Death Salon interview: Elizabeth Harper

Elizabeth Harper

Elizabeth is the lifelike one on the left. On the right is the incorrupt body of St. Paula Frassinetti. A little Italian nun insisted on taking this picture of them together.

This weekend, the third Death Salon conference is taking place in San Francisco.  (There are still a handful of tickets available, if you’re interested, but the evening only tickets are sold out.)

I am curious about the women behind the Death Salon project, so I’m going to interview some of them.

Elizabeth Harper writes All the Saints You Should Know, a blog about bodies, bones, relics, lore, and oddities from the Catholic Church. She is a regular contributor to Atlas Obscura and has been featured on Slate, MSN, The Mirror, and Los Angeles Magazine. She’s lectured at the Morbid Anatomy Museum and is a Death Salon advisory board member.

How did you get interested in death?

Elizabeth Harper: For me, the places where the living and the dead can mingle together are very soothing. Saint John Chrysostom wrote about getting away from “the tumult of affairs and the throng of everyday anxieties” at the tombs of the martyrs. I feel the same way. To me, crypts are sensually pleasing. There’s nothing better than leaving streets teeming with people, cars, noise, and heat for somewhere cool, silent, and dim, where you’re almost always alone but just steps beneath the crowds. Visually, the combination of Renaissance and Baroque craftsmanship, the patina of age, and human remains is sublime. You’re surrounded by greatness. The lives of the saints include some of the best aspects of human nature: generosity, bravery, fortitude. The art created to house their bones is equally humbling; I don’t think I could wash the dust off Bernini’s chisel well. And yet, I’m not hopeless or anxious down there. The combination of bones and art inspires this very tranquil feeling that I must persevere and calmly try to do better and be better every day I’m alive. So I guess my interest in death is really more about life. Thinking about death changes the way that I live.

How did you connect with the Death Salon?

EH: In real life, I’m a lighting designer for theatre and events. When Megan Rosenbloom started putting together the first Death Salon, I jumped in and offered to help coordinate the cabaret. Around that time, I had also just published a long-form piece on my blog about mortification of the flesh and female saints. Colin Dickey asked if I would be interested in presenting on the day Morbid Anatomy was curating. It went well, so here I am.

DSFinalSquareLogoHow far would you like to see the Death Salon go?

EH: I say let’s go as far as people will have us. Every time we go to a new location, there are different co-currators and presenters from the community. There’s always something new to learn about or experience. At the heart of Death Salon is a real love of learning, so I think the more diverse scholars and artists we can host, the better the events will be. Death, after all, is universal. So not only can we diversify culturally, but we can also diversify through time. Every culture has a past, present, and future of death. Someone out there can tell us something interesting about it.

What’s your favorite morbid story about a saint?

EH: I’m very fond of St. Lucy, a second-century Roman martyr. I have a large print of her in my office that shows her holding her eyes on a plate. According to one version of her legend, Lucy was determined to give her dowry to the poor and remain an unmarried virgin, but her family betrothed her to a young pagan. When the young man complimented Lucy’s eyes, she gouged them out, gave them to him, and said, “Now leave me to God.” He turned her over to the emperor for being a Christian. She was beheaded.

Are you writing a book?

EH: I am. It’s a nonfiction book of essays. Each chapter takes you on a different walking tour of Rome and explains the history and lore behind some of the more unusual (and sometimes seemingly morbid) Catholic sites. So from home, you can learn all about the history of bone-art or incorrupt saints or demonic artifacts. If you’re in Rome, you can use it as a guidebook to some very unusual and little-known places.

DeathSalon_FBElizabeth will be speaking at this weekend’s Death Salon on Saturday afternoon.  Here’s the description of her talk:

Elizabeth HarperThe Public Corpse: Exploring Death Rituals and the Spaces Dedicated to Them in Rome Death is not the end of the road for Catholics in Italy. Though the public  display of corpses and bones may seem macabre, these traditions illustrate a spiritual and physical journey that begins at death. It’s a journey that takes us through the liminal space between here and the afterlife and between flesh and bone; where the impermanence and even embarrassment of the human body and its functions only underscores the permanence and dignity of the soul. In this illustrated talk, we’ll take a virtual walking tour of Rome through its crypts, purgatorial societies, tombs, and shrines and find this message of life hidden in places devoted to death.

The whole schedule of this weekend’s lectures is here.

About Loren Rhoads

I'm the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, as well as a space opera trilogy. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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