Afterlife Burial Defying Death

Adventures of Momento Mori

Meg, here. There’re some new death kids on the block, and they aaiight. The Adventures of Momento Mori launched about a month ago at the deliciously named (why didn’t I think of that? why?!). The videos at their YouTube channel Yo! Mori take a listicle approach—short, shocking, wacky bits of death-related trivia aimed at short attention spans that constantly need their minds blown.

The real meat—or the promise of meat, or Quorn for us vegetarians—is in the podcast. Here’s their blurb:

The Adventures of Memento Mori or, (A Practical Guide for Remembering to Die) is a bi-weekly, 30-minute podcast exploring death. Satirical and philosophical, the show follows host, D.S. Moss, as he attempts to reconcile his own impermanence. The show aims to change how people think about mortality. Moss challenges listeners to welcome death as part of life’s cycle, thereby compelling them to live more meaningful lives (himself included).

It’s a young podcast and it shows, with some super echo-y interviews that undoubtedly cause endless heartache and will never happen again. Episode 2: Communicating with the Dead left me bemused to listen in on spooky stories and a modern séance then be served the tidy conclusion that “it was all  a subjective experience made meaningful in our brains,” seeking patterns and profundity because we’re monkeys like that. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want woo served without science—but it sounds like they want it both ways, and you can’t have it both ways, at least so says derisive adult me. Twelve-year-old me squees because GHOSTS!

Whether this is them refining their voice or me being a total grump, the podcast clearly has producing and editing chops and, frankly, it’s fun. Transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan is interviewed in episode 3 from inside his 40-foot coffin bus. Episode 1 gives us a template for straight-forward, no-nonsense, gitterdone conversations about end-of-life planning (pro tip: frame the executorship of your will as an honor, not a burden).

Suffice it to say, The Adventures of Momento Mori is now favorited in my Stitcher, and you can get it from iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed directly from their site. It’s a decent one I reckon will become damn great.

Plus, that hipster nerd skull! Duuuuuuuude.

Burial Cemeteries Grief + Mourning

Grave Matters… Muahahahaha!

Grave Matters (podcast)
BackStory, with the American History Guys (May 23, 2014)

This week the genius history podcast BackStory rebroadcasted their show “Grave Matters” in honor of Memorial Day.

Did you know that the term “funeral parlors” was a marketing riff on the Victorian parlor room of the home, the inevitable site of the wake and funeral? To kick the dour image of death, the parlor eventually morphed into the “living” room. BOOM!

Do check it out. Always informative and entertaining, BackStory is one my (Meg’s) favorite podcasts.

Cemeteries Death + the Web

The Kindness of Strangers and the Internet: Finding William’s Grave at Mountain View

For all our morbid bent and grave humor, plenty warms our hearts at the Death Reference Desk. Personally I (Meg) am a stickler for serendipity and random acts of stranger kindness, especially when it involves the internet and otherwise impossible interactions. This week the cardiac warm fuzzies involve… hey! us! all starting with a post I wrote in 2010.

I used to live in Vancouver, British Columbia, and had been keeping tabs on Mountain View Cemetery—in this particular post, their quirky signage. Over a year later, in October 2011, Edward Millan of Wales commented on the post. He was looking for information about the grave of his uncle, William Millan. Born in Scotland in 1901, as a teenager William served in the Kings Own Scottish Borderers during World War I. Later a farmhand, William sought a better life and immigrated to Canada in 1927. He settled in Vancouver but in 1934 died of tuberculosis. He was buried at Mountain View Cemetery.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much I could offer Edward, the curious nephew half the world away. After hunting around the Mountain View website, I found the interment directory and cemetery maps, and made some screenshots that pinpoint the section and exact plot of William’s grave.

This was something but left much to be desired. Then, out of nowhere in December, another random visitor to this random, old blog post offered to take pictures of the grave. Neville McClure of Vancouver figured it a “fun, little self-imposed errand” for a brisk afternoon and this week sent me photos that I forwarded to a very surprised, very grateful Edward.

