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.

Heroes

As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

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Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign, is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

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Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

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