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The unlikely price of admission to Christine Quigley’s museum of death, which occupies her apartment in Alexandria, is an onion bagel, toasted, with butter and bacon. Dressed in a purple sweat suit, the diminutive author of Death Dictionary, The Corpse: A History, and the forthcoming Modern Mummies has short, spiky black hair and looks unsettlingly like the singer k.d. lang. She accepts the breakfast offering gratefully, eats half of it, then begins the tour.
In the living room of Quigley’s smallish, open-plan apartment is a glass case containing funeral home and mortuary memorabilia—logo-imprinted matchbooks and wicker fans, cemetery plot receipts, casket catalogs, hair jewelry, a jar of embalming fluid, death certificates (which, she explains in The Corpse, must always be completed in black ink)—given to her as gifts or bought at flea markets or antique stores. This vitrine of souvenirs hangs over a prized possession. “Two Christmases ago, my best friend’s mother said, ‘Okay, Chris, I couldn’t wrap your gift, but just sit there and close your eyes.’ So I’m sitting on the couch and she’s hauling this thing in on a little child’s plastic sled, and she drags it to my feet (it’s got a blanket over it), and she says, ‘Okay, you can open your eyes now.’ She whips the blanket off—it’s a tombstone,” she says, then repeats herself as if emphasizing a failed punch line: “A tombstone. She gave me a tombstone for Christmas. It was the best Christmas gift I ever got.” The white granite slab once rested over a child’s grave; Quigley researched to make sure it hadn’t been stolen.
The tombstone marks the entrance to her library, where books are grouped by subject. The section for vampires sits above the cannibalism section; true crime is ranged right over funeral sciences; forensic anthropology sits across from disasters, killer animals, and survival stories; the afterlife lies next to death themes in literature. A series of sepia-toned dissection photos lines the wall above her desk. One of the photographs shows a medical school’s graduating class: A group of young men, some somber-faced, others smiling, clusters around a ripe, half-gutted body. Their smocks are dated with the year: 1901. “Actually, that [photo] included a ticket to their graduation when I bought it,” Quigley explains. “I stopped going about a year ago, but every six months I used to visit an antique photo show, where I picked most of these up.”
Quigley’s “natural history collection,” staggered throughout the apartment, includes an alligator skin, a fox face, a coyote skin, a kangaroo hide, and an assortment of skulls and skeletons: bobcat, baboon (her favorite), sea turtle, otter, rabbit (another Christmas gift), rattlesnake, and rat. Her former roommate personally assembled the last: Discovering the dead rodent in her bookstore’s basement, the roommate boiled its skin off in a soup, wired and glued its bones back together, and presented it to Quigley as a birthday gift. The collector bursts with pride: “As you can see, she even glued the toenails back on!”
Another display case holds Quigley’s collection of fossils. One is an encrusted mammoth’s tooth. A resident algae specimen is 530 million years old. A third case houses the papier-mache souvenirs—brightly colored skeletons celebrating the Day of the Dead—that Quigley bought on a trip to Mexico several years ago. “The best one is second from the bottom, that little surgeon skeleton working on the patient,” she snickers. “My brother-in-law sent it to me after my left lung collapsed” (as a complication of multiple sclerosis, diagnosed in 1991).
Close by, at the foot of Quigley’s bed, sits a child’s casket, shiny and newly refinished, stamped with a silver plaque that reads: “Our Darling.” Keeping watch over it—and, indeed, all of Quigley’s memento mori—are three female mannequins: Evelyn, rescued from her apartment building’s trash room, is an albino torso; Genevieve, armless, dressed in a black slip, holds court in the kitchen; and Madeleine wears an authentic mourning blouse and sports, thrillingly, a homemade mask of the Egyptian god of death, Anubis.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Quigley was a fan of horror movies growing up. Her fascination with death gave way to serious study of the subject during her senior year in college, when, for an art class, she built a life-size cardboard coffin in her dorm room and stayed up late one night to read Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death. That book provided Quigley her first real glimpse into the secret lives of funeral directors and embalmers—and an epiphany. “From that point, I was hooked. I began reading about survival stories, cannibalism, funeral homes—all aspects of death, all the standard texts. I was reading a book every other day,” she recalls, adding that it was also at about this time she began amassing her collection of death artifacts. “I would take notes from the books as I went along, and, starting on index cards—I didn’t even have a computer at that time; this was 1986, I was already in D.C. working—I began listing all the words I came across that were related, some more than others, to death. I wanted to compile the words into a book.”
The result, completed five years later and published in 1994, was The Death Dictionary, a listing of some 5,500 clinical, literary, and vernacular terms—from “abortion” to “zombie” (actually, from the entry “A,” an abbreviation for accidental death, to “z-table,” slang for mortality table)—related to the sweet hereafter. Quigley, who doesn’t make her living from these books but is reticent to discuss her day job for fear of weirdos tracking her down, explains that The Death Dictionary, like any other, is purely a reference book, not a how-to manual or an attempt to demystify the greatest unknown of them all. “I’m not so interested in what happens after death [or] its spiritual aspects,” Quigley admits. “A hundred years ago, people weighed bodies right before and right after death to see if the soul weighed anything. Stuff like that just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m interested in the physical, what’s here and now.”
