Not too long ago, I penned a piece for Huffington Post regarding how Vancouver condo owners are a special bunch. The catalyst for this being that an old heritage building that was something of a white elephant in real estate was being repurposed as a funeral home. Owners were in a huff about potential ‘lowered property value, a nightmare of parking, and damaging the neighbourhood’s morale’. Aside from the fact that most Vancouver condo owners are probably good people, we do hear about the crazies like this.
The fact that it wasn’t a noisy nightclub, but a funeral home that upset them makes me realize that in the modern world, we’re fairly disconnected from the things we think we are comfortable with, such as sex, death and birth. As much as modern thinking likes to preach that in Western culture that we are progressive and open minded, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s truly the case. We like things to fit in clean little boxes, and not to mess with our day-to-day routine. But life and death has a long standing reputation of being anything but, and proudly messy and chaotic.
Recently, in my news feeds on various social media, when I’m supposed to be doing things other than getting sucked into the vortex of the Internet, a few of the same articles come up as friends and acquaintances repost them, giving these pieces brief viral celebrity. The ones that have, of late, piqued my interest is post-mortem photography in the Victorian era or ‘death photography’. When the mortality rate was, back in the day, quite a bit higher (dying from everything from measles to infections from corset boning stabbing you), photographs were exclusive and costly to produce. Often times, especially with child mortality so high, the daguerreotype would be the only physical memory of the passed family member for the living to remember them by.
The Victorians had many complex relationships with death. The larger, main room of a house was often kept as the funeral parlour, allowing family and friends to come by for formal viewings upon receiving their invitations, while the family mourned and prepared to say good bye. A lot of these folks received the most pomp and circumstance in death than they ever received prior to shuffling off the mortal coil. It wasn’t until the early 1900′s when it became unfashionable to lay out your loved one in the house that funeral parlours became a thriving business and one referred to the main room of the house as the ‘living room’.
With the Victorians, etiquette ruled all details of life and death. Queen Victoria really set the bar in her mourning the loss of Prince Albert insisting her dead husband’s rooms be kept as they were in life and that servants continue to bring soap and hot water to his rooms daily for his morning shave as they did during his life. She wore funeral black for her lost love until the day she herself died. Some of the interesting quirks of the day ranged from the dressing of the dead (‘The remains of a man were usually “clad in his habit as he lived.” A woman’s remains however, were usually dressed in a white robe and cap while children were dressed in white cashmere robes’), strict observation on mourning dress and periods to ‘memento mori’ in which lockets of hair were kept by the living to remind them of their loved ones and their own mortality.
I think my favourite Victorian death tradition is the death nightclub. Leave it to the French to come up with a way to make the most out of our own living time while giving a nod to the recently deceased and celebrate, well, death itself. In Montmartre, which is often most noted for being home to cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge and the Crazy Horse, clubs with names such as Cabaret du Néant (The Cabaret of Nothingness) and Cabaret de l’Enfer (The Cabaret of the Inferno) let people kick up their heels where they were served by monks and funeral attendees who offered drinks named after diseases which were imbibed on top of coffins and caskets. Another hot spot boasted a half dozen devil musicians, both male and female, would be suspended in a caldron over a fire, playing selections from Faust as red imps stood with hot irons ready to prod those musicians who dared miss a beat. Throughout the room, other red imps would serve beverages or do somersaults as crevices in the walls would suddenly spew thick smoke and emit odors of volcanoes while flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks. Upon entering, patrons would be greeted by a chorus of voices shouting “enter and be damned, the Evil One awaits you!”
Despite the customs and odd decorum of this bygone era, I can’t help but think that perhaps this process might have some good ideas in mourning the loss of someone close to you. Charming and strange though it may seem now, I’m slightly envious of the little rituals one would be able to take comfort in during one of these moments that happens in our lives.
… and should I ever get the opportunity, I’d LOVE to open a funeral home/death night club in Vancouver. If only to annoy the hell out of the pretentious condo owners in the immediate area…
Little Miss Risk