Author interview: Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

We were delighted to be contacted by Bess Lovejoy’s publisher (Duckworth Publishers) to ask if we would be interested in interviewing her ahead of the UK release of her excellent book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses on 25th September 2014. Of course we said yes! I’ve already read the US edition of the book and know it to be a fantastic read. I will post a review of the book in the next few days so watch this space.

So we sat down with Bess (albeit at different computers situtated at different geographical locations halfway around the world from each other) and got down to business.

DP: Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to answer some of our questions. So you have a new book coming out in the UK called Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses and it is a fascinating read. What inspired you to write this book?

Bess: I used to work on a series called Schott’s Almanac, and we would spend a lot of time reading the news to try to find things to write about. In December 2008, a co-worker sent me a Guardian article about the painter Francis Bacon that really piqued my interest. According to the article, before Bacon died in 1992 he told a barman at the Colony Room Club in Soho, “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” Bacon never actually ended in the gutter, but after he died a friend photographed him inside a plastic bag at the morgue. The photo became the centerpiece of a show used to raise money for the Colony Room Club, and that caused a bit of an uproar about bad taste, etc. A few days after that, the BBC ran articles about the pianist André Tchaikowsky, who willed his skull to the Royal Shakespearean Theatre Company, and people got very upset about that too. It got me wondering about the last wishes of famous people, particularly artistic people whom I admired. I started looking into those stories and quickly realized the most interesting stories were not about what people wanted to happen after they died, but what did happen. And then I realized that no one had collected a whole bunch of those stories in one book before.

DP: Doing the research for the book must have involved a lot of work and chasing down obscure references. How did you find the whole process and would you do it all again?

Bess: I loved it. I’m a research nerd, and finding out some of the facts in the book just filled me with sheer joy. I wrote most of it on the tenth floor of the Seattle Public Library, in their writers’ room, which was really a wonderful space. It was right above the floor for biographies, which was well-stocked, and I would start a lot of my research with whatever seemed to be the most authoritative biography of the individual in question and then follow their sources. If I had another idea for a project that I thought I would enjoy as much, and that I thought would be successful enough that I could convince publishers to back it, I would definitely do it again. Writing a book is gruelling and exhausting and lonely, but the day it came out was one of the happiest of my life.

DP: There are some truly wonderful and bizarre characters in this book, my personal favourite being Emanuel Swedenborg and his mysterious travelling skull. Which historical figure did you enjoy writing about the most?

Bess: Swedenborg was fun, although his story is extremely complicated. I’m glad it came out as being fun to read! I also really enjoyed writing about Rasputin. Those photos of him, with those eerie pale eyes, and all the mystery and intrigue in his story. There’s what people thought was happening with him and the czarina (sex) versus what was really happening (he was healing her haemophiliac son when he wouldn’t stop bleeding, but that was kept from the public). And the myth that he was so hard to kill, when in fact more recent research suggests died from a bullet wound, not after being thrown in the river. And of course, the idea of his penis being worshipped by some Russian émigrés in Paris and then going on display in a St. Petersburg proctology clinic—I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.

DP: You definitely do not shy away from including controversial figures in this book, such as Adolf Hitler and the more recently deceased Osama Bin Laden. Did you feel it was important to include these individuals in the book and have you had any negative reactions as a result?

Bess: I think if you’re going to talk about the history of famous corpses you have to take the bad as well as the good. That doesn’t mean I approve of their actions while alive! I was just trying to get a 360-degree view of the phenomenon. And the corpses of villains, like Bin Laden or Hitler, were actually some of the most interesting to me. I was interested to see how political regimes will go to some length to make sure there’s no shrine, no place for worshippers to gather, where the flame of their memory can be kept alive. Because memory can be a political act. You have to be careful about what you let people remember.

DP: Were there any famous folk that you really wanted to include in the book but couldn’t for some reason?

Bess: I wanted to talk about Kurt Cobain, mostly because I came of age in Seattle in the 1990s, and I thought getting in a more modern rock star would be good. But most of Cobain’s story is bound up with Courtney Love’s version of things, and it’s pretty hard to fact-check.

DP: What do you hope people will get out of reading this brilliantly deathly collection of famous corpses?

