A few weeks ago, Lilly Christopher was excitedly planning her 21st birthday. The sophomore journalism major and music lover told an Emerson friend that she wanted to throw a concert in her Brighton apartment for the occasion. Another friend, Caitie Greene, had just bought her gift: a record to play on a turntable she’d gotten for Christmas.
“The last time I saw her, we were making Photoshopped invitations for her birthday party,” Greene said.
The party, planned for April 18, would never happen. Instead, Christopher’s family laid the 20-year-old to rest that day after a service in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
Lilly Kate Christopher died on April 6 in the hospital with family by her side. Kevin Christopher, her father, requested that the circumstances of his daughter’s death be kept private.
Emerson students who didn’t know Christopher may have recognized her as a seemingly timid young woman holding a camera and wearing a button-covered leather jacket and a kind smile, her dark, curly hair tucked under a beanie. But those closest to Christopher describe her as free-spirited, curious, and reserved only until she made a connection with someone.
“Once there was a little bit of a relationship there,” her father said, “she just valued that relationship.”
An explorer of counterculture
Lilly Christopher started her college career at Lesley University, where her father said she was studying animation, before she transferred to Emerson in Fall 2014 to study journalism. Her older sister Ariel Christopher said she was ecstatic to be admitted to the college.
“She was on cloud nine that day, and she was telling the world that she got accepted to Emerson,” said her sister.
Christopher graduated from high school in 2012 in Raynham, a rural Massachusetts town, but her friends and family say she loved urban life in Boston, where she visited hole-in-the-wall restaurants, attended $5 basement concerts in Allston, and walked through the city with friends.
“She liked doing something every single night,” said Greene, a junior art therapy major at Lesley.
Greene said the women were randomly assigned to live together in a Lesley dorm, and the two were fast, close friends — Greene, the “classic” one, and Christopher, a rebel.
Kevin Christopher said his daughter loved to explore new things.
“I think she enjoyed living near the margins,” he said. “The status quo wasn’t what Lilly Kate would be about.”
Kevin and Ariel Christopher said Lilly was strongly motivated by her passion for music and art: She was teaching herself guitar and Bob Dylan-inspired harmonica, devoured books — including her favorite, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — and saw the world through the lens of her camera.
“When she got that camera in her hand, she wasn’t hesitant at all,” he said, recalling a trip to Portland, Oregon where she strived for the perfect shot. “She was going out on these ledges because she needed ‘the picture.’”
Samuel Potrykus, co-director of the underground culture website Boston Hassle and founder of its monthly newspaper Boston Compass, said Christopher started volunteering for the organization in 2013. According to Potrykus, she attended meetings, covered local concerts, and designed promotional posters for upcoming events.
Potrykus said that even among over 100 other volunteers, Christopher stood out for her enthusiasm and sharp eye.
“She got elements of the show — the scene, the steamy windows,” he said. “She was able to capture the photos in a way that a showgoer would, not like a disassociated photographer.”
Nydia Hartono, a former photo editor at the Beacon, said she was impressed with the boldness with which Christopher approached her work. In one of the several assignments she completed for the Beacon, Christopher directed a subject to put ice cream on her head.
“She would try things that weren’t within a standard photographer’s comfort zone. You can tell that that’s how she saw the world,’” said Hartono, a sophomore visual and media arts major.
The day Christopher’s death was announced to the Emerson community, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh proclaimed April 9 to be Riot Girrl Day, a nod to punk feminist Kathleen Hanna. Hartono said Christopher would have appreciated it.
“It’s a tragedy that we lost someone so special,” she said.
Greene said Christopher was playful, citing a memory of the girls in Lesley’s dining hall when Christopher cast her chicken nuggets into the roles of the members of the band Queen.
“I was like ‘Yup, we’re going to be close,’” said Greene. “She was wonderfully weird in the best ways.”
Ariel Christopher said people would sometimes compare her relationship with her sister to that of Statler and Waldorf, two old male characters from the Muppets, for their quick banter and Lilly’s dry wit.
Alex Zauderer, a sophomore visual and media arts major at Emerson, said Christopher had fun slipping obscure cultural references into everyday conversation, like one from the movie Clueless.
“I just remember we were talking and she responded, ‘That was way harsh, Tai,’” he said.
Greene said her friend’s humor accompanied her big heart. When Greene didn’t know anyone on her dorm floor sophomore year — after Christopher, her planned roommate, had transferred — Christopher paid a visit, knocking on all the doors of the floor while singing an Aladdin song into a voice-altering microphone to break the ice.
A compassionate friend
Christopher’s father and sister said she lived by the words of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Kevin Christopher said she wore the quote on a bracelet and embodied the meaning by empathizing with others.
For Alex Culafi, a fellow transfer student, Christopher was an ally who was the first to tell him about Emerson’s Counseling and Psychological Services, which he said helped him.
“She knew how to get to you on a personal level, on a level most people don’t easily get to,” he said.
Zauderer said Christopher showed a level of sincerity rarely seen.
“I think she was looking for a way to connect with other people,” he said, “to meet kindred souls.”
Kevin Christopher said that he will remember his daughter for having had a joyful life.
“We’re going to miss the heck out of her,” he said.