cremation Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology

Urn Design Comes to a Head

Death masks are so eighteenth century. Cremation Solutions – purveyor of creative cremains transformations—offer urns that look like the noggin of the dearly departed, or whoever’s head it is you want to be stored in.

Personal Urn from Cremation Solutions

I am suspicious of company names that boast “solutions,” as that implies the industry in question has all sorts of unnamed problems. But I suppose cremation does have problems, if your problem is wanting to be buried in a replica of your favorite celebrity’s head. Dilemma solved!

Working from ordinary photographs, modeling software and 3D printing can reconstruct objects—in this case, creepy heads with hollowed centers to hold ashes. From the photos on the site, it looks like the skullcap slides right off—convenient, sure, but this is an urn, not a cookie jar, and the overall product could stand looking less lobotomized. Hair is also a hindrance; it can be added digitally upon request or you can throw on a wig yourself for extra realism and remembrance.

The full-sized option at $2600 will store all the ashes of a person while the $600 keepsake urn holds only a portion of ashes. It is unclear whether the keepsake size results in a smaller compartment for cremains or in an entirely shrunken head. Either way, it is a more affordable option for those who wish to purchase multiple heads for multiple mantles for maximum soulless gazes following everyone in the room simultaneously no matter how hard one tries to hide.

I suppose in this weird world, there is a market for this product. But from the vague photos and the lack of explanation—the process more thoroughly explained, along with a description of the materials—the personal urns don’t seem particularly high quality, especially for the price. One could likely recognize an urn head as being a certain person, but it’s not terribly realistic. The question is, would you want it more realistic.

If you’d want this thing at all, probably yes. So I wouldn’t amend that preneed just yet. There’s bound to be something better soon as 3D rendering technology improves.


Radiolab: After Life… Now with John Troyer!

Radiolab: After Life
originally aired July 27, 2009.

So somehow John got on Radiolab. Sure, it’s only a few seconds, but MAN this guy gets around. In addition to our own professor of death, Radiolab serves up an author, a biologist, a neurological psychologist, a geologist and a paleontologist to pontificate in short vignettes about what happens when we die. Educational, quirky, evocative — you know the Radiolab drill.

(And if you don’t, do yourself a favor and give it a listen — Radiolab is consistently stellar.)

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture

Condo Columbaria? Mountain View Cemetery

On July 11, 2009, Mountain View Cemetery—Vancouver, British Columbia’s only graveyard—invited the public to an open house to showcase its new buildings and columbaria. On-the-spot grave look-ups, four different cemetery tours, Chinese joss paper demonstrations, a string quartet, harpist and free popcorn all made for a pleasant day for cemetery boosters, curious potential customers and taphophiles such as myself. I attended two of the tours and explored on my own the whopping 106 acres of the grounds.

John Atkin, tour guide

Opened in 1887, Mountain View contains 145,000 interments at 92,000 grave sites. By the mid-eighties the cemetery had no more plots to sell and, hemmed in by houses, had nowhere to expand. Even the designated cemetery pathways, recognized as prime real estate, have been filled in with graves. According to John Atkin, civic historian and tour guide extraordinaire, 86 percent of British Columbians prefer to be cremated. Inspired by this statistic, the city approved construction of columbaria, providing 2,200 urn spaces to tap this market.

Columbarium main pathColumbaria side pathColumbaria condos

Click the photo thumbnails to see larger images. Each compartment, or niche, can hold up to two interments of cremains. Customers (residents?) can choose to be in the main columbarium wall, which forms a courtyard around a portion of the Masonic section of the cemetery, or in smaller, tower-like columbaria that line a path toward a newly restored water fountain.

I can’t help but notice the parallel between the smaller columbaria architecture and Vancouver’s condo-saturated skyline. It seems Vancouverites can rest in peace as they live—stacked in tall, stately structures. Accordingly, niches are priced with costs increasing the higher one resides above ground: the bottom row (with the worst view?) is $2,600, the second from the bottom costs $3,100 and all others fetch $3,800.

Mother marker, laid flatThe Masonic section was chosen for the columbaria due to its traditional graveyard aesthetics. In the 1960s a city bylaw stated all headstones would be knocked flat unless the family requested otherwise. The purpose? To most efficiently mow the lawn. Well organized and fiercely traditional, the Masons busted out the phone tree and the requests poured in, rescuing the Masonic graves from certain obscurity.

