Death, Leisure, and “Feeling Alive”: A Conversation with Adam Kaul

Tall cliffs that overlook a vast expanse of a water body with a blue sky above that is speckled with a few white clouds.

I spoke with Adam Kaul, a professor of anthropology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, about Leisure and Death: An Anthropological Tour of Risk, Death, and Dying, a book he co-edited with Jonathan Skinner. Dr. Kaul was one of my undergraduate anthropology professors, so we began with his personal journey with the themes of the book throughout his research on music and tourism in Ireland—including a brush with skydiving—as well as more scholarly implications of studying “macabre” topics like death and dying. We also discussed the contributing authors’ various takes on the consumption of death from different viewpoints and parts of the world. Dr. Kaul shares his own process of reconciling the natural beauty of the Cliffs of Moher with the sadness of human suicide that accompanies it. Might our experiences of the awe-inspiring vastness of nature always be paired with thoughts of risk and death?

Please take care: this podcast episode includes the topic of suicide.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bri Meyer: The book touches on a variety of darker and perhaps uncomfortable truths that are important to cover, including the tragic implosion of the Titan submersible earlier this year. Could you talk about how and why you arrived at your research topic in Ireland that intersects with both leisure and death?

Leisure and Death (University of Colorado Press, 2018)

Adam Kaul: Between 2002-23, my wife and I lived in a small village called Doolin on the west coast of Ireland. One of the things about that region of Ireland is that just to the south of that village is a landscape called the Cliffs of Moher. Really beautiful 700 feet tall, sheer cliff rock face that is cut off by the Atlantic Ocean. About a million or more tourists visit every year, which to put it in context, the whole population of Ireland is about five million people.

It gets you to contemplate the elemental forces of life. I’ve been up there many times myself, and one of the sad and tragic things about that landscape is that it’s also a suicide black spot. So people sometimes travel there to complete suicide. If you go up to the site of the Cliffs of Moher, there’s a suicide prevention hotline and there are memorials up there. You have this really lovely light tourism and this beautiful landscape, but also this shadowy, tragic darkness to that site. As Fintan O’Toole, the Irish journalist and author, says, it’s a place where you go to contemplate death, but then you walk away from it and feel refreshed. Then there are some people who confront death, and they complete suicide.

Observing that for years, it just occurred to me that there’s something odd about this juxtaposition that happens there that got me to think about leisure and death. Then my colleague, Jonathan Skinner and I put a panel together at the American Anthropological Association and found that everybody wanted to talk about it—publishers, other anthropologists. And so, we put the book together.

BM: Why do you think it’s important to think about the polysemic or multifaceted nature of sociality? Do we gain anything by putting these things in perspective and losing those stark categorizations?

AK: Yeah, because that’s what’s out in the world. One of the strengths of anthropology is to look at the radical spectrum of cultural diversity and belief systems and practices around any given practice or belief. Let’s talk about death. If you look at the ideas about death, the practices, the rituals around death and dying across the planet and across time, you realize that there is so much diversity in terms of what people think is happening. The reality is that these things are not siloed. Death and dying is a very processual thing. It’s not an event at all. It’s something that happens slowly and in a lot of cultures, it’s a rite of passage into the ancestral world. A funeral becomes that kind of rite of passage, not necessarily just for the living to mourn the loss of the dead, but for the dead person to become an ancestor.

There’s a lot of cultures that have wildly different ideas about what this thing even is. So, once you start looking cross culturally, it really does naturally shatter a lot of the silos that we tend to build up in, let’s say American thinking about death and dying and the kind of medicalization of it in a hospital setting, in which we literally put a time stamp on the moment of death in our medical records. We have convinced ourselves that it’s a toggling between a light switch going off and on. And it really is not that. It’s a very slow process. For a lot of cultures, they believe it’s a process that continues into and beyond life. Once you start looking across culturally, silos of all sorts fall away and fall apart.

BM: Can you talk a little bit more about simulated risk and how it’s either related to or distinct from dark tourism and how that might come up in folks as they seek out these activities?

Adam Kaul, professor of Anthropology at Augustana College.

AK: Your reference to the submarine that imploded, putting yourself in a situation where part of the leisurely fun or interest or adventure is to actually risk your own life. That’s kind of what you’re getting at. And there’s of course, all sorts of activities that we seek out that put ourselves in danger like cliff jumping. We like to push ourselves. That’s different from dark tourism where we’re seeking out sites of death. Dark tourism is defined by lots of different scholars as travel to sites where death and dying has occurred to bear witness to it or to gawk at it. So, there are some forms that are really educational. Some forms are almost a pilgrimage to an important memorial site, for example. And then other forms of dark tourism really are to watch the suffering of others almost as a form of entertainment. So, there’s a wide variety of versions of dark tourism.

