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Death positive art exhibition in Cambridge crematorium allows visitors to handle human skulls

A ‘death positive’ artist hopes her one day event at the city crematorium will help visitors come to terms with their own mortality.

Artist Susan Jones, with some of her collection of human bones. Picture: Keith Heppell. (8313295)
Artist Susan Jones, with some of her collection of human bones. Picture: Keith Heppell. (8313295)

Susan Jones, 46, has been fascinated by bones and the feelings they stir in people confronted by them since she began a second career in photography.

After researching rituals around dying in our recent past she realised that many of us were in ‘death denial’ and could be leading happier lives if we realised our true, finite, nature.

Now she is running an event, in conjunction with the Museum of Technology and the Museum of Cambridge, in which the public can sketch, photograph and handle skulls as well as play a board game and watch a comedy improv show about death.

“Everyone sees stylised skulls but real ones are not commonly seen and I started to wonder why this was,” says Susan.

“As I researched my dissertation on it, I realised this thing has happened to our society over the last 100 years we have lost all the traditions of having a deathbed and a death being at home because death moved to hospitals.

“We lost the tradition of sitting up with the body or washing the body by the family because funeral directors do that for us now. We got to the point where we don’t know what to do about death and we don’t engage with it very well.”

Her event, Things to do When You’re Dead, is taking place at the crematorium and will offer the chance to handle human bones, Talk to archaeologists about what they have dug up and find out about previous Cambridge residents, Try observational drawing of a skull with artist Lisa Temple-Cox, Play a giant game of "Operation" and Try a cardboard coffin out for size. There will also be a behind the scenes tour of the crematorium.

Artist Susan Jones, with some of her collection of human bones. Picture: Keith Heppell. (8313301)
Artist Susan Jones, with some of her collection of human bones. Picture: Keith Heppell. (8313301)

She is also taking part in Cambridge Open Studios in July, where visitors will be able to see her photographs of skulls and skeletons, as well as handle human bones if they wish.

Susan adds: “Some people pretend they are not going to die - in fact some people think they are going to upload their consciousness to the internet and not die at all or that they will be frozen and woken up 300 years in the future, because people will somehow desperately want to know what it was like living with the early internet or something.

"In the last 10 years or so there has been quite a backlash against it called death positivism, which is accepting we are all going to die and if you face up to it and make good choices now then you can live a happier life.”

She has become involved in the death positivism movement, which includes visiting ‘Death Cafe’ events where people talk through their feelings about grief and their own mortality. Sue first started thinking about her own health after suffering from a debilitating illness, M.E. which saw her give up her previous job as a consultant.

“I have a chronic illness which isn’t killing me but does give me a lot of time to think about health and as I watch my parents getting older and I’m very aware that I can't talk to them about these things because they say don't be morbid.”

After a period of being housebound with her illness, she began a degree in photography and spent hours photographing museum exhibits, which is where she was first drawn to skulls.

"I was trying to photograph them in museums but they were always behind glass. Then I saw that a doctor’s skeleton had come up for sale in an auction and I decided to buy them,” she says.

The bones were very old and had been used by doctors in the past to learn about human anatomy.

“It’s a half skeleton in a little box which I was trying to put together and then realized the ribs didn’t fit the spine. I got talking to a friend of a friend and I found out that doctors studied their bits in a box and then they swapped bits. So my box of half a skeleton had four people in it. Which was a shock.

“I couldn’t believe I was allowed to own them. You know when you are carrying your best crockery and people tell you to be careful and you can't help but be clumsy? The first thing you do when you pick up a skull is you look at it and you try to hold it so carefully and then you drop it. And there’s a heart sink moment of thinking what you have just done.

"My first instinct when I’d dropped the skull cap from the top this skull was to apologise to it and say 'I'm so sorry I didn’t mean to hurt you' . I realise they were dead and couldn’t hear me but it is that human contact that felt so deep.”

“Handling skulls is something as a society we just don't really do, but I have found that to be one of the most powerful things to make me realise, do you know what, some day I'm going to die.”

There are strict rules around owning human remains but these bones were more than 100 years old, which is the legal requirement so that no relatives of the person whose bones they are is likely to be living.

“It’s really fortunate that a coroner's letter came with the skeleton where he officially declares he has no interest in it professionally because it is over 100 years old,” says Susan. “He nicknamed it Fred and wished Fred well in his new home.”

Susan doesn't keep the skeletons at home but stores them for use in her photography work. Two years ago she organised her first event where she invited members of the public to, respectfully, handle the skull. She watched as other people experienced the same deep emotions she had felt herself.

“When you’re handling a skull it goes from being this thing in your hand to thinking, well, I can feel their cheek bone and if I press hard I can feel my cheekbone and my jaw.

“And I can see all these features on this dead thing and now im looking at it I can't help but imagine what their face was like and what their life was like.

“First they are nervous and then they engage with the science of finding out whether bones and skulls are male or female and then they start this feeling between their own face and the skull and then the stories flood out.

“And that’s why I think it is so good for death positivism, because suddenly people tell stories about their experiences with death, whether it’s about their grandpa's funeral or when their cat died and they buried it and then they came across the bones years later and how that made them feel. Often it is the first time they have felt they could talk about it. Then they go home and... I don’t know what happens. But I hope it is still a positive experience."

At the event in May, the bones will be provided by archaeologists who will be on hand to explain what they have discovered from examining the skeletons about the lives of those people.

Things to do When You’re Dead is on May 18, noon until 5pm at Cambridge City Crematorium, Huntingdon Rd (A14), Cambridge, CB3 0JJ. Visit dyingforlife.co.uk for more information.

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