Bess: Thanks for the kinds words. I hope it gives them some moments of delight, a delight mixed with a sense of wonder, or a delight that provokes a kind of curiosity. I hope it makes people realize that the way we now do death in the Western world is culturally specific—it hasn’t always been this way. And because it’s culturally specific, that means we get to choose how we want to do it, to some extent. People have more choice in these matters than they might think, particularly as society becomes more secular.

DP: Of course, your new book is not your first foray into the world of death and the macabre as you are a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon. Has your work with these two organisations helped you and your writing about what can often be a rather tricky subject area to most people?

Bess: I think so. The book came out in the US in March 2013, and I got involved in these groups while I was initially writing it. My involvement came naturally because of some of the conversations that were happening on Twitter, and it was very refreshing to find other, more-or-less young people who were having smart, fearless conversations about what it means to be mortal. That sounds heavy, but we were also having a lot of fun. And of course it was about finding other people who were delighting in the same kinds of macabre stories and facts that I was uncovering, who could appreciate them and also understand that sharing them doesn’t mean you have a mental disorder. People who understand that an interest in mortality is common and healthy, which is a message we want to convey to others.

DP: With your new book coming out, and the increase of a death positive movement seen through Death Salon, the popularity of death cafes and an increase in people simply talking more about death and dying, do you see the way in which we as a society perceive death changing in the coming years?

Bess: Definitely. At least in the US, we have a rapidly aging population, and one that is becoming more secular. We’re going to have a lot of dead people on our hands—we already do—and a society that is in many ways ill-equipped to deal with it. We lack the scripts that previous generations had to tell them how to deal with the dead and how to mourn, and so we’re making our own scripts, figuring it out as we go along. It’s just like the other changes that have happened since the social movements of the 60s and 70s; for decades now, many people have been re-thinking some fundamental ideas about things like birth, sex, family, work. Death is a part of all of that. Embalming is on its way out, natural burial is in, cremation rates are sky-high over here, cemeteries are overcrowded, and as you pointed out, people are having some real conversations about death in ways they haven’t before. But we probably need those conversations to continue spreading even more.

DP: The death community is certainly unlike any other that we’ve ever been involved with but we’ve found it to be one of support and friendship. What would you say is your favourite part of being involved in all things deathly, whether that’s through your writing or working with organisations such as Death Salon?

Bess: The community aspect is really important. And the community shares a lot of news and resources, which in turn feeds my writing and sometimes prevents me from getting too lonely. So everything works in a kind of symbiotic relationship. I think that actually my favourite part is being inspired by what other people come up with, and then seeing the impact they are having, and realizing that I’m privileged enough to know them!

DP: Having written a wonderfully successful book (I believe the US version was one of Amazon’s best books of 2013!), do you have any new and exciting projects planned?

Bess: I am working on an overly ambitious book about the state and history of death in America, and what changes in our relationship with death means. I might have bitten off more than I can chew! I really have no idea what will happen with it, but time will tell.

DP: Thank you for answering our questions and good luck with the UK release of Rest in Pieces.

Bess: Thank you!

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Thanks again to Bess for taking the time to talk to us. It was great fun and I hope you all go out and buy her book today! US folk…why haven’t you bought it already?

Book cover

Book cover

I could not stop for death…

(Apologies to Emily Dickinson for the title of this post!)

So it’s been a while since I posted about my mother’s death and the arrangements I have to make. It took a few days for the death certificate to be released from the coroner, and I travelled back “home” (not that it feels like it anymore) on Monday to do my duty as sole next-of-kin.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but the past few days have been such a whirlwind of paperwork, phonecalls, bank appointments, letters, meetings and other such administrative annoyances that I simply have not had the time to really stop and let the basic fact of the situation sink in: my mother, the last remaining member of my immediate family, is dead. That leaves me, and some uncles that I am rarely in touch with. Right. It’s hard to remember the human connection when dealing with names on forms and account numbers.

Today I finally had a bit of time to process this, and I feel…surprisingly OK about it. I worry that this makes me some sort of heartless sociopath, but I’m also glad that I am not utterly devastated by this event and can still function at something resembling basic normal-ish.

