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John Troyer

John Troyer became an expert on death and burial customs during the course of his Ph.D. research.

We can all see dead people

The Biomedical Library's Death and Burial Collection has all you need to know about what happens after we die

By John Troyer

Dec. 12, 2006

It's a little known fact, but the University of Minnesota owns a fantastic collection of books on the subject of the dead human body.

In 1983, Minneapolis funeral director Bill McReavy and his wife Kathleen donated the Death and Burial Collection to the University on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the department of Mortuary Science. The collection's materials span roughly four centuries and are a must-read for anyone interested in dead bodies.

Now, I realize that most people do not want to spend their free time reading about, for example, 19th century embalming pumps, but I am not one of those people. Because, well, I see dead people, and I see them a lot. Seeing dead people isn't exactly a new thing in my life since my father is a funeral director and I grew up seeing dead bodies. But last summer things got weird, even for me, and human corpses were all I saw.

I suppose I should explain the situation a bit more. Last summer, I finished writing my Ph.D. dissertation (in comparative studies in discourse and society) entitled "Technologies of the Human Corpse," and that meant I spent every day, and I mean every hour of every day, thinking about dead bodies. I would think about dead bodies over my morning coffee, while I was eating lunch, and then later at night when I wondered why I was single and had no social life. Not only did I spend all my time writing about different methods of final disposition for the dead, but I was also filled with a deep sense of dread and self-loathing that I would never finish my work.

What I needed to do, in a nutshell, was more research, and that's when the Death and Burial Collection in the Bio-Medical Library pulled me from the depths of despair.

A good friend of mine asked if maybe the reason that I felt so anxious about finishing my dissertation was that because all I thought about was dying. I told him that he had a point, but that the main reason for my distress was that in my haste to finish my dissertation I had produced some bad, and I mean really bad, chapter drafts. To help illustrate what I mean, I submit the following excerpts from two notes that my advisor attached to these early drafts:

Chapter 1: "Just because I haven't written comments next to each paragraph doesn't mean that each and every paragraph doesn't need work. The whole chapter needs extensive rethinking, re-conceptualization, reworking, researching, and rewriting."

And Chapter 2: "Almost every sentence needs help. I could not undertake to fix/rewrite them all. That's not my job and it would take too long. The problem is that because of this situation it's often hard to see where you are going or what your point is."

What I needed to do, in a nutshell, was more research, and that's when the Death and Burial Collection in the Bio-Medical Library pulled me from the depths of despair. It's a peculiar thing to say, I know, that a collection of over 230 texts dedicated to death and burial made me feel better, but it really did. Yet I wasn't entirely in the clear, since I needed help navigating both the collection and countless other resources in the Bio-Medical Library.

Along came reference librarian Katherine Chew, who only affirmed my long-held belief that librarians can answer any question. I would e-mail Katherine, asking her for some books or journal articles on a dead body subject such as "defining death," and she would promptly respond with a four-page bibliography filled to the brim with titles. It was amazing. What's more, the very fact that I had a reference librarian to turn to-one who oversaw a Death and Burial Collection-- made some of my British friends who work in the field of death studies quite envious. One friend in particular (whose own book on American funeral directors is in the Death and Burial Collection) didn't believe the collection existed until I showed it to her on the library's website. It helped that her own book was in the collection, thereby making it "very comprehensive" in her opinion.

I still do not know how I finished my dissertation last summer. I really don't. All those days and hours in front of the computer are a blur, but somehow I successfully defended my dissertation last September and then graduated in May. And even though I'm done, I still think about dead bodies everyday. Some habits never change.

John Troyer is a recent graduate of the Ph.D. program in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society at the University of Minnesota. He is one of four winners of last year's Best Dissertation Award, given by the University of Minnesota Graduate School.

From Continuum, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Libraries