That was one of the things that we tried to tackle in this book, which is that there’s more going on here than just dark tourism, even though dark tourism is in and of itself, a very complex set of practices. What we wanted to incorporate were other accidental juxtapositions between leisure and death because we thought we could just expand the scope a little bit to include places like the Cliffs of Moher where a lot of tourists will go, and they never really thought about death and dying at a site like that. They saw it in the brochures and saw that it was beautiful, so they incorporated it into a larger package of events and locations. Then they get there and they might not be contemplating death and life. But they’re also confronted with these signs—a hotline for suicide, a memorial. And then they come to realize, oh my gosh, people have died here. There is a kind of puncturing of the moment with the reality of the past and people having died.

That’s not dark tourism per se because nobody or not many people would be traveling there on purpose to go look at the memorials or to see anybody die. A million people go there to just look at the landscape and then they’re confronted with death. I think there are lots of scenarios and situations where death and dying kind of seeps into our leisure practices. And then as you said, the risk-seeking leisure practices are toying with risk and death.

BM: Could you talk more about what it’s like to be at the Cliffs of Moher and what the tourists are doing there?

Death and dying is a very processual thing. It’s not an event at all. It’s something that happens.

AK: One of the things that ends up happening is that the people start joking about it. There’s a lot of joking behavior and locals who work at the site, they will often say most of that kind of behavior is from Americans, which makes sense to me because I think Americans are the pinnacle of what we talk a lot about in the book— death denial. This attempt to push away death and dying from our psychology. Americans, but lots of other people too, will start pretending to jump and have people take pictures of it. There’s a whole genre of photography at the cliffs where people are jumping up in the air, in a safe space usually. But in the background, they’re posing to make it look like they’re jumping off the cliffs. Or, the more popular version of this is to find a cliff edge where you pretend to be hanging off the edge. There are usually people laughing in this kind of pretend terrified way.

That kind of joking behavior speaks to this kind of discomfort people are having with this confrontation. They make these macabre jokes about dying at a site like that. I think there’s a compulsion too. There’s something strange about it where you just feel drawn to the edge. That’s a very common thing that people say, you want to get to the edge to look at the whole thing. But like Fintan O’Toole says, most people turn away and they feel refreshed, they feel more alive by having gone to the edge and then walking away.

BM: Last question, let’s end it on a hopeful note. The book makes readers think about how death or the potential of it is not always dark. Could you talk a little bit more about that to end it?

AK: Absolutely. There are multiple approaches to thinking through death and dying.

We can do the dark, depressing, macabre thing. We can also do what Montaigne did, the philosopher who embraces death and dying in order to live more richly. That’s partly what we’re trying to do with this book, we’re trying to humanize death and dying. This really gets at that whole thesis of death denial.

A common example of this is the practice of embalming in which families will choose to embalm a relative for a funeral. One of the reasons that some people do it is to deny the fact that they’re dead. One of the biggest compliments you can pay a funeral director in that scenario is they look so lifelike, which to me is just this moment of the ultimate death denial. And then you seal that person in a casket, which is sealed in a vault and then buried. We don’t want the decay to happen. We don’t want death to have even occurred. And yet this is all turning now, and we are having a moment where we are entering into a much more death positive era where we are trying to embrace death.

We end the book with a really beautiful chapter about green burials and how people are trying to embrace death in a more human, personal, intimate way where maybe people, friends and family wash the body and wrap it in muslin and then bring it out to the site where it’s buried, perhaps just in that muslin in the ground or maybe in a very simple pine casket that will quickly decay. Laws are being passed in places like Oregon to legalize things like human composting, which is an industrialized way to very quickly turn a human body into essentially dirt over the course of I think five or six weeks and then the family can do whatever they want with that dirt.

We’re coming around to some different ways of thinking about our own deaths. So there’s this whole movement called the Death Positive Movement, which is trying to embrace this process in a healthier way.

Featured Image: Cliffs of Moher. Photo by Mick Haupt, 2020.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Dr. Adam Kaul is an anthropologist who studies the economic and cultural impacts of the tourism industry in Ireland, the American Midwest, and more recently in Sweden. Additionally, he is an ethnomusicologist who studies traditional Irish music and busking, and he has also written about the anthropology of death and dying. Contact.

Bri Meyer a dissertator at UW-Madison and editor for Edge Effects. She does multispecies ethnography working with the American Saddlebred show horse community, of which she has been a lifelong member. Her specific research interests include the creation and cultivation of caring bonds across species that are collaborative, embodied, and gendered. Contact.