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Lessons from Peder Winstrup: Lund’s best ambassador for death

Per Karsten is a doctor in Archaeology and the acting director of Lunds Historical Museum. He is the head manager for the interdisciplinary project on Peder Winstrup. His most recent publication is titled: Peder Winstrup: Historier kring en 1600-talsmumie, which was finalised in 2017.

This interview took place on the 1st of February, 2018



“I want to focus on this man for a bit. Peder Winstrup, and our project with him. He was the last Danish bishop in Lund, but also the first Swedish bishop in Lund. And, for us as employees of the university, he is our founding father.

When we found out that he is the best preserved mummy from the 17th century in all of Europe, it became a special matter. He represents a unique medical and historical archive — and became a symbol for every man and woman of the 17th century in Sweden.

Photo: Gunnar Menander

We found out that he was truly a modern person in every respect. He had every kind of modern welfare disease you could ask for. If he was treated today, no eyebrows would have been raised. He was severely overweight. He’d eaten too much meat, he had been drinking too much alcohol, he had been eating too many sweets, and he had a stressful job. These findings give a close link to our own time. History repeats itself. It’s timeless.”

“We had him on loan for 14 months. One of the first things that I noticed was his thin ankle area. It was exactly the look of my father when he was dying. One of the last images I had of him was of his thin bones. So, in a second, a flash, I had a feeling that I was seeing my father again. With death, you get attached in a way that goes beyond scientific interest. You personally invest your emotions, and it becomes a subjective matter for you as a scientist, and not just a cold hearted, objective matter. I do feel that this benefits research, to have a personal link. I also found out that my other staff, they had the same feeling. The day we returned him to the cathedral, some people started weeping. They missed him already; they had such a close bond, to a dead body.

Really, there’s nothing scary about this man. This is the image of a person that finally got some peace. At last, he finally got to sleep in and let loose. His face really represents that calmness. If Winstrup had looked scary, then it would be out of the question to display him in front of the public. We couldn’t have an open day for school children. But, he is in fact a perfectly preserved body, where you can recognise and sense that ‘Elvis  recently left the building.’ That’s why he’s a good ambassador for death.”

“As the historical museum director, I feel that as an institution we have to be open with death, and honestly tell the stories of the people of the past. In every other aspect of society, we conceal death. We hide it away and don’t want to be open with it. 100 years ago in the countryside, death was a community event. All members of the family, all generations, all friends; they were meeting and discussing and weeping. It was a natural. Just a stage of life, no big deal in a way. In this museum you can still meet death and engage. We are totally equal in the name of death. Why bother with concealing? Small children can benefit from this too. Kids love skeletons, they are very interested.”

“The title in my application for funds for the Winstrup project was: Again in the service of science after 338 years. In a way he got a second career. And he certainly would have enjoyed that. He was a man that liked to have good marketing and notoriety. Actually, when we took him from the cathedral to the conservation department, I suggested we take him on a larger tour. And show him how the university has grown and what it has become, over the last 300 years. We made a big journey up to the Max IV lab, so he could get a sense. And then we drove him back. That was really funny, actually. I know he didn’t sense anything, but as a symbolic gesture, it was a good way to respect his life.” 



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