A Dorset couple and their fascination with the macabre
PUBLISHED: 11:13 12 December 2017 | UPDATED: 11:13 12 December 2017
Would you decorate your home with human bones and old medical instruments? Plenty do, according to one Dorset couple, which piqued Faith Eckersall's morbid curiosity
When you’ve spent your childhood being driven round the USA in a 1950s hearse by your dad, it’s bound to have some effect.
For Starla Rose, the effect was simple: “I developed a real fascination with the macabre.”
A trained theatrical wig-maker and professional model, Starla and her partner, Mattaeus Ball, who live in Bournemouth, run an entire website devoted to the sale of all things odd: last-century anatomical illustrations, Victorian mourning jewellery, old medical implements and glass syringes, and human bones fashioned into tasteful artworks.
“We have always been drawn to the macabre ourselves; artwork, literature, movies, the whole genre, really,” explains Starla. “Originally, we ran a photography business but it just wasn’t meeting our expectations, so we started wondering what else we could do which would be enjoyable.”
They had noticed press reports about celebrities such as Kat Von D, the television personality and tattoo artist who collected ethical taxidermy. The couple had for some time been collecting the unusual themselves such as old poison bottles, mourning jewellery and other oddities. It was this, says Starla, which inspired their extraordinary business. “We looked at our collection and thought why don’t we sell the things we love and see if other people love them too?”
Their hunch proved right. The couple opened a store Memento Mori featuring their strange cabinet of curiosities in Westbourne, just a few hundred yards from where writer Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed the ‘fine, bogey tale’ that inspired his book The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Mattaeus and Starla installed a human skeleton under the glass counter and started retailing everything from an executioner’s axe to tiaras made from the bones of dead rats.
While they maintained enormous respect for their stock, it turned out that others did not. After one customer enquired about turning a human skull into an iPod dock, complete with light-up eyes, the couple had a re-think.
“We were happy with the mourning jewellery, the illustrations and taxidermy but we gradually realised that the way animal bones are produced are not always ethical,” says Starla.
They had been selling bat skeletons, unaware that many are captured in poisoned nets and then thrown into acid baths to remove the flesh before being sold for ‘pennies’ to middlemen. They also became concerned about the provenance of some dead tarantulas, large bugs and butterflies. “We would never, ever deal with material from endangered species,” adds Starla firmly.
So they changed the way they ran their business. They closed the shop, moving their stock online to decorusmacabre.com and discovered that people really do love an old glass syringe “We sell so many it is unreal,” says Mattaeus. “When you think of how much people say they hate needles, it is quite strange.”
But strange sells, and never more so than when it comes to human bones which can be legally sold, provided you comply with the Human Tissue Act, something Mattaeus has become an expert on. Decorus Macabre gain provenance for all the bones they sell – some have been in families as a curio for years - and if the item is over 100 years old it may be displayed publicly. “If it is under 100 years old it must be displayed privately because the authority deems that a living relative could be offended,” he says.
They mainly deal with skulls, feet and hands, which Mattaeus painstakingly and, he says, with great respect fashions into an exhibit, reconstructing the skeleton with specialist materials to mimic the ligaments.
In some of his exquisite pieces skeletal hands are posed beside a black rose. Encased in a glass dome, it’s the kind of thing Morticia Addams might keep on her mantelpiece. These pieces are very popular in the United States and in Europe, and Mattaeus’ work is displayed in art galleries across America.
“People can ask you to pose these bones in other ways but I won’t always do that,” he says. “You have to think how you’d feel if your relative’s bones were posed in an inappropriate gesture.”
The issue is even more sensitive with human skulls, where he has seen people attaching deer horns to them. “You really have to think if you’d like that happening to your relative after they’ve died,” he adds.
The tragedy, of course, is that most of the bones that end up with him are treated far better in death than the human may have been in life. “Sometimes on Facebook people have made comments about what we do, saying it’s disgusting and these should be used for medical research. But they don’t always know the dark history behind this kind of thing.”
Asylums, hospitals and even body snatchers were a source of human bones in the past. But perhaps most tragically, he says, these bones may have come from people admitted to the workhouse – institutions renowned for their dire conditions.
“Sometimes the people would be told they had been a massive burden on society so perhaps they could donate their body to medical science after their death,” says Mattaeus. “What they didn’t realise was that after the medics had finished with the body, the bones would be returned to any family members who usually couldn’t afford to bury them and so they were taken away and sold.”
It is this injustice, as well as their genuine love of human relics, that lies behind their latest idea, to create a modern ‘Church of Bones’ or ossuary. These are more common in Europe. “Basically ossuaries are buildings full of bones placed in a pleasing and artistic manner where people can view them and appreciate them,” explains Mattaeus.
There are two ossuaries in England; in Hythe and Northampton, but Mattaeus believes they could become more popular as we run out of burial grounds. “We’ve already had people say they’d love this to happen to them when they are gone.”
In the meantime the couple carry on their work; sourcing ethical taxidermy, old poison bottles and anything guaranteed to give a legal, creepy thrill. Because they believe the macabre is for life, not just for Hallowe’en.
Find out more at decorusmacabre.com
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