Rebecca Reeves, Gone

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

This time last year: Links of the Dead {March 2017} | {March 2016} | {March 2014}

💀 The London Necropolis Railway
💀 The Grave Girl on the legacy of traumatic experiences
💀 Thinking About Having a ‘Green’ Funeral? Here’s What to Know
💀 Wearing My Dying Mother’s Clothes
💀 Stuffed in a Bell Jar: A Taxidermy Piece
💀 How the Oscar-winning ‘Coco’ and its fantastical afterlife forced us to talk about death.
💀 Collector, Protector & Keeper: The Art Of Rebecca Reeves
💀 Grieving family reclaims old ways, brings son’s body home to say good-bye
💀 Sex and death in the classical world
💀 The Mysterious Seashell Graves of Comfort Cemetery
💀 My first date was at a wake, on an island off the west coast
💀 Man Says He’s Not Dead. Court Doesn’t Buy It
💀 From Yoga to Movie Nights: How Cemeteries Are Trying to Attract the Living
💀 These Women Make A Living By Singing at People’s Funerals
💀 Saving Face: Death, Necropolitics and the Hiroshima Maidens
💀 Bodies ‘Eat Themselves’ While Researchers Watch and Learn
💀 Claudia Crobatia on morbid fascinations and becoming comfortable with death through engaging with different aspects of it

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Abe

“Liz T is a seaside kitchen witch who lives with her husband and his weird dog in New Jersey. A paradox of a woman, she reads the classics and poetry while guiltlessly enjoying reality TV garbage. Find her on instagram as @divebardame.

It was one of those things that you couldn’t help but keep staring at. Curiosity driven by fascination and a bit of fear.

It was the bear skin rug that sat on top of the refrigerator in my Nan and Pop’s basement in North Philadelphia. A black bear Pop had killed on a hunting trip, folded so only the head was visible, peering over whomever was grabbing a Coors Light from the fridge. The bear’s mouth drawn wide open, showing all of his teeth. A pink rubber tongue forever shaped into a soft wave. Glass eyes staring out. The eyes were probably the most unrealistic thing about the bear. If there’s one thing I have learned while dabbling in taxidermy, it is that the eyes are the key to imitating life.

I used to pet the black bear, pat him on the head. And sometimes, pinch his teeth. After Pop had passed and the neighborhood turned, we had to move Nan out of her home and into a smaller apartment in Northeast Philly. The bear lived with us for a while, folded on top of our refrigerator in our garage. I’m not sure why this bear always ended up on top of a fridge, but who were we to question tradition? He now resides with my Uncle who has the bear and other bucks mounts on his wall. Nan and Pop are gone, but that bear is still around.

Another distance family member, my aunt-by-marriage’s-brother’s -wife, (if you’re Italian, you know this just means ‘aunt’) had a massive collection of insects. Vibrant butterflies, glossy green beetles, jet black scorpions- all framed and labeled around their home. Again, this experience occurred as a child, so in reality she may have had about a dozen frames of bugs. But I still like to believe my child’s memory of there being hundreds. I loved staring at them, but even more so, I wanted to touch them. I had never seen butterflies so big and blue growing up in Pennsylvania. And even if I did, I would never be able to catch those agile things. But now here they were, right in front of me. So close and delicate, with only a pane of glass between us.

On a trip to Chicago, my partner and I visited a friend who took us to the Field Museum. Not only does the museum have Sue the T. Rex, the largest and most complete dinosaur ever discovered (kudos to Sue for living large and staying organized) but they also have hall after hall of preserved animal specimens, some over 100 years old. Some are beautifully displayed in glass cases. Others are shown in a scene reflecting their environment in the wild, like the notorious man-eating lions or a grizzly bear standing upon rocky terrain. If you have ever wanted to feel like a tiny, feeble speck, go stand by that grizzly. You could easily spend an entire weekend looking at every specimen just once- that’s how big this place is.

A derpy breed of antelope at the Chicago Field Museum. Photo by my friend, Jon.
A derpy breed of antelope at the Chicago Field Museum. Photo by my friend, Jon.

