New Orleans has a unique relationship to death: we have a ridiculously high murder rate, we party at funerals, and we end up above ground. Death: the podcast tells the stories of personal experiences of death - fear of it, laughing at it, life-changing brushes with it, dealing with lost loved ones, and our own inevitable and unknown heart-stopping moment. Through confronting death we learn what it is to be alive.
“I’ve lost my mother, now my father has died, and now I’m facing my own mortality.”
Three times in one sentence, Allison Durant referenced what is still, for many people, a taboo subject known by many names: passing away, expiring, curtains, kicking the bucket, entering eternal rest — the list goes on and on.
But whatever one calls it, it’s the subject of a new New Orleans-based podcast imaginatively named “Death, the Podcast.”
Durant was the guest on the first episode, and during her 30-minute conversation with host Arian Elfant, she talked frankly about her mother’s death while Durant was a teenager, her father’s death later on and the inevitability of her own passing.
The podcast was created by two people: Elfant, a clinical psychologist, and ItsNewOrleans.com’s Grant Morris.
“I just went to Grant and said I wanted to do a podcast,” Elfant said. The two kicked around some ideas and eventually settled on producing one about death, which Elfant defines at the start of every show as “the destruction or permanent end of something.”
As a psychologist, Elfant said, her fascination with death began in her graduate school days. Other students didn’t share her interest, she found. But she couldn’t shake her fascination with it.
And it’s a frequent topic in her sessions as a clinical psychologist.
“It’s not always the reason that someone comes in,” she said. But it still shows up in different ways as they talk, whether it’s an experience they had or the fear they have of losing someone they love.
Four episodes of the podcast have been published.
Elfant takes a broad approach to the topic. “It really does feel like the sky’s the limit. We are trying to get a range for the show,” she said.
That range could take the podcast out beyond the matter of human death, such as to the end of a relationship, a career, a job and so on, she added.
In addition to Durant, who spoke extensively about her involvement in a group for motherless daughters, the guests have included artist Beverly Morris, whose life was irreversibly changed when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1987 and who had her most recent brain surgery in 2008; journalist Justin Nobel, who writes about death-related topics; and veterinarian Rachelle Biondolillo, who walks the difficult line between preserving and ending the life of beloved pets.
The tone of the episodes ranges from the raw to the bizarre to the gentle.
“I was very, very scared,” Morris recalled of the time just before her second brain surgery, when the depth of the danger she faced had begun to set in.
“I remember memorizing my Sprint phone number, which was very long — some kind of passcode and then the phone number,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I can memorize that and say that after surgery, I’m good to go.’ ”
Morris appeared in the second episode and, like Durant, talked frankly of how her life had changed with a new perspective on death.
The third and fourth episodes, featuring Nobel and Biondolillo, took a different tack, as each approached death from a professional — though still emotion-laden — perspective.
Nobel talked of his research into legends of how death is sometimes treated in other cultures, including “granny dump mountain,” a tale of Japanese abandoning elderly people on a sacred mountain to meet their end, or designer coffins in the shape of cars and other treasured items.
Nobel, who is based in New Orleans, also talked about the city’s notoriously high murder rate.
“You are sort of being tactless if you don’t address the fact that so many murders happen in the city and death can come so quickly,” he said. “That’s something I do think about.”
Biondolillo discussed how she talks to clients who are trying to decide when to have a beloved pet put down.
“I really try to empathize what someone is going through to make decisions,” she said. “You can’t be helpful if you don’t know the emotional struggle.”
Judging from the early returns, the podcast won’t end anytime soon.
Grant Morris declined to release specific download numbers, but he said the show has grown quickly. The first four episodes have done well enough to merit their own sub-page on the ItsNewOrleans.com website, and if it keeps growing, it will get its own site, he said.
And soon, it may have another feature of growth: advertising. Producing podcasts, while it can be done at home, is not free, and ads will help cover some of the costs.
Elfant interviews the guests — always in person so far — in a tiny studio at the Uptown home of her audio engineer, Eric Murrell.
Elfant and her guest sit just a foot or two apart, looking at each other across a small table, and she strives to keep the conversation personal and intimate even though it’s for broadcast.
During each taping, Murrell sits in an adjacent room, listening.
The interviews usually go for about an hour, which Elfant and Murrell later edit down to about 30 minutes of content. That process can take hours, and the pair, who met in person for the first time right before the first interview, compare notes as they edit, stitching the podcast together.
Murrell, who also produces the “Out to Lunch” podcasts in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is working for free. “I find the conversation is really important in this day and time,” he said.
New Orleans — a city of cemetery tours and voodoo — is the perfect place to spawn such a podcast, Elfant said.
“This is a city with an openness to the subject, and I don’t think you could replicate it somewhere else,” she said.
“We’ve called the podcast a baby,” Elfant said. As it grows, she expects it to explore.
Death “lends itself to a lot of creativity, a lot of space, a lot of different subject matters,” she said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.