MVCemetery_Millan1 MVCemetery_Millan2

I love this for a lot of reasons. It’s obviously a touching gesture (go Neville!), made the more interesting with the three of us being complete strangers (in separate countries, at that). But I also enjoy the motivation—less good deed than having a mission, a goal and grail if only for an afternoon, a treasure hunt when the real gold is simply getting outside and enjoying nature. As Neville writes, “In a city increasingly jammed with condo towers, it’s a rare Big Open Space these days.”

As a librarian and all-around internet fiend, I’m also fascinated by the role of technology in this effort. Instantaneous information and real-time communication get all the glory. Bombarded by the hype of social media networking and on-the-spot everything, we forget that the internet has a long memory and still works splendidly for asynchronous discovery and collaboration.

As such, this post was years in the making. Thanks, Edward and Neville! 🙂

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

CDC Prepares Citizens for Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse

Social Media: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse
Ali S. Khan, CDC Public Health Matters Blog (May 16, 2011)

Ah, zombies — irrepressible, insatiable, instantly recognizable… and the ultimate marketing tool! Librarians most recently squeeeee!ed over a comic book of zombies and information literacy.

Apparently the delicious braaaaaaaaaaaaaaains of someone (or someone’s kid) from the Centers for Disease Control and Preparedness went ding ding ding! when the rag-tag crew of AMC’s The Walking Dead journeyed to the CDC in hopes of salvation from the zombie plague. Of course, the CDC ended up exploderating, but that’s just fiction… right? Right?

The CDC is taking no chances, unleashing on the internets a guide to Zombie Apocalypse Emergency Preparedness, which (conveniently!) works in a pinch for other natural disasters like hurricanes and floods. I guess tornados and the swelling Mississippi taking out the South just isn’t sexy enough to get people to rustle up an emergency food, water and first aid kit.

If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.govWe at DeathRef applaud their efforts. (Dude! It’s the CDC!). But oh, dear hearts — don’t put “Social Media” in the title. We know what you’re trying to do. You’re almost there. Your constant reminders that zombie contingency plans also work for earthquakes quite nearly get in the way of the gag, but we suspect there were stuffy dinosaur overlords in heated board meetings that needed ample assurance this was relevant, useful and no joke.

Overall, well done.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Crime

12:31 – Killer Photos

Project 12:31
Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott

via Today and Tomorrow, “12:31”

All DeathRef bloggers will one day answer for their sins of gratuitous and gauche headline puns. But, wow, you gotta check this out. Using cross-sectional cadaver slides from the Visible Human Project as source material, Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott piece together haunting “light paintings” of the corpse of an executed murderer floating through nocturnal scenes.

See all the images and read the story at their website, or just feast your eyes on this creepy animation of all the slides, crown to sole:



Cemeteries Death + the Law Funeral Industry

The Bereaved Consumer’s Bill of Rights Act of 2011

We’ve seen some pretty nasty cemetery abuses in recent months, from Burr Oak to Arlington. Nancy in Texas tipped off the Death Reference Desk about a new bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that will hopefully prevent some anguish and anger in the not-quite-as-horrifically-egregious-as-outright-corpse-abuse-scandal arena but the still important — and affecting many more Americans — area of consumer protection.

Introduced on March 3 by Bobby Rush, D-IL, the Bereaved Consumer’s Bill of Rights Act of 2011 (H.R.900) will institute protections for consumers from “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the provision of funeral goods or services” (

Read the full text of the bill here. The Funeral Consumers Alliance chews through the legalese with some to-the-point bullets about what the bill will provide:

  • Compel cemeteries to give consumers accurate prices before the sale
  • Give cemetery consumers the right to buy only the goods and services they want; families will be able to buy markers, monuments, or grave vaults from less expensive retail vendors rather than being captive to the cemetery’s prices
  • Bar cemeteries from forcing families to buy entire packages of goods or services, if the family wants to choose item by item
  • Require cemeteries to disclose rules and regulations, and consumer rights, before the purchase
  • Require cemeteries to keep accurate records of all burials sold, and where remains are interred, and to make those records available to regulators
  • Bar cemeteries from lying about the law — claiming state laws “require” vaults to surround an in-ground casket, for example

The FCA is pretty darn excited about this (and so are we). See their site for additional information and links to contact state representatives about supporting this bill.

