When I Die

and | Managing Multimedia Editor and Editor-in-Chief

As the old adage goes, nothing is guaranteed in life except death and taxes. However, for so many people, death is often presumed to come later in life while taxes roll around every April. So, for this podcast, Editor-in-Chief Via Poolos and Senior Multimedia Editor Jared Adelman sat down with two people who are intimately familiar with the process of dying. In Act One, Dan Loesche explains Washington University’s Gift of Body donation program and what it is like to be a mortician. In Act Two, we talk with Barbara Finch, who is signed up to donate her body to Dan’s program when she dies.

Original art from Tuesday Hadden.


You can listen to episodes of When I Die on Spotify or Apple Music.



This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Jared Adelman: One of my favorite sayings is that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. 

However, most young people think about taxes more than death. Death is this amorphous, vague construct, so most of us talk about death as if it only happens to other people. 

It’s this weird paradox where ideas about death are so integral to our society yet so taboo. So for this podcast, we talked to two people who, in very different ways, are well acquainted with death. For them, the topic isn’t off-limits – in fact, it’s front of mind. 

In act one, Dan Loesche explains his time as a mortician and now as the manager of Washington University’s Gift of Body Donor Program. In act two, we sit down with Barbara Finch, who has signed up to meet Losche – after she passes.  I’m Jared Adelman and this is When I Die. 

Music interlude

JA: Dan Loesche failed as an architect in the first year of college, and was sent home, where he met a guy who worked at a mortuary program at the local community college. Thirty years later, he’s a licensed mortician and has been at WashU for nearly two decades as the director of Washington University’s body donation program. 

Via Poolos:  So how did you get into the embalming business?  

Dan Loesche: Absolutely nothing interested me. 

JA: Despite his attitude, there was an opening for an embalmer and funeral director. 

DL:  And I thought, I can do that job. Because nothing grosses me out. I can be an embalmer. So I went to school for that.

JA: However, Dan wasn’t always so blasé about the ritual of death and grieving. 

DL: I hated funerals when I was a kid. So it’s kind of unique that I went this way. Because I found my grandmother, when we went to her house when I was four years old – she had passed away on her couch.

JA: Even after he became a professional mortician, Dan wasn’t too enthused about funerals. 

DL: When I became a funeral director and embalmer, my main focus was to really stay in the prep room, and stay away from families and grieving. 

DL: I think a good funeral director is able to compartmentalize the help of others, to the job itself, and not bring it home. I mean, you have empathy, or you’re not going to be a good funeral director. However, it shouldn’t dictate how you feel away from work. 

JA: The Gift of Body Donor Program isn’t designed to bring in donors to study specific illnesses and diseases. When someone passes who’s signed up, they are brought into the lab and embalmed and later used by the WashU Medical School.

DL: It’s to teach anatomy to students. But people do think that, you know, they sign up and say, ‘hey, I want my – I got this XYZ rare disease, I want you to use my body for that.’ And we have to explain to them that’s not what’s going to happen. 

JA: At the end of the day, Dan is the middleman between the donor – a living person – and the demand for medical cadavers – and Dan said that there is certainly demand. 

DL: One, we have competition within St. Louis, there are four donor programs in St. Louis. So there’s that aspect.

DL:  We know that the needs that the departments use our donors – those needs are growing. 

JA: Dan works at a quick pace, processing two cremations per day. 

DL: I can start one at 5:30. When I get there, I do one right at about lunchtime. And so we’ve done two a day. So that’s how we dispose of the donors that are utilized by cremation in our own crematory.

JA: With body parts from the same donor being used across the medical school, it’s not always possible to put the pieces back together. 

DL: So there’s an ethical question about the cremated remains. Would this be 100%, your loved one… we can’t verify. So we don’t. 

JA: Instead, remains are scattered in designated areas at the Tyson Research Center. 

DL: So everything returns to a natural setting, kind of the earth earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  

JA: The cyclical nature of death is something that’s easy to understand but difficult to process. For many of us, accepting the idea that one day we will be dust is, well, hard to swallow. 

DL: Most people, when they’re young, don’t sign up to be a donor when they’re in their 20s. Yeah, they don’t think they’re gonna die. Most people – it’s funny – We hear people say, If I die, no, will. They don’t want to face the fact that they are going to, even though we know everybody will.

VP: And more of a personal question, but do you feel like you personally are planning to donate your body?

DL: I told my wife, whatever happens to me whenever it happens, so you can do whatever she wants with me.

Music Interlude 

JA: For everybody Dan prepares, there is an accompanying donor who is enrolled in the Gift of Body program. To understand what leads someone to donate their body, Via Poolos sat down with Barbara Finch, a woman who is currently signed up to do just that. Here’s Via. 

VP: I met Barbara at her senior living home in Clayton, Missouri. She has bright blue eyes and a sharp gaze. Barbara grew up as an only child, in a neighborhood devoid of playmates. So she learned to read. One of Barbara’s favorite things to read was unusual for a young girl – Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent during World War II famous for interviewing front-line soldiers in the trenches.

VP: Barbara’s first job was inspired by Pyle. As a young woman, she became a journalist on a similarly depressing beat – writing obituaries.  

VP: Was it ever hard to write about death so much? Or did you find it didn’t bother you?

Barbara Finch: No, I never, it never bothered me at all. I got to know Funeral Home directors very well, because they would be the ones who would call me information. It never bothered me, I guess I never thought a whole lot about it.

VP: When she started at the Houston Press, Barbara was required to write feature-style obituaries for quote-unquote “notable” people – a definition that she said was somewhat subjective.

BF In Houston, Texas you could be a criminal, you could be a politician. Sometimes they were the same thing.

VP: After retirement, Baraba decided she wasn’t going to stand idle if there were still things to improve in the world. She writes letters to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as often as she can get them published – which is every 60 days. 

VP: One of her causes is gun control, inspired by the horrors of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

BF: The whole idea of children shooting other children, which was prevalent in St. Louis, at that time, and still is, so we decided we would try to raise enough money to buy gun locks.

VP: They were able to buy over 10,000 locks. But Barabra is still pessimistic.

BF:  And children are still shooting other children.

VP: So when it came to the subject of her own mortality, Baraba, of course, decided to be as helpful as she could and donate her body to science. Her decision was set in 1970, after she watched a young relative pass away. 

BF: I was so appalled at the whole process. Embalming him, putting him in a box, and going to a funeral home, and having people look at him, and then closing the lid, and going into the ground. And I just thought it was horrible. So I decided I didn’t want to do it that way. And I would find an alternative. And this is what I found. 

VP: The task was shockingly easy. Barbara called the program, signed some forms, and it was official: she was on the list. Barbara said her husband wants to be cremated, but she waived the possibility for herself, saying it was too environmentally destructive. 

BF: I also know, people who have had relatives cremated and their cremains ended up in a vase on the mantel for years and years. Well, what good does that do? Anybody? None. So I would like to be as useful as I can for as long as I can.

BF: My husband says, if I’m really thoughtful, I will die in the car and he can just me off at the anatomy lab. 

BF: Everybody knows that’s what I want to do. I… I have a problem with every other thing that happens to people after they’re dead. I don’t have a problem with going to the anatomy lab.

VP: Barbara’s bluntness is hardly out of character. Her admiration of Pyle, obituary writing, and community service all focus on transforming death into life. 

BF: You know, death is… death is sad. But death should also be something that can be useful to people, and people can learn from it.

Music Outro

JA: This podcast was created by Jared Adelman and Via Poolos in collaboration with Student Life Media. Original music from Jerome Todd. 

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.