Conference Paper Proposal: Echoes and Imitations: Taxidermy and Tattoo as Memento Mori

Status: Delivering this paper in York in the first week of September. Absolutely beside myself.

When considering the ways in which the dead are memorialised and remembered by those who loved them, discussion is often limited to relationships between romantic partners, close friends and family members. Less often is consideration given to the relationships that exist between humans and their pets. Yet animals have played a prominent role in how we, as humans, understand and experience death and mourning. Pet owners often refer to their animals not just as members of the family, but as babies or best friends. This is especially true of Generation Y and Millennials, who are increasingly turning away from traditional family and parenting roles in favour of co-habitation with one or multiple ‘fur-babies’. Silent companions, unable to understand or protest their humanisation, animals are increasingly read through personalities which have little to do with their nature and rather service the needs of their human owner. As a consequence of interpreting domestic animals within the framework of traditional human character traits, their inevitable deaths present a singular and unmatched grief for the owner. Such feelings are often in conflict with traditional cultural beliefs about death, dying and memorialisation.

Taking this as my primary focus, in this discussion I consider how animals have been memorialised after death and how historic forms of pet inspired memento mori compare to those of the current era. Of specific focus to this study will be Victorian Era taxidermy and its relationship with the larger culture of death for which the period remains well known. An examination not of the science of taxidermy but of the presentation of its animal subjects will reveal not only how domestic animals were understood, but how death was interpreted culturally and alongside the narratives associated with dying. Taxidermy will be used as a comparison to the modern practice of tattooing, which itself is increasingly being implemented as a form of memento mori; one which bears many traits in common with its Victorian antecedent. In both instances these practices present a living memorial through which the likeness of the animal continues after death. In becoming a representation of a cultural death narrative, pet mementos speak to the romantic aspects of death, themselves also rooted in the belief systems of the Victorian Era. When we consider the ways in which animals are humanised in memorial tattoos or taxidermy scenes, a rare insight into the human/animal relationship begins to take shape. It is within this space that I aim to launch a renewed inquiry into deaths studies and what they reveal about current cultural ideas about dying, remembering and the afterlife.

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