Quigley’s preference for the juicier, more corporeal aspects of death and dying inspired The Corpse, her second book, published in 1996. In Quigley’s capable hands, the corpse, that obvious symbol of mortality, loathsome object of revulsion, and potentially dangerous pollutant, turns out to be a surprisingly lively subject. Quigley tosses her readers some remarkable bones, cataloging the myriad ways corpses come into being, indexing how they can be recycled (for anatomical gifts, food for a shipwrecked crew), defiled (by grave robbers or necrophiliacs), and, of course, buried. “In a lot of cultures, like the Tibetan, they position the dead body, which has been semi-dismembered, up on a tower for birds, for vultures, to come and tear at it and take it away,” she explains. “That’s called sky burial.”
“Then there’s a space-age undertaker who took Gene Roddenberry’s ashes and launched them into orbit around the Earth,” Quigley says. “This company actually has a satellite with people’s ashes on it orbiting the Earth. Eventually, it will burn up in the atmosphere, but for something like 10 years, on particular nights, the widows or whoever can look up with their telescopes and see this satellite flying around and be comforted.” Quigley shakes her head dubiously. “I don’t agree with spending a whole lot of money to get rid of a body.”
Quigley’s preferred method of disposal, desiccation and mummification, is the focus of her third and latest book, Modern Mummies. Because she doesn’t have a strong scientific background (in college, Quigley majored in English and graphic design) and because so much has been written about ancient and Egyptian mummies, the author chose to study the phenomenon as it is practiced in the 20th century. Her new subject prompted a change in her research methods. “The dictionary was just compiling words, and The Corpse, although it required a lot of research, was basically research out of other books and at the library,” she says. “With Mummies, what I intended to do and did was a lot of one-on-one correspondence with people who had owned mummies, or displayed mummies, or knew about mummies, or studied them.” She wrote hundreds of letters to sniff out new material.
Once responses started to trickle in, the book’s scope broadened, as did Quigley’s idea of what constituted a modern mummy. “I considered cadavers to be modern mummies because they’re preserved for long periods of time, so there’s a section on learning aids and bodies that are preserved to teach students.” There are also chapters on carnival mummies, glacier mummies (people trapped, frozen, and petrified in the slow-moving seas of ice), cryonic mummies (freeze-dried cadavers), funeral-home mummies (loved ones never reclaimed or buried, set up as window dressing), and embalmed celebrities displayed and worshipped (the Eva Perons of the world).
“In each of these directions, I started by contacting the most basic places—like for the carnival mummies, I began by getting in touch with carnival and circus museums and associations,” Quigley continues. “I wrote to them, and if they had a newsletter, they’d list my name, and people would contact me, and they’d mention somebody else—it just grew out from there.”
As is always the case, some leads proved more fruitful than others. Quigley produces a black-and-white photograph; in it, she is posed over a blackened, withered mummy. “That’s Cap’n Boswell’s mummy, Hazel Farris,” she explains. “Cap’n Boswell was in the Merchant Marines. I went to North Carolina to see him and Hazel.
“In 1906 in Kentucky, Hazel Farris wanted to buy a hat, and her husband had a big objection to that. She pitched a fit, they got into a big fight, she grabbed up his revolver and shot him, and he fell dead on the floor. A lawman passing in front of the house came in to see what was happening, and she shot him, too. And then two more men were coming by, the sheriff and somebody else, and people warned them, ‘Everybody who’s goin’ in there’s gettin’ shot!’ but they went in and were shot, too. So now there’s a pile of four men dead on her floor. She’s missing her ring finger, which was shot off. So she escapes out the back door and runs to Alabama to hide out, where she makes her living as a prostitute for two years and falls in love with this man. She confides her story to him, and he betrays her for the reward money. Now she’s sure the police are going to get her and, rather than be captured, she takes poison,” Quigley recounts half-gleefully. “We don’t know if the poison preserved her or if she was embalmed, but she mummified while waiting to be claimed by her family, which, alas, never happened.”
The enthusiasm with which Quigley relates Hazel Farris’ story, the obvious pride she feels in her museum, her gallows humor—so evident in the photographs of Quigley dressed in Halloween costumes past (Chris as Lizzie Borden, Chris as Amelia Earhart, Chris as a conjoined twin, Chris as Eddie Munster, Chris as a coffined-corpse)—all show that these emotions and interests are real, no question. Nevertheless, toward the end of our tour, Quigley bristles when I suggest that she has made studying death her life’s work, and she admits that lately she’s grown a little tired of the never-ending autopsy her scholarship has become.
Her professional fatigue has nothing to do, she maintains, with multiple sclerosis, which has weakened her body and forced her to walk with a cane. Rather, she says, it is a matter of personal growth and maturation, of not being pigeonholed, of moving—finally—beyond the Grim Reaper’s realm. “With my next book, I wanted to keep going forward; I didn’t want to be limited by death,” she asserts. “Of course, my interests are still morbid, so I had to find something that would sustain me.”
“I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I finally got it,” Quigley says, smiling and leaning in as if telling a dirty secret—which, of course, she is: “I decided: I’m gonna write a book about traumatic amputations!”
The writer giggles naughtily, and behind us, Anubis stares silently, disapproving.