In a dimly lit Gowanus space, a middle-aged woman laid out 18 frogs, dried and shriveled from their current state — 32 days into the process of mummification.
Beside them lay one fresh kill, still spongy to the touch, laid out in preparation for its imminent disembowelment.
The woman, known to the public as Sorceress PD Cagliastro, introduced herself to a morbid class of students as not only a necromancer, but a blood sorceress, licensed funeral director and pet mummifier.
She was, she said, “experienced in all realms of death.”
The unlucky, freshly dead frog would be her primary tool in this particular class’ demonstration, a crash course in the ancient art of mummification. The smells of frankincense and myrrh permeated the space, belying the bright, sunny, afternoon.
Cagliastro, adorned in black and purple, stood in front of the 18 frogs, prepared to describe her carefully researched interpretation of the Ancient Egyptian practice of mummification.
“Everyone knows what it is, but no one knows how it is done,” she said.
Surrounding her were three tables of 15 eager mummifiers-in-training, many who had learned of Cagliastro through the Morbid Anatomy Library housed at the Observatory in Gowanus, which not only surveys “the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture,” but puts on numerous talks and classes relating to the study of the post-mortem, including this particular mummification class.
To become practiced in the art of mummification is unusual, even in New York City, and it would be an understatement to say a diverse group of individuals were in attendance. At just one table: an erotica writer for Penthouse, an artist that specializes in using pig parts to create human-like sculptures and an American Eagle accessories designer that dabbles in taxidermy on the side.
But amongst everyone, there was certainly a predilection toward the grotesque.
"I can’t wait to bring in another dead thing, that mouse totally freaked my colleagues out,” quipped one student of the dead arts, referring to a prior project completed at a Morbid Anatomy taxidermy class.
Class members exchanged tips on taxidermy and mummification as if they were tips on the best sort of detergent to buy or where to find a good dry cleaner.
“I keep my animals in glass drawers, you?” queried one student.
After years of working with human death, Cagliastro said it occurred to her that “the American way of death was just one of the ways that people experienced this particular phenomenon.”
When, 15 years ago, she was incapacitated by a serious car accident, she took her rehabilitation time to research mummification, and extensively study texts on it at the Brooklyn Museum.
The first part of mummification involves removing organs from the soon-to-be mummy’s body. In Cagliastro’s class, she carefully slit organs from the body of a headless frog. She opted to discard some — gall bladder, kidney — while keeping non-digestive organs such as the lungs, and heart, which might later be attached to the back of the mummified animal or in canopi jars as the ancient Egyptians might have.
After the dissection is complete, the animal rests in salts for approximately 32 days.
Cagliastro insists that the animal should stay in the salt mixture for no more than seven days without changing the salts. After that, future mummifiers will know it is time to take the animal out once it reaches the ultimate putrefaction moment — “when it smells really, really bad.”
Cagliastro conducted 10 years of extensive experimentation to develop her own method of mummifcation — studying embalming, researching chemistry and reading the few texts available on the ancient Egyptian process. After a decade, she said she has perfected the proper salt and metal combination necessary to complete the mummification process. Though she has taken many cues from traditional Egyptian mummification, the difference in climate required her to start from scratch in some respects. Her oldest mummified subjects, a reptile and a mammal, went through the process 14 years ago — she cites these animals as proof that her method has been a success.
After the animal — in this case a frog — has sat in salt for 32 days, it is ready to be wrapped.
Each student was handed on of the 18 partially-mummified frogs, and was directed to begin the wrapping stage of the mummification. Cagliastro used her teenage daughter’s fingers to demonstrate the proper way to wrap the legs of the frog. Using linen, wax, spices and oils, each student set about to patiently create their very own mummy.
Most of the student couldn’t wait to try again. The American Eagle designer paid rapt attention to each step of the process, quickly filling up her moleskin with careful note-taking. At the end she explained that it was important that she be able to replicate each step of the process.
“It is for my art,” she explained.
Of course, if the mummification process doesn’t strike your fancy, but you want to preserve your pet a la Ancient Egypt, the Cagliastro also offers up her pet mummifying services for just $400 an animal.
Morbid Anatomy Library [543 Union Street (at Nevins) in Gowanus, (718) 702-5937]