(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 The site is no longer active or updating.)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, writer, at Nourishing Death and Death and the Maiden.
Next we spoke with Bess Lovejoy, a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of the bestselling Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, and is a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon.
We then focused our attention on Amber Carvaly, a California native, and mortician and Service Director at Undertaking LA. Along with owner Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Ask A Mortician), they aim to raise awareness that families are empowered, both legally and logistically, to be involved in the care of their own dead.
Today the spotlight is on Megan Rosenbloom, the Associate Director for Collection Resources at the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She is also the director of Death Salon, and, at the time of this writing, the resident death expert on Vice’s Entitlement podcast.
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?
Megan Rosenbloom: I got interested in death through my interest in the history of medicine. As a medical librarian at USC, I started doing work with our rare medical books and lectures on topics like the history of sourcing bodies for anatomical learning. Thinking about the way corpses have been used for medical education got me thinking a lot about death in general and death’s relationship with medicine. It seems to me that for a long time in history, death was the very likely result of medical interventions. Death was the end of medicine. Now death is seen as the failure of medicine, and that strikes me as a really unhealthy way to look at things. It was around this time that I met mortician Caitlin Doughty, we started Death Salon, and the rest was history…
What drew you to your particular profession?
I felt like after deciding to leave broadcast journalism that librarianship was a good fit for me because it had very similar skills and mentalities – the jack-of-all-trades kind of mindset, the ability to dig into a topic and learn about it quickly and share information with others who need it, and the desire to learn something new everyday. I didn’t plan on working in medical librarianship from the outset, but I ended up getting a medical library job because I was working in medical publishing while I was in school, and now I’m so glad I went into medical librarianship as it’s incredibly rewarding in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
I hope that I can help medical students see the importance of honoring their own humanity and the humanity of their patients, even when their patients are cadavers. I hope I can help mold future physicians to have a healthier relationship with death and to be able to more humanely help their patients through the end of their lives. Specific to Death Salon, I hope to expose people to ideas that will help them make more informed decisions and bring together different thinkers and makers so they can collaborate and create.
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?
The main misconceptions about librarians in general is that they read books all day, that they don’t need advanced degrees, and that the Internet threatens our existence. In reality I sometimes WISH I could read books all day, you need a master’s degree to be a librarian, and librarians are even more useful and important in the Internet age than we were before, because there is so much more information to wade through before you can get to what you need.
In terms of Death Salon, I guess some people–especially in the beginning–thought we’re just a bunch of goth chicks who are too young to know anything about death, which is incredibly presumptuous about our life experiences and super rude. I think the people who dismiss us in this way would be very unlikely to do the same if we were an organization mostly run by men, or if we were all much older. But death is something we all benefit from interacting with regardless of our ages or backgrounds and that’s just part of what we’re proving with our Death Salon events.
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?
I think if you’re a generally warm, approachable person and you share of yourself and listen, other people will open up, too. It is usually fairly easy to tell whether a death-related conversation is making the person uncomfortable or not. If we’re say, at a cocktail party, I might just let the conversation move along naturally to something else. However, I find that when someone finds out what I do with Death Salon, they usually have a lot of questions –so I end up talking about death at cocktail parties far more than I would expect.
Can you tell us about the death community in your area, is it welcoming and/or responsive to what you are doing?
Los Angeles has this reputation for being pink and plastic but the death community is incredibly strong here, and the people who have come to L.A.-based Death Salon events are so much more diverse than I could have ever anticipated–and I find that incredibly gratifying. I am super lucky to have such a crew of deathy writers and artists nearby, and it always seems to be growing. I really feel for the folks who have a strong interest in death and don’t know anyone else near them that feels the same way. I hope that when those people come to Death Salon, they feel welcomed into this amazing community of enthusiastic death nerds and can learn, question, and explore without feeling judgment.
What is your role, as you see it, within the Order of the Good Death, and can you tell us a little bit about what you did at this year’s Death Salon?
My main job for The Order is to run Death Salon and all that sail within her, consulting with Caitlin Dougherty and Sarah Troop for the important stuff, and handling the million little piddly things that come up along the way. Everything from as big as deciding which cities and venues and who gets to speak, to as small as managing the catering, merch, travel, and any and all logistics.
So my duties at Death Salon: Mutter Museum were pretty much everything: talking to press, wrangling our volunteers, snack mom, guest lists, putting out fires, introducing some speakers, guesting on or moderating panels, hosting Quizzo. Basically when it comes to Death Salon, you name it, my finger’s in it.
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.
Talk talk talk. People have to talk in order to really process. That’s why therapy exists, right? It helps to acknowledge and engage with their own thoughts and the thoughts of others – in their lives as well as from other cultures and time periods. It’s like a muscle being used: over time broaching the subject gets easier, interacting with the enormity of it gets more manageable.
How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?
I think I have become a lot less judgmental about other people’s conceptions of an afterlife through my exposure to so many different ways of conceptualizing it. But personally, I am still of the camp that I don’t believe in an afterlife except in a vague “we are all made of star stuff” kind of way.
And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario – your dream death, a “good death” as it were?
After a long life well-lived, surrounded by friends and family with opportunities to share meaningful goodbyes, I drift peacefully away, after which either my organs will be harvested or my body will be used as a medical school cadaver. Maybe a year after my death, my remaining ashes can be scattered by loved ones in a special place that they know about but which I won’t make public for secret reasons. I would like a Little Free Library or some comparable physical legacy in my honor that people could visit and think of me, or strangers could stumble upon and wonder who I was.