Americans view death way differently than other cultures. This woman wants to change that.

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?"


Dina and Benno Ebenstein. Image from TEDx Talks/YouTube.

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.

A few artifacts from Ebenstein's collection. Photo provided by Joanna Ebenstein. Used with permission.

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.

A shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico. Photo by Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images.

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."

Outside the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Photo provided by Joanna Ebenstein. Used with permission.

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."

Inside the museum. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Showtime.

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."

Femininity can be seen in deities across cultures, including Santa Muerte, the Chinese moon goddess Chang'e, and Persephone, queen of the underworld in ancient Greece. Images via Not home/Wikimedia Commons, the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons, and Jebulon/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

True

This year more than ever, many families are anticipating an empty dinner table. Shawn Kaplan lived this experience when his father passed away, leaving his mother who struggled to provide food for her two children. Shawn is now a dedicated volunteer and donor with Second Harvest Food Bank in Middle Tennessee and encourages everyone to give back this holiday season with Amazon.

Watch the full story:

Over one million people in Tennessee are at risk of hunger every day. And since the outbreak of COVID-19, Second Harvest has seen a 50% increase in need for their services. That's why Amazon is Delivering Smiles and giving back this holiday season by fulfilling hundreds of AmazonSmile Charity Lists, donating essential pantry and food items to help organizations like Second Harvest to feed those hit the hardest this year.

Visit AmazonSmile Charity Lists to donate directly to a local food bank or charity in your community, or simply shop smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price of eligible products to your selected charity.

File:Pornhub-logo.svg - Wikimedia Commons

A 2015 survey conducted by the National Union of Students found that 60% of respondents turned to porn to fill in the gaps in sex education. While 40% of those people said they learned a little, 75% of respondents said they felt porn created unrealistic expectations when it comes to sex. Some of the unrealistic expectations from porn can be dangerous. A study found that 88% of porn contained violence, and another study found that those who consumed porn were more likely to become sexually aggressive.

But now the thing that breaks those unrealistic expectations… might also be porn? Pornhub has launched a sex education section.

The adult website's first series is simply titled, "Pornhub Sex Ed" and contains 11 videos and is accessible through the Pornhub Sexual Wellness Center. The section also contains articles, some showing real anatomy and examples in order to bust myths people may have picked up on other portions of the website.

Keep Reading Show less
True

A lot of people here are like family to me," Michelle says about Bread for the City — a community nonprofit located in Washington DC that provides local residents with food, clothing, health care, social advocacy, and legal services. And since the pandemic began, the need to support organizations like Bread for the City is greater than ever, which is why Amazon is Delivering Smiles to local charities across the country this holiday season.

Watch the full story:

Amazon is giving back by fulfilling hundreds of AmazonSmile Charity Lists, and donating essential pantry and food items to help organizations like Bread for the City provide to those disproportionately impacted this year.

Visit AmazonSmile Charity Lists to donate directly to a local charity in your community, or simply shop smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price of eligible products to your charity of choice.

I saw this poster today and I was going to just let it go, but then I kept feeling tugged to say something.

Melanie Cholish/Facebook

While this poster is great to bring attention to the issue of child trafficking, it is a "shocking" picture of a young girl tied up. It has that dark gritty feeling. I picture her in a basement tied to a dripping pipe.

While that sounds awful, it's important to know that trafficking children in the US is not all of that. I can't say it never is—I don't know. What I do know is most young trafficked children aren't sitting in a basement tied up. They have families, and someone—usually in their family—is trafficking them.

Keep Reading Show less

While many of us have understandably let the challenges of 2020 get under our skin and bring us down, a young man from Florida was securing his place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full triathlon.

For the majority of people, a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride or a 26.2 mile run would be difficult on its own. The Ironman competition requires participants to complete them all in one grueling race. In a statement, Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock called Chris "an inspiration to all of us." She continued, "We are incredibly proud of Chris and the work he has put in to achieve this monumental goal. He's become a hero to athletes, fans, and people across Florida and around the world."

Nikic's journey to become an Ironman started off as a challenge far less lofty. He and his father, Nik, created the "1 percent better challenge." The idea was to keep Chris motivated during the pandemic and beyond. According to The Washington Post, the idea was for Chris to improve his workouts by one percent each day because he "doesn't like pain" but loves "food, videos games and my couch." The plan was to keep building strength and stamina while keeping his eye on the grand prize of completing a triathlon. Nik told the Panama City News Herald, "I was concerned because after high school and after graduation a lot of kids with Down syndrome become isolated and just start living a life of isolation. I said, 'Look, let's go find him something to get him back into the world and get him involved,' so we started looking around and we were fortunate that at the same time Special Olympics Florida started this triathlon program, and I thought, 'What a great way to get him started, get him in shape and get him to make some friends.'"


Keep Reading Show less