Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Crosses Ruled to Violate Separation of Church and State (and State)

Tenth Circuit: Utah Highway Crosses Violate Establishment Clause
Clifford M. Marks, Wall Street Journal Law Blog (August 19, 2010)

Roadside memorials involving religious symbols — invariably Christian crosses — have long caused controversy regarding their legality with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, also known as the separation of church and state. Because roads are managed by state and local governments, detractors argue that planting crosses implies a state endorsement of religion or particular religions. A 2007 district court ruling disagreed, claiming that “crosses merely [send] a secular message about death.”

This ruling was reversed on Wednesday in a federal appeals court with a case about roadside crosses for deceased Utah highway troopers — an apparent state-endorsement of religion double whammy (government employees on government property being commemorated with Christian crosses, unlike arguably slightly less controversial cases involving private citizens doing the same).

As the WSJ Law blog states, the judges held that “a ‘reasonable observer’ could conclude that the presence of the crosses amounted to a state-endorsement of Christianity” and further that

“This may lead the reasonable observer to fear that Christians are likely to receive preferential treatment from the [Utah Highway Patrol],” the judges wrote, adding elsewhere in the opinion that “unlike Christmas, which has been widely embraced as a secular holiday. . . . there is no evidence in this case that the cross has been widely embraced by non-Christians as a secular symbol of death.”

Check out the full tenth circuit court opinion (pdf).

Those who have been paying any attention at all, willingly or not, to the vitriol around present-day religion in America can be sure this won’t be the end of this and similar cases.

Death + the Web Monuments + Memorials

1000Memories, a Thousand Possibilities


Despite the option of putting a deceased Facebook user’s account into memorial mode (and necessity, to avoid suggestions to “reconnect”), Facebook is for the living. That’s okay. Social media sites weren’t intended to handle death, and only years after their inceptions recognized the dilemma and developed related policies, as Kim’s last post explains.

But now there’s 1000Memories, a no-fee, ad-free site specifically designed to bring together family and friends to share photos and stories and even undertake charity projects in a loved one’s name. While not a social media site per se — it’s reasonable to suspect that over time the memorial pages will stabilize and become more or less static — pages are the product of user-supplied content and interaction, including commenting on others’ contributions.

But even without sustained interaction (which certainly may happen), the collaborative nature of the memorials offers evocative possibilities. Not only can far-flung friends and family come together virtually to remember a loved one, it gathers in a range of voices that piece together a multifaceted life. Memories through the eyes — and in the words — of a young grandchild will be much different from those of a spouse or old fishing buddy, and it is precisely this variation, provided enough people participate, that can make the memorials so rich.

Also, significantly — the site is gorgeous, and nothing breeds confidence like good design. Unlike so many new web startups, 1000Memories gets a huge Win with actually showing what the product does before you create an account, with a few examples available to explore.


According to the Terms of Service, “Privacy settings are administered on a per memorial basis and site administrators are able to set and adjust the privacy as relevant.” Sounds reasonable. Non-private pages are also indexed and discoverable on the open web, and purportedly available “forever” — imagine the boon it could provide for genealogists, now or in the future (or lazy This American Life interns, looking for story leads).

Also stated: “Persons establishing memorials agree not to restrict the right of any legal next of kin to assume or share administrative responsibilities and fully participate in memorials established.” Yikes. Yes. 1000Memories must tread the ground of family feud craziness and black sheep.

I’d like to see a base-line bio page with general information — birthplace, education and career milestones, possibly a family tree — editable by all or in the hands of the memorial administrator, with links to the deceased’s personal blogs and other social media identities. Naturally this could be contentious — while such sites are often easily findable anyway, you may never intend your ultraconservative/-liberal relatives to read your opposing-view political rants or other sticky revelations of heart and mind. Additionally, linked sites may not remain into perpetuity, though some sort of archival mechanism would also be slick. Nonetheless, including such content would be a way to further draw in a person’s life, and in their own words.

Check out a short interview from TechCrunch with two of the co-founders, Brett Huneycutt and Rudy Adler:

We’ll be keeping our eyes on this one!

Death + the Law Funeral Industry

Casket Trust-busting on the Horizon?

Consumer Advocates Want More Competition in Casket Market
April Dembosky, Marketplace (August 2, 2010)

American Public Media’s Marketplace has a short radio segment about a consumer advocacy group suing the three major casket companies for monopolizing the market. A federal judge will decide later this week whether the companies’ distribution policy of selling caskets to anyone but delivering them only to funeral homes creates an unfair market for competition and consumers who want more choice.

