‘If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation.’[i]
I’m thinking of having my cat stuffed when she dies. It’s just a thought, a way of preparing for the inevitable, unbearable as it is. At the moment she is a memento vivere, a reminder of life and the pleasure of living. I show a painterly, posed photograph of her in lectures to explain visual semiotics and the difference between denotation and connotation as defined by Roland Barthes in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’. Will I continue to use the photograph when she is dead? I doubt it. The personal connotations of future grief and loss already fill me with dread. I know I will be completely, bewilderingly bereft when she is gone. Students always want to know my cat’s name and how old she is. Can you imagine? Present: Mitzy. 12 years. Future: Mitzy. Deceased. Although, a posthumous showing might prove useful in illustrating how the context of viewing affects connotation and that meaning is determined by how we contextualise images. It would also elucidate the present and past, death and life, the temporal collapse that occurs when we gaze upon images of those who are no longer living that Barthes writes of in his landmark book Camera Lucida: she is dead and she is going to die.[ii]
If I were to take a photograph of her when she is taxidermised, same pose and location, would you be able to visually distinguish the difference between life (memento vivere) and death (memento mori)? Here lies the trick of photographic truth. A photograph is a still image; a moment in which time and movement is eternally suspended. Is there something akin to death in this, the capture of a scene of life? Barthes certainly thought so. To be exact, my cat when taxidermised won’t appear to be dead because she will have been preserved in a life-like appearance and attitude; like a natural history exhibit. Her skin, her soft, silky fur and sharp claws will remain though her flesh and her dear self will be gone. This physical, tangible presence of her will be enough of a consolation. I will still be able to see her and touch her. There could be some phenomenological shortcomings. She won’t be warm and purry. My selfish desire is disturbing, gruesome and terribly sentimental. It is also an act of love.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines memento mori as ‘A warning or reminder of the inevitability of death, esp. a skull or other symbolic object’; a ‘Latin phrase, literally “remember to die”, i.e. “remember death” or “remember that you must die”, appears to be recorded earliest in English sources’ in the mid sixteenth century. A memento mori is a noun, a thing, an object. It’s tangible and real; a sign with a rhetorical gesture that asks us contemplate our own mortality, to remember we are mortal. The idea of my cat stuffed is not this kind of memento mori – my own mortality does not concern me. It is the mortality of that which I love that guides my intentions to remember her, to preserve the memory of her tangible, living, breathing presence. A memento has a use relating to memory, the present and the past, yet memento mori is a reminder and a warning of what is to come which connects the past and the present to not only future events but a future state of being, or non-being.
Even though my cat is now very much alive and purring, her photographic representation is at all times a memento mori. Susan Sontag wrote: ‘All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability’.[iii] Barthes’s Camera Lucida is one long melancholic riff on photographs as memento mori, as ritualistic objects of remembrance and the terrible truth of our own mortality. The elegiac motif of the photograph in Barthes’ hands is death and mourning, sadness and longing. Photographs have the power to haunt us, in a ghostly and irrational, otherworldly way in that they document the past in the present and articulate the future. In ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, André Bazin wrote that photography has an embalming, preserving ability: ‘it embalms time’.[iv] Photography then, is a kind of visual, indexical taxidermy that prepares and preserves the skin of reality and the present.
The Tate Collection Glossary online entry for memento mori states:
‘A memento mori painting or sculpture is one designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the brevity and fragility of human life in the face of God and nature. A basic memento mori painting would be a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers. Closely related to the memento mori picture is the vanitas still life. In addition to the symbols of mortality these may include other symbols such as musical instruments, wine and books to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and goods. … The vanitas and memento mori picture became popular in the seventeenth century, in a religious age when almost everyone believed that life on earth was merely a preparation for an afterlife.’[v]
All memento mori are Romantic artefacts with a gothic sensibility. Their leitmotif is horror and melancholia; their aesthetic experience, the sublime. They work on our imagination and our emotions. In their imagery of death and decay, the natural order of life, mementos mori invoke terror and express the deep sorrow attending loss; darkness and the infinite. Death is vast and terrible because it is mysterious and unknown. Black is the hue of memento mori and mourning, the remains of the dead body its signifier par excellence. After the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria instigated an official period of national and personal mourning. Hers lasted 40 years, until her own death in 1901. Black crepe dress and jet mourning jewellery became fashionable, the appropriate expression of deep grief. Queen Victoria’s adherence to a memento mori stylishness was her way of keeping love alive in her own heart and mind, and in the public’s memory; a sign of devotion. Victorian mourning jewellery not only represented the dead but often included physical traces of the deceased such as a lock of hair contained in a locket, ring, pendant or brooch; or the hair of the dead, dried and woven into elaborate mourning scenes and symbols for jewellery. Post-mortem photographs as personal portraiture keepsakes also became popular in the 19th Century despite their expense; with bodies posed as if sleeping or alive. This seems a grisly practice to us today, one we relegate to the realms of forensics and war photography.
