Joanna Ebenstein's grandmother confessed to her in private — not because she had a secret to tell, but because no one else wanted to hear it.
Grandma was in her 90s by then and had been with her husband for over 70 years before he passed away. She was eager to die herself and join her beloved, and she told Ebenstein as much.
"It was painful for me to hear, and it made me sad," Ebenstein says. "But at the same time, it made me think: How did we get to this point in our society where just about the most important thing you could say to another human being has become taboo? And what does that say about us?"
When Ebenstein visited Europe for the first time after college, she was struck by the presence of death in culture and art.
"Contemporary American attitudes towards death are so jarringly different from any other time or place," she says. "It’s almost paradoxical to us, the idea that death and beauty could be intertwined in one object. And yet if you go to Europe and you visit churches and museums, you see literally thousands of objects that do this."
She wondered: how did we become the ones who don't talk about this?
"Americans want the good without the bad," Ebenstein says. "Life without death. Pleasure without pain. Light without dark. But that doesn’t exist."
Ebenstein began to collect and analyze death-related objects, images, and customs from around the world in hopes of better understanding American perspectives around death. Some of that research led her to create a photo exhibition about medical museums in 2007.
As a supplement to the project, Ebenstein launched a blog called Morbid Anatomy, which quickly took on a life of its own beyond the photo exhibition. It grew into a lecture series, then a dedicated gallery space in Brooklyn, New York, called the Morbid Anatomy Library, where visitors could check Ebenstein’s collection of books and artifacts.
Morbid Anatomy grew a cult following and expanded until it was more than the space could contain. There was clearly an interest and need for this kind of open, honest examination of death and our relationships to mourning.
After a lecture one Halloween, Ebenstein met Tracy Hurley Martin.
Martin and her twin sister, Tonya Hurley, came from a family in the mortuary business, which had always informed their aesthetics and interests. They were traveling to Mexico to learn more about Santa Muerte, a popular new religion also known as the church of Our Lady of the Holy Death. The sisters ended up donating some artifacts to the library, and Martin and Ebenstein got to talking about how there should be an entire permanent cafe or shop just like Morbid Anatomy.
With help from a talented team of architects, they turned a vacant bakery space into the Morbid Anatomy Museum, which opened its doors in 2014.
The museum drew visitors from all over the world — some from the same group who supported the original space. But it also drew families, medical professionals, and, interestingly enough, lots of young people. Ebenstein credits the museum’s appeal to its irreverent playfulness and intentionally amateurish, almost DIY aesthetic.
Martin recalls the first exhibition, "Art of Mourning," which showcased how people during the Victorian era memorialized their dead through hair art, photographs, death masks, and jewelry. "Visitors came and felt an openness to share their own personal experiences and talk about traditions surrounding death in their own families," she says. "I remember being there and people opening up about death, this taboo topic. That’s when I realized we did something special."
But changing America's taboo around death was not financially viable, and the museum closed after two and a half years.
The rising costs of New York City real estate and a decline in charitable donations meant the death of the museum.
“We always said our mission was devoted to things that fall between the cracks. Well, we also fell between the cracks of funding," Ebenstein says. "We tried to apply for art grants but were told we weren’t 'art' enough. We tried to apply for cultural grants, but we weren’t quite that. We weren’t any one of those things, which is what made the museum special — but also what made it difficult to fund."
While the Morbid Anatomy Museum itself might be dead, the movement to change America's mourning culture is more alive than ever, and women like Ebenstein and Martin are at the forefront.
It’s making a resurgence everywhere from coloring books to rock 'n' roll musicals to sustainability in the funeral industry. There are death salons where people gather to talk about the topic and a whole new movement taking shape around the idea of "death positivity" — and just like the Morbid Anatomy Museum, they're all the brainchildren of brilliant women.
"Why does this stuff appeal to women more? If there was an easy answer, it wouldn’t be interesting. But I know it’s an important question,” Ebenstein says. “Birth and death are linked to the feminine in ancient gods. Maybe it was something to do with natural cycles that we’re more attuned to. Or maybe women are more embodied in themselves, arguably. We bleed every month. We have babies. So we can’t be as squeamish about the body. We just don’t have that luxury."
Death used to be a part of everyday American lives. People used to die in their homes instead of hospitals. Life expectancy was lower, and child mortality was more common.
Then something changed.
Ebenstein suggests the shift happened in the early 20th century. While the rest of world was dealing with destruction from world wars and conflicts in emerging nations, Americans moved death offstage. It was outsourced to funeral homes for profit, and the parlors where we once laid our dead were turned into "living rooms." Death became distant to us, and we continued to push it further away, until it became an even more terrifying mystery.
But ignoring something doesn’t make it disappear. Perhaps if we come together to acknowledge our shared humanities — and the fact that we all meet the same end — we wouldn’t have to be so afraid. Because without death, it's impossible to celebrate life.