The strange afterlife of Christopher Gray

"My Dead Dad," a documentary about a Vineyard man’s odd return, screens on-Island in July.

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Mike Creato of Classic Aviators has led bird’s-eye tours of the Vineyard from his cherry red, open-cockpit biplanes at Katama Airfield for more than 20 summers.

Most passengers sign up for tranquil sightseeing over fields and beaches. Those willing to pay extra endure barrel rolls, free falls, and other aerial stunts one might consider death-defying. 

One sunny afternoon last June, Creato himself came face-to-face with death when a woman showed up with a complete human skeleton as her plus-one.

Olivia Gray Konrath, a Chicago resident who spends summers on the Vineyard, wanted Creato to fly her and the carefully mounted, fully articulated skeleton of her father, Christopher Gray, around the Island. 

“We strapped them in,” Creato recalled, “and she handled her dad’s skeleton, pretty much. He didn’t fall out, luckily.”

“We expected it to be just the strangest thing ever,” Creato says, “and that Olivia would be a certified nut. But actually she was very nice. Aside from traveling with her dad’s skeleton, she couldn’t have been more normal.”

Mrs. Gray Konrath had flown on Creato’s flights before, but this was her first time with her father — an architectural historian and longtime summer resident of Vineyard Haven who died in 2017 — dead or alive.

“He always wanted to go with me on the biplane,” she said in a telephone interview. “And I was a teenager, and I thought I was too cool, and I never went with him.”

Their flight together was only part of a strange, arguably macabre, journey for Mrs. Gray Konrath and her father’s skeleton last summer. 

She took the skeleton to his favorite haunts in Washington, where they posed for pictures at the Lincoln Memorial, and in New York City, where they posed at the Manhattan Bridge. They then drove to Woods Hole in a van and boarded the ferry. 

They spent three days with a film crew on the Island. In addition to the flight, she took her dad’s remains out kayaking, and perched him in chairs in their backyard and on the beach. Her two young children, born after he died, were able to meet their grandfather’s skeleton. Photos show it seated in a place of honor at a crowded family dinner table.

She finally dropped him off at a boarding school in New Hampshire, his chosen final resting place.

A tall, rumpled, garrulous figure, Christopher Gray wrote the popular Streetscapes column each Sunday in the New York Times from 1987 to 2014. Each column was a quirky rumination on the city’s little-known buildings and byways, usually enlivened with mordant humor. 

He and his wife, Erin Drake Gray, spent summers at Pond House, off Lambert’s Cove Road, with their children Peter and Olivia.

He was “always pretty open about his own mortality,” and what he wanted after he died, Mrs. Gray Konrath recalled. 

He once asked his family to consider putting him to rest with a Viking-style funeral pyre on the Mississippi River. 

In 2017, Gray told his family that he had decided he wanted his skeleton to be cleaned, mounted and displayed at St. Paul’s School, the college prep boarding school he had attended decades earlier in Concord, N.H. 

“It was so common for him to talk about stuff like this,” she said. “‘Alright dad, pass the butter.'”

“You never think that your parents are going to die, right?” she added.

Mrs. Gray Konrath later discovered that her father had donated $25,000 to St. Paul’s, and had offered to double the amount if they displayed his skeleton for 10 years, or until it was stolen by the senior class.

Six weeks later, her father fell ill with complications from pneumonia, and was admitted to palliative care. He was 66 when he died. 

The family knew they wanted to honor his last wish, although they knew almost nothing about turning his remains into a display-quality skeleton. In her father’s last days, his daughter couldn’t help but laugh.

“I found myself in that moment sitting there watching my favorite person in the world die, while simultaneously having to start going down these weird rabbit holes of Google to try to figure out this last wish for him, and laughing to myself about it while crying,” she recalled. “I thought to myself, this just feels like a movie. And I don’t make movies.”

Her thoughts of a film — and early steps to fulfill her father’s wishes — would soon be delayed by another tragedy. A year and a half later, her mother Erin passed away from cancer.

