Earlier this month I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a three day conference in London that was all about death! Death Salon was started in the US and is based around the 18th century salon/coffeehouse movement where people got together to talk and share ideas. The recent event that I went to was the first time that Death Salon had held an event in the UK, so as soon as I heard it was happening, I snapped up two three day tickets immediately for Ryan and me!
I am very glad that I did, because during those three days I had an experience like no other. Each day had a theme: ante-mortem, peri-mortem and post-mortem. Each speaker sort of fitted in with each theme, with some finding some flexibility with their content. Each talk lasted for half an hour, with an average of 9-10 individual speakers per day, presenting on a whole range of topics. Each day was then concluded by a half hour keynote speech from one of the several Death Salon members who were in attendance: Megan Rosenbloom (Death Salon Director and co-founder), Dr Lindsey Fitzharris (Medical historian and The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice) and Caitlin Doughty (Founder of The Order of the Good Death).
As there was so much content, I cannot possibly cover each and every single speaker here, but thankfully there were some of us (myself included) who were tweeting throughout the conference and so I was able to pull everything together and create some rather epic Storify reports for each day. So, if you want the nitty gritty, check them out! Day One; Day Two; Day Three.
The Death Salon UK event was held in Barts Pathology Museum, which is a Victorian-era space with several floors of medical specimens in a multitude of jars and cases. While we were only permitted to roam the main floor, there was more than enough for us to gawp at and admire, with cancerous growths and ministerial assassins sitting side by side. As I said, I cannot possibly cover all the wonderful speakers but I can highlight a few that really stood out for me. I should clarify that everyone was amazing and there wasn’t really anyone who didn’t speak about something that was thoroughly fascinating, but I’ve got to pick a few top ones for the sake of brevity right?
Dr Nathan Heflick (School of Psychology, University of Kent)
Dr Heflick spoke about his psychology research where he got participants to write about death for a few minutes once a week. His overall findings were quite amazing, with initial conclusions indicating that writing about death on a semi-regular basis can actually boost your mental health. I found Dr Heflick’s work so fascinating that I will write an entirely separate post where I will pick apart what he spoke about a little bit more, as well as giving examples of how his work is being implemented in places such as South Korea.
Simon Ferrar (Clandon Wood Burial Site)
Mr Ferrar showed us the natural burial site that he oversees in Surrey. With a combination of beautiful pictures, anecdotes and audiovisual recordings from family members who had buried their loved ones at the site, I found myself coming over all emotional. I have had a magical experience at a burial site that is quite local to me (Barton Glebe) after an extremely difficult period of loss and so hearing that there were wonderfully similar experiences happening across the UK really hit a spot for me and I almost had a thoroughly embarrassing cry in the middle of a whole group of people! This was a good reaction of course.
Megan Rosenbloom (Death Salon co-founder and Librarian at University of Southern California)
Megan gave a very entertaining talk about taphophobia – the fear of being prematurely buried- during the Victorian era. Megan showed lots of original sources and really took us on a historical journey with many amusing examples of all the exciting and wonderful ways in with the Victorians tried to prevent premature burial, as well as some fascinating contemporary accounts of when premature burial was suspected. I was especially impressed with Megan because, like me, she is an academic librarian and I found it very inspiring to see how the skills and talents that we have as professionals can be translated into giving excellent talks and breaking down death-related barriers. Even though I don’t currently work with a deathly collection, I may well do in the future so Megan inspired me on both a career and a personal research level.
Dr Amanda Jeffery (Home Office Reg. Forensic Pathologist)
Dr Jeffery spoke about the use of CT scanners for conducting autopsies and all the challenges and potential controversies that that brings. With my knowledge of forensic science and physical anthropology (entirely gained by books I must add), I was rather thrilled that I understood a lot of what Dr Jeffery was talking about as well as correctly identifying some of the CT scan examples that she showed throughout her talk. The biggest thing that I learned from her talk was that while machines can do a huge amount to help us, they certainly cannot replace the human pathologist, especially when certain causes of death simply do not show up in CT scans and a lot of interpretations need to be carried out by a person, not a machine. Really interesting stuff.
Kristoffer Hughes (Anatomical Pathology Technician and author)
I had been excited to hear Kris talk already because I am familiar with his writing work and I already knew he was an engaging and enthusiastic speaker after hearing him on a podcast talking about death rituals. However, hearing him speak live was amazing. Imagine a heavy Welsh accent, some cheeky jokes and some powerfully emotive parallels between life and death, and you have some small idea of what Kris was like to listen to. He had us in stitches and in stunned silence as he spoke about the history of mortuary ritual and practice. A truly inspirational speaker and someone who does not take life too seriously, the perfect death expert!
Dr Lindsey Fitzharris (Medical Historian)
Lindsey gave a really interesting keynote on the historical and contemporary status of anatomical dissection. She spoke a great deal on how current medical students cope with their first dissection with great quotes such as “our new normal really was very abnormal.” The issues facing medical practitioners when dealing with death in their daily work were really interesting to hear about and Lindsey closed an already brilliant day of talks with a superb keynote that really tied everything together.
