Death Salon Interviews Bess Lovejoy

Welcome to another in our series of interviews with the organizers behind Death Salon. Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work and more about Death Salon itself.

Bess Lovejoy is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Seattle. She writes about death and the dead, forgotten history, and sometimes art, literature, and science. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time.com, The Believer, The Boston Globe, The Stranger, and other publications. She worked on the Schott’s Almanac series for five years. Her book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses is out now from Simon & Schuster.  

In the past year you’ve become the go-to death writer, with your work appearing in the New York TimesWall Street JournalBeliever, and The Boston Globe. How did that all come about?

There are lots of great people writing about death right now, and I was lucky to have my 15 minutes. I’ve written as a freelance journalist ever since college, on and off. When my book came out last March, word got around, and a lot of wonderful editors asked me to write pieces. I think there was something in the air. The news helped: Arafat and Neruda being exhumed, the short-lived plans for Hugo Chavez to be permanently embalmed, and the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, which is just astonishing.

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Do you see your work in the foreseeable future being similarly focused on death & the macabre?

Probably. I think I’m actually more interested in mortality than in the macabre. Or put it this way: the macabre is very fun for me, but not something I’ll spend hours thinking about. But I find the fact that humans have to find a way to live with finitude endlessly fascinating. We’ve built a society that doesn’t deal very well with that, a society built on myths of endless progress and expansion, and I’d like for us to get more comfortable with our inevitable death and decay. You can’t cure death with science and technology, you can’t shop your way out it, you can’t bargain with it; it’s coming. As impossible as it is to reckon with that, I find it beneficial in my own life to keep trying, so the subject keeps drawing me back. Weirdly, I find death very relaxing.

You’re writer in residence at the Morbid Anatomy Library at the moment, correct?

Technically, that was just for July. I’m looking forward to having Joanna Ebenstein, the library’s mastermind, back in New York come September!

What is your fave historical dead body?

I love all my corpses equally. It’s really hard to pick a favorite, although I do have special fondness for Rasputin. There was something seriously magical about that guy; he obviously had great personal power and charisma. You can see it in his photos, some of which are terrifying. It’s still unclear to me how he was able to heal the tsar’s son even at a distance. The myth built up around his death–that he was impossible to kill–seems to be just a story, but it’s a great one. And the legends around his penis are even more entertaining. Supposedly it was severed after his murder and spirited away by emigres to Paris, who “worshipped” it. What possesses someone to steal another person’s penis? There’s a lot left to be explored in that story, not least the fact that the thing is supposedly now on display in St. Petersburg.

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Can you give us a sneak peak of what you’ll be doing at Death Salon this year?

I’ll be talking a little about some of the stories in the book, but I also want to cover some subjects that were left out. There’s not a lot of women in Rest in Pieces, mostly because I focused on the very famous stories, and women generally haven’t gotten the same kind of attention in history. So I will be talking in particular about two women, Julia Pastrana and Saartjie Baartman. Both had unusual bodies in life and were displayed as “freaks” before and after death, and both are receiving renewed attention from scholars.

Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death; creator and host of Ask A Mortician; event coordinator for Death Salon LA (2013).

First photograph of Bess Lovejoy by Pere Lachaise

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Death Salon Interviews Jill Tracy

Welcome to the next installment in our series of interviews with the fine folks behind Death Salon. In this case, we’ll be getting to know one of the musical performers gracing the stage of the Death Salon Cabaret at Bootleg Theater on Friday, October 18 (get tickets here). Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here, you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work, and more about Death Salon itself.

Jill Tracy is a San-Francisco-based “neo-cabaret” performer who brings a darkly intellectual spirit to her theatrical performances. This year Jill played a “musical séance” in Los Angeles with Death Salon writer Colin Dickey. Jill is being interviewed by Death Salon organizer Megan Rosenbloom.

