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There is a store in New York City that sells pickled rooster heads in jars, sculptures made from fingernails, and a picture of a man killed in an early 1900s sawmill accident. Lexington resident Elizabeth DeSpain bought only the picture. It’s one of her many favorites.
“I have more pictures of people who are alive than I do of people who are dead,” says DeSpain. “I just enjoy looking at the dead ones better.”
In DeSpain’s great room, a bookshelf is filled with titles such as Diableries, Dance of Death, Stories in Stone, A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Historic Medical Photographs, and a trade catalogue for the Frigid Fluid Company. Human skulls sit amid embalming fluid bottles; some still hold the liquid preservative. A child’s burial gown is tucked into a drawer. On the wall beside the back door hangs an amputation saw.
DeSpain owns a measurable amount of what collectors usually call mortuary memorabilia or antique funeral collectibles. When she is on the hunt for new additions to her collection, these are the words she types into the Internet search engine.“I never asked myself, ‘Is this normal?’ It is kind of strange,” she admits. “Some people collect stamps. I collect pictures of dead people.”
While many Americans are into new advances in the health care industry that will help them live longer, DeSpain is interested in the death care industry. It is a lucrative field, given that everyone dies, and in the United States, a simple funeral costs an average of $10,000. Even though technology and chemicals have changed over the years, many of the same methods are used to lay loved ones to rest.And then there is the grieving process, a desire to honor a life once lived, and many ways to remember those who have passed on. These are the sad and fascinating areas to which DeSpain is drawn.DeSpain was born and raised in Lexington by “regular” parents who were neither morticians nor interested in gothic or other-worldly lifestyles. “My childhood was pretty normal. I played outside. I wasn’t beaten or molested or anything. When I went to funeral homes, I was like, ‘Can we leave now?’ ” she says. “I played basketball, kickball. I was a fan of Red Rover.”
When she was in high school, her science class dissected fetal pigs. DeSpain refused to participate. And when a neighbor kid played a prank by leaving a severed fetal pig head on her doorstep, she was very disturbed.
“I’ve always been a horror movie fan, my favorite being The Shining, or Return of the Living Dead, or anything that has to do with survival,” DeSpain says. “I don’t care for Saw or Hostel. I’m not into torture. That is really disturbing to me.”
DeSpain had her first experience with post-mortem memorabilia about three years ago. She was watching a YouTube video on crime scene cleanup and saw a recommended video that said, “Warning: Graphic.” “Automatically, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to watch that,’ ” she says. “It was of Victorian post-mortem photography. It was really gripping because it was really sad, but it was also interesting. It fascinated me to the point where I just couldn’t stop looking at it. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Post-mortem photography was an important part of the grieving process. Commissioning an artist to paint a portrait was expensive and the painting process time consuming. Not to mention that, although the dead can be very still to be painted, there is the concern of decay. DeSpain says eyes and noses go first, and then there is a matter of bloat, with the ever-present concern that the body would burst before the painting was finished.
When photography came around, it was the perfect way to capture the exact look of the deceased and often was the last great expense paid to remember a loved one. Most post-mortem photography deals with children. The deceased person would often be postured in a way that made the body seem as if it were still alive. Children would be laid in bed with a handmade quilt that often doubled as a funeral shroud, or positioned in tiny rockers complete with bonnets and handmade slippers. Sometimes, they would hold toys. Grieving mothers often would drape themselves in black and cradle infants. Stands were made to help the deceased pose for one last family portrait.In old daguerreotypes, a telltale sign of a picture with the deceased is that the deceased’s image was crisp and clear. The living subjects were slightly blurred because they couldn’t help but move even the slightest bit. In most of the post-mortem photography, the deceased were elaborately costumed and often framed with multiple bouquets, or cascades of flowers.
“When I saw these pictures, I thought, ‘Can you imagine if we did that nowadays? People would be carted off to prison!’ Lay a body out in the living room? That was the normal practice back then,” DeSpain says. “I didn’t want to see them, but I was touched by how much care people showed for the dead. They dressed them up and posed them. They took care of the body so they could stay with them up to the very end.”
She paid $15 for her first post-mortem photograph. That was a lot of money, given that it was probably a copy and not an original, but DeSpain says the picture brought the family comfort at one time. “Nowadays, death is taboo. People are buried, and then that’s it,” she says. “If you lose someone you love, the whole world moves on, and so you are expected to do the same. Back in the Victorian age, people would grieve for decades. There is a romantic aspect to grieving someone you love for so long.”
DeSpain realizes her hobby could be considered odd, but that doesn’t deter her. In addition to the post-mortem photography, her collection includes antique embalming books, manuals, trade catalogues, aspirating syringes, an infant retrieval basket, pre-1930 burial slippers, jewelry made from the hair of the deceased, a tool set for the embalming process, and full makeup kits.
“Once I started reviewing the photographs and really reading, I did find my new passion. It’s definitely a passion. It’s something nobody else is going to have,” DeSpain says. She holds up a trochar—a thin, sharp, silver instrument that was used to insert a cannula into a body to drain the fluids. “This is so old, and it has a lot of history behind it. This was used to help prepare the body of a loved one that you will never see again. It is a piece of that person that will never go away. It cannot be replicated. And I have it.”
There are articles she will not collect. DeSpain says anything Native American is strictly off limits, as is removing items from gravesites. She is not interested in what she calls “wet specimens,” usually body parts that are preserved in jars of liquid. And if she has collected anything personal that the family would like back, she says she is more than happy to returnthe items.
It is a sign of respect, a ritual she has adopted and holds close to her heart—just like she holds close to her heart remembrances of her father, who passed away last December. “I kept a lock of my dad’s hair but haven’t brought myself to open the tissue it’s wrapped in. I asked to keep the casket key that closed up my daddy. And I’ll close up my mom,” DeSpain says as she stacks black-and-white photos on the smooth surface of a table. “It’s just something I can remember that not very many people would do. It is strange, but it’s personal.
“It’s inevitable. It’s a part of life. I don’t look at people differently or wish for them to die, but I am more aware,” DeSpain continues. “I miss my dad. He always did everything. He always said the right thing. I knew he was going to die; I just didn’t expect it so soon.”
It was the sudden death of her father, and the surprising expense of his simple funeral and burial, that prompted DeSpain to begin the process to donate her body to the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) Forensic Anthropology Center, also known as The Body Farm. “When my dad died, I thought, I didn’t want to burden anyone with that,” DeSpain says. “I am single, and I don’t plan on being anything other than single. I thought that, since I enjoy pathology and forensic science, I would just donate my body.”
She requested a packet and filled out the information for donating her body to trauma research after her organs have been removed for organ donation. She included a picture and has agreed to send a new picture every few years and to notify the center if there are any major changes in her body, such as surgery or the amputation of a limb. She carries a card in her wallet designating where her body is to be shipped and has a phone number programmed into her phone to call in the event of her death.
“My close friends know I’ve donated my body. My family knows that I’ve donated,” she says. “I just request to keep clothes on me as much as possible and for them not to sell my skull on eBay.”
But until she reaches for the handle of death’s door herself, she still has a lot of living to do. “I’m still the same. I can’t say I’m more comfortable with death, because I’m not,” DeSpain says as she fingers the edge of an embalming manual from the late 1800s. “The Victorians embraced it. They put wreaths on the door. They covered mirrors. They wore black; they stopped the clocks. Now, we want to just close the box and be done. What I collect, it’s strange, but it’s actually quite cool. It’s how people said goodbye.”