I grew up on a farm outside of Flint, Michigan, so the combination of raising animals to eat and watching a big city die made me a bit morbid — plus my family’s farm is down the road from the graveyard where members of my family are buried.
What is your opinion of the western world’s outlook on death?
I am so immersed in studying cemeteries that I forget sometimes that “normal” people don’t arrange their vacations around the graveyards they want to visit. For instance, I went to Rouen in June pretty much just to see the Aitre Saint Maclou, which is the last surviving medieval ossuary square in Europe. The atrium began as a plague pit in the 14th century and served as a graveyard up until 1781. During that time, people were buried in a mass grave until the flesh came off their bones, then the skeletons were exhumed and stored in the cloister that surrounds the ground. There aren’t any bodies there now, but the surviving buildings are decorated with skulls, spades, coffins: all kinds of lovely things. It’s a beautiful, peaceful space, well worth going out of my way for. Best of all, the buildings around the atrium have housed a school of fine arts since the 1940s. For those students, memento mori are daily inspirations. I think you have to draw a distinction between western society in Europe, which keeps the dead around — especially in churches — for hundreds of years and American cities, many of which uprooted their pioneer graveyards when the dead got in the way of commerce. In America, death is what happens to poor unfortunates who don’t fight it hard enough. It’s never going to happen to those who eat right and exercise hard enough. Maybe, if we close our eyes, it will go away.
Reading through your magazine Morbid Curiosity, some people would think you were weird to put together such a compendium of morbid and macabre stories. What would you say to these people?
I think they’re weird. Morbid Curiosity collected personal essays about unsavoury, unwise, unorthodox, and unusual behaviour. It wasn’t enough that people had strange things happen to them, they also had to examine how those experiences changed their lives. Anyone who’d find that uninteresting isn’t interested in life.
What are your favourite things to do in your spare time?
I blog at CemeteryTravel.com now, writing about cemeteries as travel destinations. The research, travel, and photography take up a lot of my time. I have a daughter, so I do what I can to encourage her to be curious and brave. She wants to grow up to be a veternarian, so we study animals together. In my spare time, I think my favorite thing of all is to have a good, long conversation with someone. A real face-to-face conversation seems such a luxury these days. It practically has to be scheduled in advance.
As you mention cemeteries quite a bit, what would your epitaph say?
It’s changed over the years. When I published Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries in 1994, I wanted my epitaph to say, “She tried always to do right — but sometimes the temptation was too much for her.” Then I went through a phase where I thought it should say, “My god, it’s full of stars.” At this point, it should probably read, “Traveler, stop and lend an eye. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so shall you be. Prepare for death and follow me.” Sometimes the classics are the best.