The New Faces of Death was a series of interviews I originally wrote, beginning in 2015, and which were published elsewhere on the internet. That site has not been active for quite some time now, so the articles are now housed at Unquiet Things–I have been meaning to resurrect and continue the project for a few years now and I believe it is finally time! I think that ultimately I will be changing the name of the series. The New Faces Of Death worked at the time, for that particular venue, but I’m not really feeling it now, and it doesn’t seem quite appropriate, somehow.
These conversations on death (ah, there’s the new name!) were a series of profiles and interviews in which I chatted with a handful of remarkable individuals passionately involved in the Death Awareness/Acceptance movement– funeral industry professionals, academics, historians, artists, writers, designers, and more. Pioneering mortals 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”; I invite you to read further, learn much, and expand your own conversations on death in the process.
I am thrilled to kick off our return to this column in the form of a Q&A with writer and photographer Claudia Crobatia from A Course In Dying. I’ve followed Claudia’s blog for several years now but it’s only been recently (generally speaking, I guess, because we’ve all lost track of time in 2020) that I’ve worked up the courage to begin tweeting/messaging etc., with her!
Claudia’s writings on her blog, A Course In Dying, are intended to help communicate and disseminate death awareness through exploring the theme of mortality–these offerings include unique interviews with wonderfully unexpected individuals, to personal essays brimming with insight, to hauntingly gorgeous explorations of exquisite cemetery spaces.
Unquiet Things: How did you become interested in death as a way of life (so to speak) and how did that lead to the writing and the work that you do for A Course In Dying? What drew you to explore death & dying & matters of mortality?
Claudia Crobatia: “Death as a way of life” – I like that! And it connects to one of my core beliefs: that death is a part of life and should be treated as such, instead of being ignored or tabooed.
To answer your question more comprehensively, I have been intrigued by death from a very young age on. My father was quite old, at fifty-eight when I was born, and growing up I was confronted with his various health issues. Most of them were heart related and he eventually lived to be eighty-three, but one example that stands out for me was witnessing him having a cardiac arrest when I was ten years old. These experiences definitely confronted me with mortality and made me think about the impact of death. Not only in practical reality-based terms, but they also triggered my interest in the big unknown in a more metaphysical and spiritual sense, and wanting to figure out what death could potentially mean.
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
My aim with A Course in Dying is to break the taboo around the subject of death. When I created the platform back in 2016 it started out as a place to share my research. I wanted to know how aware we currently are of our mortality and how death influences us nowadays. Through the interviews I’ve done I discovered that our modern-day society in general does lack a personal connection to death and everything that surrounds the dying and grieving process.
The platform has now evolved into more of a death awareness resource where I encourage people to contemplate death. I am currently working on my first online video course on how to cope with mortality – this way, the name A Course in Dying can finally be taken literal! The course will guide you into exploring your own relationship with mortality and help you integrate death awareness into your life, and thereby possibly even reducing your fear of death.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve run into about your work, your blog and to a larger extent, death and death awareness in general… and what do you do to disabuse people of those notions – or not?
The most typical type of misconceptions I get are comments on my work that dismiss it as being too gothic, morbid or just straight up dark. I do try to break this cliché with the general look and feel of my work, for example by shooting all of my cemetery footage in bright colors, but for some people an interest in the subject of death automatically equals a morbid obsession.
Now, the thing is that I don’t necessarily mind these stereotypes being projected onto the work I do. I love everything dark and macabre myself, so yay! But what does worry me about it is that labeling anything death related as morbid and scary will stop people from interacting with it on a personal level, and acknowledging it as an absolutely normal, natural part of life. I suppose this is where ouroboros gets to bite its own tail and the endless cycle of my death awareness journey continues, with the aim of letting people know it is okay to think and talk about death.
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? Conversely, if you have a particularly creepy incident in your experiences, I would love to hear about it!
I think I answered the first part of this in my previous question! As for creepy incidents, here is one that immediately comes to mind:
I visited an old Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam, where I live, during semi-lockdown recently. We never went into full lockdown here in the Netherlands but social life was heavily restricted. Luckily I was still able to go for walks and visit nearby cemeteries. I had wanted to visit this one old cemetery for a while now and thought this was a great opportunity.
However, once I stepped in through the cemetery gates, a very eerie feeling soon came over me. In hindsight I believe it must have been a combination of the surreal semi-lockdown situation I was in, where for a couple weeks on end I hardly interacted with any living being, and the unkept state of decay the cemetery itself was in. It is situated on the edge of a residential area and very small in size, but it was hard to spot any gravestones at all. Most of the area was overgrown with tall grass and shrubs, and the headstones that were visible were in very bad shape. Regardless of it’s tiny size and lack of visible graves, the cemetery holds 100.000 interred bodies! I felt sad for the souls who were laid to rest here, for the state this place was in and for the state the world in general was in. Walking around exploring the graves I felt my heart almost started to race and a voice inside of me was screaming “get out of here please”. I think this was my saddest cemetery visit ever.
I love your cemetery reviews! Where is your love of cemeteries rooted and how did it flourish over the years to lead to writing up reviews of your experiences in them?
Thank you! I honestly love everything about cemeteries – the variety of tombstone sculptures and typography, the way a grave can reflect a persons life and interests, the element of nature that can take over or complement a grave, and of course the immense historical value.
I believe cemeteries can teach us a lot about the world we find ourselves in today. Visiting a cemetery of a specific place tells you about the people who were there before you, who helped build and shape this place into what it is now. I often look up names of specific graves I find that catch my eye and write about the interesting historic facts I stumble upon during my research. I hope my cemetery reviews will inspire people to visit these places more often.
You recently started up a YouTube channel to, I assume, supplement the writing you do for your blog, and reach/connect with your audience in a different kind of way. Can you share a little bit about what your viewers might expect to see over there?
Yes definitely, I think video is a great way to connect with a bigger audience! In fact I plan to do most of my cemetery reviews only in video in the very near future (editing one as we speak). Fun fact: I actually used to be a video director and have my own production company. I did mostly music videos and some artsy short films. My last project was for a Dutch musician and as the song was about death I made a video about a young woman preparing herself for her impending death. This project was actually a big turning point for me, where after completing the video I decided I wanted to fully focus on my own work. It was then when I founded A Course in Dying.
So now, after four years, getting back to working with video feels quite special. Although the way I do it now is very different – not only am I the one working behind the scenes, I am also on camera myself, preaching death awareness and hoping to speak coherent English! It has been a nerve-wrecking ride getting to this point, but I do feel like video is a great medium for connecting with people.
I have a lot of video ideas in store for the coming months. Viewers can expect a couple very epic cemetery reviews, tips on how to deal with grief, and *cue spooky music* a video in which I share my paranormal experiences!
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 & dying, to allay our death anxiety?
One thing I think is crucial in normalizing death and reducing death anxiety is acknowledging death. Acknowledging death as it announces itself, as it unfolds, and as it happens. Either for ourselves in our own process of dying when our times comes, or with someone in our environment who faces death or loss. Being present and open to whatever arises can be a catalyst for death to be transformed from something we fear into something that connects us.
Also, I happen to know a certain someone who is releasing a course on how to cope with mortality soon…
How have your views on the afterlife affected your work in promoting Death Awareness, or vice versa?
My views on the afterlife only affect my work in that it endlessly fascinates and inspires me.
I do not see death as an ending, but rather as a transition into any kind of scenario that one can imagine. I believe death is as personal and individual as each person’s life is.