Mrs. Gray Konrath says that after her parents’ deaths, she combined her grieving as best as she could with trying to fulfill her father’s dying wish. This meant calls to research facilities that study decomposition and assemble human skeletons. 

She finally made an arrangement with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and a facility known as a body farm at the University of Tennessee, which had agreed to help since the skeleton would be used for educational purposes at St. Paul’s.

It took six months of natural decomposition at the body farm to produce a brown-stained skeleton. One year later, the bones were transported to and logged at the Smithsonian. 

In 2020, the family was told that the skeleton was finally being assembled in an anthropologist’s basement.

“It was another sort of reminder to me of, ‘Hey, this is the film. I need to make a film about this,” Mrs. Gray Konrath said. 

Obtaining her father’s skeleton is where “My Dead Dad,” her documentary about her father’s death wish and and her own decision to take his bones on a final journey, begins. 

She quickly decided she wanted to spend time with her dad’s skeleton before dropping it off at school, she said. 

“You know what, I’m not just going to pick up this skeleton and deliver it straight-shot from D.C. to New Hampshire,” she recalled thinking. “I need to make stops along the way.”

Her road trip pitch made some family members uncomfortable, including her brother Peter, who appears in scenes in New York City. Mrs. Gray Konrath said she understands their concerns, but she did what she felt was right. 

“I’ve learned in my grief that you need to lean into whatever feels right, because grief is [bad] enough, you know?” she said. 

Taking his remains back to the Vineyard was especially bittersweet. 

“The Island has always been my favorite place in the entire world,” she said. “Since my parents have died, I’ve always felt very close to [them], especially on the Island.”

“It is a feeling of home whenever I get off the ferry and drive down our long dirt road to the house. I kind of … feel [my father] in the trees almost, as the leaves are rustling in the wind.”

Her final journey with her father also led to an unexpected surprise at the Lambert’s Cove house.

When she was a young girl, she says, her parents set out the remaining pieces of a china set so she and her brother could entertain themselves by throwing rocks at it.

“I remember that, to the point that every time I walk over that part of my driveway,” she said, “I instinctively look down at the ground to see if I see any blue and white china pieces… I never see anything.” 

“And while I was on the Island for … filming with the skeleton, I was walking to the beach, and I looked down. And there were three big pieces of blue and white china.” 

She said her parents’ deaths have led her toward personal growth, because she has been able to honor them in her own life. 

“I’ve always struggled with my own confidence and believing in myself to follow through on something,” she said. “And my dad always wanted me to believe in myself and my capabilities.”

“There’s something to be said for losing the two most important people in my life and becoming a mother after that happens,” she added. “There is a motivation there that I want to show my children that I will do anything for my family, and also that if they have a dream, they can do it.”

Since her parents’ deaths, Mrs. Gray Konrath has become a death doula, a nonmedical professional who provides emotional, physical, and educational support for someone nearing death. She hopes her film can help make death and grief easier on families.

“If someone sees the film or hears my story, my biggest goal would be to inspire you … to feel less alone in your grief,” she said.

“My Dead Dad” shows for free at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on July 21 at 4 pm, and Mrs. Gray Konrath will appear for a Q and A session afterward. The film was made with filmmaker Erik Osterholm (“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”), her former colleague at Plum TV on the Vineyard.

Mrs. Gray Konrath documented her road trip on Instagram at the account @deaddaddytrip.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Strangely morbid and yet enticing story. Maybe there is “life after death”. I loved it. Think of all the things not accomplished on ones bucket list that might well be done “later”.

  2. This was totally unexpected and interesting…. definitely a good read…. kudos to this young woman for granting her dads wishes….

