March Author of the Month: Dr. Helen Frisby

Authors photo supplied by Dr. Helen Frisby

My Author of the Month this month is Dr. Helen Frisby. A very talented lecturer and non-fiction writer whose latest book, Traditions of Death and Burial, had me talking the ears off of family and friends. Helen currently, teaches at the University of Bristol, UK, and is an internationally recognized expert on history, folklore, and material culture of death, dying and bereavement. Helen has also appeared on the History Channel and BBC Radio 4.

Without further ado, let’s get to know Helen

First things first: are you a tea in bone china drinker or a coffee in a mug drinker?

Coffee in a mug. I collect vintage china teasets, but am too scared to use them in case I break them!

· Which books would you say impacted you most during your childhood?

I learned to read using the Ladybird Peter and Jane series, so you could say that they had a big impact. My teacher insisted that I ‘wasn’t ready’, so my parents took matters into their own hands and taught me. I’m very grateful to them for doing that. My childhood books were pretty typical of the time – Mog, Noddy, Wombles, Paddington Bear, Famous Five, Malory Towers and so on. Some of those are probably a bit old-fashioned now, but others have stood the test of time.

· What do you read in your downtime and what are you currently reading now?

I usually have one serious and one fun book on the go at a time. My current serious book is With The End In Mind by palliative care doctor Kathryn Mannix. I agree with her that we urgently need a new – or maybe reinvented – ritual vocabulary around death and dying.

My fun book at the moment is Cloak of Deception by James Luceno. I’m a huge Star Wars fan.

· Who or what led you to follow the field of research your in?

As an undergraduate I was taught by the amazing Professor Douglas Davies, who ran a course on ‘Death, Ritual and Belief.’ I didn’t know it then, but this (late 1990s) was the time when death studies was really taking off as an academic subject. My subsequent Masters’ dissertation was a micro-study of popular attitudes to death in Reformation York, and that in turn led to a PhD on Victorian folk funeral customs. Meanwhile, attending a particularly dreadful funeral around this time gave personal force to my growing belief that the past has a lot to teach us about dealing better with death.

· Your field of interest, I’m sure, can be quite overwhelming, do you find you need to take a step back at times? If so, what do you do?

I’m part of an international, multidisciplinary community of death studies scholars, and regularly touching base with people in that world who ‘get’ it helps keep things in perspective. In the lecture hall or seminar room we’re in academic mode, debating and discussing the issues, but otherwise we just talk about all the normal stuff that friends and colleagues do.

Attending funerals – obviously I’m there as a participant, but that said I never can completely put my inner observer away, so yes I do also end up analysing what’s going on. I guess it’s my way of coping.

Beyond my research I enjoy pottering at home, going to the cinema, theatre, music concerts and so on. I’d like to be good at gardening, but the reality is that I quickly get bored and cold, and end up paying somebody else to do it.

· In the heritage world, oral histories are finding a solid footing and turning up interesting results with regards to social history and its impact on the present-day generation. With regards to your current research, Grave Communications: An Oral History of Gravedigging, are you finding compelling results?

Dr Stuart Prior and I have found that gravediggers – or cemetery operatives as they’re called nowadays – are a really key part of how we do death in this country. However, until we came along nobody had previously thought to consult them in any detail – how a cemetery works day to day, and exactly how do you dig and then maintain the graves. Given that the UK presently is in the throes of a burial space shortage this seemed to us an especially peculiar oversight, one that our research is now correcting.

· Do you find stories of the supernatural turn up during your research and could you share one with us?

Our ancestors had a strong sense that until the funeral had taken place the dead weren’t so much dead, as lurking somewhere in-between life and death. It was therefore necessary to keep a watchful eye on while the body was laid out at home, and Folklore journal recounts a tale from a Worcestershire village about 1860, about a child who had died at the baker’s house: ‘One of the neighbours had been present in the sick-room, and after all was over she and the mother were sitting together in a downstairs room, when a slight noise was heard upstairs, rousing them both. The mother wanted to go up to the dead child, but the other restrained her. “You mown’t go upstairs. It’s Little Lucy. Yes, she’s dead, ma’am, but her spirit bain’t gone yet. We mown’t disturb her.”’

· You have done a lot of public speaking with students and on TV/Radio. Which do you find more nerve wracking?

Both in different ways. I’ve learned that it’s not the end of the world if you’re not always technically perfect as a speaker; what audiences really want – especially with a topic like this – is authenticity and warmth. And knowing my stuff, of course!

· Your area of interest has led to a treasure trove of information that I’m sure would make a spectacular gothic horror, have you ever thought about penning a fiction?

If I ever did write a (semi) fiction book it would actually be about one of my cats, and how he was adopted, escaped on the first night then travelled for three months to get back to his old home. My husband and I take his staying with us as proof that we’re running an acceptable cat hotel.

Traditions of death and burial:

Image supplied by Dr. Helen Frisby

· Do you have a favourite anecdote you’ve came across while researching?

