The Death Scholar

John Troyer dissects the dead body as a means of grappling with the minds of the living.

By Matt Huston, published April 17, 2020 - last reviewed on May 5, 2020

Courtesy Nic Delves-Broughton, used with permission.
Courtesy Nic Delves-Broughton, used with permission.

As other kids were busy opening their presents on Christmas morning, John Troyer and his sister would have to wait for their father, a funeral director, to collect the body of someone who had died the night before. Now a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Bath in the U.K. and the director of its Centre for Death and Society, Troyer has studied issues ranging from the ownership of human remains to the future of cemeteries. In his book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, he examines the roles that technological and cultural developments play in our evolving relationship with the dead—and reflects on loss in his own life.

How has preservative technology influenced how we perceive death?

Mechanical embalming made it possible for many more people to see the deceased. Even if they had to travel to the dead body or it had to be shipped to where they were, family members could have an encounter with it. My father has said he thinks there’s real value in family members seeing the deceased, touching their hand; I agree with that. I think embalming has changed the psychology of death: Over time, as decomposition has become something we’re increasingly removed from, the dead body has looked less and less like a decomposing body.

Today we seem almost totally removed from postmortem changes.

We view it as shocking now, but seeing states of decomposition was once a more normal experience—it still is in a lot of the world. We want the deceased to be a kind of facsimile of what they looked like in life, and if they aren’t, then that’s a problem. There is an irony about this. Even if a person has had a drawn-out dying process—with their body subjected to all kinds of deterioration—cosmetics and embalming can in some ways return the person to what they looked like before that medicalization process. Family members may say, “He looks better now than he did when he was dying.” I think there is something about looking like you did when you lived that makes some people feel better or helps in some way.

Are there negative aspects of this kind of makeover?

These tools of body handling can be used in lots of different ways. During the height of AIDS activism, people who could not be the legal spouse of their deceased gay partner were denied any claim to the remains and any say in the funeral. Families who had no interest in a gay family or gay partner could then erase that from the deceased’s biography. Any physical traces of something like AIDS could be more or less obscured, and in that process, the family could try to imagine that the person hadn’t been gay. There’s another issue now, though it’s been around for a long time, related to individuals who identify as transgender who die and are stripped of their identity by next of kin who never approved.

What’s the current thinking on death and environmentalism?

If we’re already using certain tools for things like the disposal of dead bodies, are there ways that elements can be reused? For example, filtration systems are used to remove harmful materials from the exhaust during cremation. This is largely to do with mercury fillings in teeth, because mercury is a neurotoxin, and when you are cremated, everything in your body is incinerated and goes up in the air. With heat-capture technology, you can reuse energy from that process for other purposes. And you can do that for any number of other forms of disposition technology.

Do ideas like that risk offending some people?

Any new technology that has anything to do with the dead body or death automatically causes anxiety. At the introduction, there’s mass repulsion. Before long, we usually move on to philosophical introspection about what it all means. This is the bind presented by a dead body. We lose our personhood when we die. We almost by default have a kind of objectness. But we’re not completely objects, because we’re still human. We’re in a massive gray area. One of the critiques of organ donation was that it was treating the dead human body as an object. But we do not hear those arguments very much anymore.

Courtesy Nic Delves-Broughton, used with permission.
Courtesy Nic Delves-Broughton, used with permission.

Do you think you’re more comfortable with death and dead bodies than most people?

I feel that they’re totally normal. I say that because I’ve never not known a reality that is deeply influenced by death, both explicitly and implicitly. Now, that is different from other people, and I know that, and my sister and I used to joke about that.

While growing up, did you help out with the family business?

Any child, partner, or spouse of a funeral director will have stories about things they helped with. One of the last tasks I did, during grad school, was helping my dad with a grave excavation for a transfer of remains to a different state. But also, cleaning and helping to set up funeral homes—things like putting out floral arrangements. People think of funeral homes as scary or macabre places. My biggest memory of being in them is boredom.

Can people’s experiences of death-related spaces evolve?

I don’t think the meaning of these spaces is preordained. Cemeteries have, over the last 20 years, reinvented themselves, in some ways returning to a more 19th-century model of the cemetery as public gathering space. There’s the cemetery as a place for film screenings. Or the cemetery as a wedding venue. Arnos Vale in England is a historic Victorian cemetery with an amazing natural landscape, and they do a solid wedding business throughout the year. These developments are related to an economic question, which is how do cemeteries become financially sustainable going forward, but I also think there’s a question of cultural preservation.

You have experienced loss and near-loss in your own family. As a death studies scholar, what has surprised you about those experiences?

For all my thinking about death and dying, I hadn’t realized the kind of blind spots I had. I have wondered why, when my sister was dying, I didn’t say anything sooner to her about the fact that she was dying, even though it was clear. The paradox of death is, it’s described as this universal experience, but it is also radically individualized—we all die differently. In the case of my dad, who recently had a cardiac death and was resuscitated, I was really thrust into trying to understand: Is he living? Is he dying? Is he doing both at the same time?

How did you deal with those issues?

My father was not able to chew or swallow for a time. In his advance directives, he had said, I don’t want life support used for longer than five days—unless in consultation with the doctors, it is decided that there is a medical necessity for something like a feeding tube to help with healing. So I was in a bind. If the feeding tube was projected to be permanent, we would have said no, because my dad would not want that quality of life. But if it is understood as a kind of bridge to where he is now—he’s off the tube for 12 hours a day—then maybe the definition of life support I’d been working with was too rigid. My mom agreed that it would give him a chance to recover, so we put the tube in.

How would you like people to approach death differently?

You must be in conversation with your next of kin—about everything from medical care to finances to things like funerals. Ideally you will write things down. It’s important to remember that death is always happening. Dying is always happening. Dead bodies are always happening. We humans are going to always be confronted by these dynamic situations. So I think that what people need to prepare themselves for is being flexible. And it’s important to be, I think, intellectually as well as emotionally equipped to suddenly do things you never thought you would do.