Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Graduate Student Spotlight

January 22, 2018

Sarah Lirley McCune is a Ph.D. candidate in History who spends her time studying her fellow Missourians from the nineteenth century. However, she doesn’t start by looking at the details of how they lived and went about their lives. Rather, she looks at how they died, then works backwards. “I usually just tell people I study death, and that usually piques their interest,” she said with a chuckle.

Sarah chose to begin her MA in History at Mizzou, and came to Columbia as a package deal, as her husband was also planning to attend graduate school for physics. Her advisor gave Sarah the freedom to explore new projects and the guidance to look in new and unusual places to uncover history: coroner’s inquests.

In her current research, Lirley McCune studies coroner’s inquests from St. Louis City at the Missouri State Archives in St. Louis and Jefferson City in order to understand the larger picture of society and the family during the late nineteenth century. “Studying death actually helps us to understand how people live,” she said. “Ordinary people, they don’t leave paper collections. They don’t leave diaries. There is not going to be a biography written about them. But, when they died suddenly, and in a way that was not immediately, apparently natural, a coroner is going to come and interview their friends, their family, doctors, police officers. You learn so much about working class people and poor people in particular. You learn a lot about their lives in a way you can’t in any other way.” In a sense, she is studying the working class from a different angle. “I look at gender. I look at women’s history and I look at death, violence, addiction. All sorts of fun stuff,” she said. “Well, it’s fun to me.”

When looking at the past, there are still implications for society today. “If we look at how [death] was treated in the past, we can definitely have implications for policy today,” she said. “We all know that there is a stigma towards mental illness. There is a stigma towards suicide. But I actually think that there is more of a stigma now than in the past.” She continued by explaining that looking to the past can help us to see patterns in violence and death. She cites the number of elevator deaths that occurred during the late 1800s as the reason there are so many safety regulations now. Perhaps uncovering more patterns in death, will allow us to understand how people live, and die, today.

“If a bunch of academics read my work and we all change our minds, that’s wonderful. But, I really want to help shape public opinion, so that people are better informed [about death and stigmas surrounding it].”

After graduate school, hopes to work as a professor at a small college or university where she can focus on teaching, but also pursue the research that fascinated her. “I love teaching. I love working with students,” she said. “I love seeing that look they get when they learn something new and learn the skills to go out and do their own things.”