RVA Mag #38 is on the streets now! Here’s another article from the issue, in which we explore the ins, outs, ups and downs of death and dying with Death Club Radio, the weekly WRIR show that helps demystify the universal experience of the end of life.
Here’s the thing: you’re going to die. If that makes you uncomfortable and you stop reading this right now, you’re still going to die. It is the singular universal experience of all living things. That platitude about death and taxes being the only certainties? Propaganda. It’s just death. That we die is inevitable — how we do it is not.
There is a movement right now in the workings of collective thought, a shifting perspective on death and dying. It has the potential to reintroduce End-of-Life experiences to the human narrative of life itself; to transmute this inescapable end from a fate we all ignore into an action undertaken with intention and grace.
Of course, in order for that to happen, we have to actually talk about it.
That conversation started on a larger scale in Richmond with the introduction of Death Club Radio (DCR) in a weekly show hosted by the River City’s champions of local radio, WRIR 97.3 FM. DCR makes no claims of paradigm-shifting grandeur. It’s not hitting the campaign trail for wisdom in dying, and its only catch phrase seems to be “Stay Alert, Stay Alive.” But it is the kind of extended conversation that has the capacity, in thirty minute increments, to subdue our cultural knee-jerk aversion to addressing our mortality. And, at the very least, it sticks a pointy-toed shoe in the path of the unlockable door we’ve been slamming on death.
DCR started when twenty-year hospice veteran Alane Cameron-Ford was asked to do a segment on death and dying for Open Source RVA, a Richmond-centric radio news show on WRIR hosted by lauded local journalist Don Harrison. But it was their producer, Jack Johnson, who saw potential for something more.
Alane Cameron-Ford: I had no radio experience, knew nothing about it. So several free lunches had to occur before I could be talked into it — and then it was actually our producer, Jack Johnson, who totally talked me into it.
The show didn’t come into its essence until Alane’s co-host (and now husband) Phil Ford wandered in from recording his own show elsewhere in the studio.
Phil Ford: I guess there had been a revolving door of various co-hosts. I had my own show I was doing at the time. And she was recording hers.
ACF: We were sitting in the studio looking lost, and Phil just kinda popped his head in and said “Are y’all… okay? Do you need anything?” And we did.
PF: Just to provide commentary. Ask dumb questions. Or insightful questions from the common person.
ACF: Phil, Jack, and I didn’t really know each other well at this point.
PF: And this was after it was a module. So what happened was, she had done a little 5-minute segment on open source and then through Chris Dovi and Don’s encouragement, as well as Jack’s. She needed to do a bigger show — she needed to do a 30 minute show. The station was looking for local programming. And so everybody was like “let’s just do it.” She was a little trepidatious, and there were some rough moments when Jack was still trying to find his ground as a producer. But it all came together, in this nice little fold of her and I being able to have this great dialog back and forth. And Jack also included sometimes in the dialog, but also to be able to edit… mostly me out, when it needed to be edited.
ACF: It’s amazing, when you talk about death… you get to know someone real well.
But they weren’t bonding over a shared morbid fascination. Listeners will tell you there isn’t much depressive fatalism being kicked around in on-air conversation. DCR focuses almost exclusively on our relationship with death; not just experiences of grief and loss, but cultural perspectives, social attitudes, and the ways in which coming to a deeper understanding of our mortality might improve our lives.
ACF: I’ve heard other death shows. They’re not as interested in science as we are, and they’re not as interested in social science as we are. They are interested in how the body dies and that’s it. We are not preoccupied with how the body dies. It’s part of what we talk about. It’s important to what we talk about. But we’re as interested in talking about cures that are being found. We’re interested in talking about people who recover from devastating grief, and how they’re able to recover and live their lives.
If this sounds hopeful (if not downright uplifting), that’s because it is. These conversations look directly at something almost universally feared. That focus gently illuminates the anxious shadows we cast, often refusing to openly deal with End-of-Life processes. It lightens the neurotic dread that festers in the parts of ourselves we don’t acknowledge. It does so with candor and — more often than not — humor.
PF: To use an analogy, we kind of take death out of the hospital and take it to a natural grounds, someplace where you’re more in tune with it. And I think that’s the goal. Being able to identify with it easier.
While the need for these discussions is by no means geographically limited, regional attitudes and lore play a significant role in our death mythologies. Death is a community event, after all. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it’s hard to describe Richmond without noting the spectre of history we live alongside.
ACF: I think what makes it easier in Richmond is that Richmond is big enough — that a lot of what we talk about is news to people — but it’s small enough that we have certain niche groups that really like to listen to it. That would be some of our nursing schools, our social work pool, funeral directors, the Richmond City Jail. When we start talking about their stuff, they all know each other. The fact that WRIR is known nationwide for being an extremely successful independent radio station brings much to the show. I mean, that is absolutely essential — that they are so popular with so many people, and people really trust that station to give them information. So could it exist in another town? Yes, but only if it had another WRIR.