I’ve arranged the funeral thanks to a very helpful local funeral director who knows the family well (big shout out to independent funeral firms. You are awesome.), and dealt with the confusing feeling of writing a Catholic service when I left that religion years ago, but hey…Irish family tradition and all that. I am now awaiting relatives to turn up over the next couple of days, and the inevitable deluge of awkward small talk and emotional sympathies that I really could do without at this stage, but I’ll go along with for everyone else.

I did a very small and low-key naturalist memorial in the local woods by a lake today, which was my way of saying goodbye without the pomp and ritual of churches, and which meant more to me than any formal funeral ever could (thanks especially to well-timed local wildlife appearing). I feel at peace with death generally, and her death in particular, but am still pretty stressed about the upcoming funeral and managing everyone’s expectations.

I have some more I want to write about, like how it was visiting the house to sort through her (many) possessions, and the odd and sometimes guilty sense of relief I have now she is gone, but those are for other posts soon.

Going back home for death

Hi all, Georgina here. So for those of you who read Ryan’s last post, you will know that his mother recently passed away and it has fallen to us to sort everything out.

Since the last post, we have been manically busy hence the long silence on the blog. Thankfully Ryan’s mother did not have to have a postmortem but the various delays and other bits and pieces meant that her death was only registered last Monday. As soon as we knew that that was going to happen, we jumped on the next train to start sorting through things.

So far we have managed to get things going with a funeral director. Thankfully the chap in question knows the family and has helped with the funerals of Ryan’s grandparents so he was really easy to deal with and is taking care of so many things which is a huge help.

We are currently wading through a lifetime’s worth of paperwork and other bits and pieces, trying to get some semblance of understanding of what everything means. This ranges from bank accounts to electricity bills and everything in between.

Reassuringly, everyone that we have had to deal with so far has been massively helpful and things are moving slowly but surely which is good. It is just rather surreal coming back to Ryan’s home town to sort out something we didn’t think we’d have to deal with for a good few years yet.

So far, we’ve discovered that there isn’t a will which means everything is up in the air. However, we’ve managed to get a lot done without having to pay a solicitor which is surprising yet empowering.

Anyway, Ryan will write another post soon to fill you all in on how things are going from his perspective. I’ve just been kicking ass and taking names with regards to getting all the paperwork sorted as that is the sort of thing I’m good at. Working together on this is way easier than one person doing it all alone so my only advice at this stage is, if you’re having to arrange all of this sort of thing alone…try and get a friend or a relative to help you out and if possible, make sure that they are someone you can trust and that you get on well with. Tensions and emotions run high with this sort of thing, so knowing that the person who is helping you has your back the whole way is important.

When death comes home

It’s one thing looking at death in the abstract, as an academic interest or a quirky curiosity, and quite another when it turns up on your doorstep when least expected.

I found out this weekend that my mother has died suddenly in hospital. She had various illnesses on and off for many years, including alcohol issues, but was recently very stable. She was rushed into hospital the other night, and died soon after. As I live hundreds of miles away, I was unable to be there for the death and so I got a phonecall from a relative to inform me the following day.

As it’s a Bank Holiday weekend here in the UK, nothing can be done until tomorrow at least. So there’s no death certificate as yet, and the coroner will be doing a post-mortem, so I have no idea when the body and certificate will be released.

But I will have to travel back at some point in the next few days. As the only surviving next-of-kin, organising the funeral and dealing with the estate (such as it is) is up to me. I won’t lie, it’s bloody terrifying as I have no real experience of this. I did help (along with Georgina) to organise my grandfather’s funeral a few years back, but estates and wills are a new minefield for me.

So what I was thinking of doing was blogging the process as I go. Both as a form of catharsis for me, and hopefully to be able to help others in a similar situation negotiate the legal and personal difficulties of a parent’s death. From dealing with funeral directors and solicitors to trying to organise a funeral in a religion I no longer identify with to dealing with family and the platitudes of well-wishers, it will all be here, so watch this space in the next few days/weeks.

