Photograph by Paul Koudounaris (from The Empire of Death, 2011)
With our affection for cemeteries and ossuaries as lovely places to explore and contemplate the mysteries of life, and our fascination with stories of mayhem and destruction often reflected in our Morbid Monday series we at Atlas Obscura know that death can be an enthralling subject from a distance, while a deeply distressing one closer to home. We are therefore really excited about the upcoming Death Salon in Los Angeles (October 17 - 20), dedicated to exploring that exact tension.
The collective brainchild of several morbidly inclined writers and thinkers from diverse areas of expertise, the Death Salon aims to look at the cultural and historical implications of our love/fear of the subject. With the official tagline of “Conversations on the Culture of Mortality and Mourning,” the weekend-long salon “aims for open dialogue about death and its anthropological, historical, and artistic contributions to culture. In the spirit of informal 18th century salon gatherings of intellectuals, Death Salon performers and organizers include academic historians, funeral industry professionals, musicians, filmmakers, and widely-published authors coming from a variety of perspectives.”
I’ll be presenting for the first time on my personal area of nerdy enthusiasm: doomed expeditions, and the explorers who lost their lives on quests for terra incognita. Regular Atlas Obscura readers and Obscura Society salon goers will recognize some other familiar names participating in Death Salon: authors Colin Dickey and Bess Lovejoy; singer/songwriter Jill Tracy; and Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy.
I spoke with Megan Rosenbloom, University of Southern California medical librarian, and co-founder and chair of Death Salon about the upcoming events:
What is the Death Salon?
Death Salon is a weekend of events in the spirit of an 18th century salon, an informal gathering of intellectuals, musicians, filmmakers, and death professionals discussing cultural death practices. We don’t do nails, in case there was any confusion there. As part of the weekend, we’re hosting two public events where people can see performances by some of the most intriguing thinkers and artists who are inspired by death. Friday, October 18th, The Order of the Good Death is presenting our Death Salon Cabaret, an evening theater event with the theme of “The Uncommon Corpse.” We’ve got amazing writers, death professionals, and musicians on board. It’s sure to be a blast.
Saturday, October 19th, is presented by the wonderful Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn. Morbid Anatomy Day at Death Salon LA will have a panel discussion featuring some of the writers featured in the upcoming Morbid Anatomy Anthology, as well as some longer talks and fun surprises. Overall there will be a variety of voices talking about the taboo subject of death in some unexpected and intriguing ways.
How did the idea come together?
Mortician Caitlin Doughty had inducted a new round of writers and artists into her Order of the Good Death, and some of us thought, wouldn’t be fun if somehow we could all meet? Then some other really cool people got involved and I started organizing the logistics, and it sort of evolved into this hybrid of a multidisciplinary conference with some public events. So it achieves the dual goals of getting these great thinkers together to mingle and collaborate, while also educating and entertaining the public.
Photo by Paul Koudounaris (from The Empire of Death, 2011)
What is the message at the core of this event?
Death Salon is about engaging with our mortality in a thoughtful, intellectual way. We’re not so much trying to tell personal stories about people’s interactions with death; there are better groups that do that. We’re more interested in exploring historical and contemporary cultural practices surrounding death and what that means about the ways we try to grapple with our eventual demise. Death practices of certain eras say so much about the people of that time. Also much like sex, death is a strange taboo in that it’s something that everyone experiences and no one wants to talk about it. What we’re saying is, let’s open up that conversation. It’ll be good for everybody.
Why do you feel like the topic is relevant to a larger audience?
Everyone dies, and everyone has people in their lives who die. Approaching death in a thoughtful manner can deepen people’s interactions with death. In our current culture of pervasive death denial, when people die, their loved ones often don’t know how to mourn, and don’t feel okay talking about how they’re affected by it. They also tend to be thrown into their own existential crisis because they haven’t been confronted by the inevitability by their own death before they experience the death of someone close to them.
Engaging with the death themes makes people more aware of their own mortality, so that when someone in their life dies, they can focus on mourning that person and not themselves. Also from a cultural or anthropological standpoint there are few things more illustrative about the differences among cultures than their death practices, and I feel like that would be interesting to anyone. Any nerds like us, anyway.
What are you most looking forward to?
I cannot wait to meet all of the wonderful folks I’ve been planning Death Salon with, mostly via email and Twitter, for almost a year now. I look forward to hearing their talks and getting to know them in person. Who knows, maybe some of us can collaborate on some interesting projects in the near future. I’m also looking forward to seeing what works and what didn’t; it should help us while we’re planning our future Death Salons in the UK (April 2014) and Cleveland (2015).
The Death Salon takes place in Los Angeles from October 18-20. More details and information on events open to the public at their site: Death Salon Los Angeles