By Mike Sula

J.R. Olivero is looking for signs of death in Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. “There are thousands of people here and you can’t even see them,” he says as he drives his van slowly down the lanes, surveying the level expanse of white emptiness. A blanket of snow has obscured the flat rectangular stones marking Queen of Heaven’s residents. Only an occasional brightly colored floral arrangement indicates that this is even a cemetery.

Olivero–a 36-year-old television producer and director from Brookfield who’s done work for clients ranging from insurance companies to the Pentagon to Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted–has spent hundreds of hours hanging out around here. Over the last two years he’s spent thousands more in other cemeteries across the country, scouting locations for a five-part documentary on the history of death in America that will examine attitudes toward it over the last 400 years. He and his wife, Debra–his partner in World Productions since 1980–have shown an 11-minute promotional trailer to the Discovery Channel and hope it will buy the series when it’s completed.

“Park lawn cemeteries have no character,” he says, looking out over the flat landscape. Like all park lawns, Queen of Heaven owes much of its design to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, which opened its gates in 1913. “The thinking was that you could come to this place and not be constantly reminded of death, because there are no visible headstones to remind you of dead people. You know, ‘How dare you come to a cemetery and think about dead people?’ It’s also easier to run a lawn mower through.”

Olivero prefers the older Mount Carmel Cemetery just across Roosevelt Road, where forests of stone tree trunks and angels reach skyward among stately family mausoleums with elaborate stained-glass designs of saints and bleeding hearts, and where glazed ceramic portraits of the dead are embedded in many of the stones. He says, “Families used to plan outings in cemeteries, have picnics, talk to their relatives, reflect on family history and their own lives.” He remembers playing in the cemetery during his own family’s outings–20 to 30 relatives from the Italian side of his family are buried there. It was also the site of his first funeral, when he was three years old; his uncle had died, and he vividly remembers his fainting aunt’s shoes flying up in the air.

Olivero says the differences between Queen of Heaven and Mount Carmel are the consequence of a change in attitude toward death in this country. The newer cemetery reflects a contemporary desire to keep death out of sight and out of mind. The older cemetery accommodates thoughtful acceptance of it. He says many Americans have forgotten how to deal with death and react to it with an unhealthy mixture of fear, despair, and humorlessness. “Now you can go through grade school, high school, college, get married–and never experience a death in your family. You may not see it until you’re 40 years old, because we have technology that keeps people alive longer. It allows people to turn away from it.”

Not Olivero. He’s enthusiastic about death, rattling off a mishmash of information he plans to use in his documentary: obsolete burial practices, death tolls from epidemics, the location of plowed-over cemeteries, medical curiosities. “I’ve always been interested in bizarre things,” he says. For example, “People used to call the living room a parlor. Not only did the family entertain in the parlor, but they also displayed their dead there. In 1901 Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, declared that his magazine would never again publish a floor plan with a parlor, because the word was associated with death. From then on the magazine referred to them as living rooms, and the term stuck.”

One of his favorite subjects is grave robbing, and he gleefully tells stories of the extremes to which 19th-century doctors would go to get cadavers for dissecting, including keeping grave robbers on retainer. “There is one example of a young boy in 1788 just curiously looking through an open window of a New York City medical college. This medical student was dissecting an arm, and he said, Hey kid, I’m working on your mother’s arm. The kid ran home, obviously upset, and told his father, who checked the grave. Sure enough, her grave had been robbed. A mob stormed the college, the militia was called out, and the students had to take refuge in the jail. Grave robbing got to be a comedy of errors.”

He says that families of the recently buried began hiring guards to stand watch at a grave until the body had decomposed enough to be useless for medical study. In Boston “torpedo graves” were booby-trapped with explosives triggered to detonate if they were disturbed.

By the 1880s there was still no law against stealing a body from a grave–only against stealing the clothes and jewelry buried with it. So robbers would strip a corpse before taking it. The issue didn’t receive national attention until 1878, when the body of Senator John Scott Harrison–son of President William Henry and father of President Benjamin–was discovered being hoisted into a dissecting room at the Medical College of Ohio one day after his funeral. The case instigated legislation that enabled doctors to obtain cadavers legally, usually those of indigents or asylum inmates. “In typical American fashion,” says Olivero, “nothing is ever done about a situation until it happens to somebody famous.”

Olivero’s film will be illustrated in part by photos from the collection of Stanley Burns, the New York City ophthalmologist and photo historian whose collection was used in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. Olivero had seen Stanley Burns’s book Sleeping Beauty, a collection of memorial photographs of the dead commissioned by relatives, and had been struck by two photos of a young boy taken immediately before and after his death. “Somebody loved this boy a lot and cared enough to take his picture. When this photograph was taken, in about 1850, it probably cost three months’ salary for his family. This was going to be the last memory of this child for them. It was a very important sacrifice.”

When Olivero saw the photos he knew he wanted to do a documentary. Production began this fall and he hopes to be finished by spring, though he’s still busy interviewing historians, doctors, and priests.

Olivero thinks it’s important to use humor to enliven his subject. “In colonial times people used to think syphilis was caused by potatoes. Imagine some guy coming home and saying, ‘But honey, it was the potatoes.’ If you don’t entertain the viewers they’re going to tune out. There’s a lot of humor here.” He also claims to have filmed an interview with a neurosurgeon who successfully transplanted the severed head of a monkey onto the body of another one. He says he doesn’t want to reveal the name of the doctor for fear someone will scoop him before Death in America airs. “He is one ticked-off monkey, but he is alive. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, what, 100 years ago? This program is not going to be depressing. It’s going to give people hope.”

When asked what he’d like to have done with his body when he dies he jokes, “I used to think I’d like to be cremated and have my wife mix me into food that my family and friends could eat. Then I started doing this work and seeing all these crypts and mausoleums. I began to envision a huge one with me at the center. I’d dig up my relatives and surround myself with them. On the outside I’d like an image of me in a coffin supported by angels. That would be like my relatives supporting me, which has been the story of my life. I’d have to be extremely wealthy to do it, but I would if I could. I don’t want to be remembered as a loon looking out of his coffin. But if you’re going to die, don’t you want to make it interesting? Like that guy who got buried in his Cadillac. It’s the whole idea of putting the fun back in the funeral.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Randy Tunnell.