Friday, May 1, 2015

A Day at Death Salon Getty Villa: From Ancient Necropolis to LA's Metropolis

This past Sunday, April 26th, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Death Salon held at The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, whose broad focus was "From Ancient Necropolis to LA's Metropolis". The Death Salon is curated in part by The Order of the Good Death, who helps put on these events in different locations around the world. This time they partnered with J. Paul Getty Museum and The Getty Villa to bring Los Angeles a view of death that the ancient Etruscans, Romans, and Greeks held, plus touching on some local LA death-centric topics. But wait, you might be asking yourself...just what is a Death Salon? The Death Salon website explains, "In the spirit of the eighteenth-century salon – informal gatherings of intellectuals – Death Salon encourages conversations on mortality and mourning and their resonating effects on our culture and history."

The setting at The Getty Villa was absolutely heavenly!

This is the second Death Salon that has been held in Los Angeles (the first ever Death Salon was held in LA in 2013; sadly, I was not able to attend), and only the fourth Death Salon ever (others were held in London and San Francisco in 2014). Its truly exciting to see how popular these events have grown in such a short amount of time, and really heartening to see so many people interested in discussing death in an academic setting. I love the work that The Order of the Good Death and Death Salon are doing to encourage intelligent conversations on the subject of death and I had been looking forward to attending my first ever Death Salon for months!!

I also must applaud the J. Paul Getty Museum and The Getty Villa for hosting and being so enthusiastic to participate in this event! And who knew their collection housed so many death-centric artworks? They had so much cool stuff, from a rare mummy, to sarcophagi, to funerary vases, to ancient gravestones!

The day was so incredible that I wanted to share with you the killer events, stunning artwork, and engrossing lectures I gleefully attended. Though I didn't attend everything, here is a run-down of what I did enjoy throughout the day:

Caitlin Doughty welcoming us to Death Salon at the Getty Villa!

After a very warm welcome from The Getty Villa's senior curator Jeffrey Spier, things got kicked off! Caitlin Doughty, whose credentials include mortician, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, founder of The Order of the Good Death and Death Salon, and host of the "Ask a Mortician" video series, welcomed us and reminded attendees that, should there be an emergency, we shouldn't just sit there and accept our own death, but rather head for the emergency exits!

J. Paul Getty Museum's Antiquities Curator David Saunders, kicking 
things off with "The Five Stages of Grief: A Getty Villa Guide".

The first lecture was from David Saunders, an antiquities curator of The Getty, who examined the five stages of grief through classical Greek and Roman artifacts housed right there at the J. Paul Getty Museum. It was really neat how he tied the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance - to ancient pieces of art, from a funerary vase depicting women tearing out their own hair to a cup depicting hero Ajax's suicide to the story of Niobe, who turned to stone in her grief as a monument to mourning. I really enjoyed his talk, and after I was able to see  Saunders' exhibition of breath-taking funerary vases titled "Dangerous Perfection: Funerary Vases from Southern Italy," on display at The Getty Villa.

Sarah Troop introducing her talk "Death and the Hollywood Ending: 
the Legacy of Forest Lawn and the future of Death in LA".

Next, Sarah Troop, writer at Nourishing Death (where she discusses funerary foods and shares recipes for them...I totally want to veganize these recipes!) and social media editor of Death Salon, charmed us with her stories of a childhood spent around film sets in Los Angeles (her parents were in the industry) and how these fake film sets eerily resembled the manufactured, sanitized feel of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a cemetery that tries to divorce itself and its visitors from death (yes, they did not want people thinking of death when they visited a cemetery...those crazy kids!). Fun fact I learned from Troop: before Disneyland opened, Forest Lawn was the top tourist attraction in Los Angeles! Troop was a wonderfully engaging speaker and gave us a lot of food for thought on how as a culture we try to hide death or dress it up in pretty euphemisms (for example, Forest Lawn has wacky names for different areas of their "memorial park", ahem cemetery, like "Slumberland").

"Consumption, Commemoration, and Catering in Etruscan Funerary 
Rituals" lecture by Lisa Pieraccini, professor at the University of
California, Berkeley. 

After a short break, we took our seats again for Professor Lisa Pieraccini's talk on "Consumption, Commemoration, and Catering in Etruscan Funerary Rituals". Since I am originally near Florence, Italy, I have long had a fascination with the Etruscans. In the small hill-town where I was born, Fiesole, there are Etruscan ruins and a small museum dedicated to Etruscan artifacts from the area. So, I was very interested in Pieraccini's talk, which had me spellbound! Peiraccini explained that since eating was the antithesis of death, Etruscans honored their dead and acknowledged their own mortality with elaborate funerary feasts. From the archaeological evidence, it appears that both wine and eggs were significant to these funerary feasts and that the feasts themselves took place both inside and outside the tombs. Serving dishes, wine vessels, bowls full of eggs and more evidence of the Etruscan funerary feasts have been found in the few undisturbed burial mounds (called tumuli, or tumulus for a singular mound) that were excavated.

The Mummy of Herakleides, various gravemarkers, urns, and 
funerary adornments, and a funerary vase depicting mourners.

