Burial Death + Popular Culture Defying Death

Dead Man Walking….Into His Own Funeral


Dead wrong: Man attends own funeral after mix-up over body’s ID

On the holiday known as the Day of the Dead, a Brazilian bricklayer walked into his own funeral.

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: So a guy walks into his own funeral… but apparently it wasn’t so funny for the friends and relatives of Ademir Jorge Goncalves. You see, Mr. Goncalves had been presumed and identified as dead. As it turns out, it was all just a case of mistaken identity. Ha ha!

This isn’t the first time the deceased will attend his or her own funeral—nor will it probably be the last. Take the case of the late Leonard Shlain. After Mr. Shlain’s green burial in northern California earlier this year, a film was shown, featuring himself in a white suit saying that he’d always wanted to attend his own funeral. Filmed a few months before his death, it gave him a platform to set the tone for the affair—surprising and humorous, but also deeply touching as he reassured his loved ones that he was happy, that he missed them, and felt blessed.

This all got me to thinking—just how many ways are there to attend your own funeral? I found these two flakey chicks doing a video tutorial of sorts on attending your own funeral. The message here seems to be about taking stock of your life and thinking about how you want to be remembered before you die. I really didn’t find this very helpful or uplifting, but perhaps Sarah and Suzi will convince you otherwise.

And then there are tales like this one that involve a massive lie in order to “spare everyone’s feelings.” It seems there are easier ways to ditch your friends, no?

Finally, what about the poor folks who have been interred and buried alive? Also known as premature burial, tales of being buried alive have been found across cultures and time. Some of my favorite stories growing up were Poe’s The Telltale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado. O.K., technically, you are not actually attending your own funeral—just your own burial. But this seems like the worst of all possible ways to go. If anyone has any other ideas about how one can attend his or her own funeral (or burial) let us know via our comments feature. We’d love to hear from you—dead or alive.

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Economy

We Need to Die

Todd May
Todd May

Nice Opinion piece in today’s NY Times laying out some fundamental philosophical underpinnings of life and death. It is titled “Happy Ending” and is written by Todd May, a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. May is the author of 10 books including The Philosophy of Foucault and Death.

This is the last in a series of essays written for the Times titled Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times. I’ve been reading and enjoying the series. I recommend taking a look as several are on the theme of death and dying.


Houdini’s Final Disappearing Act

Houdini's grave.

A Halloween Tale: Houdini’s Lonely Grave (New York Times Video Library)

Harry Houdini was quite a character. Not only was he one of the most heralded magicians of his generation, but the mystique surrounding the man grew exponentially when he died on October 31, 1926. Some believed Houdini to be a practitioner of the “dark arts” or at least that he possessed supernatural abilities. How else to explain some of the seemingly impossible tricks he performed? In fact, Houdini’s death was due to peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix. Certainly, dying on All Hallows Eve only added to the man, the myth and the legend.

Born Ehrich Weiss (variant spellings include Erik Weisz) in Budapest, Hungary, the self-named Houdini was not only a magician, but an actor, escape artist, film producer and skeptic. He was particularly interested in debunking so-called spiritualists of the day who claimed the ability to communicate with the dead. Apparently, his wife Bess did not share the same beliefs as her husband. For ten years after Houdini’s death, Bess held seances every Halloween, attempting to summon him from the great beyond.

Today, you can visit the grave of Harry Houdini at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York. Although downtrodden and in disrepair, the cemetery still entices Houdini fans to visit and pay their respects. Interestingly, his wife Bess, who died in 1943, requested to buried next to him. But because she was not Jewish, was not allowed burial in Machpelah and was instead interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York.

For further exploration of the life of Houdini, you may enjoy:

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloma

Houdini: The Movie Star — Three Disc DVD Collection

Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman

Death + Humor

The Weird Book Room

The Weird Book Room has a little something for everyone. As part of the larger, this little corner of the website offers titles you may or may not find in your local library, neighborhood bookstore or even the thrift store around the corner. Most are downright obscure—and probably out-of-print to boot in many cases. Some, like Twinkie Deconstructed (which I admit to reading), was published just a few years ago and is hardly rare. But here they all are, collected for your amusement and yes, your purchasing enjoyment.