Death + Crime Death + the Web

Stay Classy, AccuQuote and CNN

In the wake of Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, leaving among the dead a federal judge and a 9-year-old, with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition among the many wounded, life insurance company AccuQuote reminds surfers of CNN that our family’s future is uncertain (even if widowhood turns women into FOXES… part of the threat of death, perhaps?)… especially with that unknown person of interest still on the loose.

I know how internet advertising works. When not random (though I doubt this is random), it’s keyword correlated, in effort to show viewers relevant content. And life insurance is definitely relevant when a sociopath murders citizens and public servants at a community forum. But c’mon, AccuQuote and CNN. Have some taste and show respect.

…Though I suppose such a censure ignores that media orgs are always selling fear, mayhem and ad space. Ugh.

Our thoughts are with the victims of the tragedy. May we see a shift in political and cultural discourse toward the sane and peaceable.

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Undead Enough for Modern Life: Zombie Rumination

My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead
Chuck Klosterman, New York Times (December 3, 2010)

Hey, DeathRef Gentle Readers. Meg Holle, Resident Zombie, here (yup, that’s me up top). As an undergrad at the University of Minnesota, my favorite class was “Monsters, Robots and Cyborgs,” offered by the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature department — probably unsurprisingly, the same weirdos who gave John his Ph.D. in Dead Bodies.

When I wasn’t deconstructing explosive alien birth scenes, asking, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” or linking the puking, peeing, pustulated, bleeding, crucifix-masturbating girl in the Exorcist to Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, I was learning about zombies. Fast zombies, slow zombies, Haitian zombies, zomaggedon, mass consumption, consumerism and Marx.

If this sort of nonsense is also a pet interest of yours (or the subject of your dissertation), check out Chuck Klosterman’s piece in the New York Times:

This is our collective fear projection: that we will be consumed. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid.


Battling zombies is like battling anything … or everything.

While there’s no arguing with the mindlessness of modern-day life, Klosterman would have done well to explore more in depth the alternating popularity of zombies and vampires. Vampires peak during economic prosperity — democrats and decadence, soul-sick in opulence, when the only thing wrong with everything is our megalomaniac selves. Zombies, on the other hand, embody the times when everything is wrong with everyone else — waterboarding, bailouts and unemployment.

Of course there is overlap. Marketing works wonders, and fake opulence or the hope thereof (e.g., the first two years of the Obama administration) still counts, and it’s not like those wars ever actually went away. But still. There is more to our monsters than the new black being the old black, unlike the old old black… which is also… coming… back.


Death + Art / Architecture Grief + Mourning

Sick Beauty in the Stains of Death: Sarah Sudhoff’s “At the Hour of Our Death”

At the Hour of Our Death
Sarah Sudhoff

Our worldly possessions speak to how we live, while their particular aesthetics — the whorl of this cushion, the filigree of that doily — hint at personality. In her series, At the Hour of Our Death, artist Sarah Sudhoff explores how our stuff reveals how we die, and reminds that we do die, and so do the ones we love from whose deaths we are detached. Sudhoff photographs the stains left behind from suicides, murders and other messy deaths.

Filmmakers Mark and Angela Walley produced a short documentary about Sudhoff and her work:

[Video not working because Vimeo is evil? Click here.]

Sudhoff’s intention with this work is to draw attention to the often invisible process and remnants of death. Normalized efforts to erase or conceal — or incinerate, as is the case of the fabric swatches she photographs — the evidence that death leaves behind, including the body itself immediately swept from view until the funeral, isolate us from our loss and make grief impersonal and arguably more difficult than it already is.

I say “arguably” because seeing the blood splatters of a loved one’s suicide would probably freak out and traumatize most people more than it would aid their mourning. Nevertheless, this sanitizing of death is a denial of reality and dislocates our understanding and acceptance of death. Sudhoff’s work recognizes and acknowledges the marks death leaves behind, on pillow shams and drapes but also on us.