My all-time favourite is the 1920s Yorkshire folklore collector Henry Fairfax-Blakeborough’s wry observation that port wine didn’t count as alcoholic when drunk at funerals, with the consequence that certain otherwise strict teetotallers were rather prone to, ahem, overdoing it on these occasions. This always amuses audiences, and is a nice reminder that sadness and humour are very often two sides of the same coin.

· If you could time travel, which period in history would you like to have gone back and witnessed for researching your book?

If I really had to choose, then it would probably be the medieval period. However I’d insist on taking some twenty-first century painkillers with me – it’s easy to over-romanticise the past, forgetting that the modern way of dying does have its plus points. And the greatest of these, I would argue, is effective pain relief.

· Your section about Halloween and All Souls Day was interesting and not something I have come across before. Do you know if All Souls Day is still observed?

Not that I’m aware of, but I’m saying that very carefully because you never know when somebody will say actually we do still do that!

· The connection you make between a low life expectancy and the need to be hands-on to help the soul and body compared to a long life expectancy and having a more hands-off approach is compelling. I’ve read around this subject and ultimately not made the connection until reading your argument. Have you found many other readers like me in this regard or perhaps yourself?

I usually begin talks by noting what sociologists call ‘the predictable death trajectory’ – whereby nowadays most of us in the West die gradually from the chronic diseases associated with old age. I also talk about our modern ‘sequestration’ of the dying and dead away to the hospital, care home and hospice, and after death to the euphemistically named Chapel of Rest. Audiences nearly always identify with this kind of experience – although perhaps not always in quite these, it has to be said, rather clinical terms.

· I connected with your conclusion that people are feeling emotionally unsatisfied with funerals post World Wars. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced the very off hands approach and the more hands-on approach: my gran was brought back to the family home for a wake, this is the first time I saw a dead person and I remember helping make sandwiches and meeting people who came to pay their respects for the few days before the funeral. Because of this, I felt more emotionally complete compared to the former. You mention that there is a turning of the tide to the hands-off approach, how far do you think this may go before the pendulum swings back again?

On a personal level, as I mentioned earlier, one of my formative experiences was attending a funeral which represented the worst of the typical British late twentieth-century send-off: rushed, impersonal, and denial of the real sadness of loss. This experience inspired my efforts to ensure that as a society we move right away from this kind of ‘hands off’ approach to death. With my academic hat on, however, I think you’re probably right – historically we do rather seem to go through these cycles of invention, rejection then reinvention (in slightly different clothes) of ritualised expressions of grief and loss. As I discuss in the book, I can only see that stopping if and when humanity acquires immortality – at which point ‘living’ and ‘dying’ mean very different things anyway.

Is there an aspect from the past traditions of death and burials you would like to see a re-emergence of?

Not so much any particular custom, as the underlying concept – which I think people in the past intuitively understood – that grief is actually about refiguring the ‘continuing bond’ between oneself and the dead person. For much of the twentieth century – courtesy largely of Sigmund Freud – we’ve instead had this bizarre, and frankly cruel notion that to ‘recover’ from a bereavement is to reach a point where it’s almost as if the deceased never existed. It’s great therefore to see the re-emergence of spaces – including, in a twenty-first century twist, digital spaces – where one can carry on that relationship with dead loved ones.

· Remembrance Day is mentioned in your work as an example of the present remembering the dead. The debate comes round every November of whether commemorating Remembrance is still relevant now that the World War generations are passing on. Do you think Remembrance will cease to be remembered in the coming century?

Sort of. Memory, I think, works in half-lives; although the actual World War generations with their first-hand memories are now rapidly passing on, something of those memories lives on in their children and even in my own generation, their grandchildren. Although clearly I wasn’t around during the war(!), I grew up hearing about it from my grandparents who were, so it’s a part of me albeit at second remove. So I think my generation at least might keep on observing Remembrance in some form, even if just as a way of keeping in touch with our own grandparents.

· You have mentioned that you have always wanted to write this book, how does it feel to have accomplished this goal and been able to hold the physical book in your hands?

To me the physical book in my hands represents a hectic, happy time in my life: while writing it I also got a job I’d wanted for years and moved house, all in just a few months. None of this would have happened without all the support from my wonderful family and friends; in particular my husband Andy, who supplied endless toasted bagels and mugs of coffee (see earlier question), listened to me whinge and (not entirely joking here!) reminded me to wash.

· Your book focuses on the UK’s traditions of death and burial, do you think you would ever write a sequel about other countries traditions of death and burials? Such as, the sky burials of the Mongolians, the turning of the bones of Madagascar, New Orleans Jazz funerals etc.

A whole world of funeral customs… where to start?! It just shows how people are so endlessly, defiantly creative in the cold face of mortality, and that’s what I really wanted to celebrate in the book.


· Are you working on any future books that are articles at the moment?

I’m working on a book about Victorian funeral customs, which is (sort of) the book of my PhD topic. Meanwhile Stuart and I are also writing up our findings from the Grave Communications project so far.

· How can we follow your progress? is the best place to find me online; I’m also on if anyone wants me to come and do a talk for their group or event.

Author: Zoe Pollock

I love reading books and all things book related!

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