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Home » Death Like You’ve Never Seen It Before: Joanna Ebenstein at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

Death Like You’ve Never Seen It Before: Joanna Ebenstein at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

Joanna Ebenstein – Producer

I grew up in California in the 1980s, which was a very sunny, extroverted culture. And I had an interest in darkness and death, which did not make me very popular. I kept dead animals in my room, thanks to my father back there. And I started clubs where we wrote essays for fun and I loved books where – spoiler alert – the main character dies. I don’t know why so many young adult novels are like that, but they are.

The antidote to my life in California were summers spent with my grandparents in Peekskill and Mahopac, New York. My grandparents were both Holocaust survivors and they both studied medicine. And they provided my sisters and I with a love for art and culture, and also a no-nonsense approach to life, death and the body.

When my grandmother was in her 90s and her health very much in decline, and having lost her husband of 60 plus years, she would often tell me that she wanted to die, that she was ready to go, and that she couldn’t tell anyone else but me. And she would call me her father confessor.

And I remember marveling at the fact that it had become so difficult to talk about such topics in our society and wondering how that could’ve come about. How did it become taboo to talk about, as I saw it, just about the most important thing you could say to another human being? Much of my work over the past 20 or so years has been trying to grapple with these questions, and my techniques were to research and photograph as many of these ways of dealing with death as possible with an eye towards practices that were once prevalent and high culture that now seem bizarre or morbid.

The more I looked around, the more I began to believe that the way we look at death in America today is by far the exception rather than the rule. It seems to me that every other time or culture has had a dignified discourse around what is essentially maybe the universal problem – the fact that we’re all going to die and the mystery of that fact.

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