Cole Imperi looks at the Tarot card her podcast guest Lauren has chosen and begins to prepare her for it. “I’m going to show you what this card is, but don’t be afraid,” says Imperi. “It’s sort of an intense card.” The mother of three from Indiana, who is participating via Skype, replies, “You’re making me nervous.”
Lauren has chosen the Death card for the “future” position in her reading. “Don’t be afraid. It does not mean anyone is going to die,” Imperi soothes. “That’s not what this card is about. This is a chapter. There is a chapter that is ending, and something new is beginning.” Imperi, 33, first got into Tarot when she was a child, but she’s no psychic or witch. “Tarot isn’t magic,” says the Covington resident.
Instead, it’s a way for her to communicate her life’s work by teaching people to “see every loss as a second chance.” Imperi is a certified thanatologist, which makes her an expert in death and dying. While most thanatologists teach on college campuses or work in funeral homes, she chose a different path as a writer and a public speaker. She appeared recently at the Mercantile Library downtown to talk about death and ritual, and gave a TEDx talk at UC. She’s an adjunct professor at mortuary colleges and has been hired to help businesses deal with death or failure.
Podcasts, Imperi says, are the perfect medium to reach a wider public. She started last year with Life, Death & Tarot, which features Episodes, like the one with Lauren, when Imperi reads someone’s Tarot cards. Then there are Mortisodes, about 30 minutes long and focused on a single aspect of thanatology, like how to write a proper sympathy note. A few months later she launched The American Thanatologist podcast, a deeper dive that includes interviews with experts.
“Death is a taboo subject in our culture—we don’t talk about it,” says the Rev. Bill Gupton, head minister at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Anderson Township. Gupton and Imperi are leading an effort, with other partners, to create Heritage Acres Memorial Sanctuary, the region’s first natural burial ground (think biodegradable caskets and shrouds, minimal or no markers, and areas for scattering ashes). Gupton says Imperi’s keen ability to take something as dark and esoteric as death and make it accessible—even fun—is astounding.
When Imperi talks about death, she doesn’t just mean the physical act of dying. She’s describing any ending or loss—maybe a divorce, an out-of-control child, the loss of a job, or a car accident. “My goal is to get people to see every loss as an opportunity, instead of avoiding it,” she says.
Loss is something we all experience and therefore can connect us, says Imperi, who’s been dealt her fair share of hardship. She faced her own mortality at 14, surviving a life-threatening disease. Months after getting married, she learned she was infertile. In 2014, she and her husband were victims of an assault that turned into an ongoing case of harassment. Those hurdles were challenging, she says, but for whatever reason she’s been relatively comfortable in uncomfortable situations ever since childhood. She was the girl who held a funeral for the church goldfish. At 16, she performed her grandfather’s eulogy.
“I am so grateful for my relationship with death,” Imperi says. “I’m a reconstructionist—the rubble left after a death is great building material.”
Until her mid-to-late twenties, Imperi tried to ignore death, even though “he kept showing up.” After a few years spent devoting herself to yoga and the idea of becoming a yogini, she had an epiphany. “Really, the whole practice of yoga is meant to prepare you to die,” she says. “This doesn’t get translated here into American culture because we’re death avoidant.” In an ashram at a yoga workshop one day, she heard the message loud and clear. “I remember being like, ‘Oh my god, I just tried to avoid death by immersing myself in the study of preparing for death.’ ” Imperi took a hard look at herself and realized that she was most happy—she was “zinging”—when helping someone deal with death, loss, or grief. So she committed herself to the study of thanatology.
Today, she serves as a death companion, helping people who are dying or have just lost someone. She was a companion, for example, to a friend who delivered a stillborn son. Imperi is certified to handle almost all end-of-life tasks, and stepped in to help her friend with funeral arrangements and led discussions with the family not about why the stillbirth happened but what they could learn from it.
“I am so grateful for my relationship with death,” Imperi says. “Everybody gets dealt shitty cards in the hand of life. Some people get more than one shitty card. I’m a reconstructionist toward death—the rubble left behind after a death is great rebuilding material.”
For many, Imperi’s messages are like a breath of fresh air. People are drawn to her because she talks honestly and openly about death and failure. “We live in a world that wants a quick remedy, where it is some sort of accomplishment to say, ‘I’m already over it,’” says Imperi’s friend, Ashley Rouster Rigby. “Cole opens up a space for people to acknowledge and recognize This is still hard. I am still working through this. It’s OK. There is a way through.”
The podcasts have become her mouthpiece. Imperi often imparts her wisdom through personal examples of her own flaws and failures. In Mortisode No. 15, for example, we meet Becky, who is Imperi’s alter ego when she becomes overwhelmed. Imperi invited Rigby on the podcast to talk about an appearance of Becky.
“One thing I think is important to know is that Cole was wearing a wig,” says Rigby, whose professional work is in the areas of crisis and trauma. The wig “clearly was because it was easier to be somebody else.” Imperi was having a hard time identifying the sources that had her so overwhelmed, so the friends talked it out, breaking down the sources and determining steps forward. Becky went on her way.
“The most powerful way for people to learn new skills is to model them,” says Rigby. Their talk was a lesson in self-care but also how to care for others. “I can be comfortable with her in an uncomfortable space. As her friend, I can sit there without judgment of Becky.”
Imperi opens eyes wherever she goes, says Jill Karn, chief operating officer at Pierce Mortuary Colleges, where Imperi is an adjunct professor and wrote the curriculum for certifications in thanatology and death companioning. “There’s no one else like Cole,” says Karn, who calls the interest in her certification courses “remarkable,” attracting professionals from far beyond the funeral industry. “Everyone dies, and most of us are afraid of it. That is an unfortunate fact. Most of us have little direct experience of death, and Cole makes you feel comfortable to talk about death and dying. And being more comfortable talking about death is the first step in changing our relationship with it.”
Remember Lauren, who pulled the Death card? By now you’ve probably figured it’s Imperi’s favorite card in the 78-card Tarot deck. “Something is going to die,” she tells Lauren. “It could be who you were, who you thought you were, who somebody else was. A clear line in the sand.”
Lauren is quiet for a moment. “That’s already pretty appropriate,” she says, explaining that after 15 years working a “crappy job” without a retirement plan or healthcare she’s decided to find a different career, and will soon begin nursing school.
“Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow,” Imperi says. She moves on with the reading, which encourages Lauren to get everything in order she possibly can. That might mean reorganizing the house or creating a new plan for dinners. She must prepare herself and her loved ones to provide the support she’ll need during this time of changes and challenges.
“Do not underestimate how much of a shift this will be,” Imperi tells Lauren. “That’s what that Death card is saying: ‘Oh, you think you know, but you don’t really know.’ ” Lauren is stunned, and says, “I feel like I’m hearing something I need to hear—something I needed to be told—that, yes, this is the right thing I need to be doing right now.”
“Tarot cards can be that really good friend who really cares about you and knows you and will call you on your bullshit,” Imperi says. “In that way, so is death.” And in a lot of ways, so is Imperi, for those who want to listen.
More from Cole Imperi
Imperi will present the lecture “Thanabotany: Rooted in Death, Growing, and Grief” at 6:30 p.m., April 18, at the Lloyd Library downtown. Her podcasts Life, Death & Tarot and The American Thanatologist are available on iTunes, Google Play, Overcast, and Stitcher, as well as the website americanthanatologist.com.