What Is Death-Positive Activism?

Death Salon is an informal gathering celebrating all things death in a profound and refreshing way. I visited Evergreen Cemetery with Death Salon director, Megan Rosenbloom, to find out more about accepting death for what it is: natural.

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Aug 30 2015, 5:30pm

Image by Elli and Poly Photography

"Oh, I'll have to take a picture of that. I see a grave with my friend's last name on it," says Megan Rosenbloom, both giddy and sheepish, seemingly aware that she could offend someone in the nearby vicinity. "I'm just going to text it to her, no context. I'll send like a bitmoji."

Rosenbloom is the director of Death Salon, an informal gathering of academics, musicians, artists, historians, and death professionals, founded by mortician and vlogger Caitlin Doughty. She's also a tenured medical librarian at the University of Southern California. On 10AM on a Saturday morning, Rosenbloom and I met at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, right outside of Downtown Los Angeles, so I could learn a bit more about her and Death Salon.

I expected Rosenbloom to be a bit more serious, in the sort of dark, cliché kind of way I associate with people who are 'into death', but she's not in the least bit off-putting. She's warm, funny, and easy to talk to, characteristics that facilitate one of Death Salon's main goals: helping people learn more and become more comfortable with death in a way that is actually fun.

I ask if there are death-related bitmojis.

"There's a bitmoji with your face coming out of a grave, and the other one is you and the Grim Reaper giving a high-five," she says.

Death Salon started as a small gathering of like-minded individuals in 2012. Originally, the goal was to bring together those doing professional or amateur work in the field of death to facilitate a conversation between those that were interested. They decided to open up their first Death Salon event, held at the Bootleg Bar & Theater in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, to the public as well. To their surprise, the event completely sold out. "We looked around and there was like 300 people there. We were like, Who are these people?

Death Salon has since expanded globally. Just this year alone they held an event in London, another at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, and in September will be having another event along with a "Death Ball" in Philadelphia, Rosenbloom's hometown. Speakers are chosen not just based on their knowledgeability, but also their likability—the way they can entertain a crowd and make learning about death enjoyable. Events also frequently showcase music and art; one event even had cabaret performances.

"We're not sitting people in a room and [forcing] them to think about their death," says Rosenbloom. "It's not like Scared Straight or something."

For our interview, I asked Rosenbloom to pick a place that best represents LA's history with death. She chose Evergreen, which is LA's oldest cemetery, and likely the least known of LA's famous cemeteries. Despite the sort of images that a Los Angeles cemetery with the name "Evergreen" may conjure up, it's is a dreary place, mostly due to poor upkeep and the fact that it's not really green at all.

It's called Evergreen, and it's a complete dirt scrub—the name versus the reality.

Initially, I thought she might take me to Forest Lawn, which is known worldwide as the Disneyland of cemeteries for its comforting glamour, and celebrity residents such as Lucille Ball and Walt Disney himself. Or maybe Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where you can find people like Mickey Rooney and Johnny Ramone, as well as live peacocks flitting around the grounds. But Rosenbloom felt Evergreen was more appropriate for that very reason, because it doesn't fit into the stereotypes surrounding the city.

"There's the LA kind of artifice to [Evergreen]. It's called Evergreen, and it's a complete dirt scrub—the name versus the reality," Rosenbloom explains as we walk by a bright green Easter egg perched on the grass (it's August). We see broken glass, a grave that looks like someone tried to haphazardly dig it up, and a tiny neon green car hanging out on top of a tombstone.

But Rosenbloom kind of loves it. "I like that they were allowed to do weird stuff, like look at this font," I agree that the font is a bit whimsical looking. "So much more personality in this place."

She explains that Forest Lawn, in particular, is one of the cemeteries that has contributed most to the sort of detached relationship we have with death, the very attitude Rosenbloom and Death Salon are rebelling against.

"All the tombstones at Forest Lawn are flat against the ground, so it's almost like you can completely ignore the dead people are even there," Rosenbloom says.

Rosenbloom thinks it's important to learn one's options with death, or simply about what other cultures do, like Tibetan sky burials—a Tibetan practice that entails dismembering bodies that are later carried off into the sky by vultures, because the frozen ground doesn't allow burial and carrying bodies down mountains is too dangerous.

I ask how she ended up so interested in death.

"I was raised Catholic. My parents weren't specifically into death, but being Catholic does kind of put you in a certain mindset," she says, seemingly trying to rack her brain for some sort of specific moment and coming up empty. "But that's pretty much the extent of it."

"Does it make your parents uncomfortable?" I ask.

"Ever since I was a little kid, they didn't know what to do with me. Like, they love me and they are very like warm people but when I talk about the stuff I do or what I'm interested in, they're just kind of like, 'That's good! Oh, you're always so busy. You do so much stuff.'"

I came here to seek a dream, and here's all their corpses.

The cemetery is also home to a variety of LA pioneers like Lankershim, Van Nuys, and Ralphs—as in George Ralphs of the Ralphs grocery store chain, but the cemetery also demonstrates some of the lesser-known racial dynamics of LA in the early 20th century. While Evergreen is notable for never banning the burial of African Americans, the cemetery did ban the burial of the Chinese, who were only allowed to be buried in the city's potter's field area, now absorbed into Evergreen, for a fee of $10, while white people were buried for free.

"Maybe I'm a little morbid. I came here to seek a dream, and here's all their corpses," she says, looking a bit wistfully across the graves. "That doesn't bother me. I actually think it's kind of poetic."

We pay a visit to the Showman's Association grave area, where you can find the Human Cannonball among other famous carnies, and the potter's field area, an area that now houses a small memorial to the Chinese. The cemetery also accurately depicts some of LA's current struggles. According to LA Conservancy's website, about 1,500 of the city's homeless individuals and other unidentified bodies are cremated and buried together in one mass grave every year.

Photo courtesy of the author

As we walk back towards our cars, I ask Rosenbloom, "Do you have a sort of dream death scenario? Tibetan sky burials?" Before hanging out with Rosenbloom, I had never imagined that there could be such a thing as a death fantasy, and by the end of our time together I can't decide if I want to laugh or cry my eyes out.

"Caitlin [Doughty, co-founder of Death Salon] really likes that. She wants to be left out in the woods somewhere to be eaten, which isn't really legal at the moment unfortunately."

But Rosenbloom says she prefers something more in line with her profession as a medical librarian, something a bit more practical. She plans to donate her body to USC for the medical students.

"How bad for the environment is traditional burial?"

"It's really bad," says Rosenbloom. "See how the ground around here in some places is really uneven—you know how Forest Lawn is never uneven? The reason why—and a lot of cemeteries do this, like most of them do—is they actually have tons of concrete in each grave, and the whole real reason is because it's easier to mow the grass and stuff because natural shifting would otherwise occur." This doesn't even touch on the effects of a steady dose of embalming fluid.

The vultures aren't fans of embalming fluid. The vultures typically, "only eat organic," she says earlier in our conversation. "You see the humor in that situation, and people need humor to get through things." I'll admit that fantasizing about my death is kind of amusing. Even the simultaneously sad, fun, and bizarre Evergreen doesn't seem like such a bad place to end up.

"If you think about it, talk about it, engage with the ideas, learn things from other cultures, you might be able to pick out things that you like—things that make you feel better about this process that everybody has to go through."