So after all of this time and admiration, I finally started a collection of my own. We have a pheasant hanging in our garage which was left by the sellers- so thanks! I also have a gorgeous black tarantula gifted to me by my very best friend. We named him Abe as she purchased him in Lincoln, Nebraska. His abdomen broke off and got kinda stuck between the sealed glass by his head, but I guess that’s part of his charm. The real Abe didn’t make it out completely unscathed either.

The next piece I want to add to my collection are these gorgeously obscure little mice dioramas made by Brooklyn Taxidermy. I first came across these little delights at a punk rock flea market in Asbury Park, NJ a few years back. The company is run by Amber Maykut, a skillfully talented taxidermist and entomologist who has worked for several museums around the country, restoring and creating gorgeous pieces. The ethically sourced mouse/mice pieces are too precious. They’re exactly the storybook imagery we grew up with- little mice in their own community, maybe living inside an old grandfather clock or a hollowed out stump in the woods. Some mice are displayed enjoying a thimble sized cup of coffee, others are calling on the cards, ready to read your fortune.

If you’re reading this and are thinking “hmm, I wouldn’t mind trying to make one of these babies myself,” you’re in luck! Brooklyn Taxidermy offers classes. Whether you’re looking for classic taxidermy pieces, quirky mice, or the more creative, crypto-zoology inspired pieces such as the jackalope, Brooklyn Taxidermy is definitely worth a gander.

Taxidermy Jackalope courtesy of Brooklyn Taxidermy Etsy
Taxidermy Jackalope courtesy of Brooklyn Taxidermy Etsy

So is taxidermy odd and strange, even slightly depressing? I suppose so. It is, at its root, dead things. This once stunning, grandiose creature is now dead, gone. And that’s how we get to ENJOY the thing? Once it has passed and everything that makes a butterfly a butterfly, a bear a bear, a fox a fox- is now gone? I understand all of this- yes. But taxidermy extends beyond that. It creates eternal life only in death, through death. It offers accessibility: taking something so beautiful and striking, something that you could never get to see up close in person, and placing it right in front of you, larger than life. Even if it is only the shell. Which is also the part that is so quickly whisked away once death takes it. The shell is what is burned or boxed up and buried because it is “tainted” with death. Taxidermy says, “No, no. Not just yet.” and makes it possible for that magnificent something to stick around for a little while longer.

Instead of that old bear inciting an interest in hunting, I’ve grown to have an interest in collecting dead things. Not through channels of killing, for, as I’ve mentioned, the whole hunting thing has never sat well with me. And I absolutely do not support big game hunting. I believe any taxidermy that is acquired in present times should be obtained through ethical channels, once it has died on it’s own accord. That’s what I find most fascinating about taxidermy. It keeps around for us the semblance and structure of what something was, long after the spirit of what it was has dissipated.

If nothing else, it will make a great conversation starter for your next cocktail party.

Thank you, Liz! Do you have a weird or strange interest or passion or obsession that you would like to share with the readers of Unquiet Things? Are you interested in writing up a guest post about it? Please let me know! I will pay you with a knitted good for your time!

Previous Guest Posts:

Planners: Rituals Of Comfort, Agents Of Change
Ten Gems Of Decadent Cinema

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Clare Toms Chasing Light, Seeking Light
Clare Toms “Chasing Light, Seeking Light”.
This print is part of an 8 print set sold at Static Medium to benefit those
who lost their homes in the September 2107 earthquake that ravaged Mexico.

 

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

This time last year: Links of the Dead {February 2017} | {February 2016}

💀 China cracks down on funeral strippers hired to entertain mourners, attract larger crowds
💀 How death became an industry – dominated by men
💀 15 Death Positive Artists You Should Know
💀 Exploring Death Through Occultism And Art
💀 ‘Death: A Graveside Companion’ offers an outlet for your morbid curiosity
💀 When Women Channeled The Dead To Be Heard
💀 How to Preserve Your Family Memories, Letters and Trinkets
💀 Talk to Your Doctor About Your Bucket List
💀 Learning About Indonesian Ghost Culture After My Aunt’s Death

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Photo by Elli & Polly Photography
Photo by Elli & Polly Photography

(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 EyesAsk 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.