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The wonderful Mütter Museum in Philadelphia has awarded you a grant to compose music inside the museum based on its medical oddities collection. Tell us about working there and the music that’s emerging from working in this rarefied atmosphere.

Yes, I’m thrilled to make history as the first musician to be given a grant to compose inside the Mütter. It’s been my dream come true to be alone at night in a museum in the dark with nothing but a piano, and an audience of skeletons, specimens and souls.

The Mütter Museum has always been one of my favorite places on earth. When I first visited, I remember vividly standing on the red-carpeted steps leading down to the lower level and hearing the buzz. It was overwhelming. All these people, all these stories, together—yet apart, remembered—yet forgotten. I was swept in a whirlwind of feelings: admiration, pity, fright, shock, respect, repulsion, sadness. I just wanted to sit and listen, to hear their tales, to know them.

It was vital for me to be in the presence of these long-lost souls, as I composed. I needed to immerse myself in their world, and make them a real part of the creation. This is my gift to them. 

You may read about Harry Eastlack, the ossified man, whose rare disease (FOP) caused his entire body to slowly transform into bone. Young, handsome, vibrant– painstakingly trapped beneath a second skeletal cage. In the end, he could only move his lips. What was he like? How did he cope? What was his day-to-day experience? It’s unfathomable to me. I was thrilled to be able to read through Harry’s private files in the Mütter collection, letters, photos, extensive doctors’ records.

I composed and recorded the song “Bone by Bone” as I sat next to Harry’s famed skeleton. I needed him with me, to truly be part of the song, and not just the subject matter.

One of the most moving pieces I’m creating is entitled “My First and Last Time Alone,” about conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker. Most of us know them as the original Siamese Twins, gloriously renowned performers who toured the world (even appeared before presidents and Queen Victoria)—married sisters, fathered 21 children, and employed the use of a “privacy sheet.” But after doing research, I was completely devastated when I read how they died. The song is about that heartbreaking 3-hour period on a cold January night. (I won’t give the rest away!)

I was with Chang and Eng’s actual death cast, and their conjoined liver as I composed the piece. This was one of the most compelling experiences I’ve ever had. Abiding by the twins’ wishes, the liver was never separated, even after death.

The impetus for this whole project was The Mermaid Baby, housed in a jar in the Mütter’s Teratology collection. That little baby became my mascot, my confidante— I heard the theme in my head as I peered through the glass cabinet. The first piece of music I composed when the lights went out became a series of Teratology Lullabies. 

I will be creating a full length album based on the Mütter collection (some instrumentals recorded within its walls, plus fully arranged songs) and accompanying book— with photos, history, and memoir of my chilling experiences in the museum after dark.

I plan to perform some of this work-in-progress at Death Salon.

How did you get involved with making music for Dexter? How has it impacted your career?

I guess it can now be officially added to the Jill Tracy resume: “Created Dexter’s Final Bloody Requiem.” (How perfect is that for Death Salon?) Over the years, of any show on TV (and I don’t even own a TV) I always thought Dexter would be the perfect fit for my work. And obviously so did Showtime Networks—they sought me out to use my song “Evil Night Together” for  a trailer called “The Final Symphony” to promote the show’s wildly anticipated last season. I’m thrilled with how they edited the piece so musically; it really brings the song to life.  I hope it brings a lot more people around to discovering my music. It’s been interesting reading diverse online comments and tweets (over half a million YouTube hits)—from people asking what the song is—to my favorite: “Screw Dexter, I was into Jill Tracy way before HE was!” 

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Has your interest in the macabre always coincided with your musical interests?

I’ve had a life-long romance with the shadows—the allure and seduction with the dark side, marvel, the ecstasy of melancholy. My work is about honoring the Mystery, and stories lost in Time. My music is indeed dark, but devastatingly beautiful. 

“I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. This fascinated me. I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Jean Cocteau. I just wanted to live in those worlds. I still do.

