You can learn more about Death Salon on talkdeath.com.
Death Salon with Mandy and Jeremy – Podcast Transcription
Kelly MacLean: Welcome to the When You Die podcast. I’m Kelly MacLean. My guests today are Mandy Benoualid and Jeremy Cohen of TalkDeath.com. TalkDeath’s mission is to encourage positive and constructive conversations around death and dying. Awareness of issues and needs surrounding death is growing, as we know. Socially, it’s still not quite considered appropriate dinner table talk, but at TalkDeath.com they feel it is. They’ve created an amazing online space where people can safely talk about any issues related to death, dying, grief, death art: all things related to death, really not unlike our own site.
Mandy is the editor of TalkDeath, and cohost of the #TalkDeath web series. She is also the founder and CEO of the online memorial platform Qeepr, which you can find at qeepr.com. Mandy works part time as a funeral director’s assistant, and regularly attends and speaks at funeral and cemetery conferences.
Jeremy is the communications director and head writer for TalkDeath. He is a full time PhD candidate in religious studies at McMaster University, where he studies the intersections of death and technology.
Jeremy and Mandy have kindly joined me today to share their experience at this year’s Death Salon, which, for those of you who may not know, is the premiere death positive gathering in the world and the most revolutionary death conference. It was held at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston in September 2018. Since we weren’t able to make it this year, I asked Jeremy and Mandy to join me, and tell me all about it.
So, Jeremy and Mandy, thank you both so much for joining us today.
Jeremy Cohen: Thank you for having us.
KM: We were really sad not to be there in person this year representing the When You Die podcast. Last year, I felt like it somewhat set the stage for a lot of the research, exploration and articles that we’ve done, and I thought it would be good to reach out to people who were there to give us a hit of what we missed. I know that we’re not alone in having a lot of curiosity about what happened at the Death Salon.
Mandy Benoualid: Absolutely. It was a pretty exclusive event. There were only about 150 tickets available.
MB: We were lucky to have been able to attend, and we’re happy to be talking to you about it.
KM: Yes, you’re some of the early birds that got the worm.
MB: Actually, we were lucky and managed to snag tickets from people who cancelled last minute. So, we actually booked ourselves a week in advance.
KM: Oh, you scalped tickets?
JC: We did.
KM: Awesome! So, was this your first time at a Death Salon?
JC: No, we had gone to the Death Salon at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia two years ago, which was excellent. We got an interesting comparative experience, I’d say.
KM: What did you notice this year that was different from that experience?
MB: I think, for starters, it felt a lot more intimate, and a lot of that is really because of how small Mount Auburn is. Well, actually Mount Auburn is massive, but the main building, and where all the presentations were happening, was a very small and intimate space, which is, of course, why they had to limit the tickets so much.
JC: I remember when we walked into the chapel, I was thinking, “Oh, okay. This chapel is a really great place to start the weekend. I wonder where all of the talks are going to be?”
JC: And then it was in the chapel.
MB: That’s right. I was really surprised, too. I thought, “Oh wow. It really is this small.”
KM That’s kind of a perfect setting, though, for a death salon. That’s how I would imagine it happening in the 1800’s death salons that we talk about. It’s that kind of space.
MB: Exactly, and I really enjoyed that intimacy, and, you know, to bring it back to Philadelphia, I don’t know if they had that many more people. Maybe it had a hundred people more. But the space was just a lot larger, the room was a lot larger, even just the high ceilings made it feel a lot larger. So, the presentations felt more like you were in a university setting. Whereas this was more of a salon setting, as you mentioned.
JC: You know, the other difference is that this death salon was really focused on death as a political act, and our reclaiming death. Whereas the original death salon was also focused on those things, but there were a lot of talks about art.
JC: And a lot of talks about different cultural aspects.
MB: Yeah. There were a lot more academic talks, I think. That’s actually a funny point that you mentioned, because I do feel that just from our personal experience the first time around, we were almost nervous, and really shy. We knew some people there, but very few. Whereas coming to this one, we felt that we already knew so many people there. People came up to us because they recognized us from the internet, which never happens. At all.
