would you replace it with?’ And I would have to admit, ‘I don’t know.’ But I can tell you that this isn’t good for my niece and nephew, who are going to be inheriting a poisoned earth. I have hopes that something good will come out of it, though I think it will have to get really bad for that to happen. I don’t see these people giving up power easily, unless it becomes a necessity. They are not going to do it out of altruism. They are going to do it when it becomes clear financially that it’s the right thing for them to do.

Lastly, can you please tell us a bit about the book you are working on?

It’s about contemplating death to live a better life. Bringing in all of these different traditional ways of looking at death, through narrative and exercises. If you’ve ever read, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, it’s kind of like that.

The idea is to give people a virtual near-death experience so that they can live the life they want to with their time on earth, which I really think for many people, for everyone probably, requires facing the fact that we will not live forever. Once one really starts to internalize and understand that idea, things get very clear. Thinking what would I do with my day if I knew I was going to die tomorrow? It’s a great exercise, and it’s how I live my whole life, and it’s the reason that I do Morbid Anatomy. I’m living like a student, scraping by financially but I do what I’m really passionate about and that has always led me right, and I think I will die without many deathbed regrets. Life is short and I want to like what I do for work. I don’t care if I make a lot of money, but it’s what I’m going to spend most of my time doing, and I want to value it. I get up every day because I love doing my work. I am very lucky to have found other people who appreciate what I do, which is an unlikely and wonderful gift.

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