Photo by Elli & Polly Photography
Photo by Elli & Polly Photography

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.

Photo by Elli & Polly Photography
Photo by Elli & Polly Photography

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.

Photo by Elli & Polly Photography
Photo by Elli & Polly Photography

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.

Photo by Elli & Polly Photography
Photo by Elli & Polly Photography

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.

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AC

(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 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, a blogger for 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.

Today we focus our attention on Amber Carvaly, a California native, mortician, and Service Director at Undertaking LA. Undertaking LA is a fully licensed funeral home, whose mission is to allow families to reclaim rightful control of the dying process and care of the dead body. Along with owner and author Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death), they aim to raise awareness that families are empowered, both legally and logistically, to be involved in the care of their own dead. Changes like this, they assert, will help our society to better accept death.

undertaking

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?

Amber Carvaly: I think that I have always been interested in death. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with the thought of it. Mostly, it would just sort of come and go as I grew. My prior background is in the non-profit industry advocating for the homeless, so it makes sense to me that I would now advocate for the dead. I think that my lot in life is to speak for those who may not have access or ability.

What drew you to your particular profession?

At first I wanted nothing more than to be an embalmer. In my heart I am completely and hopelessly an artist. I am fascinated with learning and how things work, and being an embalmer was a great way to study an art that is reserved for only a few.

What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?

I really only hope for one thing: that people will accept the reality of death and use it to free themselves from the torment of everyday stress; the things that don’t really matter, like standing in a grocery store line for too long or making someone’s bad day a personal offense. I just want to help people see the big picture, because if they could, it would change the way we interact with one another – which would change the world. Whether or not I accomplish this isn’t my concern. It doesn’t take away the desire from me wanting to live this way.

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 biggest one is that dead bodies are somehow scary. They are not. Really, truly. We are afraid of dead bodies because we are afraid of death. This is why it is so crucial that we work to help people open a healthy dialogue on death. People also think that if you work with dead bodies you are somehow creepy and morbid. I used to get offended, but to be honest, now I’m just sad for people that sneer at me or this line of work. I believe that what I am doing is really important, and I take it incredibly seriously.

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 September, we at Undertaking LA did a fun 30 Days of Deathtember game that is inspired by a deck of conversational cards given to me by my friend Lea Gsceheidle from Berlin. Every day for the month of September we post a question related to death, either logistical or existential. It’s really nice because it allows people to come to us and talk if they would like, or abstain if they don’t want to.

I try to, as carefully as possible, engage with people to encourage deeper thought. It is hard because writing to people about a sensitive topic, especially in an online forum, can be difficult in making sure that you denote a warm and non-judgmental tone, but so far it seems to be going really well.

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?

I think that what everyone at The Order of the Good Death is doing is a wonderful way to create change. Talking about death requires finding every applicable avenue and method of discussion; everyone is different and we all have different ways of learning. I believe it’s necessary to get as many different personality types involved so that talking about death feels accessible. Death shouldn’t be something that is talked about only in a church or educational setting. It has to be continuously delivered in new and innovative ways.

How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?

I don’t really believe that there is anything after this. I want to. But I don’t. It forces me to feel that any and all chance I have at creating change has to be done here and now.

And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario – your dream death, a “good death” as it were?

I hope that I die in my sleep. if I am married, I hope that my husband is by my side, and it doesn’t freak him out too much!