KM: So, you guys are death famous is what you’re saying?
JC: Yes. We’re minor, minor, minor celebrities in a very small group of people. It feels great. Yes.
MB: [laughs] Yeah. It felt a little different for us in that way, for sure.
KM: Jeremy, I really liked what you said about one of the focuses being death as a political act. Can you explain that to us a little bit?
JC: I think that this was a reminder that death is always political. Some of the ways that we were reminded of that at the death salon were obvious. Other ways were perhaps a little less obvious. One of the issues, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about this more in a bit, was race. That’s something that I feel is often missing in discussions around death positivity. There were quite a few talks that dealt with race in both traditional death practices, and the place of race within the death positive movement. And I think there were a lot of talks that also dealt with historical exclusion, and the ways in which these meta-narratives have been built around death and dying. It was pretty powerful.
MB: And I think if we’re talking about politics more generally, even just the laws, the rules and regulations around death practices, around our funerary and burial rights, were brought up a lot. And it was political in the sense that a huge theme, which, again, we’ll probably touch on more, is community involvement and how it has been a grass roots movement. People need to act and take action, essentially, which is a very political message.
JC: Yeah. There was almost a call to action.
MB: There definitely was.
JC: In a lot of the talks I feel that was missing. Well, not missing, but was less present, let’s say, than at the death salon two years ago.
KM: I felt that a little bit last year as well. Just this sense that there’s an exigent need for a death revolution, like, “Come on already!” The way that we relate to life in this society has evolved a lot since the industrial age, and the way we relate to death since that time actually hasn’t changed all that much.
KM: There is this kind of desire to modernize death and to allow it to be a beautiful thing, rather than whatever awkward arrangement we all just go along with at this time.
MB: Yeah, definitely. And I think it’s actually interesting that you were at the Seattle Death Salon, and we weren’t there. But we were at the one before that in Philadelphia.
KM: So, between the three of us, we can piece together…
MB: …Yes. There’s definitely been…
JC: …The evolution.
MB: An evolution. Exactly.
KM: So, can you say more about the ways in which some of the presentations supported this?
MB: I think one of the main themes, and something that was really predominant in this death salon, and in all death salons, really, is the prevalence women working in death care.
This started with the feminist death work panel that was moderated by Sarah Chavez and included Dr. Kami Fletcher and Ms. Alua Arthur. They talked about women in death care maybe a little differently than other narratives we’re hearing today. Their conversations were about women, because, as we can see, there are mostly women in this room and mostly women in these alternative death care practices and movements. It’s about women reclaiming their bodies and reclaiming their role in caring for the dead. Because, as many of us know, people used to die at home, and often it was the women’s role to care for the dead, to wash the body, and to dress the body. This work is about reclaiming that role, which is working against the professionalization of death care, which pushed women out of that work, and turned them into consumers. And that is very political.
JC: And I think that it was an important conversation to have, because I feel like when I have brought up the gender demographic of the death positive movement…
MB: … you always feel like you’re the only guy there?
KM: [laughs] Great for single dudes though, right?
JC: Oh, yeah, yeah.
KM: Single dudes that have a thing for Goth girls, probably.
JC: Oh, yeah, yeah. You’re just going to pick up, you know? [laughs]
JC: But what I often hear is, “Oh, well, women are just more caring, and women have a …
MB: Sort of motherly, or…”
MB: “…nurturing quality.”
JC: Yes, and this is giving a more concrete answer to why women are so predominant in the death positive movement, and why they are so concerned with the care of the dead. And Alua said during her talk, and I’m quoting, “The system is broken, and women are at the center of fixing it, because it is ours and will continue to be ours.” And I thought that was a really powerful statement.
JC: And also, in terms of politics and general themes, it was mostly women in the room, and it was also a lot of white women in the room, right?
MB: Yes, it was definitely mostly white women in the room. And in this “women in death care” theme, there is definitely a huge underlying race issue, and that came out within the panel with Alua, and with Dr. Fletcher.
