The Death Guy

Gary Laderman has mixed feelings about becoming the "go to" professor when someone famous dies.

August 10, 2009

I want to stop thinking about death. I want to stop writing about death. I want to stop being interviewed about death. But people keep dying, and the dead keep returning, and I’m not getting any younger, and everyone is trying to figure out how best to live with death, especially us aging baby boomers whose religious appetites are no longer fully satiated by traditional religions.

I have written two books on the history of death, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883, and Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of the Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, and my new book, Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States, ends with a chapter entitled “Death” (which closes with discussion of two familiar ghost gods, Elvis and Tupac).

I used to joke with people after each of the first two books that “Now I’m really done with death,” and they would laugh and I would laugh and we would move off the uncomfortable topic quickly. But somewhere deep down I knew the superficial levity could not squash the serious truth: I won’t be done with death until Death has done me in.

For the last decade or so I have taught a death and dying course at Emory University. When I first offered the course there were 8 or so students; last year when I taught it, 60 students enrolled. As a teacher it is supremely gratifying to know when you’ve truly nailed a class, and this class is a blast for me and for the students, who come in blissfully ignorant of the varied, confusing, strange range of experiences of death through time and across cultures. We cover Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, and really dig in to death in Christian history (the cult of saints is a winner every time), before finally turning to the American context. The connections between death and religion in popular music and films, histories of medicine and race, funeral homes and virtual space, as well as in other social experiences, blow their minds and expand their intellectual horizons. They also teach me a thing or two each year.

It works every year and yet for some misguided reason I thought it would be good to try something new for a change, and so I decided to teach religion and sexuality next term. I imagined it would be an easy shift from the one topic to the other. Now that I’m preparing the class, I’m already longing for the death lectures, site visits (Emory Hospital morgue; local funeral home; Oakland Cemetery; you get the picture), and lugubrious images. Ironically, I’m not too sure how to spice up the sex class.

Interviews with journalists and public writings on the topic have been a staple of my professional life for the last several years, even though I initially resisted getting dragged into media frames as a young assistant professor when Princess Diana died in the summer of 1997. I foolishly assumed it would be disrespectful to comment on such a tragedy in the white heat of the moment and, quite frankly, that it would lessen my chances for promotion to tenure since many faculty in the old days questioned the value of public scholarship. But to this day I regret not talking since the media missed so much of religious valences and values of the public’s response. When John F. Kennedy, Jr. died a few years later and the media inquiries began, I did not hesitate to talk about the public mourning and widespread sorrow, and even ended up appearing on NBC News, which made Emory and my parents ecstatic.

Through the years there have been scandals (don’t get me started about the Tri-State Crematory horror in North Georgia a few years ago) as well as a surprisingly consistent media interest in the changing shape, contours, and content of funeral practices in America. In the last few weeks, Michael Jackson’s death and the Burr Oak Cemetery set off a frenzy of media calls, blog posts, and radio interviews. The media preoccupation both reflects and fuels the public’s fascination with these deathly matters. So, when death is in the news, who are you going to call?

Still I have to confess I feel a cringe (tinged with nausea) when I hear someone say “you’re the go-to expert on death rituals.” Not exactly a badge of honor, but it could be worse, right? I could be an expert in, say, Protestant theology, or Reform Judaism. While it’s easy to complain about my lot in life, there is no doubt that death has been very good to me and brought me an unexpectedly rich livelihood.

Unfortunately, the older I get the less comfortable I am with mortality in general. It is difficult to engage with death “in theory” when more and more of my friends are struggling with parents who are dying, when people my age are dying off from cancer and other ailments, when just about every day another obituary for a public figure shows up in the news to remind all of us that death is indeed the Great Equalizer for the famous and the fameless, wealthy and poor, fortunate and unlucky.

I do take solace in knowing I’m not the only one with these morbid obsessions. A brief spin through the channels on the television confirms it; a careful perusal of movies at the video store proves it; even the music we listen to speaks to it. The first line of the last song on the new Wilco CD, Wilco (The Album) sums it up beautifully and brutally: “Everything alive must die.”

So how do we live with death? A question as old as human life, of course, and a question whose urgency changes over the course of a lifetime. The older I get the more people I know die, a realization as disturbing as it is enlightening. But also a reality that in some strange way can bring solace and wisdom and despair and clarity and confusion. In other words, a mixed though challenging assortment of possibilities that would make a great topic for an op-ed.


Gary Laderman is chair of religion and professor of American religious history and cultures at Emory University. He is executive editor of Religion Dispatches.


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