Death Salon LA Review From Aida Manduley

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I heard about Death Salon LA after avidly consuming tons of posts from The Order of the Good Death website, and immediately told one of my colleagues who shares my fascination with these topics. While we both do work primarily in the field of sexuality, these intersections of death, medicine, and culture are a big interest, and they are slowly entering our professional lives more and more. On my end, I deal a lot with HIV and domestic violence, while she’s working with cancer survivors and has her eye on palliative and hospice care as they relate to patients’ sexual lives. For these reasons (and because we both wanted a vacation!), we booked a trip from Rhode Island to Los Angeles and got ready for a weekend full of intellectual stimulation.

In just one day at Death Salon LA, I learned about demonic semen transfer systems, the mortification of female saints, cadaver saponification, decorated Bolivian and Peruvian skulls that are said to be miraculous, the mummified Capuchin hanging wall friars in Palermo, the democratization of images via post-mortem photography, anthropomorphic taxidermy, anatomical Venuses, St. Bartholomew’s flayed skin that he held as a sash, death cabarets in 20th century Europe, and more. The experience was wonderful and illuminating, and it balanced subjects so there would be something for everyone. The interdisciplinary and multimedia approach was fantastic and catered to a variety of knowledge levels. I feel this event can only get better and I’m terribly excited to see where it goes from here!

Death Salon LA: Friday (Order of the Good Death Day) on Storify

 

Death Salon LA: Saturday (Morbid Anatomy Day) on Storify

 

Aida Manduley is the Programming & Development Coordinator for The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. She is an advocate, sexuality educator and speaker. Follow her at @neuronbomb 

Photo by Elli Lauren Photography

 

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Death Salon Interviews Caitlin Doughty

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.

It seems there has been somewhat of a “Death Acceptance” movement developing and gaining momentum this past year. Is this something you have observed and how have things changed since you founded The Order of the Good Death in 2011?

There is absolutely a Death Acceptance movement a’foot.  When the Order of the Good Death started three years ago I was far more hesitant to use words like “movement” because it sounded kind of silly insisting “it’s a movement!  trust me!  c’mon guys! movement!”  Like, really, you and what army, Caitlin?  But as I’ve connected with other people across the world who want to be involved, and have seen an explosion of groups and projects related to death acceptance and engagement, I feel more comfortable saying that it is, in fact, a cultural movement.  A cultural movement that hasn’t even begun to show its true potential, I might add.

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Along these lines, you seem to be popping up everywhere lately! Gracing everything from morning talk shows to Penthouse to Jezebel. Does this surprise you? What has it been like for you, being in such high demand to discuss a topic many find uncomfortable and to such varied audiences?

When I started the Order, I never intended to put myself forward as a public figure.  The internet/media world seemed like too scary a place for that.  But I realized pretty quickly that people like other people.  They like someone to deliver the message.  It’s obviously been surprising how well people have responded to talk about death, but at the same time, our culture is so ready for it.  People do find it uncomfortable, but hopefully they can tell that I am sincere, and really do believe that we are better humans when we’re engaged with a sense of our impending mortality.

You have been busy curating a day of talks and presentations for Death Salon. First, for The Order of the Good Death Day, which will in part, focus on the theme of Death and the Feminine, as well as the Death Salon Cabaret, examining The Uncommon Corpse. Could you talk a bit about your experience creating these events and your choice of themes? 

The best part about curating part of an academic death conference is that I was able to ask experts in their field to speak about things I’m fascinated by.  It’s such a selfish thing, really!  It’s like getting all your best dolls together for a tea party. There is everyone from professors, to academics outside the establishment, to funeral professionals, to dominatrixes speaking.  In my opinion the inter-disciplinary approach to these conversations ends up being the most interesting. Death & the Feminine was selected as a panel because of the disproportionate amount of women who work in the death academic field.  What better time to explore it then when many of us are in the same room?  My personal research tends towards the place of the corpse in societies throughout history, so the Uncommon Corpse was curated to reflect the corpses that were not the norm, but the exception that proved the rule in a particular society.

Recently, you mentioned an upcoming project you are creating in collaboration with Jeff Jorgenson, creator of Elemental Cremation & Burial and Death Salon Cabaret presenter. Could you give us a sneak preview here of what you two deathxperts have in store for us? 

Yes! I just returned from Seattle where Jeff & I were filming a webseries called “Is It Legal?” which addresses the questions we’re asked as alternative death practitioners.  For example: “Why can’t I just bury dad in the backyard?”  We drove all over Washington meeting people doing great work around burial, cremation, and memorialization.  Washington, and Seattle specifically, is such a hotbed for people working in new ways of death practice.

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Which aspect of Death Salon are you most looking forward to? 

What am I NOT looking forward to? Definitely seeing so many old friends and finally meeting people I’ve known only through the interweb tubes.  All of whom are people who’s work inspires me in the work I’m doing.  I think there is going to be quite a bit learned through the talks and panels, but I think there will be even more learned through the conversations we have during our three days together.  In that sense it will be a traditional salon- an exchange of ideas.

For those Death Salon attendees who are not able to attend all the events and want to explore Los Angeles, could you suggest some deathstinations that might be of interest? 

As far as museums, The Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles are my favorite.  There is also the Museum of Death in Hollywood (which seems like the natural choice).  I do warn people though, it’s a bit more on the serial killer and cult murder side, a little less on the death history and culture side.  Hollywood Forever Cemetery is the best cemetery visit in LA proper. Celebrity graves, Hollywood history, architecture, and excellent burritos just down the road.

Photos:

Photo in blue shirt by Lani Trock
With body photo by Darren Blackburn
 
 
You can purchase tickets for Death Salon Cabaret here
 
 

Sarah Elizabeth Troop has a degree in physics and has studied at The Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center (CSI). She serves as the historian for Linda Vista Hospital and is host of the Cabinet of Curiosities Podcast. Sarah is currently a parapsychology researcher, specializing in survival consciousness and experiences where psi and death are linked and is blogger for Nourishing Death.

 

 

 

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RSVPs now open for USC Mary Roach event October 17

Hello deathlings,

While not a Death Salon event per se, there is a great free event the night before Death Salon in Los Angeles. Death Salon organizer Megan Rosenbloom will be interviewing “America’s funniest science writer” Mary Roach about all of her works as part of a USC Visions & Voices event, Thursday October 17 at 5:30 p.m. For the morbidly minded, Mary’s works Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife might be of particular interest. There will be a display of USC’s rare books related to the subjects of Mary’s books and she will be available for book signing.

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The event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are required and there are limited seats for non-USC affiliates. To RSVP click here.

Just a few weeks until Death Salon LA!

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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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