This weekend, the third Death Salon conference is taking place in San Francisco. (There are still a handful of tickets available, if you’re interested, but the evening only tickets are sold out.)
I am curious about the women behind the Death Salon project, so I’m going to interview some of them. First up is Annetta Black, founder of San Francisco’s Odd Salon and curator of the San Francisco Time Travel Project lectures at the California Historical Society.
How would you describe your work?
Annetta Black: I’m a reader and writer and enthusiastic history nerd in the Bay Area. I love finding odd or overlooked stories from the past and sharing them so that everyone can appreciate how crazy amazing the world is and was. For the last several years, I served as Senior Editor at Atlas Obscura, as well as head of their exploration branch, the Obscura Society. This year I launched a collaborative cocktail hour lecture series called Odd Salon in the Bay Area with two partners — which is really just an excuse dedicate a couple evenings a month to cocktails in good company and learning something weird, together.
How did you get interested in death?
AB: I have two colliding paths — the first is a childhood love of cemeteries. I have always enjoyed walking amongst tombstones, reading inscriptions and finding little rhyming poems, and the challenge of deciphering the symbols in the statuary. As an adult and a writer, I have found myself drawn to stories of doomed expeditions, of failure and death is remote corners of the world. I’m fascinated by the ways in which one person’s death is a heroic tragedy, while another is an embarrassing failure. Of course,I have found, when you dig in, that neither is ever perfectly the case.
How did you get connected with the Death Salon?
AB: I met Megan Rosenbloom through a mutual friend and went to go visit the collection of rare medical books she takes care of at USC. When I heard that they were planning a Death Salon, I sent Megan a note suggesting a story on the silver linings in the legacies of dead explorers. I ended up as the opening speaker for Death Salon in Los Angeles, which was amazing.
How far would you like to see the Death Salon go?
AB: I am very excited to see more people from more disciplines get involved in this dialog. There are so many stories, from the personal to historic and academic angles. I don’t think it would be possible to exhaust the options, so I’d like to see it go as long, and in as many places, as possible.
While some of the stories are funny, the underlying mission is more of a challenge: to explore our fears of death and dying, talk about how we can both better understand grief and our own mortality, and also attempt to free ourselves of a little bit of this fear about something that is, after all, completely inevitable and natural.
What’s your favorite morbid story?
AB: My favorite morbid story is the tale of Inês de Castro of Portugal, who was (allegedly) exhumed and made queen two years after her death by King Pedro I. According to legend and art, Pedro was so in love with his dead mistress that had her dressed in royal finery, propped up in a throne, and then forced his court to swear allegiance and kiss her skeletal hand. It should be noted that she had been beheaded, making this at least a little logistically complicated. In the end, Inês and Pedro were buried in gorgeous matching coffins placed feet to feet so that when they rise, they will face one another again. The coffins are carved with scenes of apocalyptic glory and carved with the words “until the end of the world.” It’s sweet.
Are you writing a book about your dead explorers?
AB: I am actively working on turning the assorted stories of expeditions which ended badly into book form. Still in the early stages, but yes, I am working on it.
Annetta Black – Dead Soldiers & Utopian Dreams: The Vernian Visions of Dr. Benjamin Lyford, Civil War Embalmer
On the battlefields of the divided Union, Dr. Benjamin Lyford was part of a new generation of death professionals, developing new (and secret) techniques for embalming in order to send bodies of fallen soldiers home for burial. Later he brought his practice here to San Francisco. Across the water in Tiburon, he sought to create “Hygeia,” a health-obsessed Utopian village designed to keep death at bay. Remnants of his legacy speak to the lasting impact of the atrocities of war, the cult of health that sprung up in post-Civil War America, and our evolving relationship with the preservation of the dead.
The whole schedule of this weekend’s lectures is here.