Photos by Tash Kimmel
Deva Grace, 30, has a plan for when she dies. She hopes that her loved ones will process her body themselves. She has always had a respect and fascination for the ways of the past when family members of the deceased would process their bodies themselves. They would brush their hair, clip their nails, dress them, etc.
“I really love that—nowadays, someone else does that and there’s no processing of the death,” Deva says. “I feel like it’s an acceptance thing.”
It also happens that processing dead bodies is something she does regularly, both to respect death and cope with her own depression. Deva mummifies and makes art and jewelry out of roadkill and other dead animals. She calls herself a Roadkill Recycler.
“It’s really all about honoring them and honoring death,” Deva says.
In every corner of her home, Deva has pieces of dead animals. The molted skin of the snake sits on the shelf below her pothos plant that grows up her window. The pelt of a fox sits near the entrance of her kitchen, flopped over the edge of a jewelry box surrounded by necklaces with vertebrae charms and accentuated by a blood-red tablecloth. Dried bugs, lungs, bones and tarantulas fill jars strewn about her living room. She has a story for each one.
Deva’s holistic taxidermy presents itself differently from traditional taxidermy. Often,
we see buck heads mounted on walls or bear skin rugs as prizes won after performing some kind of primal, masculine show of dominance over the animal. Or we may find their bodies respectfully on display at museums, being used for education. But Deva does taxidermy to revere death.
She’s a tall woman with an almost military haircut and an eye-catching lip ring. She handles the corpses gently, tells you the name she’s given them and asks if you’d like to pet them.
It’s easy to claim that Deva is obsessed withall things morbid—but those who know her well might say she simply has a fascination and respect for life and its cycles. As a child, Deva and her mom visited graveyards and her mom read her obituaries. When she was 11, her pet lizard, Spike, died and she kept it in a jewelry box for a week. Eventually, her mom asked her to do something about it.
“I buried him,” Deva says, “but now I realize Icould have mummified him or done something like that. I could still have him.”
Her mom, Erin Grace, says she doesn’t remember this but that it sounds like something Deva would do.
“It makes me really happy to know she’s doing something that is so unique,”
Erin says, “It’s a reflection of who she is.”
Deva would love to be able to process Erin’s body when she passes—and it’s a conversation they’ve had more than once. She thinks it’s silly not to plan something like that.
“That’s the one promise in life: you’re going tofucking die,” Deva says. She believes
that processing a body can be healing, “It’s a really healthy letting-go process.
A lot of people think it’s weird but I think it’s actually a really beautiful thing.”
While Erin hasn’t given Deva explicit permission to process her
body, she trusts Deva to make the right choice when the time comes. “If
she wants to make jewelry out of my bones, that’s fine,” she says.
Deva wears the vertebrae of a baby opossum on a necklace every day. It was the first dead animal she ever processed. Now, dead animals seem to be magnetized to her. From friends’ dead pets to deer heads and remains found in the neighborhood, Deva will always have a bucket of bones macerating in a mixture of Dawn soap, peroxide and water under her back porch.
“Whatever my friends give me, if I didn’t find it myself, I make them something,” she says. “It might take me months or a year but eventually they’ll get some kind of jewelry or memento.”
She feels that creating something with these bodies and honoring their death even helps other people cope with life’s natural cycles. She calls it “death therapy.”
Recently, her friend Diana hit a squirrel while driving and found herself feeling remorseful. Despite the fact she knew killing squirrel with her car was inevitable, she couldn’t bring herself to just leave it in the road.
“I called Deva because I didn’t know what to do,” Diana says. “I’m grateful that she does what she does because it is really nice to have somebody that honors the animal. It’s really important to have some recognition of life.”
That awareness of and respect for mortality is a huge part of the “death
therapy” that Deva uses to cope with depression. Processing the bodies of
these animals is one major way she grounds herself in appreciation for life.
“It just makes me realize that I’m alive still and I’m happy to be alive, I’m
not ready to die yet,” Deva says. “I’m grateful to still be here and be able to do these things. You know, when you go into dark places it’s easy to forget that.”