Dr Troyer gave a thoroughly bizarre and positively futuristic talk about the future of death technology. The reason I’m including Dr Troyer in my top few speakers is mainly because of his “death is not a taboo” stance. It was rather amusing to hear him say this when so many other speakers at the conference had been saying quite the opposite. I would say that death can be a taboo despending on the situation/culture in which it is being discussed but it isn’t always a clear cut matter. Dr Troyer also gave lot of fascinating examples of how people are making their deaths more digital with QR codes being engraved on headstones and viewable digital content being embedded into resting sites for future visitors. Dr Troyer also touched upon the post-humanist concept of uploading your consciousness into the cloud, avoiding death almost entirely. Dr Troyer’s talk was so completely different to anything else that we had heard up until this point and while I am very sad that the Centre for Death and Society’s death studies MSc seems to no longer exist, I do hope that I will get a chance to do some research with them at some point later in my life as they are a fascinating bunch of people.
Katherine Crouch (Ph.D candidate, University of Manchester)
Katherine spoke about the various experiences of archaeologists dealing with human remains. There was a wide ranging variety of attitudes towards these remains, with some archaeologists keeping a psychological distance by giving remains a simple catalogue number, to others giving them a nickname to humanise them again. Katherine touched upon the disagreements within the discipline about these different attitudes, as well as discussing the current practice of archaeological digs being screened off from the public if they involve human remains. A very interesting question was asked: who is being protected? The archaeologists from prying members of the public? The remains themselves? Or the public from seeing anything that might shock or upset them? There wasn’t a clear answer but through addressing accepted practices, Katherine allowed for people to really think about what is often taken for granted when dealing with death. She also spoke about how archaeologists are very well placed to facilitate and enable discussions of death and mortality, especially if they are able to parallel contemporary issues with the sometimes more historical sites that they deal with in their daily work. Finally, one part of Katherine’s talk that really stood out for me was her discussion of archaeologists suffering from PTSD after having excavated human remains that may not have been as decomposed and skeletonised as they would ordinarily be used to. As I have studied PTSD as part of my degree (I wrote about the representation of PTSD in Gulf War literature but read a lot of medical material), this really surprised me and then didn’t in equal measure. It really highlighted for me that if we are not fully prepared for death, for whatever reason, the long-lasting effects can be very traumatic and this fact should never be overlooked.
Ms Jones gave a fascinating talk about the criminalisation of indecent burial, which explored the UK legal system’s approach to burial practices. She highlighted the recent case of Hans Rausing and his wife, using this to indicate how complicated the concept of indecent burial can be and how it may not necessarily be appropriate for a legal treatment. The potential crimes surround the indecent burial (such as murder, attempt to gain financially or disposal to cover drug related offenses) have their own legal standing without the additional burial issue necessarily having to be a factor. Ms Jones gave us a lot to think about, especially with regards to the appropriateness of the criminalisation of “proper” burials as viewed by the law.
Caitlin Doughty (Co-founder of Death Salon and mortician)
Caitlin gave the final keynote of the conference by drawing all of the various threads of discussion together and refocusing our minds on the single thing that was at the centre of everything that we had been learning about over the course of the Death Salon: the corpse. Caitlin gave an inspiring talk and encouraged us to “come out of the death closet” and to be proud of the fact that we work/engage with death and to not allow people to call us weird. A really empowering end to a fantastic few days.
Of course there were many many other speakers that I haven’t covered but I will list them here so you can get a good picture of how diverse they all were:
Rosie Inman-Cook (Natural Death Centre); Josefine Speyer (Death Cafe facilitator); Sarah Troop (Founder of Nourishing Death); Rebekah Reeve-Jones & Zoe McLean (shrine making and keepsakes); Dr Eleanor Wilson (University of Nottingham); Dr David J Wilkinson (St Barts Hospital); Annie Broadbent (author); Kirsty McNally (NHS Blood and Transplant); Dr Alan Bates (Royal Free Hospital); John Clarke (Friends of the Children of GOSH Library); Nicholas Wheatley (model railway creator); Dr Cathy Molyneux (Director of Anatomical Studies, QMUL); Dr Sarah Yardley (Keele University); Brian Parsons (Centre for Death and Society); Joshua Graham (Centre for Death and Society); Nikki Shaill (Art Macabre); Dr Anastasia Tsaliki; Valentina Lari (artist); Dr Paul Koudounaris.
Everyone was fascinating in their own way, as were many of the attendees so thank you to everyone who I met for being brilliant. A special thanks goes out to the Barts Pathology Museum’s curator Carla Valentine who organised the whole Death Salon and to her amazing team of volunteers who gave up their free time to make the event the success that it was.
Attending this Death Salon was a real honour and I am already looking forward to the 2015 Death Salon which will be held in New York City! A bit further afield for me than London but I am determined to make because if Death Salon UK is anything to go by, it’ll be well worth the effort!