JC: Yeah, and I think this was also explored in Kami Fletcher’s talk about the African American experience in death care. She gave a talk about the first autonomously black cemetery in America which was aptly named Mount Auburn but in Baltimore not Boston. And before this cemetery was established, African Americans tended to be buried in pauper’s graves in potter’s fields. Oftentimes their bodies would be taken for medical examination. And so, this was an opportunity for black people to care for the dead on their own. And the interesting thing about it is that it allowed black people in America to participate as consumers and as professionals. These were two things that were denied to them before that. And so, with the Mount Auburn cemetery in Baltimore, you also saw black undertakers, black coffin makers and black head stone makers.
JC: I think that much of the problem with much of the discussion in the death positive movement, is that when you ignore race, when you homogenize feminism, you often end up denying people their history, their struggles and many important contemporary practices. It creates these metanarratives, and that’s a problem.
MB: It whitewashes funeral practices, when death is a really big deal in African American cultures. The obvious example would be in New Orleans, where they have parades. It’s such a strong piece of their culture. And everywhere else we keep mentioning the word, “homogenizing,” and honestly, I feel like we are whitewashing it.
JC: Well, I know even in my own work I sometimes read old papers that I’ve written, old articles that have been published, and I shake my head now because the way I wrote about death also whitewashed everything. For example, I would write, “In the 19th century, everyone did x…”
JC: “…and everyone did y, and then professionals came along, and that stopped happening.” And I’ve realized that this is only one person’s, or one group’s, experience. It’s not necessarily the experience of all groups in North America. And I think that Kami Fletcher and Alua Arthur’s presentations, and the discussion that happened around their talks, was a really important reminder of that.
MB: And this leads us to another one of the larger themes, which is about communities reclaiming death care. It’s interesting that you mention that other death salons were more focused on the individual and maybe more on the ideology and less about movement, action and actually what happens when you die.
There was also the Natural Death Care Collaborative panel, with folks on it from the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the National Home Funeral Alliance and people from different green burial associations. What they talked about was, as in the title, “Un-consuming Death and Reclaiming Funerals from Commercialized Culture.” A lot of it was, as we’ve mentioned, about reclaiming death care, and the rituals around it. I also think NoorudDean Rabah from the Janazah Project in Brooklyn resonated with a lot of people. He essentially works in New York and New Jersey with the Muslim community. He first got the crowd by talking about how Muslim burial is the O.G., which he described as the “Original Gangster” of green burial. And that’s very true. And he talked about how in traditional Muslim burial, which is actually very similar to Jewish burials, they do not embalm. They bury the bodies as early as possible, either just in a shroud, or in a simple pine coffin.
But his key message was really about organizing, and he said this multiple times throughout the conference, “If we want to see change, we need to form a community. We have strength in numbers, we have a choice, and we all need to take action together.” So, that was, to me, more of an action-oriented conversation and less of an ideological one.
And perhaps her presentation lacked a bit of information that people needed, but I think that Karen Smith from the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance helped bridge that gap. She said there is so much material we have that our job now is essentially to fight for our rights as consumers, to have the funerals we want and for our families to deal with our bodies. And that, I think, was uplifting to people. A lot of the folks there worked in death care and a lot of them didn’t. Some of them were there just out of pure interest. I think that this particular panel was a key introduction for people who want to start thinking about their choices, and their family’s choices and where to begin.
JC: In a lot of the conversations that I had with attendees at the death salon people talked about how isolating the experience of death acceptance and death awareness can be. They want to do something, but they don’t know what.
KM: I wonder, were there a lot of people who were there just to have a community to talk to about this stuff, without feeling like a weird … like a weirdo?
KM: Or feeling like a pariah, even.
MB: Definitely. I think quite a few of the people we met felt more at home because they are the oddballs, so to speak, with their friends and family, because they’re, “obsessed with death.” I think a lot of people went there to be around a community of peers, of like-minded people and maybe also Goths, but that’s another story.
JC: The funny thing is that the research I do is on a community that is the exact opposite of the death positive community. I research transhumanism, and I have spent time at a conference for transhumanists. They say, “We want to live forever.” And they also say, “That makes us social pariahs, and people just don’t understand us, and we need to band together as a community, and the people around you are the people who really understand you.” And then a week later, I go to Death Salon, and hear the exact same thing.