Music allows me to create the emotional undercurrent, the portal to transport the listener into that magical place with me. I call it my “elegant netherworld.” Like peering through a keyhole to a world just out of your grasp. That’s what makes it seductive; creating that place––familiar yet oddly intriguing. 

In recent years, I wanted the audience to become even more a part of my process, and actually compose pieces in front of them, culled from their energy. The audience gives to me, and I channel it musically and give it right back, creating a piece that will exist solely for us in those few minutes, and then vanish. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced. A musical umbilical cord. 

That led me to immersing myself in unusual locations laden with mysterious history, and manifesting music from my reaction to the environment. You are hearing my raw response at the piano. I call it “spontaneous musical combustion.”

I’ve found myself conjuring the hidden score inside haunted castles, abandoned asylums, decrepit mansions, gardens, theaters, and of course, now the Mütter Museum. It’s definitely one of my greatest pleasures right now.

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What part of being involved with Death Salon are you looking forward to the most?

JT: Finally meeting so many of my internet “darklings” in the flesh! And meeting new kindred souls. Through the Death Salon community, I’ve become acquainted with the work of many brilliant artists, writers, historians, and have been fortunate to collaborate with a few (Colin Dickey, Bess Lovejoy, Mel Gordon, Annetta Black, Atlas Obscura, Loren Rhoads, more to come.) The thought of having everyone in one room together is downright swoon-inducing. Oh, the tales we’ll tell…

Jill Tracy is one of two musical acts performing at Death Salon Cabaret at Bootleg Theater October 18. Tickets are available for purchase now. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Megan Rosenbloom is a  librarian, photographer, Order of the Good Death member, and Chair of Death Salon LA (2013). Follow @LibraryatNight

Photo credits:

JT with skeleton photo by Farika

JT sepia on chair with bird photo by Michael Garlington

JT in her San Francisco apartment photo by Neil Girling

 

 

 

 

 

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Death Salon Interviews Brandy Schillace, PhD

Welcome to another in our series of interviews with the organizers behind Death Salon. Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work and more about Death Salon itself.

Tell us about your area of research and academia.

I am now what they call an “alternative academic” or alt-ac. I manage the Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry journal (housed at Case Western Reserve University’s anthropology department) and I guest-curate and blog for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History (also at Case). In addition, I teach a class on the history of science for the SAGES program and help develop curriculum for medical humanities at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School.

I like to use the term “medical humanities” to describe my work. That means I am interested in the intersections of medicine, history, and the humanities. I earned my PhD in 18th century (and early 19th century) literature, but that means being a historian of more than fiction. Particularly, I look at early electrical, neurological, and reproductive science. Scientific discovery and literature influences one another a lot,  and my current book project looks specifically at Gothic literature of the 18th century and its relationship to those burgeoning sciences. Bonus: I get to spend a lot of time in graveyards.

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How has interest in fiction as well as your own fiction influenced you and/or your career?

Stories are important. Without them, how would we approach self-knowledge or—just an importantly—share it with others? Every culture has stories specific to it that communicate cultural identity, social structures, spiritual connections and more. In the West, we have a tendency to privilege what we think of as true, non-fiction, rational accounts (we can blame the Enlightenment). The lens we use changes what we see—there are plenty of native peoples, for instance, who would consider the historical narratives of western expansion and progress patently untrue—a fiction that serves the teller. That is a negative example, but there are positive ones, too. Origin stories might be “fictional” in one sense, but entirely true in another. How many of us learned more about ourselves from reading our favorite novels as children than we did from studying non-fiction books about the psychology of the self? Fiction helps us understand the non-fictional world that surrounds us, and that is equally true for the study of history.

I have written fiction since I was a child. I grew up in an underground house next to a graveyard, so, you know—there was plenty of material. My artwork and my fiction always return to my roots. In addition, the conscious production of fiction encourages me to reflect on the other stories I hear: historical narratives, or scientific ones. You think, “decisions were made here about what to represent and how.” I have also realized the value of narrative in presenting history—and being a fiction writer has honed the descriptive language that allows me to make non-fiction stories come alive. This is also true of many of my favorite writers of historical fiction—Alex Grecian, Tessa Harris, Lynn Shepherd, Stephen Gallagher: they are giving you a fictional story, but they are also bringing history to life and providing a window into a forgotten time.