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Becky Munich, Portrait of Decay
Becky Munich, Portrait of Decay

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

This time last year: Links of the Dead {January 2017} | {January 2016}

💀 Feminist Death Work: A History
💀 My therapist died. Is it okay to go to her memorial services?
💀 We’ve got to start talking about grief in the face of deaths that are not beautiful.
💀 Death as Entertainment at the Paris Morgue
💀 ‘The Bright Hour,’ By Nina Riggs And ‘The Art Of Death,’ By Edwidge Danticat
💀 Death Salon with Nuri McBride
💀 How Do We Bury the Writing of the Dead?
💀 Two new books that can help both those in mourning
💀 Smell of death tells undertaker bees it’s time to remove corpses
💀 The new death industry: funeral businesses that won’t exploit grief
💀 Drive-Thru Funeral Home
💀 What to do with the remains of notorious criminals.
💀 WeCroak: An app to remind you that the end is near
💀 Breakfast, Then Death. A piece of short fiction by Claire L. Smith
💀 For the Living, a Donated Face. For the Dead, a Lifelike Replacement.
💀 French YouTube channel, Le Bizarreum, explores death through historical and archaeological cases.
💀 On why writing about grief sometimes means you have to sneak into a defunct cemetery

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Lovejoy_RIP_endpp_1p_rl.indd
illustration: Mark Stutzman
(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 TimesThe Wall Street JournalTimeSmithsonian.comThe BelieverLapham’s QuarterlyThe Boston Globe, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, and elsewhere. Previously, she worked on the Schott’s Almanac series for five years.

She is a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon.

lovejoy1finalcolorcrop

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.

rip_book

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.

Death Salon: Mütter Museum on October 4-6, 2015.
Death Salon: Mütter Museum on October 4-6, 2015.

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.

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It is likely that in the year 2015, you know someone involved in the death industry. You may have a friend going to school for funeral services or have an embalmer or mortician in your circle of acquaintances. If you don’t know anyone involved in the eternally bustling business of death, it is possible that you know someone – a relative, an ex, a wretched high school Algebra teacher – who has passed away. And if not that, you are all too keenly aware of your own mortality and have spent no small amount of time fretting about the idea that yep, you’re gonna die one day.

Perhaps it is this last, irrefutable fact that is so integral to the revival that the hitherto taboo topic of death is experiencing of late. As evidenced by the popularity of New York Times best-selling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by mortician Caitlin Doughty, people are ready to start challenging their fears and misconceptions, move past their death anxieties to death acceptance, and connect with others who are doing the same.

Or they are at least ready to start reading about it!

Nonetheless, this “Death Positive” movement is being embraced by those who would hope to explore their relationship with death socially, culturally, and  – most importantly – on a personal level.

I had the opportunity to speak with five women passionately involved in this vital conversation; women who seek 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.

Death Salon: Mütter Museum on October 4-6, 2015.
Death Salon: Mütter Museum on October 4-6, 2015.

Sarah Chavez is a museum curator and historian who writes and recreates historical and cultural recipes for her blog, Nourishing Death, which examines the relationship between food and death in rituals, culture, religion, and society. She is also co-founder of Death & the Maiden, which explores the relationship between women and death by sharing ideas and creating a platform for discussion and feminist narratives. She is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death and serves as the Social Media Editor for Death Salon. Sarah is also an author and advocate for improved care and support of families experiencing infant and child death and was a contributing author to the companion book for the Emmy nominated film, Return to Zero.

S. Elizabeth at Unquiet Things: How did you become interested in death, and how did that lead to your current role in the death industry and as a death-positive activist?

Sarah Chavez: As a Mexican-American I was fortunate enough to be exposed to very death-positive attitudes. My Grandmother, who is very vivacious, speaks about death frequently and planned her funeral early. For years she has told me what songs she wants played or what color limo she should rent for the family to ride in, exclaiming, “It will be such fun! Darn it, I’m going to miss it!”

I spent my childhood on sound stages watching countless deaths being meticulously created over and over again. When an actual death occurred on a set my father was working on, it completely altered everything. Observing the subsequent aftermath of this incident revealed a lot to me about the strange lack of relationship we have with death and dying. It was only reinforced more throughout childhood, and as an adult, when my questions and interest in death and dying were consistently met with negative, uncomfortable responses.