JC: But with death acceptance, right?
KM: Well, interesting. Both really are talking about death. It may be from totally different vantage points and opinions about death, but both are starting a conversation that people are not that comfortable having, which is that mortality is a thing that we’re dealing with.
JC: I agree. There’s an historian, John Gray, who writes about the transhumanist movement. He says that the ironic thing about trying to avoid death is that you end up spending all of your time thinking about death.
KM: [laughs] Yes.
KM: That’s great. That’s so true.
MB: And to come back to the community perspective on reclaiming death care, this year for the first time there was the Death Positive Award that went to Lisa Carlson.
KM: That’s right.
MB: That was a big deal, and that was really wonderful.
JC: We were very upset that we weren’t nominated, but you know….
MB: [laughs] Oh my God.
MB: Just so that people understand a bit more, the death positive award honors someone whose work has inspired the leaders of the death positive movement and has paved the way for the work being done today. Lisa Carlson is a funeral consumer activist, tireless lobbyist and also the author of four books on death care. Probably the one that she’s most known for is Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love.
JC: Yes, she was very interesting. She told us the story of how she started. When her first husband died, decades ago, she decided that she wanted to take on as much of the process as she could, but she found all sorts of stumbling blocks along the way. You know, obviously the first thing that the hospital wanted to do was call the funeral director, and the funeral director wanted to embalm, and then they wanted to be the ones to provide the care and then to take the body to the cemetery. And Lisa thought there has to be a better way, and so she took on caring for her husband’s body on her own.
MB: As much as she could.
JC: As much as she could.
MB: She got a funeral director involved and negotiated what she could do. And that’s like the “O.G.” of caring for your own dead. It was really interesting hearing it from her. Honestly, it felt like looking at Caitlin Doughty in sixty years. It was so interesting to see them in conversation, because I was hearing Lisa say things that I heard Caitlin say many times before in conversations outside of the conference. And people were nodding their heads, because it resonated with them.
What was really interesting about her story, and what was the catalyst for her writing the books that she did and becoming a funeral consumer activist, was that after she did that for her husband people from the community, or people that she didn’t even know that heard of her story, called her and asked her how they could do the same thing for their loved ones. Her presentation resonated with a lot of people, and it was very encouraging to see people fighting the good fight for so long and still being as passionate and as influential as she.
JC: I think it helped people feel a little less isolated. A lot of people were there alone or were there with a friend. After the conference was over they’re going home to Missouri or California or wherever they’re going, they’re going home. And they might feel at a loss in terms of what it is they should do next. I think a lot of the talks during Death Salon provided some additional resources for people to start spreading the message of death positivity and death acceptance.
KM: And what did you both feel coming out of Death Salon? Did you have a similar feeling of inspiration? And have you cooked up any plans for how to bring some of this into the incredible work that you’re already doing?
JC: In terms of TalkDeath, yes. It motivated us to explore topics that we haven’t explored before and to reach out to people who we didn’t know before.
MB: I think that what was interesting for us was the fact that people recognized us and knew who we were. That in itself made us realize that we’re making a ripple, and that people are interested in learning more about these subjects. Even though there are quite a few people and sites talking about these ideas in general or talking about having resources around home funerals and green burials, there’s still a need for more, there’s still a community around it and it’s growing.
And so, I think what we got out of it, or what I got out of it at least, was that this type of work is important, it’s needed and we made a lot of great connections with people that we had only met over the internet. Even some of the vendors who got to meet people in person who they’ve been chatting with on Instagram were able to put a face to each other. That’s really important, and it solidifies the community. So, I think we definitely got a sense of community coming out of it.
JC: And even though the death positive community is not the community that I study in my work, I still took notes the entire time, and I found it to be very beneficial in terms of comparing different groups, for example.
KM: Was there any particular theme that you felt excited about?
KM: Tell me about some of the other themes that came up at Death Salon.
