John Troyer is Director of the Centre for Death and Society.
How long have you worked at the Uni? What does your role involve?
I have worked at the University for 10 years. I am the Director of the Centre for Death and Society as well as a faculty member in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences. So I have two roles, classroom instructor and director of a research centre. The Centre for Death and Society is unique in the world as the only research centre that looks at death, dying and the dead body.
Does your work and research affect your outlook on life?
It does. I work in death and dying, which is a very personal topic for everyone involved. This last July my younger sister Julie died of terminal brain cancer. She had been ill for almost a year, and we knew that the cancer was terminal, so there was no surprise there.
But I have recently been going through a big period of introspection about what is it I do as a researcher, and how I understand my research on personal level, which is good, and I think valuable. I’m thinking about death and dying in ways I just didn’t before.
My research suddenly became useful for me in this very personal way and helped me understand what needed to be done. For example, I was the one who told my sister that she was dying. Her doctors in Italy (where she lived and worked for over thirteen years) were waiting for her to ask for a prognosis instead of telling her what was happening, so she finally asked me and I told her “Julie you’re dying”. She had not had that conversation before. The work I do partially prepared me for that experience, but as well, I am/was my sister’s big brother. What she said to me at the time was “I would do this for you too” and she was right. This whole experience was both personal and professional.
I know how to talk about dying, it’s my job, but I had never talked about it like that before, and in that moment knowing all the research was very useful. It has been a really interesting dilemma because I know all the research and literature so well that I can see myself in what my colleagues have written, or now see that I disagree with what they are saying because of my experience.
What would you most like to achieve while at the University?
I want the Centre for Death and Society to continue growing as a collegial centre for research excellence around the world, while also continuing to expand its global research power, reputation, and influence.
How did you end up researching death and dying?
There are two reasons: one is family – my father was a Funeral Director back in the States, so I grew up in the business. But that’s not how I ended up doing what I do now. In graduate school I was working on my PhD in interdisciplinary comparative studies, focusing on the history of technology. In the second year of Grad School I took a seminar on pre-WW2 cinema and spectacle. One of the spectacles we looked at was the late 19th century practice of publically displaying unidentified corpses in the Paris morgue and I was really intrigued by this. I ended up looking into the history of embalming and I thought “This is it!”. I’ve got a project about technology and how it interfaces with death and the dead body, alongside bioethics and the history of science.
What piece of advice would you like to give to a student?
When you start a university education you’re not here for a degree, you’re here for an education. If you come purely for a degree then you’re going to have a terrible time and eat yourself up inside. But if you commit to being here for the education then you will get your degree and you will use that education however you want.
If you are applying for a job always remember that everyone else has a degree too, but if you explain to a potential employer that you have an education and can critically engage with the work, then that is valuable.
I always explain this to Undergraduates on their first day – you are here for the education, not the degree.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
For a long time I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I was also interested in acting and writing. I actually did do some professional film and commercial television acting in college and graduate school (which no one will ever find so don’t go looking!). I paid the bills in Grad School by doing some really terrible TV commercials.
What was your first job?
The first real job I had was working at a care home in my home town in Wisconsin, as a maintenance worker. It was okay, but it wasn’t great. I call that a character building job. Then I got a job at a movie theatre as an usher, and my sister worked there too; that was a great job. Free movies. I worked there all the way through High School. The one job I’ve had that I enjoyed the most was as a Personal Trainer for the YMCA in Minneapolis, I did that before and then while I was completing my PhD at the University of Minnesota.
Before grad school I also worked for a large-scale corporate events company – in a way I was their ideal employee since I was smart and I could lift heavy things. At one point I drove semi-trucks from Minnesota down to New Orleans and back for their events - that was a real experience. It was good fun.
If you could start your own dream business, what would it be?
For years my sister and I joked about how we wanted to start a TV travel show called “Sibling Rivalry” where we would travel around the world. The main idea for the show was that I would always want to go to the local cemetery and she would always want to go shopping.
Where is your favourite holiday destination and why?
Usually Hawaii. My grandparents retired to Honolulu on Oahu, so I grew up going there. I always enjoy going to the Hawaiian Islands because it’s beautiful and amazing, but also because it feels like home and family.
If you could meet anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be and why?
That’s a good question. There are so many historical figures I find compelling… but I think for right now and because of everything my family’s been going through I would say my sister. I would say my sister because she was 43 when she died, and she was too young. And there are so many things I would like to see her do with her kids, and so many parts of my life I’d like to see her be part of and she won’t now. If I could, in a heartbeat, I’d want her to be here just so she could continue to do what she was doing.
Tell us your favourite joke
This was a joke my sister made about me during my live art theatre days:
How many performance artists does it take to change a lightbulb?
I don’t know I left at intermission.