  3. Bravo to you, Ms. Gray Konrath! From his description, it sounds like your father would have appreciated this final trip. We, as a culture have distanced ourselves from the reality, the finality, of death. People don’t want to write wills because they don’t want to think about death. I’ve been trying to convince my partner that we should write our own obituaries; having the final say as it were. It’s a tough sell. My mother had provided me with a healthy outlook toward death. When she died at 94, I performed all of her funeral duties, from washing and dressing her, to decorating the inside of her homemade casket, to transporting her to the cemetery. I didn’t want the handing-over of her body to strangers to be my final act for her.
    Your father sounds like a remarkable man, who produced an equally remarkable daughter.

  4. My children have told me I have been preparing them for my death since they were little. We used to stroll through the cemetery, and I would mention friends and family as we rolled by, and perhaps my cookie recipe should be on my stone. Papa, F.M.Jones, and Uncle Rick, have a horse standing over their grave in VH; Papa wanted a horse so children would like to come to his grave. One day there was a red hairband on the horse, another a covid mask. Papa was an excellent equestrian who had been on the detail with Gen. Patton to save the Lippizaners behind Nazi lines in Austria, where the horses were starving to death. There is the military tradition as well: if the horse is rearing, the soldier died in battle, one foot up, the soldier died as a result of battle, four feet on the ground, the soldier died peacefully. Papa’s last words: I love you, thank you very much. Thank you Ms. Gray Konrath

  5. This story reminded me of the time in about 1985-86 the Ruth Gordon family asked me to spread the ashes of Ruth over Edgartown Harbor in my plane. I had just watched “Rosemary’s Baby” so it was a little eerie. But they do say dead people can’t hurt you.

  6. Kudos to each and every last person who helped make this happen!!! Olivia … YOU ROCK! Way to go! I sure do feel more normal now driving around in my Nemo car filled to every inch with daffodils to crazy plant! It’s hard to make me “feel normal” but your adventures let me know that I just a little on the spectrum of whimsical and a completely weird and abnormal. Thank your!!! Your adventures have made even me feel a little more normal in the world. THANK YOUZ! Your vacation with your dad makes me smile and giggle and feel joy all the way into my bones. You should feel so very proud of yourself. You have done something so amazing and creative!

    Do you think your dad would like to help me plant a guerrilla garden here on the island? He may enjoy cemetery planting! 😂🫢🤣 Your dad can ride shot gun and help us plan our missions. And look on the bright side of him being a guerrilla gardener …. they can’t arrest him! 😂😆😂 He can be my fall guy.

    By all means your dad is welcome to hang out on the island in my home any day! I would be happy to host you and your dad! Coffee? Tea??? 😁 Clear liquid diet?

    You are simply charming and zesty! I love that you love your dad like this. I hope these adventures are healing to heal your hurting heart and that the laughter and joy is helping make your pain and sorrow less. You are so very brave and zesty! Well done! I hope your heart is happy. A very happy heart with lots of joy is my prayer for you.

    I simply love this story!

  7. Great story– I wonder if she was able to use the HOV lanes
    while on her road trip. !

  8. This is a fantastic story! I knew Christopher well and to say he would have loved this is an understatement. He was quirky, super-smart, and very funny. What a lovely tribute.

  9. Seeing this picture as I woke up in the ICU was a little jarring, I must admit. This would be a fantasy for many people, as it could not have been inexpensive, from the preparation of the skeleton, to the travel inherent. Still, people make their own choices. If this makes his daughter feel better, than it’s probably all worth it.

  10. Bizarre. But no more bizarre than ” uncle Fred”. A buddy found his uncles box of ashes tucked up under a staircase in the house he bought from his ” nasty aunt. Well those ashes went on hunting trips to Alaska. Wyoming. Maine countless camping and fishing trips all over. Even a wild trip to Vagas. Poor guy had a better time in that box than he ever did while he was alive. After about 14 years the nasty aunt showed up looking for her husband’s ashes. She didn’t appreciate the nice character of a smiling uncle Fred we drew on the box.
    We miss the good times we had with uncle Fred.

  11. My daughter rented the pond house over Christmas this year. When I was a teen I mowed the lawn at the pond house. We felt a strong presence while we were there. Great story

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