What kind of books can one find in the Weird Book Room? Funny you should ask. Titles such as Why Do I Vomit?, 50 Sad Chairs and Is Your Dog Gay? are just the tip of the iceberg. The death-related titles aren’t quite the gutbusters, but worth a browse with such titles as Dead Pet: Send Your Best Little Buddy Off In Style, An Incomplete History of Funerary Violins, and my personal fave, People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It. We have that last title in our collection at Multnomah County Library and I checked it out, but it was so bad I couldn’t even get through the first 5 pages.

Christmas is coming and Hanukkah too. Perhaps a copy of Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps is in order?

Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Witness for the Execution

One Reporter’s Lonely Beat, Witnessing Executions
Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times (October 20, 2009)

The NY Times ran an interesting article yesterday about an AP reporter who has witnessed more executions than any other person in America. His name is Michael Graczyk and since the 1980’s, he has seen over 300 executions in Texas, although in actuality he has lost count. Due to the faltering economy, Mr. Graczyk is one of the few journalists left doing this type of reportage.

Although Mr. Graczyk takes a generally dispassionate approach to his work, he recalled one particularly chilling incident.

One inmate “sang ‘Silent Night,’ even though it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas,” Mr. Graczyk said. “I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.”

Death + the Economy Suicide

Stressed Out


In the U.S. and overseas, the recession is taking a toll. In addition to bodies stacking up at morgues and cemeteries in foreclosure, we can now add to the list the phenomenon of economy-induced, work-related suicides.

As reported in The Guardian and other news outlets, France Telecom is experiencing a rash of suicides that began in the beginning of 2008. Since that time, there have been 24 suicides and 13 attempted suicides among the company’s 100,000 employees. The cause? Work stress. You can also listen to the full story on today’s All Things Considered.

Stress-related deaths are nothing new. In Japan, the country has seen an increase in incidents of karoshi, which literally translates to “death from overwork.” However, karoshi differs from stress-related suicide in that the manner of death is attributed to heart attack or stroke. Government and business leaders have begun to acknowledge, albeit slowly, the problems associated with over-working and have started to implement programs that strive to achieve more of a work/life balance.

Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Mausoleum Mural Dedication


Here in Portland, OR, one of the largest hand-painted murals in the United States is being dedicated tomorrow—and it’s on the side of a mausoleum—in my neighborhood!

The 50,000 square foot hand-painted wildlife mural on the side of Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home is being dedicated tomorrow, Friday, October 2 and will include a rooftop tour as part of the ceremonies. On Saturday, October 3, the Audubon Society of Portland will lead a hike through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge for an up-close look at the mural.

Details in The Oregonian here.

For more information about Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home, check out this past Death Reference Desk post.

Cemeteries Death + Technology Death + the Web

The Cyber Cemetery: Where Government Websites Go to Die

264DeathbyCat5-mCyber Cemetery. The University of North Texas, along with the GPO, are the crypt keepers of this depository for the digitally deceased.

As a librarian and archivist, I find this to be an important and worthwhile project. The ephemeral nature of the Internet makes it a constantly moving target, fleet of foot, seemingly larger than the planet itself and inherently impossible to capture — at least in total. But, if someone is going to attempt to archive portions of the Internet, then taking on the US government is certainly a worthy subject. It supports the case for government transparency, which as we know, may be intentionally elusive. Of course accountability isn’t the only reason we should be capturing the data. The preservation of these and other websites is a “best practice” as far as I’m concerned — but then again, I’m a librarian.

There are other places on the web that attempt to capture snapshots of dead websites, like the Wayback Machine — now known as the Internet Archive. But the Cyber Cemetery is the only one of its kind specifically dedicated to government sites. Our digital past is relatively young in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully these digital graveyards, like brick and mortar libraries, will live on as important historical archives and storehouses for our collective memory.

Image: Fantasy Art Design

Death + Biology

The Nose Knows

Universal ‘Death Stench’ Repels Bugs of All Types
Hadley Leggett, Wired (September 09, 2009)

Cockroach Dead

The smell of death is all around us. Sometimes it hits the nostrils like a hammer to the skull; other times it goes undetected and unnoticed — at least to us humans. A few recent articles got me thinking about the phenomena of scent in the presence of death, or even in one case as a substitute for death.