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How did you get involved in Death Salon? How will you be participating?

I am one of the organizational and founding members of Death Salon, and along with a number of other talented folks (including this conference’s director Megan Rosenbloom), I hope to promote its futurity. At present, I am the communications chair, and I may be directing if Cleveland is the venue in 2015. I also write about death (history of grieving rituals, momento mori photography, etc.) and will be presenting on The Order of the Good Death salon day. The title is Death Becomes Her (inside and out); I’ll be talking about medical anatomies and the sexualization of the female corpse.

What part of Death Salon are you most looking forward to?

That is hard to say. It is such a joy watching our empryonic ideas take shape as a reality; every part of the Salon seems equally exciting to me. I am really looking forward to meeting other members in person, and to reconnecting with old friends. I am also really looking forward to the programming, and to the cabaret. So—I cheat: I look forward to the whole thing!

Elizabeth Harper is a Theatrical Designer, Relic mapper, armchair hagiographer,  and blogger of All the Saints You Should Know. Follow @CadaverFormosus

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Death Salon Interviews Megan Rosenbloom, Chair of Death Salon

Welcome to the next in our series of interviews with the organizers behind Death Salon. Here you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work and more about Death Salon itself.

You work for the Norris Medical Library at USC. How did you get involved in the history of medicine and how do you see your work at the Norris Medical Library intersecting with Death Salon LA?

I’ve long had a fascination with rare books and science from a historical perspective, but I never thought I’d get to make a career out of it. During my interview at USC, they had the firing squad Q&A portion of the interview in the rare book room. While I bet it intimidates a lot of applicants to be surrounded by those dusty tomes, it made me feel right at home. I saw Hooke’s Micrographia on the shelf and thought to myself, “If I get this job, I’m going to make it my business to spend a lot of time in this wonderful room!” That’s exactly what has happened, more than I ever could have imagined, and for that I am so grateful. In addition to my non-history responsibilities, I teach class sessions where I take medical students on a hands-on tour of medical history via the books we have in the collection. Seeing their eyes widen when they realize that’s a 500-year-old book they’re touching, and understanding all that that means…that will never get old for me.

Some people might not understand why history of medicine is important for current medical students to interact with, but I would say that one of the best things it teaches is humility. When a student sees what these greats of medicine have accomplished (while still being totally wrong about very important things that current students might take for granted), they can gain perspective that perhaps they also might not know everything. I think one of the great aims of evidence-based medicine is to get doctors to say, “Let me double-check the evidence on that first…” Also knowing that there is so much more medical frontier left to be explored, and that certain concepts of diseases or treatments can be proven wrong in the future, could excite young doctors toward innovation.

Besides doing tours and lectures for students, I create exhibits for the library on historical themes and am active in the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences. I invite authors who write on history of medicine topics to come to speak at USC. I’m extremely excited to be interviewing Mary Roach on stage for USC’s Visions & Voices the night before Death Salon starts.

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As one of the main organizers for Death Salon LA, what do you think is unique and important about this type of conference?

I’ve never organized a conference before, but I’ve been to a lot of them, large and small. I would say that starting something from scratch can be incredibly difficult because none of the logistic mechanisms are in place, so every day I have to make what feel like very big decisions about the way that Death Salon will go, and hope that I chose wisely. On the other hand, starting something from scratch that’s exactly what you and your colleagues want it to be is absolutely invigorating and worth the late nights slaving over Google Drive. 