A bit morbid, sure, but this is the Death Reference Desk. And if I may, while granting Sudhoff legitimacy in her artist statement, and at the risk of being creepy or insensitive, I am personally less interested in the death tie-in than I am in the pure aesthetics of the work.

Ignore for a moment that these images are saturated with the gore of the dead. Why? Because otherwise is too easy — too emotional, too blatantly taboo and therefore transgressive, and while Sudhoff does not seem to aim for shock, the context sends interpretation down a single, obvious, kinda gross but we-should-feel-good-about-ourselves-for-thinking-about-death-and-the-consequences-of-its-social-sublimation path.

And you know what? These photographs are really rather pretty on their own and function as effective works of art without all that weight.

sarahsudhoffIn the serendipitous way propriety and rules and stuff impose boundaries on Art, Sudhoff was unable to photograph actual crime scenes. Instead she is allowed to shoot their remnants pulled from the biohazard boxes of a death scene cleanup company. Fabric swatches are tacked to a wall, flooded with lights and photographed. While perhaps she would have done this anyway, this arrangement forces intense close-ups on the fabrics, as opposed to wider angle, let’s-see-the-whole-room, imagine-the-moment shots that would put us closer to the dead.

Instead, we have only a moment, and that moment is abstract and evocative. The textiles themselves are both art and commodity. Even a foam carpet pad, with its texture and color, has a weird, familiar but rarely recognized beauty.

The stains that seep can be seen as corruption or defacement — defects in these products. And yet there is balance and harmony, a rightness in the randomness. Nonetheless, even if you didn’t know it was blood, the creeping distortions signal that something is dreadfully wrong, complicating that beauty (or, ironically, enlivening and enriching a mundane pattern).

Combined with context — knowledge of what these stains don’t represent but actually are — Sudhoff’s work achieves a subtle power easy to overlook when we’re so quick to look away.

If you’re into this stuff (heh), check out Sudhoff’s other photo series linked on the left side of her website, including medical waste and sacks of unclaimed cremains.

Death + Popular Culture

Last Words Reprise

I posted a bit ago about William Brahms’ Last Words of Notable People. I wasn’t the first (and certainly shan’t be the last) to get super-nerdy about it.

Check out author John Green’s lovely, spastic video review. Hee hee!

Burial Death + Art / Architecture Eco-Death

Skyscraper Burial in Mumbai

Vertical Cemetery is a Greenery Clad Final Resting Place for Mumbai
Yuka Yoneda, (September 28, 2010)

We’ve posted before about vertical burial — that is, placing corpses in upright containers for burial in the ground standing up. The proposed Moksha Tower in Mumbai takes this concept to a whole new level by providing burial space in a skyscraper, giving “burial” and memorial options in a physical space while conserving precious horizontal green space that might otherwise be used for parks — or housing for the living.

While this design is clearly not in any spiritual tradition, the Moksha Tower attempts to appeal to the four major religious groups in Mumbai. According to an article from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the tower “acts as a symbolic link between heaven and earth”:

For Muslims, it provides areas for funerals and space for garden burial; for Christians, areas for funerals and burial; for Hindus, facilities for cremation and a river to deposit a portion; for Parsis, a tower of silence is located on the roof of the tower.

Death + Popular Culture

“Last Words” Scholarly at Last

Last Words of Notable People
William B. Brahms. (2010). 680 pages.
Haddonfield, NJ: Reference Desk Press.
ISBN: 978-09765325-2-1
Press kit with sample pages (PDF)
AmazonOrder from Amazon


The DRD was kindly offered a review copy of this book to be released in September 2010. DeathRef librarian Meg Holle took it to task, after a survey of similar works at local academic and public libraries.

A person’s last words — whether written in a diary or directly preceding the death rattle — tend to intrigue we the living, especially if the deceased, while alive, was otherwise fascinating or important. Even prosaic word salads have a special nihilistic charm. Yet throughout history, in addition to poor recordkeeping or merely mishearing or misremembering, we have been tempted to force meaning or change entirely the last words of the dead to preserve their dignity or prolong their profundity.