In an article (linked above) in this week’s Wired magazine, the universal “death stench” is revealed.

Scientists have discovered that insects from cockroaches to caterpillars all emit the same stinky blend of fatty acids when they die, and this sinister stench sends bugs of all kinds running for their lives.

But it is further revealed that…

Thankfully, human noses can’t detect the fatty acid extracts. “Not like the rotting of corpses that occurs later and is detectable from great distances,” Rollo wrote in an e-mail. “I’ve tried smelling papers treated with them and don’t smell anything strong and certainly not repellent.”

Whew! When I think of all the cockroaches I’ve lived with and killed over the years….

Of course bugs aren’t the only non-humans to release a deathly perfume. The fascinating and frighteningly named “Corpse Flower” or amorphophallus titanum, as it’s scientifically known, will affront your sense of smell like no other plant on earth. Indigenous to the tropical forests of Sumatra (but grown in a few horticultural centers stateside), the Corpse Flower emits a rotten flesh smell that has people gagging for air within 10 feet of it.

And then there’s this recent news item about a morgue in San Mateo, CA, that needed to be evacuated due to the release of a chemical odor from a body undergoing an autopsy. Apparently, when the body was opened up, it was discovered that the person had ingested acetone, a colorless flammable liquid.

Putrefaction is one thing, but the smell emitted from corpses that contain deadly chemicals takes things to another level. The book Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning up After CSI Goes Home delves extensively into the subject of how bodies and body fluids are handled like toxic waste and all the steps taken to ensure safe handling. The bioremediation field is one in which the containment of smell plays a big part, not only for those working in the field, but for those friends and family left behind after the clean-up is complete.

Our olfactory nerves are assaulted daily with all sorts of smells, some sweet and mouth watering and others profound and profane. However you look at it, our sense of smell lets us know we are very much alive.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials



People are crazy about their pets. Diamond tiaras, cat condos, doggie daycares serving gourmet kibble, anti-depressants and acupuncture for the unstable pet in your life — all this and more is available for Mr. Wiggles or Li’l Boots. After all, they’re not simply a dog or a cat — they’re family. Current statistics, trend analysis, and the recurring crazy stories bear this out.

Considering that pets replace children for many, it follows that we treat these family members with the same kind of concern we normally reserve for our human brethren. But our animal companions are mortal too and so it follows that an end-of-life plan is just one of the many ways we can show how much we care for that beloved pet.

The pet cemetery industry — like the human one — fulfills our need to remember the dearly departed. According to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, there are 600 active pet cemeteries in the United States. And let’s not forget the related satellite industries such as pet funerals, pet urns/memorials and pet insurance which are also big business. Although there is some contention as to the oldest, the Hartsdale (NY) Cemetery and Crematory was established in 1896 and calls itself “America’s First and Most Prestigious Pet Burial Grounds.”

I remember seeing the captivating Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, years ago. As many reviewers have suggested, this isn’t just a documentary about pet cemeteries; it’s about the human condition. By turns funny, tragic and bizarre, the film captures and distills emotional truth in a compelling narrative. Roger Ebert named it one of the 10 best films of all-time.

On a personal note, Squeakers, my own feline companion of seventeen years, died last year. I chose cremation over burial or any other number of ways I could have memorialized my pet. Call me dispassionate or cheap, but I just couldn’t see forking over a small fortune to memorialize my cat for eternity.

Thinking I would receive a bag of ashes and a bill, I was actually taken aback when I got the call from the vet to come and pick her up. Instead of the ziplock bag I was expecting, I received a small box, covered in hand-made paper, embedded with pressed flowers. Attached to the box was a card and an envelope. The card was signed by the entire veterinary staff, with wishes of condolence flowing out. And the most unexpected of all? A tiny plastic bag (like the kind that comes with an extra button for a new blouse) containing a chunk of her fur and a small piece of card-stock paper with her inked paw-print — her inked paw print! What the? These intimate and personal touches took me by surprise. I guess it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t authorize the cutting of fur and the inking of paws. But I guess that’s how things are done when no specifications are given.