When I began working professionally with history, death was something I could explore in a more socially acceptable way. Although much of my work is solitary research, a large part of it was also sharing that research with the public in an accessible, entertaining manner through public engagement events and through social media. It was through social media that I – and so many others working with death – were able to connect, which led to what I’m doing today.

photo by Eli Papayanopoulos
photo by Eli Papayanopoulos

What drew you to your particular profession?

When I see people or objects, or even a street corner, they have fascinating, hidden stories to tell – and I want to know what they are! My love of history was actually sparked by culinary history. There was a cookbook in our house that recipes with the origin stories of each dish, which I find fascinating.

With my food and death research I am working to tie the historical and cultural research (the past), to practical ways we can use food to honor death, dying, mourning, and memory (present and future). In writing about history, being a museum curator, and working with the Order of the Good Death and Death Salon, it allows me to do everything I love and work with the most amazing individuals.

What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?

Helping and comforting someone is what I hope to accomplish the most and there’s a big part of me that likes to provoke and challenge people intellectually and emotionally. I put a lot of thought and care into what I choose to share on social media. I posted a piece that elicited a response from a man whose parent had died. He and his family were carrying around guilt and confusion about the death, but after reading that piece he understood his experience was normal and not his fault. He could finally come to an understanding and be at peace with what happened. I see responses like that quite a bit. If I can help people, support them or even teach them something, that is most important.

As for Death & the Maiden, which I created with the wonderful Lucy Talbot, it explores the large role women are currently playing in death care. A large part of our intention was to provide an inclusive space to highlight the work and experiences of those individuals, (female, genderqueer, non-binary) but also as a place to inspire.

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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?
In my museum work, and I think this is in small part a symptom of location, it’s that a woman is not capable.

As for the death stuff, people are often confused at first. Death is something everyone experiences yet, they know nothing about it. I can’t tell you how many jaws I’ve seen drop when I say something like, “Embalming is not a legal requirement.”

The issue that seems to cause the most strife is the way we handle grief in our culture and the lack of ritual. People are rushed through the process and told to move on. Consequently, grieving people are forced to hide how they feel and are isolated in their experience of loss, just when they need love and support the most.

Many people find working with the dead or talking about death creepy, macabre, morbid – how do you enroll those people into the conversation?

Really, everyone loves a good story so I use that to my advantage; by contextualizing death in telling the story behind an artifact, a favorite food, a piece of clothing, or a person, I can tie death into pretty much anything. Through the story I can evoke empathy or emotion and once you’ve tapped into that, people are pretty open.

What I find often is that people desperately want to talk about death. I am often taken aside and pulled into quiet corners where I become a sort of vessel for people to pour their fears and curiosity into.

Can you tell us about the death community in your area, is it welcoming and/or responsive to what you are doing?

There is no death community where I am currently living, so I’ve tried to create opportunities for conversations or experiences myself. I slip in death-themed stuff at the museum whenever I can. Last year I created a school program where I talked about the pioneer experience of children their age including deaths along the way, how would they deal with the corpses, things like that. I also created a hands-on Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit for kids with bones, taxidermy specimens, biological specimens, some Victorian mourning jewelry. This creates an opportunity for kids to experience and talk about death.

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?

My day-to-day role is a supportive one: answering emails, handling social media, promoting the work of fellow Order members – a lot of little things like that, but I also get to be creative. I help generate content for the Order blog or do research for videos, which is a lot of fun for me.

For Death Salon: Mütter Museum, I wanted to explore what happens when one of the most death positive cultures in the world deals with one of the most tragic events imaginable – the death of a child. I encountered this practice for the first time while I was in Mexico doing research, not long after the loss of my own child.

It is believed that when a child dies before the age of 7, they transform into a supernatural being – a sort of hybrid between a saint and an angel called an angelito. The child then acts as a mediator between the living family and God. Family, friends, and neighbors all gather to celebrate the child and surround the family with love and support for the next 24 to 48 hours with food, drinks, and fireworks that accompany the child’s ascent to heaven.

