The way most people in developed nations today experience the passing of loved ones contrasts sharply with the way humans have historically confronted death. Before the 20th century, illnesses were deadlier and lives were shorter; people typically died at home, and family members grieved publicly. Today, medical innovations have helped us live longer, in some cases extending life unnaturally. We die in hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities — often alone. And while people still wear black at funerals, we return to our usual wardrobe as soon as they’re over, unlike Mary Todd Lincoln, who expressed her bereavement after President Lincoln’s death by donning a widow’s garb until her own.
Memento Mori — Looking at Death in Art and Illustration at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery considers death’s role in society over the past 500 years. The oldest object in the exhibition is Vesalius’s anatomical treatise De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1555), which shows — as co-curator Holly Tucker wrote in her book Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution — how “medical exploration took place most frequently in the domain of death.” Other pieces on display include a second-stage silk mourning dress from 1909, memorial jewelry woven from the hair of the dead, and a tombstone carved by sculptor William Edmondson. “Many of these traditions are no longer a part of Western culture,” Gallery Director Joseph S. Mella told Hyperallergic. He explained that these are set alongside the show’s contemporary works, like Enrique Chagoya’s 2003 lithograph “La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte,” which “deal more with the idea of death and issues of death in society rather than the death of individuals.”