As part of revitalization and restoration initiatives, repentant cemetery officials have been turning markers upright, but it is a slow process—not terribly expensive, but there are thousands upon thousands of laid flat headstones to contend with.

Other points of interest:

  • Mountain View has no regulations regarding body preparation for burials. Embalming is not required, nor are vault liners or even caskets. Due to lack of space, however, few burials are performed. To be interred in the ground there today, a family would need to have a plot purchased decades ago.
  • When markers were laid flat, the granite bases from military graves were used in the construction of the Stanley Park seawall.
  • More than 10,000 infants—stillborn babies or those who lived only a few days—are buried in three sections of unmarked graves at Mountain View. The largest area now has a dry streambed memorial of over 6,000 stones, with each stone representing an infant. Families can purchase larger stones to have the child’s name engraved on it.
  • Located on the edge of the cemetery, the Vancouver Crematorium is a privately owned operation, a revelation which shocked and wounded the Canadian audience. As an American, I found this interesting—in the United States no one would question or even notice such privatization.

Lorraine Irving, TaphophileThe other tour guide, Lorraine Irving of the BC Genealogical Society, focused on the lives and deaths of individuals in the cemetery, passing around copies of historical photos and reading from obituaries and contemporaneous news articles. I also noticed a few portable information stands placed by the graves of BC notables.

This got me thinking… wouldn’t it be great to have cemeteries geotagged so as you wander around the graves and tombs, photographs, time lines, family trees, obituaries and other related info about the deceased would pop up on your phone? You could write personal remembrances that others could read, as well as visit distant cemeteries virtually. It’d be best open source, perhaps set up like a giant wiki to which anyone could contribute. Genealogists would freak.

I *ahem* highly doubt I’m the first person to have this idea—nor will I be the last to have no means to pull it off. But a girl can dream…

Another markerSomber girl markerMasonic marker
Death + the Law Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Memorials Face Roadblocks

Should Roadside Memorials Be Banned?
New York Times (July 12, 2009)

As part of their “Room for Debate” series, the New York Times provides five varying perspectives (along with well over a hundred reader comments so far) on the issue of roadside and neighborhood memorials. These shrines of grief—including crosses, photos, flowers, stuffed animals and other mementos—spring up seemingly spontaneously at the sites of accidental death and murder.

With most of them displayed on public property along highways and city sidewalks, however, opinions vary on their appropriateness and legality. Are such memorials safety hazards for decelerating, distracted motorists and, for the ones including religious symbols, violations of church and state? Or are they “outlaw” expressions of the people that will not and cannot (and perhaps should not) be suppressed?

One contributor is Melissa Villanueva, director and producer of Resting Places, a documentary about roadside memorials that explores the controversy in depth. The film is presently seeking distribution—here’s a trailer.

Cemeteries Death + Crime

Emmett Till: Forgetting to Remember

As an English major undergrad, I plowed through reams upon reams of literature and literary critique, cultural studies tomes and other articles and books. Nearly a decade later, one of the readings that struck me and stuck with me the most is John Edgar Wideman’s “The Killing of Black Boys.” Originally published in Essence in 1997, the essay describes the nightmare within Wideman’s nightmares: the battered, ruined face of Emmett Till, the black youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955.

Emmett TillTill’s crime? Being from Chicago and aged fourteen, removed from his city-slick, less racially tense environment, Till was tragically ignorant of other people’s ignorance, prejudice and devastating cruelty. This baby-faced, dapper teen, showing off for a clutch of country boys, made a pass at a white woman. For that, he was abducted, mutilated and murdered.

An all-white jury found his accused killers not guilty; the two men later admitted to the slaying and described it in detail for a magazine article. Outrage over Till’s death and the swift, sham acquittal helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in suburban Chicago, Till was briefly exhumed in 2005 in hopes of finding more clues to his murder; he was then reinterred in a different coffin.

Chicago, the nation and world have been shocked to learn of the recent and possibly years-long scandal at Oak Burr. Four workers are accused of digging up and dismembering bodies then dumping the remains in shallow, mass graves. Freshly vacant plots were then resold with the families of the deceased new and old equally unsuspecting.

While the perpetrators of this scheme thought better than to disturb Till’s grave, they did leave his original coffin to rust amidst rubble in a shack, despite collecting donations to create a lasting memorial. Considering the flocks of tearful families searching for loved ones’ graves, it hardly takes the addition of Emmett Till to make this transgression more disturbing, maddening and deeply sad. After all, for those with the depravity to disinter and tear apart bodies for profit, shoving the dilapidated coffin of some old civil rights’ icon in a shed would barely seem like a crime at all.

