It's not surprising that Carla Valentine is a fan of February 14—it's sort of hard to escape, based on her name. Even when single, she's always loved the holiday. "It's nice to take a day to think about love," she says, "but I also think of it as being quite a dark holiday. I consider it sort of like Halloween because of the dark history associated with the day. It's based on the massacre of a man, after all!"
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But Valentine is not your usual flowers-and-chocolates type of girl. As the technical curator of London's Barts Pathology Museum, where she's responsible for restoring, cataloging, and displaying 5,000 examples of Victorian specimens of human remains in jars, Valentine has been counting down the holiday on her Instagram account, @remains2beseen, by posting photos of anatomical hearts and other "romantic" specimens from the collections of various museums. Her background includes eight years working in a mortuary, and she has studied forensic pathology and spent time excavating plague graves and medieval burial grounds. She's also currently working on a dissertation about the sexualized gaze, anatomical museums, and the varying degrees of intimacy that humans share with the dead—and she doesn't shy away from much. "I'm trying to encourage people to look at necrophilia more subjectively," she says of her research. "When discussing the dead, there seems to be a reactionary response that defies all logic. I've had people tell me that they could imagine themselves torturing someone, or keeping them as a sex slave, but can't imagine having sex with a dead body. What's that about?"
The kind of stuff Valentine does and likes to think and talk about isn't exactly first-date conversation fodder—unless that date is someone in a similar field. That's where her website, Dead-Meet.com, comes in. "When I was working in mortuaries, I noticed that many people who worked in the same industry seemed to get together quite naturally," she says. "Funeral directors were dating pathology technicians; embalmers were dating mortuary managers." Pairing up with someone else who already knows and understands what sort of challenges one faces in a job in the death industry—and isn't put off by them—guarantees a level of camaraderie and intimacy. But it also tends to be a pretty small group to pick from—basically, everyone already knows each other.
"I wondered how people could find others in their industry but slightly further afield, even if it was for just a chat and not necessarily romance," Valentine says. "That was when I came up with Dead Meet. I really thought somebody MUST have created a similar site before, but they hadn't!"
Considering Valentine's research deals with the relationship between sex and death, it's almost a wonder she didn't come up with the website sooner. Active for over a year, Dead-Meet.com is a free dating and networking website for death professionals with more than 1,000 active members—from funeral directors to crematory operators, EMTs to anatomical illustrators, all searchable by occupation.
I've had people tell me that they could imagine themselves torturing someone, or keeping them as a sex slave, but can't imagine having sex with a dead body. What's that about?
Valentine doesn't know for sure if the site has resulted in any romantic matches or heated hookups—at least not yet. But she does know that a lot of people have found research partners and friends, and connected for other networking purposes, because of her work.
Romany Reagan, a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, studies mourning heritage in the city's Abney Park Cemetery and is a member of Dead Meet. She says that one thing she really likes about the site—which differentiates it from traditional dating sites—is that there is no pressure to hook up. She actually already had a boyfriend when she joined, but she still wanted to "meet like-minded people and join in the conversation." She definitely recommends it for those who are looking for a match, too. "I got turned off from traditional dating sites because what I'm looking for is so specific that the statistical chances of anyone swiping right on me, through those mediums, who I'd actually be interested in, is practically nil," she says. Reagan is also a Dead Meet fan because Valentine also offers in-person meetup events for site members, usually held in Barts Pathology Museum, which isn't normally open to the public. "I think events where you know that everyone there is of a like mind are a far better way to narrow your field of potential love interests," Reagan says. "You're there for the lecture and the free booze, not to just stare at each other in stumped silence, trying to hook up."
Reagan has presented talks at Dead Meet events herself; "Death and Eroticism," for example, focused on sexual arousal in response to death imagery and near-death experiences. "I have met people who've messaged me on the site and then come up to me at the Dead Meet events, and that's always fun, putting a face to the name and taking that digital conversation offline. And with a cocktail."
For her part, Valentine loves hosting the events. "We can push the boundaries of topics because we're all on a professional level," she says, "and if people meet someone that they end up becoming romantically involved with, then that's even better."
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Another way that Valentine has counted down to this year's holiday is by teaching a "heart-potting class"—a workshop in which she taught attendees how to make their own medical specimen of a preserved lamb's heart. As it took place the weekend just before the holiday, she advertised it as a Valentine's date night, with discounted tickets for couples looking to try something different for the normally fraught and pressure-filled holiday. "It's a really fun way for people to try something new and innovative at the same time as they learn about human specimen preservation through the ages and discuss important things like the ethics of display," Valentine says. "I use genuine museum techniques and preservative fluids that other establishments can't get access to, but the class is still light-hearted. (Whoops, pun not intended!) We listen to heart-themed music at the same time: Think 'Two Hearts' by Kylie and 'Heart of Glass' by Blondie."
Maybe the old adage is true—there's a lid for every coffin. And with Carla Valentine playing Cupid, it's downright heart-warming.