Cemeteries Death + Architecture Death + Art / Architecture Death + Crime Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web Death Ethics Monuments + Memorials

2016’s Most Memorable Death Articles and More

2016 will very likely be remembered as the year of the Dead Celebrity. Prince was certainly a tough death for Death Ref.

And yet, a plethora of other articles and radio programmes on diverse death topics also appeared in 2016. This is not to belittle everything written about Dead Celebrities, but we here at the Death Reference Desk want to highlight some of the year’s most compelling pieces on non-celebrity death, dying, and dead bodies.

Death Ref started running a year end feature last year. As with the 2015 list, many of the 2016 pieces came from the New York Times, which continues to produce really good essays and articles on human mortality.

Collecting the 2016 material was a bit more systematic than last year. Throughout 2016 articles were placed in a folder that was then reviewed. By today, December 31, 2016, there were over forty different items in that folder.

What follows below is a sampling of those essays, articles, and radio stories.

It was good to see so many articles in 2016 about the legacy of AIDS and the political movements that formed around the Epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. A couple of pieces towards the bottom of the 2016 list highlighted this forgotten, but crucial history. Death Ref also recommends that everyone signs-up for the BBC Radio 4 We Need To Talk About Death podcast. The shows started at the end of 2016 and will continue into 2017. Finally, we were saddened to learn that our good friends at the Morbid Anatomy Museum closed its doors in December. Death Ref John was the MAM’s Scholar in Residence in 2014 and you can read his essay about the Morbid Anatomy Museum here.

As with last year, that’s it for 2016. The Death Reference Desk (Meg, Kim, and John) all look forward to 2017 and what will most certainly be an unpredictable year for death.

For Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Black Leaders as Obituaries Portrayed Them
by Sam Roberts, New York Times (January 18, 2016)
To commemorate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — he would have been 87 — in advance of Black History Month in February, The New York Times culled its historical obituary files for a retrospective on how he and other prominent black Americans were regarded at their deaths.


Death Predicts if People Vote for Donald Trump
by Jeff Guo, Washington Post (March 04, 2016)
It seems that Donald Trump performed the best in places where middle-aged whites are dying the fastest.


Why Slaves’ Graves Matter
by Sandra Arnold, New York Times (April 02, 2016)
Those who lived through slavery were human beings, not abstractions.


When Your Mother’s Death Is Kept Secret From You
by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay, Science of Us (May 25, 2016)
The reverberating effects of hiding the truth.


Alton Sterling and When Black Lives Stop Mattering
by Roxanne Gay, New York Times (July 06, 2016)
Tiny cameras allow us to bear witness to injustice. What does that change?


Solving All the Wrong Problems
by Allison Arieff, New York Times (July 09, 2016)
Do we really need an app that lets us brew our coffee from anywhere?


‘Transfesto’ Launches to Tackle Transgender Discrimination After Death
by Jenny Marc, The Independent (June 30, 2016)
In 2016 researchers and activists in London released a ‘transfesto’, calling for greater awareness of issues faced by transgender, non-binary and gender nonconforming people after they die. The manifesto calls on the funeral industry to develop more trans-friendly practices and for official death-related paperwork to be more trans-inclusive. It also outlines plans to make trans-specific legal information more easily accessible.


THIRD human foot found in Bath, England
by Amanda Cameron, Bath Chronicle (August 05, 2016)
Another human foot has been discovered in Bath….(NB: Death Ref John lives in Bath and can’t get enough of these severed feet stories)


10 of the World’s Most Iconic Cemeteries, Mausoleums, and Crematoriums
by Demie Kim, Artsy (August 09, 2016)
Though we may think of cemeteries as transporting us to the past to remember and honor our loved ones, they have historically been spaces of innovation and reinvention in art, architecture, and design.


Death & The Maidens: Why Women are Working with Death
by Sarah Troop, Death and the Maiden (August 15, 2016)
Death & the Maiden’s co-founder, Sarah Troop, delves into the reasons underlying the current interest many women seem to have with death, and the rise of the Death Positive movement.


Playing God
by Radiolab (August 21, 2016)
When people are dying and you can only save some, how do you choose? Maybe you save the youngest. Or the sickest. Maybe you even just put all the names in a hat and pick at random. Would your answer change if a sick person was standing right in front of you?


On Assisted Suicide, Going Beyond ‘Do No Harm’
by Dr. Haider Javed Warraich, New York Times (November 04, 2016)
Fewer people experience a “natural death” anymore. Doctors should rethink their opposition to right-to-die laws.