Besides being a brand new conference, I think Death Salon is a special conference for a lot of reasons. The topic is both totally academic and at the same time incredibly personal to most people, because it is something we all grapple with in a concrete way in our lives. Because of that dichotomy, there are voices coming from many perspectives that deserve to be addressed and respected. Also it has become very clear to me over the process of organizing Death Salon that a huge cultural backlash is brewing against our modern death denial and how it leaves us ill-equipped for dealing with death when it comes into our lives. The artists and writers of Death Salon have felt this tide changing for some time, and have dealt with this issue in their work in fascinating and inspiring ways. We’ve been getting messages from people all over the world who are excited about what we’re doing because they are fed up with where death denial has taken us as a culture. Death Salon is just one step toward beginning to cure that societal ill.

What are you most looking forward to about Death Salon LA?

I’ve been working for months now with an inspiring group of authors, artists, and death professionals to get Death Salon off of the ground, but many of them I’ve never gotten to meet in person. I really look forward to getting to know these people that I somehow feel like I know well, but really only know over reams of emails and Twitter at-replies, perhaps over a death-themed cocktail or an LA craft beer. 

Andrea Wood  is an Assistant Professor researching transnational comics and animation, film, new media, fandom & feminist and queer theory. 

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Death Salon Interviews Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris

Welcome to another in our series of interviews with the organizers behind Death Salon. Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work and more about Death Salon itself.

Lindsey Fitzharris is a medical historian who completed her doctorate at Oxford University with a specialty in the history of seventeenth-century alchemical pharmacopeia. Her interests are broad and cross boundaries–more interestingly, she has helped to make medical history and medical artifacts accessible to a broad audience. Her current work includes the film documentary Medicine’s Dark Secrets! I have asked her to give us a few details on her present work, and to share with us her plans for the future and her role in Death Salon. Welcome, Lindsey!

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You are, I know, a multi-faceted researcher with diverse interests. What brought you to Death Salon?

For years, I’ve been writing about subjects related directly or indirectly to death and dying on The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, a website dedicated to the history of pre-anesthetic surgery. I am also about to begin filming a television documentary called “Medicine’s Dark Secrets.” At its core, I want to explore the development of early modern surgery by telling the stories of the people who died and the surgeons who cut up their dead bodies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our medical heritage can be dark and macabre, but it’s important to acknowledge what went on in the past, and how it contributed to our understanding of human anatomy.

It’s through these projects that I came to know Caitlin Doughty, and was invited to become a member of The Order of the Good Death. From this community of scholars, artists, musicians, writers and funeral directors, the concept for the Death Salon was born.

Do you think an organization like this one is important? How and why?

As a medical historian, I am acutely aware of the fact that we interact with death in very different ways than people interacted with death in the past.  At the moment, I am in the process of writing an article on Kate Granger, a 31-year-old doctor who is dying of a rare form of cancer. We’ve discussed everything from concepts of the “good death” to whether or not dying has become over-medicalized in Western culture.

These are subjects which will also be explored at the Death Salon. For me, it is important that we open up a dialogue about mortality so that we can begin to accept (and own) what ultimately is our collective fate.

Spoiler alert: Death plays a big role in the ending!

Given your work, how do you see yourself fitting into Death Salon?

Well, given my strange occupation, I don’t fit into most organizations in any obvious way!

I suppose the one thing I can offer, though, is historical perspective: a sense that our struggles with death and our fears of dying are nothing new. I find a lot of comfort in this thought.

How might the “salon” style of the organization benefit broader outreach?

For me, this is the appeal of the event as it allows us to draw from all kinds of people, each of whom provide a different perspective on the subjects which we’ll be exploring at the Death Salon. How a musician like Jill Tracy, for instance, interprets death is going to be very different to how someone like Jeff Jorgenson—owner of Elemental Cremation & Burial—tackles the subject at the event.

I’m really looking forward to hearing from the participants, and seeing how their work will inspire me in my own writing.

Where do you hope to see Death Salon in the future?

