QuestionCan you taxidermy people?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. Today we wonder if one can taxidermy people and whether you can request your body to be taxidermied after your death.
Taxidermy is experiencing a revival. Wander into any hip neighborhood coffee spot and you’ll see a taxidermied buck’s head mounted on the wall. Taxidermy classes abound at the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, New York. This year’s taxidermy championships, held in Springfield, Missouri, exhibited over 500 stuffed creatures by artists from 47 states and 14 countries. The one taxidermy subject conspicuously absent from the contests, exhibitions, and displays? Humans. But, well, why not taxidermy humans? Is it possible? Is it advisable? Turns out that this question has some incredibly disturbing and shameful history. We asked taxidermists and pathologists for their take on human taxidermy. But what if you voluntarily wanted to get yourself taxidermied after your death? We proposed the idea to a few funeral directors.
professionally trained, award-winning taxidermist. Taxidermist in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY.
As far as I know, it is illegal to taxidermy or mount a human being in the US. While I am sure it is possible, the end result does not seem worth the trouble. Human skin discolors greatly after the preservation process and stretches a lot more than animal skin. This would mean that the maker would have to be very skilled in creating an exact body replica and painting and touching up the skin tone.
The closest thing we have nowadays would be the plastinated humans done by Gunther von Hagens. There are very few human taxidermy pieces, the most famous being a taxidermy Botswana man called “El Negro,” and the late English Philosopher Jeremy Betham, both from the 1800s. This is why wax casts and sculptures of people are better representations in the afterlife.
of Jeremy Bentham
You can visit the preserved remains of English philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham, seated stiffly in a wooden cabinet, in the main building of the University College, London.
It was all Bentham’s idea: he stipulated the conditions for his preservation in his 1832 will, down to the posture (“seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living”) and attire (“clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me”). He also requested that his real head remain attached to his body, though the school decided early on to commission French artist Jacques Talrich to make a wax replica instead.
In 2002, the head was moved to a climate controlled storage facility at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Curious researchers can still petition for special permission to view it.
Divya Anantharaman, BFA
Brooklyn taxidermist and artist, international taxidermy teacher. Taxidermist in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY.
There’s actually a YouTube video that addresses this, and it's by an awesome mortician colleague Caitlin Doughty.
She pretty much in covers all the reasons why human taxidermy is not possible, or ideal. Hiding the seams, and the skin not tanning well and being delicate are the main reasons (with hairless animals like certain pigs, lots of work with airbrush and epoxy is done to make the tanned skin look alive again).
And Lenin's body does not count as taxidermy. Taxidermy means (literally) arranging (taxi) skin (dermy). It refers to arranging the preserved skin of an animal on a form to make it look alive again, only the skin is original to the specimen, everything else is made or sculpted. Mummies, on the other hand, are whole specimens that are dried out/dessicated. They usually remove the organs since they can rot, depending on the procedure, but all the meat/muscle/tissue pretty much turns into jerky (of course chemicals can be injected to help keep pests away from the "jerky").
The heinous tale
of “El Negro”
In the 1830s, brothers Jules, Jean and Alexis Verreaux (sons of famed French taxidermist Jacques Philippe Verreaux) traveled to South Africa to acquire specimens such as plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. In, 1832, they brought back the most ethically deplorable "specimen" of all: a taxidermied human being.
An 1831 press report described him as dark skinned, curly haired, short of stature, and carrying a small leather bag filled with beads, seeds and bones. After his death at 27, his body was stolen, stuffed, and shipped to France. He was first exhibited in a Paris shop, then, the 1888 World Exhibition in Barcelona and, later, the Francisco Darder Natural History museum in Banyoles, Spain, where he remained on display from 1916 until 2000. Following a contested repatriation process, his body was finally sent home to be buried in Botswana. “It was not very appropriate to exhibit a human being of the black race in a Western and developed city,” Banyoles mayor Pedro Bosch said at the time.
Mortician with a Certificate and Diploma in Anatomical Pathology, Technology. Technical Curator of the Barts Pathology Museum.
No—you can’t taxidermy a person because taxidermy is defined as:
the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals with lifelike effect.
Lenin is just embalmed, as was Eva Peron and other corpses in state. That’s a different thing to just stuffing the skin.
For over 90 years, communist leader Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s embalmed body has been on view in a mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. Preserving his corpse takes regular upkeep. Over the years, a special team of anatomists, surgeons and biochemists has replaced Lenin’s lashes with fake ones, created artificial skin grafts to fill in decaying spots, re-sculpted his nose and other body parts, and replaced the original subcutaneous fat with a compound of paraffin, glycerin and carotene. Lenin looks as good as a 145-year-old could, though according to a 2014 poll, 61% of the Russian public was ready for Lenin to receive a final burial.
If someone stipulates in their will that they'd like to be taxidermied, would their request be honored?
Taxidermist in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum.
A taxidermist would not do it since there is a lot of red tape involved with handling deceased humans and their organs. Most taxidermists won't even work on family pets; difficult to do right and they basically become grief counselors for the customers. Maybe if the person donated their body to science and requested attempting it, but like I said, it seems to be too difficult and more trouble than anything else.
Divya Anantharaman, BFA
Taxidermist in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum.
The handling of human remains in not something a taxidermist does.
That is more for a mortician or funerary lawyer, as it involves some legal issues that I'm not an expert on since taxidermists work only with animals, not humans.
Funeral director at Greenwood Heights Funerals and Cremation Services, Brooklyn.
I know that there are some places in the world where human remains are regarded as sacred and kept around the house or cathedral for a long time! This is not permitted in the United States and I know of no one taxidermied though it is an interesting idea now that "extreme" embalming with people embalmed on their motorcycles, etc., is accepted at some funeral homes.
Funeral Director, Aievoli Funeral Home, Brooklyn.
No. We don’t do that. Not that we would turn them away. We’d have to find a way to help them. But we’ve never had a request like that before.
Manager and Owner of Caribe Funeral Home, Brooklyn, NY.
Yes, if it’s in the will, the next of kin has to honor it. They have to. If it’s about payment, they have to go through the court. We would help them find a lawyer. But they would have to pay all expenses.
The United States funeral industry at a glance
— The largest cemetery in the United States is Cavalry Cemetery in Queens, New York, with 3 million burials packed into a mere 365 acres. (Compare this to the largest cemetery in the world, Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery in Najaf, Iraq, which has 10 MILLION burials spread over a whopping 1,500 acres.)
— As of 2014, there are 19,486 funeral homes in the U.S., with approximately 86% of them privately owned and the remaining 14% owned by publicly traded corporations.
— The median cost for an adult funeral with a casket was $7,045 in 2012.
— Cremation was the preferred method of disposition for 45.1% of people who received funerals in 2013.
— By 2020, it is estimated cremation will account for 70.6% of the funeral industry.