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For Woodlawn Cemetery's history chief, a coffin serves as coffee table

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Susan Olsen has a keen eye for what others might consider morbid. The director of historical services at The Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the city's largest, Olsen has long focused on historic objects, homes and monuments in her work. Her career has involved stints as the chief of the Bureau of Historical Museums within the Florida Department of State and the director of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope Leighey House, among other positions. She's currently co-curating an exhibition commemorating Woodlawn’s 150th anniversary, which will open at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery this September.

Among the most eye-catching possessions in her one-bedroom rental in the Bronx is her coffee table, a big wicker basket (appropriately) shaped like a coffin.

When I was in graduate school in Nashville, I did a study on the career of a Victorian undertaker--basically showing the changes in cultural and business trends. Needless to say, my museum colleagues found this both weird and fascinating. A few years later a curator found this “first call basket” at a flea market and had it shipped to me--what a surprise!

Susan Olsen

Its history dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when undertakers would come to the home to pick up the body, and would use one of these wicker baskets for transport.  It is remarkably sturdy and is shaped like something Dracula would spend the day in.

I’ve now been carting the thing around for decades.  It represents years of studying the culture of memory and reminds me of all the wonderful friends and scholars I’ve met touring the cemeteries of the world. My apartment is filled with books and cemetery art, including lithographs of cemeteries, rubbings, and castings of Colonial gravestones, and so it fits right in!

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