I think the opportunities are endless. I hope to see events such as this spring up all over the world. In fact, I am currently talking with Carla Connolly—the curator of Bart’s Pathology Museum in London—about potentially organizing a Death Salon in the UK in 2014.

I don’t see the Death Salon dying off anytime soon.

Ah, always end an interview with a strong joke.

–Thank you, Lindsey! We look forward to seeing you at the Salon!

Brandy Schillace, PhD, is the managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, an international journal of cross-cultural health research. She is also the author of the Fiction Reboot and Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose blogs which can be found at bschillace.wordpress.com . In addition, Brandy the Guest Curator for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History

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Death Salon Interviews Adam Arcuragi

Welcome to the next installment in our series of interviews with the fine folks behind Death Salon. In this case, we’ll be getting to know one of the musical performers gracing the stage of the Death Salon Cabaret at Bootleg Theater on Friday, October 18. Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work, and more about Death Salon itself.

Adam Arcuragi is an LA-based musician, formerly hailing from Philadelphia & Georgia. Adam’s soulful work, at turns boot-stomping and heartbreaking, has been dubbed Death Gospel. He is beloved by NPR and he recently did a stint supporting Frank Turner on tour. Adam Arcuragi is playing the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 3 (get tickets here). Adam is being interviewed by Death Salon organizer Megan Rosenbloom.

Photo by Sarah Law

Photo by Sarah Law

Explain the concept and origin of Death Gospel.

I feel like death has been taken from us, in modern, western culture. Instead of being seen as the thing that unites us as humans as well as being the thing that makes life sweeter by making life a limited-time offer, it is seen as something to be feared. Death is seen by many as a reason to scramble, in avarice, toward selfish goals. The very fact that we perceive our existence as a linear and terminating series of reactive states makes sentience that much richer and more special.

Just to look at it as mathematical probability: so far as we are able to gather we are the only planet that harbors life. So the probability for life in a very large universe is very small (given the current scientific data as of this interview). As we currently define it, we are the only sentient life on this one planet that has life on it; thereby making sentience an even smaller probability than the tiny probability for life in the universe. So if being an animal on Earth is a rare occurrence in the grand scheme and being a self-aware animal is even more rare, shouldn’t we celebrate that?

Being the only animal that knows its fate should unite us. Rather than squabbling over comforts, surpluses or who has the correct idea, shouldn’t we delight in the fact that we are able to agree, through language, that such abstract concepts exist in our complicated brains?

Death Gospel is that; a literal attempt to put forward a good word and conception of life through the reflection of its fragile state before the mirror that is death. Celebration of the limited window of opportunity, I feel, would take a lot of the needless and wasted energies of humanity (as a super organism) and redirect them into a cohesive and focused packet of productive energy. We are capable of so much and we do such amazing things as a collective group. We can also do terrible things as a collective group. Fear of death taints our collective efforts. Death Gospel is an attempt to introduce a corrective course.

Which of your songs do you think are the best examples of Death Gospel and why?

You’d Think This Was Easy because it is about how the confused state is easier to overcome than we think. Bottom of the River… it is a celebration song.

Lunch In Field Four is another celebration song. Last Long Rain  talks about how our brand of intelligence really only works on a limited scale as opposed to an infinite one. All the Bells is another attempt to squelch the tyranny of fear.

What are some other artists you believe embody the idea of Death Gospel?

The Flaming Lips are among the progenitors of Death Gospel. Most of their mid-to-late body of work deals directly with the ideas that are Death Gospel. Love overcoming all things, humans being special and not celebrating that enough, limited life spans not being a barre to great things but rather an impetus: these are at the core of what Death Gospel aspires to be.

Spiritualized is another group that exemplifies the ideals of Death Gospel. Many of their songs deal with the themes of life’s limited nature, confusion clouding our potential greatness and a dissolution of angst to clear a path for collective human greatness.