Sunday Sundries 6

As you may know, we’ve been away for a bit, but we’re getting back into our regular posting schedule again now. So here’s what we found online this week:

The Huffington Post discusses why cremation is more popular than ever in the US. There are a number of factors contributing to this change in funerary practice, including the fact that as people become more mobile, the traditional ‘family plot’ is becoming less relevant. Changing religious practices also seem to play a role, with less social pressure to have a traditional Christian funeral. Check out the article, it also has a lovely infographic!

"Sylivia" at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

“Sylivia” at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

The Tumblr “Strange Remains” has a great post looking at some of the more bizarre ways human remains have been displayed over the years, not just in museums but in curiosity shops, restaurants and even public bathrooms. Given the controversy of displaying human remains even in more traditional museum settings, it’s eye-opening to see how people’s attitudes to corpses-on-display can be so different. Quirky or distasteful? What do you think?

In weird news, my favourite story of the week has to be the man who was arrested and fined in Portsmouth, UK, for pretending to be a ghost in a local cemetery. Oh dear, that’s my weekend plans gone then!

If you’re in the UK (or can do some sneaky stuff online) you can watch the new series “The Beauty of Anatomy” on BBC iPlayer. The first episode discussed the legacy of the ancient anatomist Galen and how his ideas held sway until Leonardo da Vinci and others began to practice human dissections.

If you can’t view that, but still want a cool anatomy fix, the first edition of Vesaluis’ famous De Humani Corporis Fabrica is available as a digitised copy from the US National Library of Medicine. Seriously, check this out. It’s some of the most beautiful and interactive digitisation of a text I’ve ever seen!

And finally, I leave you with this charming and very funny animation about a couple of very dedicated undertakers:

 

Robin Williams and depression

I was going to write about the ancient burial chambers on the Isles of Scilly today, so expect that to come later this week. Instead, I feel compelled to write something about the sad news today. As I’m sure you know by now, one of the most talented comedians and actors of our time, Robin Williams, has died aged 63. His death is apparently due to suicide, the end result of years of severe depression compounded by alcohol and drug problems.

I probably first encountered Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, and then grew up with his films being always there, a comforting background presence, whether comedic or dramatic.  What Dreams May Come was one of the first films that really made me and many others of my generation think about death, life and what it all means. Dead Poets Society remains one of the most profoundly life-affirming, and death-accepting, films of all time.

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What Robin Williams’ tragic death reminds me is that mental illnesses like depression are very real, and can be fatal.

Already on the internet, I’ve seen amongst the outpourings of grief, people saying he was ‘weak’ or ‘selfish’ and that he ‘gave in’. No, he was ill. Is a cancer sufferer weak or selfish if their illness kills them? It’s time mental illness was understood as a real illness and talked about openly, instead of in hushed whispers of shame or stigma.

Depression is not the same as sadness, and it cannot be cured by success, money, happiness, or positive thinking. If one of the funniest and most thoughtful people in the world can’t think themselves out of it, then nobody can.

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Isles of Scilly (Part One): Modern burials

For those of you that follow this blog (and our Facebook page) regularly, you will know that we went on a much deserved holiday. We went to the Isles of Scilly, which are situated just off of the Cornwall coast. They are a five island (with lots of smaller islets) archipelago and are quite wonderful.

The islands have been inhabited in some form or another since the Stone Age and before sea levels rose the islands were more of a large mass of land that could be walked across. Once cut off, the only way to travel from isle to isle is by boat. The history of the land is evidenced by its ancient stone monuments, which will be written about in Part Two of this small Isles of Scilly special report series.

For Part One, I wanted to write about the modern burial sites that I had the chance to visit while on the islands. Some islands are more populated and settled that others, with the largest populated island being St Mary’s. We decided to walk around the island using one of its many coastal walks to visit Old Town (New Town is the other side of the island and is where the main hub of the island is, with its quay and residential area).

The walk itself was gorgeous with fabulous landscapes and rock formations.

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All we were expecting was to was visit Old Town and have a typically Cornish cream tea when we glanced behind us as we were coming off of the coastal path and spotted a small stone stile that led us unexpectedly to Old Town’s Norman-era church, with its gorgeous graveyard.

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Due to the islands being surrounded by the sea and having a big fishing/shipping culture as a result, many of the gravestones had anchors on them, something I had never seen before.