MB: So, there was an element of humanity that was brought up both in dying and in death care. One thing in particular I wanted to bring up was Peter Stefan’s interview with Sarah Chavez. It was about burying the unwanted dead, and in this case the Boston bomber. Peter Stefan is the funeral director who’s the president of Graham, Putnam, & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Massachusetts. He spoke about his experience burying the Boston bomber, which no one else would touch.
MB: Yeah. He was introduced by Caitlin. She saw him at an event, and she was able to pick him out of the room as being a funeral director. I think she was actually giving a talk. And he raised his hand, and, you know, her first thought was, “Oh gosh. Is he going to try to bring me down or make some type of a controversial statement?” And he was the opposite. He was this super charming man.
I think his main focus was that a human is a human, a body is a body. There’re a lot of politics around the subject. There were a lot of people in the community that, were like, throwing food at him afterwards, after he did that. [Burying the Boston Bomber.] He definitely distanced himself from his community by doing that. But something that I thought was really interesting, someone asked a question about this, was that his business actually boomed by 50% after doing that burial, which is very interesting, because even though his community was super upset with him, his business still boomed. But I assume that’s just based on getting the type of press that he did.
KM: Maybe no publicity really is bad publicity. [laughs]
KM: I find that interesting. I mean, the whole concept of, “Does everybody deserve a good burial? Does every person deserve funerary rights? Is death so sacred that nothing we’ve done in life ever precludes us from deserving respect in death?”
MB: Exactly, and there’s this practical issue of what do you do when no one claims a body? Right? And this is something that happens all the time, where there’s no next of kin, or the government can’t find anybody, or they’re estranged from their family and their family doesn’t want to have to deal with it and deal with the expenses. This is something that you see often.
I work as a funeral director’s assistant as well. I started working with them because I was assisting at unclaimed burials where this funeral home, in particular, actually has a mission to be a key provider in helping with unclaimed bodies. Essentially, the government gives you very little money that doesn’t even cover the cost. A lot of the cost has to come out of the business’s own pockets, interestingly enough, to be able to just take that body, maybe embalm it, maybe not, generally not, transfer it, and have enough people, mainly pallbearers, to be able to walk that casket from the coach to the grave site. It’s really interesting. Being involved in this, it’s always … it’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s partly sad that you’re the only ones there for this person. But then it also feels like you’re really doing them a service by saying a few words, and we always put a flower on their casket as we lower it. There’re people there to give them a final, dignified send off.
This is where you see the humanity, and the community, arise from death care. To be honest, it’s not home funeral practitioners, it’s not death activists that are doing this work. It’s actually the funeral industry. It’s funeral professionals that are taking this on. I think it was important having this conversation with Peter Stefan. It’s important for people to understand that funeral directors have to do this type of work, and that they can be great humans, too.
JC: I think the modern cemetery was meant to take care of a few problems, but one of them had to do with dead bodies, right? When people were buried in churchyards, you had all of these jurisdictional dilemmas, like can a Protestant be buried in a Catholic cemetery? Can a Catholic be buried in a Protestant cemetery? What if a criminal wants to be buried in a churchyard? There were all these sorts of issues, as well as political issues, that were going on with churchyard burials. And cemeteries were supposed to solve a lot of these issues. They were supposed to be these public grounds that were accessible to everyone. But I think the case of the Boston bomber, and other infamous people throughout modern history, shows us that a lot of these dilemmas still exist.
MB: And it is also still very political.
MB: Going back to the theme of politics.
KM: To bring it full circle. Do you want to give me a couple of quick hits of any other themes or talks that we should know about before we wrap up?
JC: Yes, I think there’s one more point that was really important and connects to these kinds of questions about politics and dying. That was Michael Dowling’s talk. It was titled “Holding the Human Condition: Art and Grief Around the HIV/AIDS Epidemic and Beyond.” It was a powerful talk that he gave. It was almost like watching a piece of performative art. So, for the past … what? 20 some odd years now, he’s been doing this performative art piece called The Medicine Wheel, and every year he asks people to contribute to the process of healing from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in different ways. And a lot of the ways are very embodied. So, one year he created these ponds in his studio space, and he asked people to go to the river, fill up buckets of water, carry them back to the art space and then dump them into the man-made ponds. And there was another year where he asked people to carry these heavy stones into the art space and leave them on the ground.