PF: Another strong community.
ACF: And WRIR only exists here.
PF: We’ve done interviews out of state, and when we tell people what it is, they’re like… what? Because it is a strange thing. They don’t know what to expect. We’d love to get it on PRX, and I think it would be picked up by a podcast. Other community stations, I think, would absolutely pick it up. I think where there’s a strong sense of localism and community, it would be successful, because we don’t specifically talk about Richmond. I mean, sometimes. We did a show on the Jefferson during the holidays.
ACF: But Richmond does have a few attractions that are death-related, that make it a town where people are talking about these things. You’ve got the Poe Museum, you have the constant discussion — thank goodness — about burial grounds, and the respect that has been historically shown them versus the respect that needs to be shown. And that’s at least five different sites. You have a very prominent medical school. And Hollywood cemetery, which is just the jewel.
PF: We have a lot of famous presidents buried in our backyard.
ACF: So all of those things promote more discussion about death and dying. And then if you look at our history museums, they cover it a little bit, between The Valentine and the Museum of History and Culture, and Tredegar. They all touch on it a little bit.
In another turn of local providence, Alane and Phil have started hosting live recordings at the Firehouse Theater. Under the banner of Death Club Radio Live, these bi-monthly black box events provide both a physical forum for community engagement, and supplement the on-air experience with vaudevillian theater.
ACF: The Firehouse, for various productions, would have a group discussion about the production. And they invited me on to discuss the aspects of death and dying in To Damascus. And that evidently went so well, it might have been an audition I didn’t know was an audition.
PF: The Artistic Director, Joel, was looking for a collaboration among several different types of things. He’s really a big fan of that. And obviously, she’s a wonderful speaker and engaging person. And then we combined that with the EAT people. They’re a nonprofit where they do these educational pop-up meals, combining Indian food with whatever subject they had in mind, and a chef would come in and cook for a family-style table.
ACF: So we did one of those on death and dying. We collaborated with them and we talked about funeral food. We talked about traditions. So we did a couple collaborations with the Firehouse, and then they invited us to be in-house every other month for two years.
PF: As part of the fringe.
ACF: Yeah, we’re the fringe. But it’s really nice because it gets our listeners introduced to The Firehouse, and it gets Firehouse people introduced to us. It’s a nice collaboration. And they do all kinds of incredible things. They have like 250 shows a year or something. What we’ve spent our time on is community events — events that are also related to the radio station. We also have multiple publications that we have made as part of a community education effort. We’ve looked into grants. If we were able to get some grants, what we’d like to do is more work with marginalized populations, and how they cope with death and dying.
A cursory search of the internet will reveal thousands of articles, sites, and services tagged #deathpositive. But it’s not a niche enclave of macabre Hamlet enthusiasts, nor is it an iteration of “New Age Positive Thinking,” which claims that by simply concentrating on perceptually enjoyable aspects of life, we can dispense with all unpleasantness. Death Positivity is not attempting to trade culturally-predominant death denial for a denial of grief. It doesn’t offer an oversimplified approach to overcoming the foreboding feel that we are genetically wired to feel toward dying. It doesn’t free you from loss. What it does is engage in a dialog about — and at times with — death. It offers up the taboo notion that, with a bit of luck, the end of your life can (and should) be an expression of the ways in which you have lived.
As a society, we have come to view death as a medical issue. Lives end in hospitals. Last breaths are intubated. There are visiting hours and harsh light fixtures. These sterile environments are attended by exhausted strangers in scrubs and coats. Death is hidden from view. It’s a combative approach to the End-of-Life enabled by death denial. This is an extension of our conditioning toward embattlement — we have to fight for what’s ours. Anything less is weakness. Anything less is giving up. We have become so obsessive in our pursuit of cures, we’ve largely lost sight of something profoundly more attainable: healing.
Here’s the thing: you’re going to die. Whether that happens in a hospital, surrounded by overworked and underappreciated nurses, or at home surrounded by family (or friends, or pets, or string lights that look like Corona bottles) won’t change that. But it will change your experience. And that matters. A terminal diagnosis is an opportunity to co-author the last chapter of a story written by every day of your life. In the business of stories, endings are important. But there’s a catch: you have to co-author this one with death.
We’re taught to run naked into battle, screaming Not today! and Fuck cancer! Hopefully it’s not today. And definitely fuck cancer. But battles are messy. Explosive. And there’s a very real possibility of getting more meaningful mileage out of an emptying tank than a head-on collision. It’s your journey. The Death-Positive movement wants you to know that, as much as circumstance allows, you can choose how it ends. And since, in truth, we’re all on that road, Death Club Radio is there to help make sense of the miles.
All Photos via Death Club Radio/Facebook