But it is, and it hurts. It abuses American history, as twisted and painful it already is. It hurts that for many, Emmett Till is a hazy memory if not a total unknown. And it hurts that he had to be further forgotten—conned and disgraced—to be remembered again, and for some, learned of for the first time.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Emmett Till’s story, I encourage you to read Wideman’s “The Killing of Black Boys” (this linked copy is clearly transcribed; forgive the handful of typos). It is more a personal narrative than a rendering of history; off the scholarly track, perhaps, though the history we remember, how it affects us and how we choose to tell it is just as powerful and revealing. The essay can also be found in the book, The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, edited by Christopher Metress (find in your local library). For more general resources, the Emmett Till Wikipedia article has a number of readings and external links.

Burial Eco-Death

Promession: Lose Your Life, Leave a Tree

Kim posted a couple weeks ago about promession, the process by which a body is embrittled in a bath of liquid nitrogen, crumpled using vibrations then sterilized by freeze drying, rendering a corpse into compost. Promession avoids the harsh chemicals and environmental pollutants of traditional burial and cremation, making it a green alternative while providing the requisite sanitization of death and emotional distance from simply dumping fresh bodies into the earth (the original “organic compost” method).

Today I discovered an animation depicting the process. I fear the multiple angle re-enactments of a tree growing out of a corpse’s pulverized chest may shift the intended “gee whiz!” effect closer to “oh dear god,” but it’s still an interesting infoplug, provided you’re not eating a delicious, ruby apple, or plan to, ever.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Grief + Mourning

Pocket Cemetery, the Breakfast Bar of Grief

Bereaving the latest celebrity death, or perhaps your dog? Need an on-the-go cemetery for your on-the-go life? Want to pay $2.99 to type “RIP” and click send into an unread utter void, also known as the Prayer function? There’s an app for that.

Pocket Cemetery for the iPhone allows you to inscribe virtual tombstones for dead celebrities (including Michael Jackson!), and even people you actually knew, or pets you had one time. Creator Wayne Perry calls it the “little virtual heaven in the palm of your hand.” I call it crap.

Okay, okay… it’s easy to rip on this — tear it up, that is, not let it rest. But the immediate ridiculousness aside, I am curious about the nature of the demand for the product (Perry boasts over a 1000 pixel tomb hungry customers since his YouTube MJ pitch above). If placing real flowers on a real grave is a symbolic expression of mourning, missing and honoring the dead, what does it mean to enact this symbol… symbolically, sending nothing to nowhere? Is it a matter of convenience, as so many cell and web apps tout? Perry himself cites not being able to visit his grandmother’s grave — and most people will never get to visit their favorite celebrities’ final places of rest. Or is it reluctance to do the real thing for real, and the need to have a familiar technological, commercial wrought-and-bought interface by which to mediate grief?

If you need a phone app to remind and assist you in feeling sad, you’re doing it wrong. Yet, we’re not just comfortable with such simulacra, we rely on them to provide simultaneous detachment and engagement — distance from things unsettling while providing the feeling we’re doing something meaningful. Unlike other web and communication tools, however, with virtual memorializing, the parties with whom we are obliquely interacting happen to be dead. It’s hard to say how much that complicates the matter, though it does seem to underscore the long understood: mourning and grief is all about us.

I can also see shock-factor irony taking part in its popularity. If I were hip enough for an iPhone, I might throw down for a Pocket Cemetery to celebrate its bad taste, just as I’d love to have a Snuggie to parade around parties in the wee hours of lesser sanity. The PC has already attracted some unintended use, such as people creating graveyards filled with people they wished were dead. “I didn’t design it for that,” laments Perry as IPhonePocketCemetery on YouTube.

Fair enough — but I hope he’s not surprised he’s hard to take seriously, especially after his follow-up pitch with Billy Mays, whom he credits his own talent, and Farrah Fawcett: “I have a lot of memories of her. I was a 15-year-old boy with that sexy poster hanging on my wall.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think eulogic sincerity — or pitchman integrity — exactly comes through with the fond reminiscences of being a horny teenager.

