Birth and Death

Tuesday, 14 April 2020
My mother worried about me as a teenager. She worried a lot. And one of the things she worried about was my choice in reading materials. With few entertainment options in our little town in regional NSW, the library was my life. I spent a lot of time there avoiding home, reading 3 month old copies of The Face and wishing I lived in Manchester (Cool Britannia! Britpop! Manbreak Ocean Colour Scene Manic Street Preachers Pulp The Bluetones heck Tony Blair before he turned evil who would want to live in an Australia falling under the grip of John Howard?).

But I also discovered the 340 subdivision of the Dewey Decimal System. Specifically, I discovered true crime. Before the Internet and streaming, people still dug true crime, mostly in the form of pulp magazines and mass market paperbacks detailing grisly things that had happened to murdered people, most of whom seemed to be young, beautiful white women. I couldn't get my hands on the magazines, but I devoured the books, bringing home stacks of them, which were inevitably discovered and led to parental grilling. My mother in particular was convinced that my avid reading of true crime books was a sure sign that I was fantasising about murdering someone myself, that I would grow up to become a serial killer (actually, in those days I would fantasise about becoming a victim, but there's a can of worms I'm in no mood to have to clean up if it spills open everywhere). 

Anyway, she really needn't have worried. The passage of twenty years would prove that my interest is pretty much normal; mass adoption of the internet saw a huge rise in crime blogs and crime forums, and the advent of streaming settled the debate. (There's also the fact that I'm still yet to murder anyone). But look at the top shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Stan; true crime is everywhere. People want mysteries. People want to know about serial killers. People listened to Serial and want to hear from Ted Bundy's long term partner and binge watch Forensic Files and So I Married A Murderer. Sure, there's a few unhealthy obsessives, like the creeps who hang out on Tumblr detailing their sexual fantasies about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, girls who weren't even born until after Columbine. But as South Park devoted an episode to showing, there's a whole bunch of "normal people" living their normal lives who like to spend their spare time hearing about gruesome things that have happened to other normal people. People just like them. 

This obsession goes beyond crime to a fascination with death itself. Having read a glut of crime books, my own interest now runs more to death in and of itself, not so much the people who dramatically speed the process up. Again, I'm not alone; there's the popularity of books such as Stiff, by Mary Roach, outlining the many and sometimes bizarre things that can happen to dead bodies; and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, examining the tough life and death decisions brought on by advances in life span and medical technology.

And of course there's the internet, again, with YouTube series such as Ask a Mortician, run by LA Mortician Caitlin Doughty (I'm a big fan, obviously). Her videos cover everything from the rights of trans people after death to what happened to the bodies that went down with the Titanic.


Ask a Mortician has over one million subscribers and something like 90 million views; clearly not all of these people are gloomy teenagers or aspiring spree killers. People - ordinary, well balanced, emotionally healthy people - are just really into death.

I'm one of them. Emotionally healthy - well. But I have a good job, I have close friends who in normal times I see regularly, I've never been arrested. Death is just been something I've always had an interest in. I like visiting graveyards, an interest I inherited from my father; it was a sobering moment as a 13 year old to visit the ancient cemeteries in Ireland and see the dozens of mossy, uncarved, unadorned stones marking the graves of victims of the Great Famine who couldn't afford tombstones. On road trips with friends, I'd always want to stop in at local cemeteries, and the absence of protesting cries of "ugh, why?" told me I wasn't the only one who didn't mind having a look. And when I went to Los Angeles last year, although I missed Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the homes of the stars, you best believe I went on the Tragical History Tour and visited Hollywood Forever:









And I've taken forensics classes at university and looked into a career in forensic anthropology (the training isn't available in Australia, so I settled on working with the living) and even served as the Australian director for the Doe Network for a few years (and we desperately need a publicly accessible database of unidentified decedents in Australia, along the lines of NAMUS), so whilst I guess my interest has gone on much longer and deeper than many other people, I'm just one of the millions whom Caitlin Doughty of Ask a Mortician calls death enthusiasts.

 But something I've been wondering about is, why are so many people obsessed with death, but very few people into birth? Of course expectant parents are going to be browsing birth forums, reading books and blogs and watching videos. But imagine someone who didn't have or want kids, someone who had kids years ago or wasn't wanting them for years, reading birth stories and touring maternity wards. That would be creepy and weird (not even getting into the whole thing of fetishising pregnant people, which I'm not going to do today and probably not ever).

And yet birth is usually seen as a wonderful thing, the start of a new life, of hopes and dreams. Death is sad, tragic, inevitable for those who reach a great age first, shockingly painful for those who die young. One major life milestone good, one bad, but the good one just doesn't attract the interest of the bad, tragic life event. Is it because we've all been through birth already, ho hum, whereas none of us have died, and none of us can really say for sure what happens?

The religious can take some comfort in what their faith says will happen when they die, but the existence of other religions is a tell that none of them is certain, and as a semi agnostic progressive Christian (as much as the term "Christian" has been hijacked by some pretty awful people in the last few decades), I oscillate between thinking I'll get to be with Jesus per Revelations 3, and surety that it's just...nothing. Like going to sleep with no dreams. Blank, finito, that's it. (The thing that really worries me right now is that with restrictions in place due to Coronavirus, if I die now I won't get to have the big fancy funeral I've dreamed of since I was a little girl. The beautiful, the music, the readings, the epitaph chosen from Nick Drake lyrics, the pallbearers - although I'm kinda heavy and a trolley would probably be a better option. I've given way, way more thought to my funeral than I ever did to my kinda last minute wedding, where my preparations largely consisted of "yeah, that'll do").

What we do know is death is going to happen to everyone, yet none of us really knows about it. No wonder we're interested. And it's an alright interest to have. I'm sure the dead don't mind, after all.
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