Ghost stories, death cafes and the darker side of life
Chris Woodyard (BA, medieval and renaissance studies, 1976) has made a living out of her fascination with the dead. Her love of history led her to Ohio State and eventually to a degree in medieval and renaissance studies. But after graduation, Woodyard found a lifelong career in writing.
Once Woodyard completed her first book, a how-to guide for newly arrived families in Dayton titled “The Wright Stuff,” she asked her local librarians what she should work on next. Their immediate response? A book of Ohio ghost stories.
Woodyard has since published seven volumes of Haunted Ohio, which collectively chronicle ghostly tales from each of Ohio’s 88 counties. She also recently published The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection of death and mourning rituals from the 19th century. We sat down with Woodyard to learn how she turned her interest in “the darker side of life” into a career — and how Ohio State helped her get there.
On writing and research
Haunted Ohio draws mostly from popular sources, and Woodyard bases her books on the accounts of the people who were there. When it came time to research and write The Victorian Book of the Dead, Woodyard said she took the same approach to ensure she didn’t get locked into only “official” sources.
“If you’re studying Victorian mourning, you might only look at poetry and literature,” she said. “But I’m looking at what the man on the street or the man in the morgue was thinking. You get a better feeling for what people really thought about death and mourning.”
Although the books are based on first-hand accounts, they also required a great deal of academic research – a skill Woodyard learned at Ohio State.
“Ohio State taught me how to do research and gave me the tools. It’s this idea of ‘Don’t stop here, go just this much further,” she explained.
“I’ve had the luxury, thanks to what I learned at Ohio State, to flit from topic to topic rather than being locked into one thing. I find its really useful in my work to know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about some things.”
A death positivist revival
As of late, Woodyard is making an effort to return to her academic roots. Last March, she gave a presentation on 19th-century shroud-making to the Costume Society of America. According to Woodyard, there has been a resurgence in shroud-making, as well as the desire to make death more personal.
“I think people are trying to get more in touch with death because we’ve let it go into the hands of the professionals. But families used to take care of their own dead,” Woodyard explained. “There’s a death positivist movement actually.”
As part of this movement, “death cafes” have sprung up around the world. These meetings, usually over coffee and cakes, offer individuals the chance to discuss their own thoughts and feelings surrounding the idea of death, as well as how they’d like their death to be.
“We’re often afraid of death and think we’re going to live forever. Obviously, we’re not,” Woodyard said. “The Victorians knew that, and that’s what I like about them. They were exposed to death quite a lot, and they knew that death was just an inevitable part of life.”
Woodyard herself spent a lot of time at funerals and viewings in her youth, and even gave a presentation on funeral directing for a high school project. She said she’s always been more fascinated by death than fearful of it – a mindset that set her up well for a career writing about the departed.
“I’ve just always been interested in the darker side of life,” Woodyard said.