MB: Or even move them around the room.
JC: Yeah. Exactly. There were a few ideas around that, but I think a lot of it really had to do with a kind of meditative form of healing. I heard so many people crying during his talk.
JC: It was powerful.
MB: It was the most powerful talk of the conference. There were no slides. It was just him up there, no script in front of him. He spoke so well. It was just dead silence…and crying.
JC: It was a reminder, too, that HIV/AIDS is a problem people are still dealing with. There are still people alive who lost entire communities, lost entire families to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
MB: He said something like one in every six gay men died of HIV in Massachusetts even, or something like that. I don’t know the exact statistic, but it was something really intense like that.
KM: Again, looking at how death is political, and how just being a part of a different community, being a minority or being LGBTQ, for example, your experience of death is probably completely different from somebody else’s in this country.
MB: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
KM: And not speaking about death very much, that might be a form of privilege, right? Because a lot of people are forced to talk about death a lot.
KM: And any gay man in his 50’s has talked about death a lot in his time.
MB: Yes, that’s very true.
JC: I think there is a lot of opportunity here to be reflexive, to listen and to learn. I think that was a really positive takeaway from the Death Salon at Mount Auburn this year.
MB: And speaking of power, of movement and of action, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but they ended the Death Salon this year by not announcing where Death Salon is going to be next year. They want to encourage leaders in all cities to come together and create their own versions of Death Salon, everywhere.
And so, as I understand it, there’s not going to be a Death Salon next year. There are going to be Death Salons. I think Sarah brought up how we are all foot soldiers, is how she put it. They’re going to support a lot of us in creating events that are more accessible, because that’s something that came up for a lot of people. Just in the cost of attending, for example. That we have the privilege of being able to book a flight or drive there and book a place to stay.
JC: And preaching to the choir, right? It’s a conversation that’s happening amongst people who are already aware of the conversation.
MB: Exactly. So, they question how we are really going to accomplish what we set out to do. This is not just about speaking to a community of our peers. It’s about making as large a difference as we can. So, I’m really curious as to how their call to action is going to go. I see it as being smaller events, inexpensive events. Maybe some of them will be more focused on hands-on work, like writing out your will, understanding end of life planning and maybe workshops on how to prepare a body.
And I think it’s going to be interesting to see all of the different people, those that were in that room and those that are in this community right now, put something together for their communities. Because, going back to this political issue, it’s about giving minorities and people that are underprivileged more of a hand. And the way to do that is by giving them more hands-on workshops and by educating the public within our cities about all of these issues.
KM: That’s really powerful. So, they’re franchising. [laughs]
JC: [laughs] Yeah. Pretty much.
KM: Amazing. Well, that makes perfect sense. It will be a lot more accessible, and I bet people will be inspired to do that.
So, I love to end by asking people if they have one wish – just to put you on the spot for a sec, because I didn’t warn you – if you have one wish for your own death, each of you, what would that be? It doesn’t have to be your number one wish ever, but just something that you wish for yourself in death.
JC: No suffering and at the end of a long life. [laughs]
KM: Sounds pretty good.
JC: It’s a little selfish, you know, but it’s …
KM: You actually cover a lot of bases with that answer. That might be our best answer yet.
JC: Yeah. I’ve learned from genies granting wishes. You know, you need to be broad, and specific at the same time.
MB: I think I would just want something simple. And when I die, hopefully not prematurely, I would want my family to be involved in some way. I’d like to provide them with an experience that they may not have had otherwise. Not that they have to wash my body if they don’t want to or dress me if they don’t want to but do something that will, hopefully, help them in their grief. Hopefully, they are grieving me. [laughs]
MB: I’d like to give them an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise and open them up to a different experience that will help them to not fear their own death as much.
KM: To make the connection to your body and death.
KM: Beautiful. Well, thank you both so, so much. We really appreciate it.
MB: Thanks so much.
JC: Oh, thank you.
You can learn more about the Death Salon on the event website.