A USC Librarian Explores Mortality

March 03, 2016 Diane Krieger

Once a year, around Halloween and Día de los Muertos, we dwell on death. That isn’t nearly often enough, according to Megan Rosenbloom, for whom the “undiscovered country” is a year-round scholarly pursuit.

The USC medical librarian heads Death Salon, a collective of morbidly curious artists and intellectuals. In 2013, the group held its first event, a three-day conference that was such a hit that Rosenbloom has taken it on the road. A London Death Salon sold out in April 2014. A live-streamed event in San Francisco came next, followed by a meeting in New York in 2015.

“Questions about death and mortality are really in the zeitgeist right now,” said Rosenbloom, who oversees the history of medicine and rare book collections at USC Norris Medical Library. She’s currently writing a medical history about efforts to lengthen life, focusing on ethical and cultural implications.

There is nothing creepy about Death Salon. Inspired by theorist Ernest Becker’s 1974 book The Denial of Death, the group is on a mission to bring back the dead as a perfectly respectable and crucial topic of conversation. Rosenbloom’s group focuses purely on historical and anthropological aspects of mortality, rather than the spiritual or paranormal.

Pop horror does, however, help shed light on “our culture of death denial,” she noted. “The fact that zombies are so popular right now, I think, has a lot to do with our disconnection with what real dead bodies look like.”

Rosenbloom documents how and why death went underground. Until modern times, she explains, Americans died at home, in plain view, and were buried in shallow graves wrapped in a cloth shroud. Two 19th-century developments put a stop to such “natural burials,” killing off our healthy acceptance of death as an ordinary part of life.

The first was the flowering of medical schools, which produced an oversized demand for cadavers. A dearth of dissectible corpses spawned the profitable new profession of “resurrectionists”—or grave robbers. Enterprising merchants responded with cast-iron coffins and cement vaults, antitheft measures that soon became ubiquitous in the American funeral industry.

The second development was the Civil War. In only four years, 620,000 soldiers were killed—and the undertaker’s profession was born. Bodies embalmed on the battlefield could be safely shipped home for proper burial. Embalming remains part of traditional American burials to this day.

But these practices are being challenged as baby boomers confront their own mortality. Having lived their lives by their own rules, Rosenbloom said, this generation is questioning the need for toxic formaldehyde and steel and concrete enclosures. There is increasing demand for “natural burials.”

Rosenbloom advocates for similar introspection at USC, where she organized a Visions and Voices event in 2013 with science writer Mary Roach, whose irreverent New York Times best-seller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers has done a lot to demystify death.

As for Halloween and Día de los Muertos, Rosenbloom is a fan.

“Having children engage with death is great,” she said. “If they’re exposed at an early age, in a nonthreatening way, that’s way healthier than trying to shelter children so much they feel they can’t ask questions.”