A possible word slip by a casket company official may be indicative of the industry’s attitude. From the transcript:

Mark Allen from the Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America insists there’s plenty of competition in his industry. “I’m contacted every week by a new upstart company that’s trying to get some advice for getting started in this industry.”

A new “upstart” company? Doesn’t he mean “startup”? So much for downplaying hostility.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture

Romanian Grave Markers: the Lighter Side of Death, the Darker of Life

Săpânţa: The Happy Cemetery
Dumneazu (July 23, 2010)

While grave markers can be creative and downright wacky, most reflect the solemnity of death — just the facts, m’am, perhaps with an accurate but general epitaph, like “Loving wife and mother.” Aren’t they all? And would you really say otherwise if not?

The Happy Cemetery in Săpânţa, Romania, would. From Dumneazu’s post:

The poem accompanying this gravestone said something along the lines, “And now my children are in the hands of God / Which is probably better than being in my hands.”

Ouch. Reflecting local folk art, carved and painted wooden grave markers in the Happy Cemetery memorialize a person’s life and death through often humorous poetry and depictions of community and personal life (i.e., drinking, being a heart-breaker and/or floozy) and the scenes that led to his or her demise (i.e., vehicular homicide, beheading).

Check out Dumneazu’s post for a number of photos with accompanying commentary. Great stuff!

Death + the Web

Happy First Birthday, DeathRef!

Believe it or not, the Death Reference Desk officially launched a year ago last July (with some content seeded in June to get us started). Gadzooks!

It all started when death and dying practices professor John approached librarian Meg about setting up a site where he could post death-related news links that he would otherwise put on Facebook or email to friends (and which friends, including librarian Kim, would constantly email to him). After much brainstorming — including the librarians pulling in the reference service idea — Meg created the site in a caffeine-induced fever dream. The rest is less history than designing the future.

Here are our most popular posts to date!

1,258 — Premature Burial Device Patents
1,021 — Dead Bodies Having Sex: the Backstory
989 — Deathly Art at DIA
757 — Blue Screen of Death… Memorial Tattoo?
661 — The Impossibility of Identifying the Dead in Haiti

And the top five search strings:

373 — memorial tattoos
268 — death reference desk
204 — corpse flower
123 — death masks of famous people
95 — memorial tattoo

Two deal with memorial tattoos, and there are many other tattoo-themed search terms that send people to our site: “memorial tattoo ideas,” “memorial tattoo designs,” “cremation tattoo” and many more. This is a pet interest of John’s, in fact, he’ll be speaking about memorial tattoos at a public lecture July 20th in New York City. He’ll post more about this soon, but here are the vitals in the meantime.

Hey! We now have a Facebook Page! Ironically, or perhaps just “finally,” we have come back around to posting content on Facebook, now with our own group page. Like us, love us and confuse all your stalkers trolling your Likes and Interests!

And don’t forget our DeathRef Twitter account, affectionately called the Death Feed. While we tweet links to our own posts here, we also throw out additional content that we don’t have the time or inclination to write full posts about. In addition, we have internal editorial guidelines / a collection and redistribution policy so to speak, known colloquially as “taste,” that prevents us from wallowing in schlocky, scandalous content on the DRD website (Pets Eat Dead Owner! 50 Wacky Coffins! and so forth). But some of that stuff still makes the Twitter Death Feed just for the heck of it, and it’s a good way to say yep, we’re still here, even when posts are long in coming.

Which brings us to… sometimes posts are long in coming. As our About page says, we suffer full-time jobs and part-time lives, and it’s also sum-sum-summah time! Rather than All DeathRef, All the Time, we’ve been dragging our pasty carcasses out into the sunshine. You should try it. It’s awesome.

Also of note: despite the low count in the DeathRef Questions category, Kim and Meg actually do field reference questions, usually one or two per month, but most of them are private issues that overlap legal and medical concerns that we don’t post for reasons of confidentiality. (We’re also not doctors or lawyers and can’t give related advice, but we do try to track down appropriate, useful services local to the patron.)

It’s been a great year, folks — we look forward to many more!


Kites and Hungry Ghosts Await at Mountain View

Mountain View Cemetery Summer Open House
Sunday, July 11, 2010 | 11am – 3pm | 39th & Fraser St. | Vancouver, BC

Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, BC, invites you to its open house, er, cemetery next Sunday to explore and experience “award winning architecture, kites, tours, and hungry ghosts.” I attended last year (and wrote about it here), and it was a blast. Live music, tours, fellow taphophiles, kite making… what’s not to love? If you’re in the area, definitely check it out.