LGBTQ Activist Cleve Jones: ‘I’m Well Aware How Fragile Life Is’
Terry Gross radio interview on Fresh Air (November 29, 2016)
Jones became an activist after Harvey Milk’s assassination, and he lost countless friends to the AIDS epidemic. He says, “There are some days when it is so painful that I really can barely function.”


The Reinvention of Radical Protest: Life on the Frontline of the AIDS Epidemic
by David France, The Guardian Long Read (November 29, 2016)
As reports of a mysterious plague swept through the gay community in the 1980s, activists developed shock tactics to get the support they desperately needed.


America Is Failing the Bad-Break Test and People Are Dying
by Jesse Singal, Science of Us (December 09, 2016)
The United States likes to view itself as a singular force of prosperity and opportunity, but by many public-health metrics — including infant mortality and preventable deaths and a variety of others — it doesn’t look like a top-tier world power.


The Rooms they Left Behind
by Mitch Epstein, New York Times Magazine (December 21, 2016)
After the deaths of these 10 notable people, The New York Times photographed their private spaces — as they left them.


We Need to Talk About Death
with Joan Bakewell, BBC Radio 4 (Ongoing Series started in December 2016 — download the Podcasts)
Joan Bakewell and her panel discuss death and dying, exploring the choices open to us and confronting the questions we fear the most.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture

May 22: World Goth Day

It’s World Goth Day!

So dark so dark inside…..

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Seeing The AIDS Memorial Quilt in New York in 2014

Photos: See The AIDS Quilt On Governors Island
Gothamist (August 12, 2014)

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display in New York for the first time in over 10 years.

I posted about this chance to see the AIDS Quilt and then made a point of seeing it myself.

I last saw the AIDS Quilt twenty years ago.

There isn’t much to say other than this section of the AIDS Quilt was displayed on Governors Island in New York. Governors Island is beautiful and it’s been turned into a wonderful park area.

That said, seeing the Quilt this way made it feel like a Plague Island. Or an Anti-Contagion Zone of a kind.

Twenty or Twenty-five years ago, this section of the Aids Memorial Quilt would have been on display in Central Park.

I have no doubt.

You can see photos on the Gothamist page.

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

Section of AIDS Memorial Quilt on Display Next Week in New York

See the AIDS Quilt in NYC for First Time in a Decade
Irene Plagianos, DNAInfo New York (August 6, 2014)

In an unexpected turn of events, a section of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt arrives in New York City next week. Most people simply call it the AIDS Memorial Quilt or even the AIDS Quilt.

It’s really worth checking out.

Here are the details:

A large piece of the AIDS Memorial Quilt will be displayed on Governors Island next week, marking its first visit to New York City in more than a decade.


The 57,600-square-foot section of the quilt — made from thousands of panels dedicated to people who have died from AIDS — will be unfolded across a football field-sized area of the island.

Visitors will be able to view the quilt from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 11 and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Aug. 12.


A special dedication ceremony will be held from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 11, and members of the public will be able to participate in a name reading ceremony.

I was able to see the AIDS Quilt a few times during the 1990s. One of those viewings involved going to the original AIDS Memorial Quilt building in San Francisco. I’ll never forget it.

Here are some videos about the Quilt in the event you have no idea what this post is about.

It is also worth noting that it’s now impossible to display the entire AIDS Quilt in one place since it’s become too large.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology

Day 29: Full Listing of Events for Death Ref John’s Morbid Anatomy Museum Residency

Morbid Anatomy Museum
424A 3rd Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215

During the month of August, I will be the Scholar in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.

My residency includes a series of films about death that I specifically selected for the MAM. It also features illustrated lectures about my research on death, dying, and the dead body.

Quick clue for Death Ref’s close personal friends: the films and the talks complement each other.

More than anything, I’m really excited to spend August at the Museum.

The complete listing of films and talks is below.

You can also click here to see August’s calendar on the Morbid Anatomy Museum website.

