(The New Faces of Death is a series I originally wrote, beginning in 2015, and which was published at Dirge. The site is no longer active or updating.)
The New Faces Of Death is a series of profiles and interviews in which we celebrate five influential women passionately involved in the Death Positivity / Death Acceptance movement. Women who seek, in different ways, to educate our repressed society regarding the various facets of death and how to cultivate a relationship with death that is liberating, humanizing – and ultimately – life-enhancing. From mourning and memory to pathology and the intricacies of the human body, from the meaning of a “good death” to The Order of the Good Death, and The Death Salon: we invite you to read further, learn much, and meet the new faces of Death.
Our first installment highlighted Sarah Troop, Executive Director of The Order of the Good Death and Social Media Editor for Death Salon, as well as blogger and writer at Nourishing Death and Death and the Maiden.
Today we focus on Bess Lovejoy, a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses a bestselling book which promises tales of the zany adventures of famous folks who have shuffled off this mortal coil: “The famous deceased have been stolen, burned, sold, pickled, frozen, stuffed, impersonated, and even filed away in a lawyer’s office. Their fingers, teeth, toes, arms, legs, skulls, hearts, lungs, and nether regions have embarked on voyages that crisscross the globe and stretch the imagination.”
She is an editor for Mental Floss, and a researcher for books and film. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Smithsonian.com, The Believer, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Boston Globe, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, and elsewhere. Previously, she worked on the Schott’s Almanac series for five years.
How did you become interested in death and how did that lead to your current role in the death industry or as a death positive activist?
I’ve been interested in death since my late teens. Not so much the physical act of death as the idea of mortality, the idea that life is finite. I was sort of surprised that I wasn’t hearing more people talk about this basic fact, and that people seemed to go about their businesses ignoring it. I just thought it was an intellectually and emotionally interesting thing to contemplate, something refreshingly honest in a world that seemed full of fakery.
When I decided I wanted to write a book, I stumbled upon the idea of Rest in Pieces. When I started to get active on social media as I was researching/writing the book, it led me to connect with a group of death-positive activists and really progressive funeral directors. They enjoyed the morbid tidbits I was gathering on the strange fates of famous corpses for my book, and I enjoyed learning more about the practical realities of death. It kind of hooked into an interest that had been bubbling along for the past 15 years or so.
What drew you to your particular profession?
I’ve always known that the only thing I’m good at is writing, researching, editing. And even that’s debatable, some days!
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
In a general sense, I work to connect people to the hidden histories of the world around us; stories that make the places and objects surrounding us become more alive, more intimately connected to us. We’ve often been presented a version of the past that’s scrubbed of all the death, sex, and magic, as well as a lot of class and gender issues, so I try to find those stories and share them.
With the death-oriented stuff, I’m trying to remind people of the realities of death and the virtues of confronting it: less fear and an enhanced sense of living.
I’m inspired by Montaigne, who said: “He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.”
I also want remind people that they have choices about how they die and what will happen after death, and the importance of being prepared.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve run into about your job, and to a larger extent, the death industry in general? What do you do to disabuse people of those notions – or not?
People think I’m incredibly brave, or have an iron stomach, and neither of those things are true. I’m actually extremely sensitive and I don’t like blood and gore much at all. But I just have the will to follow my curiosity. If you open your mind just a crack, a lot of what our culture thinks is “gross” is terribly fascinating.
I don’t “get off” on suffering and pain. For instance, I’m not into serial killer stuff, partly because I grew up around a number of them in the Pacific Northwest. So people will tag me on Facebook when a new serial killer documentary comes out, because they heard I “like morbid stuff,” and it drives me crazy. Or send me stories about dead babies. Argh!
Many people find working with the dead or talking about death creepy, or macabre or morbid – how do you enroll those people into the conversation?
In any given room, half the people will open their mouths in fascination and step forward, and the other half will retreat in terror. (That’s an exaggeration, but I’ve seen a simila scenario giving readings.) I think it’s important to respect people’s boundaries, so I never push. I just lay out the facts, and tell the stories, when and where I’m asked to. People can take it or leave it. But I do find that sensitivity, openness, and humor help people feel more comfortable. Humor is kind of the gateway drug into the macabre world, but it has to be done with taste.
Can you tell us about the death community in your area, is it welcoming and/or responsive to what you are doing?
I’m lucky in that I came from Seattle to NYC, and both places have a nice death-positive network. Seattle is where Death Over Dinner started, and it’s the home of the People’s Memorial Co-Op, one of the first (if not the first) funeral co-ops in the nation. And there’s fantastic green funeral directors like Jeff Jorgenson . New York has people like the fearless Amy Cunningham, a great green funeral director and educator, and the Morbid Anatomy Museum, where the death-curious can go for wonderful talks, among other things.
What is your role within the Order of the Good Death, and can you tell us a little bit about what you talked about at October’s Death Salon?
For me, it’s fairly informal. I’m part of a group that contributes to what (I hope) is interesting and insightful death-positive content out there in the world. We share interests, we cross-promote, and to be perfectly honest, I think it removes some of the competitiveness that would otherwise be there.
At Death Salon I spoke briefly about Hart Island, which is New York’s potter’s field. There are close to a million bodies there, and burials have been going on since the 1860s.
What can we do to open up the conversation on death? To not just increase awareness of it, but to make more sense of death and dying, to allay our death anxiety?
Whenever people talk about it, that’s useful. Gradual, open, honest conversations – preferably in comfortable settings – reduce the fear and the anxiety and lessen the stigma. Being confronted with the physicality of death is also helpful – I felt much less fearful about cremation when I saw cremains for the first time.
How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?
I’m really not sure what I think about the afterlife. I have no certainty on the subject, and I’m only interested abstractly. It’s a great mystery, but most of the time I don’t feel like I’m burning to answer that question. I like keeping it at arm’s length. This occasionally creates mild conflict with others who are more spiritual or religious and think they know for sure what’s going to happen – but for a writer, I think skepticism and an open mind is a useful combination.
And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario – your dream death as it were?
I’m still working on what my ideal death scenario would be. I know I’d like to be in a beautiful place, to have been able to say goodbye to loved ones, and to have struck some balance between not being in too much pain and not on too many drugs. After death, I’d like to be cremated and scattered in Puget Sound, I think, or perhaps in the San Juan Islands, where my family used to camp growing up.