Melbourne-based artist, jeweller and taxidermist, Julia deVille keeps the memento mori motif alive. Her disce mori motto, ‘learn to die’, inspires her fascination with the dead, the skulls, bones and skin of once living animals and birds, as ornamental keepsakes, mourning jewellery and fashion accessories. Her leatherwork in gloves, spats and boots reminds us that our everyday shoes and handbags are also treated animal carcasses, no different to a skunk stole or fox tail belt. While this preoccupation with animal pelts as decorative pieces, taxidermy as art materials and jewellery, may seem a paradox for a committed vegetarian, there is an ethical confluence in her practice. DeVille’s work honours the animal and its death no matter how insignificant. On her website she states:
‘I consider my taxidermy to be a celebration of life, a preservation of something beautiful. I feel strongly about the fair and just treatment of animals and to accentuate this point I use only animals that have died of natural causes.’[vi]
An exquisite fragility informs deVille’s treatment of small domestic animals as precious objects. She restores to the broken a quiet, strange gothic dignity – a beautiful iridescent blue kingfisher wing brooch, a flattened black bird worn on a black ribbon necklace, a sparrow brooch, mouse cufflinks, a featherless baby bird pin. The familiar and everyday is enstranged and fetishised – a still born kitten, a partly-feathered bird skull with a jewelled eye. The cat skin rug, rat skin rug with skeletal tail, and mouse mounted as a hunting trophy brooch are a wry inverse of the barbaric ‘sport’ of big game hunting practices. Sympathy (2008), in which a taxidermised yellow bird gazes upon the skeleton of a bird like itself, is a self-reflexive contemplation of mortality. As this ornithological taxidermy exhibit restages the message of memento mori for human viewers, we are reminded that humans are the only species with a sense of their own mortality and a fascination with the dead. The most disturbing and unsettling of deVille’s works is The Anatomy of a Rabbit (2008). Its life-like preserved appearance is undone by its silver skeleton chest section and front paws; making apparent the fact that a taxidermised animal is eviscerated in the act of its preservation. Amidst deVille’s morbid and macabre natural history reliquary, the human skulls and cross bones, which are the traditional symbols of memento mori seem less frightening, less grotesque, in their expression of the brevity and fragility of life.
Passion, imagination and love entwine in deVille’s expression of honouring the inevitability of what comes to all living creatures. My intention to have my cat stuffed is underpinned by the same sentiments. And sorrow, a sense of mourning half begun.
The taxidermy dilemma for me is the pose. Curled up asleep? Sleeping was a typical pose for post-mortem photographic portraiture. Sitting up nicely all Egyptian-cat statuesque? Or comfortably Sphinx-like? In John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), the eldest brother Frank experiences the same quandary when the family’s old black Labrador retriever, aptly named Sorrow is taken to the vet and ‘put to sleep’. As a budding taxidermist, Frank experiments with a number of statuesque attitudes in an attempt to capture the living essence of Sorrow, to ‘fix him’. It’s grisly but an act of love, a Christmas gift for his sister, Franny who loved Sorrow the most. The fierce attack pose is a complete disaster – Grandad drops dead of fright when Sorrow falls out of the closet. Sitting up, grinning is the dead dog’s final pose. When the family fly to Vienna, split across two separate flights, the youngest brother, Egg carries Sorrow with him, on his lap on the plane. This Sorrow is a precursor to mourning, a warning and a reminder. Sorrow floats and his already dead body directs rescuers when the flight carrying Egg and his mother goes down over the Atlantic. In Irving’s tale, the beloved family pet becomes a fetish for grief, loss and love; he bears the burden of memento mori. My first experience of death and its deep tristesse is inextricably bound up with the loss of a budgie and a guinea pig.
As I write, I realise that I am a collector of memento mori moments from books and films and real life. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), and the Granada Television adaptation (1981), it is the very small and fleeting mention of Sebastian Flyte’s elephant’s-foot waste-paper basket that signals the beginning of his decline. The epigraph for Book One, Et in Arcadia Ego identifies the novel as a religious memento mori. Guernico’s seventeenth century painting of the same name, which translates as ‘I exist even in Arcadia’, features a young man gazing upon the memento mori motif of a human skull.
In the Canadian film Margaret’s Museum (1995), Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) opens a gruesome memento mori museum dedicated to the memory of her brother, grandfather and husband who are killed in a coal mining accident. Her memorial exhibits are their body parts in jars – the lungs of her husband and grandfather, her brother’s penis.
The most memorable and thrilling of all literary memento mori is what lies behind the black silk veil in Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Driven by her curiosity, the heroine Emily faints in terror on her first encounter with the sublime and dreadful spectacle of what she perceives to be the decaying body of the late mistress of the castle Udolpho, murdered by the evil Montoni. By the end of the novel, the mystery is dispelled as nothing more than a wax effigy, a memento mori designed as a penance to reprove excessive pride.
As it reminds us of the one truth, the one guarantee of life, memento mori restores to us a sense of humility and our own vulnerability, which is why it is distasteful for some and fascinatingly beautiful for others. I am one of the others.
[i] André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, in What is Cinema? Vol. I. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 9.
[ii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (London: Cape, 1982), 95.
[iii] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 15.
[iv] Bazin, 14.
[v] The Tate Museum, http://www.tate.org.uk/collections/glossary/definition.jsp?entryId=162.
[vi] Julia DeVille, http://www.juliadeville.com.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 13, Dead, Autumn 2009, pp.10-13.
Marise Williams is an independent scholar, freelance writer and editor whose work has been published in Southerly, Australian Feminist Studies, Studies in Australasian Cinema, M/C:...