Tales from the Celluloid Coffin: A Death-themed Series of Film Screenings
Mondays 8:00 pm – 11:00 pm $5


August 4: Death, Dystopia and Technology Circa 1970


August 11: Death, Color and Memory


August 18: Necrophilia


August 25: Future Death Circa 1990


Illustrated Lectures on Death, Dying, and the Dead Body
Wednesdays 8:00 pm – 11:00 pm $8


August 6: Future Dead Body Technology


August 13: Morbid Ink: The Permanence of Memorial Tattoos


August 20: Abusing the Corpse: Understanding Necrophilia Laws in the USA


August 27: The Future is Death and Death is the Future: Technology, Politics, and the Dead Body

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Humor Monuments + Memorials

Day 23: Death Ref John as a 19th Century Postmortem Photograph

Professor Bellows Photography
Mall of America, Minneapolis, MN (USA)

In summer 2006, Argentinian artist Ana Lois-Borzi and I collaborated on a postmortem photography project.

Ana and I both lived in Minneapolis at the time and we had gotten to know each other through the local art scene. Our earliest encounters were at Gus Lucky’s Art Gallery on East Lake Street, which is sadly long gone.

We decided that we wanted to create 19th century-style postmortem photos of each other but we didn’t want to use her studio. So, we did the only logical thing we could. We went to the Mall of America’s old timey photo studio (linked to above) and paid to have one of their eager-to-please employees take our photographs.

The catch was this– we didn’t tell the photographer what we were doing so we became ‘dead’ right as the photo was taken.

Ana Lois-Borzi Postmortem Photograph

It was obvious to us both, that Ana was far better at becoming dead than me. It’s in the hands, we both agreed. My hands don’t look very dead. Ana’s hands = totally dead.

We had plans to travel around the United States so that we could visit as many old timey photo studios as possible.

Alas, I moved and we put the project on hold.

But one day, and hopefully soon, we’ll both go back to being photographically dead.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology

Day 9: Tick-Tock Goes This Mortal Coil’s Clock

Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death
A Swedish inventor came up with a wristwatch that counts down the seconds left in your life. He calls it “the happiness watch” because he thinks living with the reality of one’s mortality can enhance how we value our lives.
Lulu Miller, National Public Radio (December 31, 2013)

At the very end of last year, National Public Radio ran a story by Lulu Miller about a watch that can ‘predict’ when you’re going to die.

It’s a clever invention that is obviously geared towards cultivating conversations about death and dying as opposed to locking-in a termination date.

I’m not sure that you need a watch to get those discussions rolling, but I’m open to all possibilities.

The wonder of producing the 31 Days of Death is that it’s possible to pull stories from the files that never made it to the Death Reference Desk for numerous reasons.

Give the story a listen. It’s time well spent.

Afterlife Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning

Gravity is a Movie about a Dead Child

Gravity (2013)
IMBD (December 22, 2013)


Do not read this Death Ref post if you have not seen the film Gravity and would rather not read about the plot before seeing it.

You have been warned.

After much talking and planning, I finally saw the movie Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Almost all of the reviews I’ve read or heard focused on Gravity’s use of 3D effects (which are very well done) and the somewhat existential-metaphysical-slightly New Agey-religious language used by Bullock’s character Ryan Stone.

What very few people seem to realise, I think, is that Gravity is a film about a dead child and parent grieving over the unexpected death of that child. In this case, it’s Bullock’s character and her daughter who accidentally died while playing tag at school.

It is also a film about living people talking to the dead and this is something that both secular and religious people do (whether they admit it or not) on a fairly regular basis. It’s completely normal and part of what is often referred to as a Continuing Bond after a person dies.

Case in point, near the end of the film George Clooney’s character Matt Kowalski suddenly reappears even though it’s clear that he must be dead. Bullock and Clooney have a conversation about how to get back to earth, which pulls Bullock’s character from choosing to die and instead motivates here to return home. The scene concludes with Clooney’s sudden disappearance and Bullock asking him to say hello to her dead daughter.

Sure sure, the world’s entire fleet of space stations and ships are ripped apart by space debris during the film and there’s a survival story involved but it’s just the spectacle that underscores the dead child narrative. I also get the sense that some of the perceived neo-Theological/New Age Christian critiques come from the scene where Bullock speaks to the dead Clooney about the dead daughter. Again, I didn’t see that as particularly religious rather it was a grieving parent asking a friend to check in on a beloved child.

The real genius of Gravity’s meditation on life and death is this: I firmly believe Bullock’s character Ryan Stone dies in the moments before speaking with the dead Matt Kowalski and that the film concludes with her entering a secular afterlife.

