Our Greatest Fear
Humanity’s greatest fear is not the unknown, it’s the certainty of death. And we’ve been coping with it artistically since time immemorial.
As the world becomes increasingly secular, traditional religious rituals seem to offer less and less comfort, even though it turns out people are just about as anxious as ever about their own mortality.
Joanna Ebenstein: There’s this thing that’s going to happen to each of us that we’re not allowed to talk about or think about or have any interest in, or it makes us, like, weird and bad.
Not that Joanna Ebenstein feels in any way weird or bad about her lifelong fascination with all things morbid. And when she decided to research the ways that high culture throughout history has dealt with death…
Ebenstein: By looking at all these images of death, you really start to overwhelmingly feel that we are the outliers here, not the rest of history. In our culture, in an unprecedented way, death has disappeared from public view, and it’s an unknown. I think it’s scary because we don’t see it, and it’s not a part of everyday life. And what’s so interesting is until 1910, our way of looking at the world wasn’t even possible. Three in five kids died before reaching adulthood in the Victorian Age, we killed our own meat, people died at home. Like, this idea that death is something exotic and scary is so new.
Ebenstein organized her findings into a blog, which later became a library, and eventually a museum, before returning to her own personal collection. A great number of them are known as memento mori, objects created with the intention of reminding the viewer that they, too, will one day die.
Ebenstein: They go back to at least the Roman age, but the way we think about them’s a Christian conception. And basically, the idea is to urge you to contemplate death, so that, when you die, you are ready to meet your maker and not go to Hell, so to live a more pious life on Earth. In the Baroque era, it became really popular to have little objects for home use, not just for church or cemetery that would remind you that you would die. So, it was suggested that you might even have memento mori maxims painted on your wall at home, or you might have a watch or a cane head or art or up shade or little skulls in different things.
There was also Ars Moriendi, or The Art of Dying Well, a sort of illustrated instruction manual for do it yourself last rights. It was circulated widely as the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe, and there weren’t enough priests to go around. But, of all the objects Ebenstein has encountered, her favorite is this, the hand crafted anatomical Venus.
Ebenstein: The best known ones are made in 18th century Florence, Italy, to be the center piece of the first truly public science museum that was open to everyone for free, men, women, and children. But now, only 200 years later, it’s completely beyond our comprehension, and that really interests me. This idea of death and beauty being oxymoronic or paradoxical is new.
New and possibly already obsolete. Artist Caitlin McCormack is part of a movement of young people interested in old ways in thinking about death. McCormack used her own crocheted skeletal sculptures as a way to process her grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s and eventual death.
Caitlin McCormack: I started crocheting, because I needed the meditative, repetitive thing to sort of get lost in. And that mirrored the repetitive way we were constantly reminding her of everything in her life, because she was forgetting everything so quickly.
AJC: We all want this to be a happy ending, but was it cathartic for you to do this with, at the back of your mind, the knowledge that this was honoring them?
McCormack: Yes. In doing this and developing this process I realized that the reason I make these pieces is to reflect on other painful traumatic experiences. So, each piece I do is the embodiment of a specific memory that may or may not have deviated entirely from the authentic seedling of the experience.
AJC: And are these all grief related?
McCormack: A lot of them are bad experiences. I’m most inclined to focus on the negative.
AJC: Most of us are.
McCormack: Yeah, exactly, especially I think with—I mean if you’re making skeletons and bones, as much as I think they’re beautiful and intricate and lace-like, they’re still a reflection of pain and suffering. I think a lot of people imbue the pieces with their own meaning. Death is inevitable and everyone can find an experience in their life that relates to a skeleton.
AJC: Is it your intention for these works to be a form of consolation to other people in the way they have been to you?
McCormack: Absolutely, to provide comfort and kind of a sense that you’re not alone, it’s a universal experience in that, in looking at this piece, your pain is not outlandish or something that you don’t have the right to experience.
And that’s exactly the point, that confronting our fears may be the best way to free ourselves from them.