Brother Claude Ely wrote a song called ‘There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’ which, to me, was a revelation that lead to the birth of the name “Death Gospel”. In the song he talks specifically about the triumph of death in life. In his delivery, in the lyrics, even in the guitar tone there is a total refusal to let the idea of dying inhibit his enjoyment of life.

Neko Case is another one; I think of her as the current high priestess of Death Gospel. While not all of her songs are necessarily Death Gospel, she certainly has a connecting thread running through her material that celebrates life, defies any attempts to dull the bright light of humanity and she sings with the fervor of one that is not inhibited by the thought of impending doom. Her album ‘Blacklisted’ has a few songs on it that are Death Gospel: ‘Deep Red Bells’ comes immediately to mind. ‘Lady Pilot’ also has the line “We’ve got a lady pilot/she’s not afraid to die”; I like to think of her as my lady pilot.

How do you think music helps people address mortality and mourning?

The hope is that in refusing to let death be a foreboding shadow we can collectively support one another and work together to do great things. Not just pyramids, bridges and egalitarian matriarchies, the hope is that there are little collective miracles as well. Not letting fear make your decisions for you is another victory we could all experience as a giant group.

So if mortality is not a scary, bad thing then mourning can take on another flavor of added celebration of the person who has passed but also celebration of the time the survivors have left to be alive and sentient.

What are you looking forward to about being involved in Death Salon?

The idea of the Death Salon is intriguing. I am most looking forward to seeing how it plays out. This is something that I had hoped would be put together and I am supremely pleased to be a part of it.

Bonus video: Adam Arcuragi covering “Long Black Veil.”

Adam Arcuragi is one of two musical acts performing at Death Salon Cabaret at Bootleg Theater October 18. Tickets will be available soon for pre-order. In the meantime, you can experience Death Gospel for yourself on July 3, when Adam Arcuragi is playing the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles with Ark Life followed up by Rebecca Marie Miller (get tickets here).

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Death Salon Interviews Elizabeth Harper

Welcome to the first in our series of interviews with the organizers behind Death Salon. Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work and more about Death Salon itself.

Elizabeth Harper

Elizabeth Harper is an LA-based theatrical designer, mapper of relics, armchair hagiographer, and the blogger behind  All the Saints You Should Know. She also writes about relics for Atlas Obscura and tweets at @CadaverFormosus. She is being interviewed by Bess Lovejoy.

Tell me about All the Saints You Should Know. For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the focus? And how did the project come about? 

All the Saints You Should Know is my blog on the oddities and lore of the Catholic Church. I spend a lot of time talking about relics, which are (usually) the actual body parts of saints enshrined in churches, but I’m also interested in the stories of the saints’ lives, how their bones got to where they are and the history of the churches. You find out the most interesting things—like there are four skulls on display all claiming to belong to John the Baptist and another four claiming to be St. John Chrysostom. There are so many French saints who were beheaded and then walked around carrying their heads that they needed a word for it (cephalophore—seriously there’s over 100!). There’s a funeral monument in Rome that sweats when the pope is about to die. And there was a time when the pope dug up the body of a previous pope and put his corpse on trial. You can still visit the church that happened in! But don’t expect a commemorative plaque or pamphlets explaining any of this stuff. The Church can be a little cagey about these dark corners of the faith so you have to do your own research. Since visiting and researching these places is my idea of a good time, I wanted to publish the information I collected in a small effort to document what was out there. (And spare my friends and family yet another round of looking at my ultra-creepy vacation photos.)

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Were you raised Catholic? When did you first develop an interest in relics? What thoughts have you developed about why relics fascinate you?

I was and I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where Catholicism is definitely the dominant religion. In St. Louis it’s not so much a matter of if you had a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary in your front yard, but if you preferred painted or unpainted concrete. Plus I was always sort of Wednesday-Adams-ish as a kid. Before I learned about relics I was sustaining my interest in religion class with lepers, martyrs, and the gory details of crucifixion. I also loved the art. There were all of these incredible mosaics at the Basilica as well as paintings, icons, stained glass, and wood-working. Every surface and prop was beautiful. So when our parish priest, Father Don, brought a liver relic in this incredible gold reliquary to church it was instantly my new favorite thing. As an adult, I love how their bones and even their most insignificant possessions—like the bloody gym sock of Padre Pio—become part of the stories of the saints. Along with their hagiography, personal diaries, letters, and iconography in every medium, it gives us an incredibly complex and detailed yet still mysterious portrait of their lives.