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All of the various stones and monuments were covered in the same types of lichen that we had seen on rocks overhanging cliff edges and near the sea, so it was lovely to see how nature was making a home among the stones.

One incredibly feature that we could not ignore was the absolutely enormous memorial to Augustus Smith, former governor of the Isles of Scilly during the 1800s. According to the plaque, the memorial had been built by the locals to commemorate the man. The memorial stands at an incredible height as you can see in the below image.

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This next image was taken from the opposite side of the quite substantial bay that Old Town sits in. You can see the enormous monument on the right-hand side with another one at the very top. We did not get a chance to see how this belonged to as it was quite difficult to get to and we did not want to disturb the stones too much.

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Another significant resident of this particular graveyard that we did not realise was there until we left was former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who was buried there in 1995.

With around 530 registered shipwrecks around the Isles of Scilly, it is of not surprise that we also found dedications to many crews and passengers of ships that had sunk. One of the strangest (to me at least) people to be memorialised in this way was Ann Cargill, a British opera diva from London. Born around 1760, she reached a very celebrated status in no time at all, until her promising career was cut short when her ship wrecked while she was returning to England after performing in India in 1784.

The ‘young life cut short’ coverage and the news reports of how she was found floating in the water gripped the imaginations of the public, with her being portrayed as such a tragic figure.

I thought it was quite nice how the Isles of Scilly not only took care of their own, with many generations of estabilished Scillonian families being buried there, but they also looked after the poor souls who came from the outside and did not belong, but who died in their waters. Quite wonderful really.

While St Mary’s is the most populated and established island, graveyards are not limited to just that single place. Many, if not all, of the populated islands have at least a small church. We found a small graveyard on the considerably less populated Bryher island. At only 2 km long and with just over 70 inhabitants, this is the smallest of all the islands, yet its tiny graveyard is no less beautiful.

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If you ever have the chance to visit the islands, I would highly recommend it. They are gorgeous and like nothing else that I have ever experienced.

Until next time with Part Two…

 

 

Sunday Sundries 5

Hurrah! It’s that time of the week again and we know this is what you’ve all been waiting for. Another Sunday Sundries!

While not necessarily a new video, I rediscovered this in my bookmarks and wanted to share it with all of you lovely people. What a commendable project and a definite return to some of the old ways that have been lost in communities due to modernity and new generations moving away.

Next up, morticians doing magic tricks and chocolate-covered caskets? It can only be a fun funeral! Great article about the phenomenon from HuffPo.

From fun funerals to tasty ones, Death Salon’s own Sarah Troop has a wonderful article on Modern Loss, all about funerary food. Definitely one to make you feel peckish.

I’m fascinated by death and technology, especially how we discuss dying through social media. Here are two great resources: an article about live-tweeting a person’s death and a brilliant infographic about our ‘digital demise’ from DeadSoci.al.

Finally, something pretty. HT to Caitlin Doughty of The Order of the Good Death who shared this on Facebook earlier in the week. The picture comes with an interesting article too!

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Until next time, stay death positive!

When animals grieve

Elephant herd mourning a deceased bull. Photo by Kelly Landen at Elephants Without Borders

Elephant herd mourning a deceased bull. Photo by Kelly Landen at Elephants Without Borders

Recently, a couple of posts have been shared across the Facebook deathly community about how humans mourn the loss of our pets. The ever-fascinating Dr Paul Koudonaris has taken some beautiful photographs of pet cemeteries around the world. Ancient Greek and Roman epitaphs for companion dogs show that this is not a modern phenomenon related to post-Victorian sentimentality, but an innate human need to grieve. Those who have never had pets themselves may not understand that this loss is acute, it really is like losing a family member or friend.

But this got me thinking, we know that humans grieve for animals, but what do we know about how animals grieve?

For many years after Descartes’ assertion that animals were basically automatons and only humans could feel emotion, the idea of animals mourning or even having a concept of death was seen as irrational anthropomorphism. But recent studies, such as those by Barbara J. King at the College of William and Mary in the US, seem to point to many animals sharing deep emotional bonds, and indeed mourning and grieving for their dead relatives and social kin.

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