Lorraine Irving of the BC Genealogical Society gives the history of this many-times vandalized angel monument at last summer’s open house.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Crime Death Ethics

Charles Bowden on Juarez

Dreamland: The Way out of Juarez
On The Media (June 4, 2010)

Earlier this week I wrote about the drug-cartel murders in Juarez, Mexico, and mentioned Charles Bowden, a journalist who has been covering the situation for over a decade. He recently spoke with On The Media about a new book, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, a mix of journalism and evocative, literary expression with haunting illustrations by Alice Leora Briggs.

They also discuss corruption in both the Mexican and U.S. governments for allowing the cartel to continue, along with criticism of the American press for poor coverage on the topic. Do have a listen — with his gravelly voice and poetic language, Bowden is a trip. A few quotes from the podcast:

“The city is dying. Violence isn’t an incident anymore, it’s the actual fabric of life, it’s part of basic transactions there.”


“Mexico is collapsing. This is an exodus of human beings. This is a far more significant event for the future of the United States than the war in Iraq.”


“I’ve been trying to leave the border for years, because it’s damaging to me. Because I’m tired of dead people. But I haven’t been able to make it. I actually am by some standards a normal person. I feed birds. I garden. I like to cook. I don’t need corpses. … The way I was raised, you can’t know this kind of slaughter is going on… and pretend it’s not happening.”

Death + Crime

Librarian in New Mexico Collates Murders in Juarez

A Gruesome Reckoning: Librarian Sifts Mexican Press to Tally Drug-Cartel-Related Killings in Juárez
Ana Campoy, Wall Street Journal (June 15, 2010)

With 2,633 homicides in 2009, murder in Juarez, Mexico, is out of control. Much of the violence is related to drug trafficking, accounting for gang on gang and police killings. But civilians are attacked, too, in displays of intimidation, or are simply caught in the crossfire or randomly targeted, like the pregnant U.S. consulate worker and her husband last March. To get a sense of the violence and corruption, listen to this chilling interview with Charles Bowden, a journalist who has covered Juarez for fifteen years and author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.

Due to the complexity of determining when a murder, especially a seemingly random one, is related to the drug cartel — compounded by national outrage and international scrutiny that may encourage Mexican authorities to obfuscate the facts — there are no official counts of drug-related murder. This has led researchers, media organizations, watchdog groups and others to keep their own tallies, but this quickly becomes overwhelming because the killings are happening constantly.

Enter librarian Molly Molloy of New Mexico State University. She runs the Frontera List, a collection of newspaper articles about issues along the U.S.–Mexico border. More importantly, she tracks the Mexican media for reports of drug-trade-related murder, keeps them in a searchable database and provides free daily updates and analysis to researchers, journalists, members of Congress, human-rights observers, and more.

While Molloy’s findings contribute to current U.S. news reports, academic studies and investigative journalism, including Charles Bowden’s book Murder City, she also hopes to develop an archive at her university’s library for future scholars that will be useful for analyzing trends over time. Her work has also been essential in unexpected ways, such as providing evidence of fear and distress for a refugee seeking U.S. asylum.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

Ms. Molloy said her work also could help the refugees. Earlier this year, a lawyer representing a person seeking U.S. residency asked Ms. Molloy for documentation of a body—and a severed head—deposited near the client’s home. Ms. Molloy found an article on the incident by searching her database for “decapitated.”

The client’s visa was approved.

As a librarian, I’m naturally heartened and enthused by the idea of a concerned librarian–researcher mending a crucial information gap. But this situation has other fascinating information facets, namely, the authority to name and classify.

What constitutes death is transparent, and murder, close to it. But less evident is defining what is and is not related to drug trafficking, as well as attaching meaning to what this entails (as a significant market for Mexican drugs, is not the United States complicit?). The power seems to be shifting hands: from the Mexican government and police to journalists on the ground to a diligent librarian in New Mexico observing, dissecting and freeing information.

Death + Biology Death + Crime

Murder?! The Maggots Are on It

Crime Scene Insects
BBC World Service (June 11, 2010)

This episode of BBC Documentaries explores forensic entomology: “the investigation of insects recovered from crime scenes and corpses.” Guests include Amoret Whitaker of the Natural History Museum in London, who studies the flies and maggots that congregate on corpses to find clues about the time and nature of death. She also analyzes the decomposition of pigs, a “good model for humans.”

They also speak with Bill Bass, anthropologist at the Body Farm, a facility at the University of Tennessee for researching the decomposition of bodies. According to Professor Bass, “I went to the Dean in November of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ ” And land he did receive. (John posted last fall about the Body Farm needing to refuse unclaimed bodies because of the growing surplus resulting from the poor economy… yikes!)