Not that I was angry — if anything, I was a little miffed that the box containing the ashes was hot-glued shut. I guess they thought viewing the ashes would be too much too bear. So being the curious sort, I took a knife and opened it up. I had to see what was left of old Squeaks. As expected, they pretty much looked like all the other cremains I’ve seen. Call me cold, but they are now sitting unceremoniously in a box in my storage unit on the outskirts of Portland. But really, is that pile of dust Squeakers anyhow? Doesn’t she live on in my memory and more gloriously in the photo above? I’d like to think so.

If you want to learn more about pets and death, search your local library catalogue under such terms as pet death, pet loss, pets and grief, pets and bereavement, etc.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Death Ref Questions Monuments + Memorials

Death Masks: Still Being Made?

From time to time, we will feature questions we receive across the Death Reference Desk.

Jason writes: I was reading in “The Rest is Noise” that there was a death mask made of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who died in 1951. This got me to thinking: Do people still have death masks made? Are there companies who make them? Your recent article about the urn-head made me think of this.

L'Inconnue de la Seine
L’Inconnue de la Seine

Well Jason, the short answer is no — not really. But, the long answer is a bit more nuanced. Essentially, death masks aren’t really being made — forensic photography has made documenting the dead an easy and efficient process. However, as it concerns death masks to memorialize individuals in an artistic way — this is still going on. Only now it is called “lifecasting”.

Lifecasting is the process of casting faces–or other body parts (!) — while a person is still alive (Cynthia Plaster Caster comes to mind as a modern cultural reference). Lifecasting allows sculptors to create a “living memorial” to a person still alive — but may be created in all likelihood for later use as a posthumous tribute. In addition to faces, pregnant bellies, breasts (for pre-mastectomy patients, for example), and any and all variations upon a theme can be cast.

There is even an association called the Association of Lifecasters International. And, here’s an article from Art Casting Journal, August 2001, that lays out the connection between death masks and lifecasting.

The Lancet even got in on the act with this journal article. Sorry, this is a citation only — check your local library for full-text access.

Lasting impressions: the ambiguous appeal of life casting
The Lancet, Volume 359, Issue 9314, Pages 1353-1353, J.Wildgoose

And to flesh things out (no pun intended), a few sites with interesting death masks:

The Laurence Hutton Collection at Princeton University — this is the most comprehensive and scholarly site out there

The 7 Creepiest Death Masks From American Political History from

Death Masks of the Famous from, including Beethoven, Hitchcock and Dante Alighierti

Bubble wrapping death masks from BoingBoing

Undying Faces — a large site “dedicated to the history and preservation of life and death masks”

Monuments + Memorials

Ghost Bikes: The End of the Road


I’ve been looking at and thinking about bikes lately. I’m in the market to buy a new one and my mind is kind of going crazy with all the possibilities. At any time of year, it’s hard not to think of bikes here in Portland, OR. They’re everywhere. Portland is the most bike friendly city in America and has the highest per capita bike commuters every year.

Something else that comes to mind when I think of bikes is safety — and whether or not I will be crushed or otherwise vaporized by a two ton car on the way to my destination.

For those cyclists who do die on the way to their destination, there exists a certain kind of memorial — the ghost bike. Part memorial, part warning, ghost bikes can be found in many cities across the Unites States and the world. Painted all white, often with sprays of flowers (real or fake) and cards and various tributes adorning them, they are usually locked up to a street sign nearest the location the cyclist was hit or met their death.

The first ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, MO in 2003 and was the brainchild of Patrick Van Der Tuin, a motorist who witnessed the death of a cyclist in his city and placed the first memorial bike at that site. See his website here.

Websites such as and are dedicated to the dissemination of information about ghost bikes, where they can be found and bicycle/motorist safety advocacy. The New York City Street Memorial Project, a group dedicated to larger issues of pedestrian and cyclist safety on the busy streets of New York, has also taken up the cause of ghost bikes. A recent NY Times article features the organization and the story of Amelia Geocos, a 24-year-old young woman who collided with a van and who died of her head injuries.

In addition, an article just yesterday describes the mystery surrounding an “unofficial” ghost bike seen in Washington Heights, a northern Manhattan neighborhood.

Roadside memorials have a long and rich history. The ghost bike phenomenon is a fascinating extension of that. I think the new bike I will purchase will not be white. (The picture used in this article is attributed to the New York Times).