What portion of Death Salon are you participating in?

I’m really excited to be part of Morbid Anatomy day with Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy, and Colin Dickey, author of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. My particular contribution is actually about female saints of the Middle Ages and extreme mortification of the flesh (which is physical self-punishment as penance). A lot of these young female saints’ behaviors are now what we would classify as self-harming or eating-disordered, maybe even personality-disordered. I recently wrote a   three  part  essay about it after seeing the skeleton of St. Francesca Romana in Rome. She fasted to the point where it became a form of anorexia and she brutally mutilated her body with nails and hot animal fat. There’s something deeply sad and immediate about this aspect of her life and those like her and the urges that drove all of these holy women to do this.

What are you looking forward to about the conference?

I can’t wait for the Uncommon Corpse cabaret. There are going to be some awesome speakers (like you!) and I love Jill Tracy’s music.

Any other projects you want to share with us?

I’m working on a completely insane map of every publicly accessible relic in Rome. There are over nine hundred churches within the city walls so locating all of these relics, let alone documenting which saints they belong to, is pretty daunting. You would be shocked to know how many churches have random skulls sitting in reliquaries but no one can tell you who they belong to. We should be keeping tabs on this sort of thing, right? I mean, I guess I am.

Bess Lovejoy is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Seattle. She writes about death and the dead, forgotten history, and sometimes art, literature, and science. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time.com, The Believer, The Boston Globe, The Stranger, and other publications. She worked on the Schott’s Almanac series for five years. Her book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses is out now from Simon & Schuster.  

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Welcome to Death Salon LA

It brings me great pleasure to finally bring our fledgling conference to the light of the Internet. Death Salon LA is a gathering of intellectuals, artists, and death professionals from around the world, coming together to discuss mortality and its cultural implications.

The idea for Death Salon LA came about when the new round of inductees to the Order of the Good Death and other like-minded folks wanted to meet each other and talk about each other’s work. One thing led to another, and now Death Salon LA is a full fledged conference, with public symposia, short film, and musical performances. We will also be bringing attendees the best of morbid LA by providing wares from like-minded local businesses at our events. If you’re interested in having a pop-up shop at our event or for providing beverages or food, we’d love to hear from you.

Our preliminary list of impressive presenters hail from all over the world and from many different perspectives. Friday’s programming is being curated by Caitlin Doughty, star of Ask a Mortician and leader of The Order of the Good Death. Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy Library will curate Saturday’s programming, which will include many contributors to the wildly successful Morbid Anatomy Anthology. Sunday there will be a thematically-appropriate field trip hosted by our friends at Atlas Obscura. Keep an eye out on our meetings page for updates on the weekend’s presenters…the list just keeps getting better and better!

We’re very excited to be hosting the daytime Death Salon events at the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood. CFI is a great organization that helps foster the kind of discussion we at Death Salon like to encourage. Also, there is free parking on-site, which for Hollywood is nothing short of a miracle! We are still in search of a good theater space for Friday evening’s Death Salon Cabaret, it is going to be a killer event, so if anyone has tips or suggestions for a venue, we’re all ears.

Thanks to everyone for their interest and enthusiasm about Death Salon LA, we’re looking forward to bringing you a fun and thought provoking weekend that promotes death acceptance and scholarship. Feel free to contact us with any questions or comments at deathsalonla at gmail dot com.

We hope to see you the weekend of October 18th in LA, we’ll have a lot to discuss!

– Megan Rosenbloom, Death Salon LA

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