Death + Popular Culture

Body (We Are the) Worlds: Michael Jackson to Be Plastinated

Michael Jackson Set to Be Embalmed at the O2 Centre after Missing the Deadline for Cryogenic Freezing
Mail on Sunday (June 26, 2009)

It looks like Michael Jackson might get his world tour after all — or at least a perpetual stream of curious fans trotting past his moonwalking corpse. The day following the singer’s sudden death, Gunther von Hagens, the macabre but brilliant mind behind the controversial Body Worlds, announced a months-ago made agreement with the Jackson family to plastinate MJ’s body.

We can’t say we’re surprised — yet we can’t yet put a finger on what it all means, still surrounding by the thundering pulse of celebrity death tributes and tears. Is this a fitting, never-ending end for a bizarre life and (as of yet) mysterious death? An ensured, eternal spotlight for the consummate showman? A monster, as some would have him, made all the more horrific? The last and lasting exploitation of a fragile man full of ghosts? The list goes on, and oh, how the masses shall writhe with shock and delight…

Stay tuned.

Death + Crime Death + Humor

Cannabis Corpse

The AP reported that on Monday, police discovered 70 marijuana plants in the attic of the Helena Funeral Chapel. I didn’t intend to post this because eh, it’s Montana — who’s surprised, and who cares? Lo and behold, a couple of days later in Dallas, 100 pounds of pot were discovered in a casket during a traffic stop.

I know death is chronic, but seriously folks.

(To my surprise but-not-really, Cannabis Corpse is in fact the name of a band, not be confused, of course, with Cannibal Corpse.)


Cairo’s City of the Dead (…and Living) Face Eviction

Razing the City of the Dead to Breathe New Life into Cairo
Matt Bradley, The National, Abu Dhabi (June 18, 2009)

“Living around the Dead Helps Me See How We Will End Up. It Makes Me Feel Closer to God”
Matt Bradley, The National, Abu Dhabi (June 18, 2009)

Imagine you and all your neighbors being evicted from your neighborhood, except your neighborhood is a cemetery. And you’re not dead.

An astonishing estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Cairenes live among the centuries-old tombs and on graves in the four-mile City of the Dead, locally known simply as el’arafa (“the cemetery”). As part of city revitalization initiatives, the Egyptian government plans to turn out the residents—living and dead alike—to convert the cemetery into a park to increase Cairo’s public green space.

Creative Commons Flickr image by 10 Ninjas Steve
Creative Commons Flickr image by 10 Ninjas Steve

Some live in the cemetery to be near dead ancestors. In a city with severe housing shortages, however, most cemetery residents have no where else to go. The rent is nonexistent and the homes are comparatively larger, quieter and more private than other cheap, urban housing. Despite a few advantages to the unusual location, the residents, who include newcomers to the city looking for work as well as graduates from prestigious universities, suffer the social stigma of dwelling among the dead. “People living in the city think we’re twisted or sick for living with the dead. But I have gotten used to it. It’s my home,” says one woman.

Some are more than happy to accept the ministry’s offer of relocated housing, presumably with the running water and electricity that many cemetery homes lack. Others are not so keen. Says one elderly woman, living in a one-room flat attached to a mausoleum, “Of course I would say no. We’ve been living here for years. It’s a quiet and nice area. Why would they want to move us?”

Other Resources:

Tomb with a View by Hugh Levinson (BBC)

Cities of the Dead by Heba Fatteen Bizzari (Tour Egypt)

City of the Dead: a History of Cairo’s Cemetery Communities
by Jeffrey A. Nedoroscik (1997, Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey) Google BooksAmazon
WorldCatFind in a library

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Funeral Home Moves, Forgets Corpse in Casket

A woman dead for several years traveled with a relocating funeral home around San Antonio, Texas, as the undertaker awaited payment from an indigent family. The last time Forest Park Funeral Home moved, the body was left behind in a shed. New reports suggest she was supposed to be cremated in 2006.


Prone Burials: Mortifying the Dead

Buried Face Down: Prone Burials
Current Archaeology, v.20(231), June 2009
Via National Geographic News

Face-down burial has long been regarded with a knee-jerk, not-right, benefiting-the-doubt reaction. Across cultures and through time, experts and laity alike have assumed prone burials to be accidents or the result of post-interment disturbances.

Following an extensive survey of documented prone burials around the world, however, anthropologist Caroline Arcini of Sweden’s National Heritage Board has concluded that face-down burial was done intentionally to shame the dead: prisoners of war, criminals and those of lower social status, accused as witches or harboring the wrong religion in the wrong place and time.