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

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Spring Break 2010: Take A Tour of Nine American Cemeteries

American Cemeteries
MSN City Guide

My mom sent me this MSN piece on some really cool American cemeteries. In case you’re curious, my mom sends me lots of articles about death, dying, and dead bodies. She also sends me articles on tattooing but that’s another story.

Cool American Cemetery

I will be in Washington, D.C. next week and I plan on visiting Arlington National Cemetery.

In fact, I think that it’s important for people to visit cemeteries all the time. Walk around the grounds, touch the stones, and just listen to the silence. I find cemetery visits exceptionally relaxing.

This might be a little too Harold and Maude for some people but so it goes.

Support your local cemetery.

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

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.

Cemeteries Death + the Economy

Death and the Economy: California Cemetery in Foreclosure…

Final Resting Place, In Foreclosure
Theresa Vargas and Michael Williamson, Washington Post, (August 4, 2009)

Just when it seemed that news about the US economy and Death could not get any odder (and/or sadder), I came across the following blog post. Two writers employed by the Washington Post, Theresa Vargas and Michael Williamson, run a blog called Half a Tank: Along Recession Road and they are documenting how the recession is altering everyday life. Their posting on an Imperial Valley, California, cemetery in foreclosure is both predictable and astounding.

Cemeteries in foreclosure are not entirely new but it doesn’t happen all that frequently, either. Usually, cemeteries fall into disrepair because the owners stop the upkeep and/or the living relatives of the deceased have also died and no one comes to the cemetery.

Oddly, the last two days have seen similar cemetery stories in both the Washington Post and the New York Times. On Monday, August 3, the New York Times ran the following article: With Demise of Jewish Burial Societies, Resting Places Are in Turmoil.

I expect that more and more of these cases will pop up in the coming years. Family members die. Money comes and goes. Younger generations are no longer taken to the grave sites.

For what it is worth, I do not think that these stories are all that terrible. I like to imagine what future archaeologists will say when they uncover these abandoned burial grounds.

That, for me, is the future for forgotten cemeteries. We, the living, have no control over what stories our dead bodies will tell.

Cemeteries Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Home is Where the Dead Body Is

Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative
Katie Zezima, New York Times (July 21, 2009)

Tuesday’s New York Times featured a front page article — FRONT PAGE — on people who choose home burials for a deceased love one. Economic concerns are given as a key reason for any upsurge in home burials, because they do tend to be less expensive than traditional funeral services. The contemporary practice of home burial (where the body is kept in a private home so that family and friends can see it before burial or cremation) is not new and it most certainly predates the current economic recession. A strong case can be made that ‘home burials’ are actually a return to a more common 19th and early 20th century funereal practice. That said, I want to focus on the current trend reported by the Times.

In August 2004, for example, Public Television’s POV documentary film series aired a really fantastic home burial documentary entitled A Family Undertaking. The POV documentary follows different groups of families (each with a dying relative) and shows how the home burial is prepared. All of the families involved demonstrate time and time again how the home burial choice is a labor of love.

The fundamentally important part of any home burial is to understand what the local state law says about dead bodies. I say the following with complete sincerity (and as the son of a Funeral Director): most people are capable of handling their own funerals. Here is the most important information to know: 1.) what kinds of permits are required to transport dead bodies, 2.) who signs which pieces of paperwork, and 3.) what the local state law says about the final disposition of the body.

Final disposition is a fancy way of saying burial or cremation or any other legally sanctioned form of dead body disposal. Some states give more time than others for final disposition, it depends. Here is the key: ALL American states put their laws online and it is fairly easy to key word search ‘dead body’ or ‘corpse’ to see what the local law states.

The Times article also suggests that the renewed interest in home burials is another sign of economic stress. I’m not so sure. I agree that home burials do cost less than a full-on funeral home funeral, but I’m not convinced that economics really drives it. Economic concerns might function as a catalyst but it seems to me that many people choose home burial because it feels more meaningful.

I think that a better gauge of economic duress is this: the increase in unclaimed bodies in county morgues. These are situations where the next of kin cannot afford to pay the various burial costs so they leave the body in the morgue and local officials take care of the corpse.

All of this is to say, that as individuals begin to choose more and more varied forms of final disposition we will see increasing funereal variation, such as home burials. On the one hand, I totally understand this practice and support it. On the other hand, I really enjoy the classic 19th century cemeteries found across America and I would never turn away a chance to be buried in one. Quick aside: the New York Times ran a wonderful article a few days ago on the land surveyor at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The funniest part of the New York Times article is towards the end. It discusses how Maine carpenter Chuck Lakin makes handmade wooden coffins that can also double as bookshelves or display shelves… until death calls.

Chuck Lakin, coffin builder

Just by chance, a friend of mine sent me the following link this week on Coffin Shelves: Furniture for Life (and Death).

Coffin Shelves for Life

I am a total believer in multi-use coffins.

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
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.


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
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