Of a kind.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Humor Death + Technology

Walter Potter’s Anthropomorphic Taxidermy and Dead Animals

On the Death and Burial of Cock Robin
Guest Post by John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society, Bath University (August 23, 2013)

Death Ref’s good friend Joanna Ebenstein, who runs the Morbid Anatomy blog and benevolent empire in Brooklyn, NY, asked me if I would write a guest blog post for her new book on the 19th century British taxidermist Walter Potter. If you don’t know Walter Potter’s work, but like taxidermy, then you really must look him up. Joanna and Walter Potter expert Pat Morris have put together a new book called Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy.

Walter Potter is known (and a little infamous, in a late-Victorian kind of way) for his anthropomorphic taxidermy in which dead kittens (for example) have a tea party. There is significantly more to say about all of Potter’s taxidermy work, but I focused on a personal favourite The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin by Walter Potter
The Death and Burial of Cock Robin by Walter Potter


Please check it out!

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death Ethics

Do Not Resuscitate Tattoos Cannot Be Stopped!

Tattoos Replacing Medical-Alert Bracelets for Those with Diabetes, Other Ailments
Aisling Swift, Scripps Howard News Service

Ladies and Gentlemen. Dearest Death Reference Desk Readers. Lovers of all things Death, Dying, and Dead Body.

We are witnessing an entirely new tattoo genre not only take flight but unquestionably cement itself into daily life. The Medical Alert Tattoo will not, cannot, oh my goodness no no no, go away!

In mid-June I wrote about recent developments in Medical Alert Tattooing: Do Not Resuscitate this Tattoo. Or the Person Attached to It.

This most recent article by Scripps Howard seems to have suspiciously borrowed some ideas from ye olde Death Reference Desk but it’s cool.

In a nutshell, people from all different kinds of backgrounds and age groups are having various medical condition alerts tattooed onto their bodies. So, for example, Type I or II Diabetes on the wrist. But many people are also having DO NOT RESUSCITATE tattooed onto their chest. We’ve been covering these DNR tattoos since Death Ref’s humble beginnings in 2009.

And now, it seems, the Do Not Resuscitate tattoos are a real phenomena.

As with any discussion on DNR (or other Medical Alert) tattoos, it’s important to state that medical staff are not necessarily going to follow the tattooed request. At least not the Do Not Resuscitate part.

But if you go for the ink, then no one can doubt your commitment. And that’s a political statement unto itself.

Special Note: Send the Death Reference Desk photos of your DNR or Medical Alert Tattoos. We want to start a photo collection.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology Death + the Web

A Brief Glimpse into the Future Cemetery.

The Future Cemetery Project is sneaking up behind you.

Right now.

You. I. We all know that death is the future

Follow the Future Cemetery here.

And here.

And for a matter of minutes you can see what and who lives in the Future Cemetery.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death Ethics

Do Not Resuscitate This Tattoo. Or the Person Attached to It.

Medical Alert Tattoo Replaces Bracelet on Type 1 Diabetic
Susan Kreimer, AARP Bulletin (June 6, 2012)

Medical Alert Tattoos. This is my new favorite tattooing term. It is the perfect blend of utility, pragmatism and bad ass ink.

We’ve been covering Memorial Tattoos for a while on Death Ref and you can see those posts here.

All credit goes to the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) for publishing this short article on its members who choose different kinds of Medical Alert Tattoos. I already knew about the Do Not Resuscitate tattoos. In December 2008, an older Death with Dignity activist in New Zealand gained international attention when she got her own DNR tattoo. And in late 2011, an 81-year old British woman did the same thing.

Albert Cutter, M.D., with his medical alert tattoo. — Photo by Dean Lewins/Corbis

The AARP discusses other MAT’s (a new tattooing acronym!), such as putting ‘Type-1 Diabetic’ on a person’s wrist.

I fully support the use of Medical Alert Tattoos. 100%. Indeed, these tattoos represent a form of older person activism that I really respect.

MAT’s also give the grandkids something to tell their friends about.

But any Medical Alert Tattoo, especially a Do Not Resuscitate tattoo, comes with a cautionary note: the status quo is still a piece of jewelry or a written order. The tattoos won’t necessarily register as a person’s officially and legally recognized choice. Paradoxically as that sounds.

The AARP also flags up this issue:

A word of caution: First responders aren’t trained to look for tattoos, and skin damage in accidents can obscure them, says Rebecca Dinan Schneider, spokeswoman for the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. “Medical alert jewelry is still the standard.”

One day this will change. And perhaps sooner than we might imagine.