Although I don’t hold the same beliefs, after researching and learning about the angelito rituals, I felt comforted and understood by my ancestors. In Mexico, I was surrounded by representations of death – in music, art, food, conversation – my loss was acknowledged, and I did not feel the need to hide my grief or feel guilt for upsetting others as I do here in the US. That is something I want to change – this culture of silence, which is why I am finally sharing my story. In my small way, I too, am breaking that silence.

Death Salon: Mütter Museum on October 4-6, 2015.
Death Salon: Mütter Museum on October 4-6, 2015.

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 and allay our death anxiety?

This is work that each individual must take up of their own accord. Read, meditate, talk, engage with life. Death is so much a part of life and by engaging with death you will discover ways to live more fully.

The next thing is raising death positive children. Mind you, you cannot do this if you haven’t done the work yourself. Read fairy tales, play outside – these things offer engagement with death on levels children can relate to and readily engage in.

How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?

I’m absolutely fascinated with beliefs and “experiences” of the afterlife. I studied parapsychology through the Rhine Research Center for a couple years, but I don’t believe in an afterlife where our consciousness continues to exist.

However, our corpses have an opportunity for an afterlife. We can advance science, learning, and understanding by donating our bodies to science or continue another’s life through donation of our organs. We can be naturally buried and facilitate new plant growth, be a diamond, part of an ocean reef, or even be a firework! I really encourage people to contemplate, research, and plan for the afterlife of their corpse!

And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario – your dream death, as it were?

Painless – and I mean that physically and emotionally. It is important to me that everything is planned and accounted for so there are no questions or burdens on loved ones. Shirley Jackson, my favourite author has written very few books, and I’ve read all but two. I put them aside to read at the end of life, so I have something wonderful to look forward to.

(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)

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photo from Giovanni Raspini's Vanitas Mundi exhibition
photo from Giovanni Raspini’s Vanitas Mundi exhibition in Milan

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

This time last year: Links of the Dead {December 2016} | {December 2015}

💀 Old Timey Superstition: Death Comes in Threes
💀 In Photographs of Estate Sales, Price Tags Mark the Possessions of the Dead
💀 “At the Gate”; The sudden death of a loved one makes the poet reflect
💀 When Google Thinks You’re Dead and You Try to Fix It.
💀 Colossal Memento Mori: Mass by Ron Mueck
💀 They say writing is cathartic, but writing about my parents dying almost killed me
💀 High-Tech Suicide Machine Makes Death a Painless, Peaceful, Optimal Way to Go
💀 When you only know your friend through the Internet, grieving their death is complex
💀 Cashing in on the donated dead: The Body Trade
💀 Can a Chatbot Help You Prepare For Death?
💀 Saving Skin: The public lives of posthumous bodies
💀 Over the Garden Wall: Children, Death and the Mystery of the Unknown
💀 “We started this together and we will end this together”: The Art Of Rebecca Reeves
💀 The Grave Girl thoughtfully discusses the grieving for someone you don’t actually know.
💀 Say you’re mortal. You’re also a book lover. Where’s the intersection between these two things?

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AJ Hawkins, "It's Okay To Decay"
AJ Hawkins, “It’s Okay To Decay”*

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

This time last year: Links of the Dead {November 2016}
Two years ago: Links of the Dead {November 2015}

If you love the illustration featured here, it’s available as wearable art!

💀 DMs From Beyond the Grave Are Changing How We Grieve
💀 Illusions While Dying
💀 Murder Ballads, Gender, and Who Deserves to Die
💀 Clearing Up Some Myths About Victorian ‘Post-Mortem’ Photographs
💀 Your Guide TO The World Of Coco
💀 Claudia Crobatia visits the beautiful begraafplaats Daalseweg cemetery in Nijmegen.
💀 Why death may not be so final in the future
💀 8 Myths About Dead Bodies You Probably Think Are True
💀 From Solitary Deathling To Attending Death Salon Seattle
💀 4 Ways to Give Your Body Back to Nature After You Die
💀 Finding peace with your ghosts: Advice from a funeral director
💀 This ‘Swim Reaper’ Instagram Account Is Absolute Gold
💀 Hong Kong Has No Space Left for the Dead

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