New exhibition “ After Life: A History of Death” will display Napoleon’s post-mortem report and William Burke’s death mask.

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh will next week launch a new public exhibition, “ After Life: A History of Death” which uncovers changing views of death throughout history. Among the items in the exhibition will be the postmortem report of Napoleon Bonaparte, signed on St Helena, which will be on display to the public for the first time. Also on display will be the death mask of William Burke (on loan from the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum), a diary documenting the last days of Edinburgh obstetrician James Young Simpson, and a coffin shaped like a police call box, on loan from Crazy Coffins in Nottingham.

The exhibition encourages viewers to consider how the acceptance, and even perhaps fatalism, of the past has given way to an unwillingness to accept death and aims to show how unprepared many of us now are, when our time comes. The illustrations, books and objects displayed in this exhibition show the changing attitudes towards death over the last 500 years.

This is not simply a history of physicians and their role in the death process, although that is an important part of this story. It also explores how we, as humans, have experienced and thought about death through history. The struggle between the many conventions of death – the ‘rules’ or standards people were supposed to follow in dying and in mourning. That is the ‘good’ death, which is to say the quiet, dignified death - and the need amongst all this to be an individual human being and to be able to express that. Additionally, it considers the role of physicians, including Fellows and Members of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, in changing ideas around death. This includes: our past President Andrew Duncan, who was key in establishing the first forensics university position in the UK; our past President Alexander Monro Tertius, whose post mortem illustrations are on display.

The exhibition has three main themes: memorialising (exploring rituals of remembering, grief and bereavement), the process of dying (examining palliative care and terminal illness) what happens to the body after death (including medical cannibalism, cremation and dissection).

Dr Daisy Cunynghame, Curator of ‘After Life’, said:

Death is a universal experience and one we all understand and engage with differently. Responses to grief vary and ‘After Life’ explores that nuance. From antiquity to the modern day, death resonates with us.

Death is a challenging subject to discuss. We made sure when developing this exhibition that we didn’t just look at this from a medical perspective, but we included personal experiences – both historical and contemporary.



As well as objects, illustrations and manuscripts the exhibition has a touchscreen – displaying, and explaining, symbols of death from Ancient Egypt to the present day

Some of the more unusual items include: the dream diary of a 19th century Edinburgh doctor, Alexander Le Sassier Hamilton, in which he analysed his death dreams to uncover their meanings.

A broadside proclaiming the execution of William Burke, including the chant of the crowd of ‘Burke him! Burke him! Give him no rope!’

A rare 16th century copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, an edition which was included in the Spanish Inquisition’s Expurgatory Index of 1614.

Some interesting points:

Although many societies have distinctive death cultures these cultures often influence one another, whether as a result of colonialism, commerce or cultural mores crossing borders – this exhibition includes international death cultures, in the form of illustrations of Irish wakes, Chinese Hell notes, a Día de los Muertos decorative skull, as well as a British coffin made in the distinctive style of the Ghanian fantasy coffin.

One text, dating from the 16th century, explores medical cannibalism and the use of human remains to treat the sick.


The launch event for the exhibition is taking place on 26th October, with short talks and a wine reception

The exhibition will run from 27th October 2023 to 5th July 2024

The exhibition is free

Open Monday – Friday 10am – 4.30pm but with some evening and weekend openings (see website for more information)

A full public programme of events will accompany the exhibition, more information can be found on the exhibition webpages

The web address is:

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