Many compilations of last words reflect this — that it is more important to be poetic than precise or to admit that we simply do not know the truth, disregarding scholarship and accuracy to perpetrate myths and cults of personality for their inspiration or wit. Such works tend to focus on the creative delivery of only a few people, while others merely list quotes devoid of context. Rarely do they name verifiable sources or show interest in or even admit to ambiguity beyond a brush-off disclaimer buried in the preface.

Last Words of Notable People is an ambitious effort to remedy this. Compiled by librarian and historian William B. Brahms, this reference work contains the final words of over 3,500 noteworthy people. With a focus on politicians, religious leaders, military people, writers, artists, musicians, athletes and criminals, last words are collected throughout history and around the world, with Americans and Europeans best represented. Arranged alphabetically by last name, each entry contains a short biography, the person’s last words, the context in which they were spoken or written and the source of the quote.

Last Words of Notable People especially excels at being unequivocal about ambiguity. It documents not only last words and their variations, but also completely different quotes when applicable. It also includes well-known last-word contrivances, clearly marked as “doubtful” in the text.

The book claims to be “the most authoritative compilation of Last Words ever assembled.” In a nice twist of honest, functional scholarship, its authority does not derive from claiming settled truth, but by acknowledging and sourcing the contradictions. While Brahms has necessarily made interpretive decisions regarding the content — what to include, omit, call “doubtful” and so forth — the reader is presented with evidence and citations for further investigation.

What exactly is scholarly interesting about last words, anyway? Let’s find out. I randomly examined the entry for civil rights activist Malcolm X, who was shot to death while giving a speech. After a brief bio, it states:

Last Words: “Hold it! Hold it! Let’s cool it! Let’s be cool, brothers!” Spoken to the three assassins who shot him multiple times.

Variation: “Let’s cool it brothers.”

For comparison, Alan Bisbort’s Famous Last Words (2001) has Malcolm X saying,

“Brothers and sisters, stay cool!”

…in effort to “maintain order in the assembly hall.”

While similar on the surface, these two versions are quite different. In the first quote and its variation, Malcolm X tries to deescalate the situation while also confronting and chiding his killers. In the second, he’s addressing the crowd. It’s reasonable to think that in the confusion, words were misremembered and to whom they were delivered, misconstrued.

But in this second version of “brothers” and being “cool,” “sisters” is also thrown in. Because that’s what he said? Or because of the politically correct, socially expedient reality that it’d be unfortunate for history to remember Malcolm X as forgetting women? — not just in the audience that he was gunned down in front of that day, but all women in all struggles, as this message apparently is, for all time, for everyone to keep their composure and dignity in the face of extreme adversity.

That is, if this was even actually spoken at all.

Brahms lists sources for both variants of the quote. Bisbort has none (to be fair, Bisbort’s work, with its stylish illustrations, is intended for trivial pursuit, not serious scholarship — yet if it’s incorrect… that’s a problem). It’s uncertain why Brahms did not list “Brothers and sisters, stay cool!” as alternative last words. The alleged quote may not be common enough to warrant inclusion, even with a “doubtful” notice, or perhaps it isn’t verifiable at all.

Suffice it to say, the depth of research that was required for this work is staggering, as is the potential range of inquiry it will assist and inspire, as historians investigate not only what people said, but all the ways in which last words are remembered, misheard and completely made up.

This death librarian is sold.

On the downside, while the dictionary format is intuitive and makes the most sense, the book is difficult to browse beyond aimlessly jumping around unless you have a specific person in mind. Additional points of access would improve usability and usefulness, such as a subject index by occupation, or perhaps a list of all the people with “doubtful” last words.

Finding entries by the content of the quote, as some works have done, would also be helpful, though such a task would be arduous and probably contentious (e.g., does Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s final utterance, “Strike the tent!” [“doubtful,” by the way] demonstrate valor or delusion?). The book does have an index, but it appears to consist mostly if not exclusively of personal names, making it largely redundant with the already alphabetical name entries.

Bottom line for Academic and Large Public Libraries: For as comprehensive it is, Last Words of Notable People is undeniably a niche resource. But the historians and biographers and general weirdos who run across it will flip out and fall in love as they discover — confirm, deny and further complicate — the final words of the famous.