Mister Spooky and I decided to take a break after Pieraccini's stimulating talk and wandered The Getty Villa's collection of ancient Etruscan, Greek and Roman artifacts and artwork. Death Salon and The Getty Villa even hosted a "Death Match" game where participants looked for the "deathiest" object at the Villa. We even received a brochure that listed the Getty staff's picks for their favorite death-related objects! I thought this was really cool, and we tried to see all the staff picks listed. My favorite death-y objects were the mummy of Herakleides, who is a rare "Red Shroud" mummy (only nine of these have been identified in the world!), the ancient gravestones and carved cremation chest that adorned one hallway, and the spectacular funerary vases on display. There were also lots of stunning sarcophagi and marble statues that we ooooh'ed and ahhhhh'ed over.

More funerary vases, a statue of a goddess that is reported to be 
Aphrodite, but could also be Hygieia, with a small Eros by her side.

After admiring the Villa's priceless artworks, we grabbed some lunch at the museum's Cafe. I was worried about vegan options, so I brought my own back-up burrito, but I ended up getting the Mediterranean platter with tabbouleh, olives, hummus and pita (hold the feta!) for $13. Though it was a little pricey, it was pretty tasty. After lunch we browsed the museum gift shop, where I was tempted to buy all the beautiful things! I opted instead for a "Death Positive" tee and "Death Salon" tote bag from the merch table ( can buy these too so we can be death positive twinsies - check out Death Salon's online store!).

Marie Svoboda exploring "Ancient Faces: Funerary Practices
 in Roman Egypt".

We missed a lecture, a musical performance, and a podcast, but we were okay with that since we got to see all the Villa's galleries and get some rest! After our break we were ready for an afternoon of more lectures. We enjoyed a talk by conservationist Marie Svoboda on "Ancient Faces: Funerary Practices in Roman Egypt." She introduced us to Herakleides, the mummy we had just visited in the Villa, and talked about his distinctive portrait and the interesting materials used in the preparation of the mummy. These types of mummies are extremely rare (I had never heard of them before!) and as I mentioned earlier, only nine have been discovered. Next, museum educator Eric Bruehl discussed ancient heroes in funerary art and why so many sarcophagi and tombs are adorned with stories of flawed heroes in his lecture "Nobody's Perfect! Ancient Heroes in Funerary Art".

Paul Koudounaris shows off some bejeweled saints in his talk of
"Catacomb Saints".

A man whose photographs and books I've admired for a while spoke next, and was one of my favorite speakers of the day! Paul Koudounaris is a photographer and author of books like Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, and his latest, Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us. He introduced us to his friends, the catacomb saints, who were draped in extravagant jewels, gold, and finery and put on display in small European churches back during the counter-Reformation. He told us how Catholic churches plundered their catacombs for the choicest skeletons, renamed them as saints, bedecked them in riches, all in order to re-invigorate the faith. The talk was so interesting, especially since not many of these jeweled saints are still in existence. I hope to one day visit a small village in Austria or Germany and see some of these decadently-attired skeletons!

Megan Rosenbloom, director and founder of Death Salon, 
introducing Caitlin Doughty and Dr. Judy Melinek for the 
"Ask a Mortician/Medical Examiner" session!

The closing talk was a question and answer session with Caitlin Doughty and Dr. Judy Melinek, medical examiner and author of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. Questions were gathered from attendees throughout the day and it was a delightfully fun end to a fascinating day. Doughty was her exuberant, entertaining self, and Dr. Melinek was so engaging as well! She told us how she can't watch CSI type shows since they are so inaccurate when it comes to forensic investigations (note - don't wear heels on your first day as medical examiner), and the worst dead body she has seen (a man steamed alive after falling down into a steam tunnel). Both Dr. Melinek and Doughty described what they want done to their bodies after death - Doughty wants her body left for wild animals to tear apart and Dr. Melinek would like her flesh eaten by dermestid beetles and her skeleton put on display in a medical hospital. I loved this informal talk and can't wait to read Dr. Melinek's book. I've already enjoyed Doughty's, and HIGHLY recommend it! Fun fact(s) - it was announced just this week that a TV show based on Doughty's book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is in development AND that Doughty inked deals to pen two more books! Go death!

Enjoying some wine and unwinding overlooking the outdoor theatre
at The Getty Villa. Thanks for the perfect day, Death Salon!

When the talks wrapped up, there was a reception for all Death Salon attendees. They had an open bar with wine and beer, plus a buffet that I didn't pay much attention to once I saw the mounds of eggs and the line (curiously, there was no line for the booze...where are your priorities, deathlings?!). Nevertheless, it was a mellow way to unwind after all the stimulation of the day, plus, almost all the presenters were there and were very approachable! I, being criminally shy, didn't stay long or approach any of the day's speakers, but it's nice to know I could have, if I had mustered up the courage.

The Death Salon at The Getty Villa was an immense success and I had such a lovely time. I really hope they hold it in LA again, or make it an annual event in LA! I wish I could go to symposiums like this every weekend.

The next Death Salon will be held in Philadelphia at the Mütter Museum in October, so if you are near, GO! It's an incredible, unforgettable experience, plus it'll be held at one of of my top dream destinations, the Mütter!

For more photos from the LA Death Salon 2015, check out The Getty's Flickr, and for a great snapshot of the day, check out The Getty's Storify of the event!

You can listen to all of the lectures on The Getty's Soundcloud:


  1. lucky you that you got to go. i am hoping for a event!

    1. It was a great event!

      They just had one in SF back in October 2014! You can download the videos for that one for $15 on the Death Salon online store.


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