Here’s What Happens When You Write About Death, Dying & Other Morbid Things

Posted April 25, 2018

6 min read

Just how does someone end up writing about the rituals of death and dying, funerals, celebrations of life, “and other morbid things”?

Simon Davis—a Washington, DC-based writer who does just that—says it was actually by chance.

Davis was writing for VICE as a freelancer at the time, and he was doing Q&As on a variety of subjects.

“One of them was a piece about the rare, but very real phenomenon of exploding caskets,” says Davis. “My editor instructed me to get as descriptive as possible: ‘No amount of gory detail is too much.’”

A few months after, the publication (known for its articles on arts, culture, and news topics) asked Davis about writing a weekly series on a single topic.

He sent in three ideas, and they chose death.

That was in late 2014, and he’s still asking (and answering) new morbid and enlightening questions to this day. From what happens if you vote and die before election day to how you could fake your own death to the individuality of human skulls to lunar burials, it’s no wonder why Davis has even called himself a taphophile (a person who is interested in cemeteries, tombstones, and more).

Here is a condensed version of our own Q&A with Davis.

Q: Now that we know how long you’ve been writing about death and dying, where else has your work appeared?

Simon Davis: I have written articles that have appeared in The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, Gawker, Religion News Service, Mental Floss, and Noisey.

Q: In general, are death or dying-related story ideas assigned to you, or do you have to “find” the stories yourself?

Simon Davis: There are a few editors who’ve very graciously assigned me their own ideas, but for the most part I send my own pitches like any other freelancer.

Q: What have been the most memorable articles you’ve written?

Simon Davis: Here’s four that currently stick out for me:

  1. 2017’s Top Death-Related Google Searches. This is a recent piece for VICE which also happens to incorporate my love of data.

  2. Atheism Terrifies People Because It Makes Us Think About Death. I believe this is the article of mine that got the most attention on social media when published.

  3. What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies in Washington, DC. This was my foray into proper journalism.

  4. Solving the Mystery of an Ancient Epidemic. I really learned a lot about the science of viruses and investigating ancient pandemics with this piece.

Q: You’re creating lots of content around death and dying…What content are you “consuming”?

Simon Davis: I have a Death folder in feedly with RSS feeds to several death-related blogs as well as TMZ’s R-I-P news tag for real time alerts on celebrity deaths.

I’m also trying to be a good scholar of death by eventually getting through reading Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. My wife and I spend a lot of time watching quality American and international dramas and murder mysteries.

Weather permitting, I love to visit cemeteries, particularly Victorian garden cemeteries.

For more mundane matters, I have digital subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post for breaking news and staying informed in general. My Twitter curation is not too “deathy” and mostly consists of never missing something on Maggie Haberman’s feed.

Q: Through your work, are there any examples of when you saw funeral directors encouraging people to be more active participants in death or death rituals?

Simon Davis: Rupert and Claire Callender in the UK come to mind. [Claire and Rupert Callender ask funeral attendees to carry the coffin, talk about the manner of death, and even reflect on their loved ones honestly. They have called this approach “radical undertaking.”]

It was great fun getting to talk to them for my Post Mortem column, “These Radical Undertakers Want Funerals to Be More Honest and Participatory.”

Q: Is it difficult to write about death or is it enlightening?

Simon Davis: Definitely enlightening. There are so many really fascinating people that deal with death and it’s always such a joy and privilege for me to speak with them. They have such great stories to tell.

At the same time, writing and learning about this stuff has definitely caused me to be much more stoic and conscious of every reaction I have to death or illness. I can’t stand to read or hear harmful platitudes like “they’re in a better place” or “everything happens for a reason.”

I find myself more empathetic when I hear about how a friend or acquaintance’s beloved family member just died. But those feelings also now make it harder for me to muster up the words to try and comfort someone in that situation.

Q: Has your work caused you to think more about your own death?

Simon Davis: I’m undecided about cremation or donating my body to science right now. However if you asked me a few years back I was more seriously considering burial, mainly because I love old garden cemeteries. However I’m not super hung up on my final disposition.

What fills me with dread is the actual process of dying. I know enough to know I’m woefully unprepared, financially and emotionally, for a protracted period of incapacitation; the same is true in the event my spouse were to fall terribly ill.

Q: Through the years, what has stood out to you about funeral directors or the funeral profession that you didn’t know before?

Simon Davis: A few years back I wrote an article about the dating lives of death professionals. Granted, this is a sample of eight people I spoke to, so that has to be taken into account. There were commonalities however. For one, I was appalled at the extremely rude comments some of these folks received from people outside the profession. Typically they came from people who just think working with dead bodies is gross. But there are others who are perhaps a little bit too interested in their work, which I imagine is also rather unsettling. One woman said it most succinctly: “It’s really hard to find people that are just OK with the profession.”

Q: From some of the experiences you’ve had, do you see that secular Americans are re-shaping funerals?

Simon Davis: Yes, on a scale that we haven’t seen in a long time. And this isn’t just my opinion, it’s what the National Funeral Directors Association stated in their 2015 annual report.

Just about every non-religious person I know (not a small number) wants to be cremated. “Nones” are the fastest growing religious group in America. During this period of growth, cremation has overtaken traditional burial—and the younger more secular cohort is still alive.

I believe Canada and the UK have higher cremation percentages but the populations have been more secular for longer.

Q: Where else can people find and follow you?

Simon Davis: On Twitter, Instagram, my website, and here is the “Post Mortem” column on VICE.

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