Have a listen — 22.5 minutes of homicide-solving maggots is bound to brighten any day.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Inventing the Future of Death

Recent design school graduate Jake Shapiro of New York shared his thesis project with us: “The Future of Death” examines how our internet and social media oriented lives have and will continue to change the way we think about and deal with death and grief.

The project, for which Jake designed and constructed working prototypes, includes an external drive that downloads and preserves a loved one’s online data. The LED screen allows users to view content on the handheld device, which can also be docked with the Digiurn — an urn with a screen “where a loved one’s physical and digital existence can be preserved and viewed forever.”

Here’s a demo of the software:

Deathware from Jake Shapiro on Vimeo.

Managing digital assets and identities after death is certainly a timely topic. Some sites cater to password management and transmission upon death (such as Legacy Locker and Deathswitch), while Facebook has death memorial mode for personal profiles. This may, however, be the first effort to draw together a person’s social media output and combine it with the physical reality of the urn and what remains of the deceased within it.

(There is an irony here — online communities can be vastly dispersed with “friends” having never met in person. While grief with such deaths can be indisputably intense, these people will probably not attend the funeral or ever see the urn or grave. In other words, The Future of Death compiles content once shared with a potentially vast network and archives and relays it to only a select few — the family and perhaps close friends. It could easily have an online portal as well, of course — or people could simply go to the original blog, twitter account, and so forth, though the long-term availability of content at its native origin is uncertain.)

While the social media aspect of this is new, there is precedent with digital urns delivering photos, video and audio. Interestingly, search results for such urns mostly turn up cremain containers for pets, suggesting that consumers may consider the product a gimmick or otherwise inappropriate for human remains — fine for your dog, but your dad? No. (They do exist, however: One $900 urn inexplicably states that “This urn can be sealed airtight as well, for those who choose to bury their loved ones.” Why buy an urn with a digital display then hide it in the earth? Eek.)

Jake’s concept diverges not only with including social media content, but in the design itself. Check out these other digital photo urns:

They resemble tiny television sets, complete with remote controls, while the Digiurn is both a throwback and a distinctly modern piece, using the classical urn shape while set up like an iPod docking station.

How comfortable with LED screens and external drives are Grandma and Gramps? Hrm, well, it’s their children to whom such products would be marketed. But in a similar complication, compiling, storing and providing access to the deceased’s social media content assumes he or she participated in it. This is a very current concept for a market that largely won’t need it for another 30 to 70 years.

Of course, this is the future of death we’re talking about. Considering how the internet has evolved over the past 10 or even 3-5 years, who knows what the future will hold for technology, not to mention how it will transform grief. At the same time, as computer scientist Alan Kay so eloquently put it, the best way to predict the future is to invent it — and we can be sure designers like Jake Shapiro will do just that.

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Funeral Industry

Digital Death Day! (Is Every Day)

Virtual Life after Death
Peregrine Andrews, BBC News (May 22, 2010)

Last week, May 20th, was the first Digital Death Day, an unconference in California of funeral directors, digital identity professionals, attorneys, technologists, entrepreneurs and obituary enthusiasts to share concerns and probably a few crazy-interesting ideas about managing digital identity after death.

Despite DeathRef being followed by digitaldeathday on May 4th, I have been sucked into the void of Other Responsibilities and neglected to pay attention until, oh, May 20th, as the unconference was actually happening. Bad librarian! Suffice it to say, it looked pretty darn cool. It appears that notes, podcasts and such are still being compiled. We’ll link them once they’re up. In the meantime,

The BBC also gets in on the action (article linked above), discussing the issue of digital assets such as domain names, sponsored Twitter accounts and virtual property in online games, as well as memorizing at social networking sites, or otherwise continued online engagement with the person’s profile, as though the person weren’t dead at all. This practice has been criticized as prolonging the grieving process, though others argue that it merely facilitates it.

Good stuff. As this post title suggests, Every Day is Digital Death Day — we’ll keep vigilant for what else emerges from the unconference and, of course, elsewhere on this topic.

Defying Death Suicide

TAL: Trouble Bridge Over Water

This American Life: The Bridge
originally aired May 7, 2010

Act One, Bridge Over Troubled Water

We posted last December about the Cliffs of Tojimbo in Japan, a popular tourist destination but also suicide hotspot, and the man who made it his mission to talk down and counsel would-be jumpers.

Act One of This American Life‘s episode The Bridge follows a similar situation in China, where Chen Sah patrols a four-mile long bridge thronged by thousands of pedestrians every day and averages one suicide per week. In standard This American Life fashion, the story is at once tragic, hopeful and bewildering, as reporter Mike Paterniti is embroiled in his own rescue of a jumper, a young man whom Chen then scolds and threatens to punch in the face for being a coward.