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:



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.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Where New York’s Unclaimed Dead Bodies Get Buried

Artist’s Study of Island Brings the Dead to Life
Adam Geller, Associated Press (October 30, 2010)


Hart Island Project
Melinda Hunt

This is a really compelling article about a New York burial ground for unclaimed bodies. Adam Geller, from the Associated Press, wrote a lengthy piece about both Hart Island (the cemetery) and artist Melinda Hunt, who turned Hart Island into a fascinating artistic project.

It’s a great read. You will find similar kinds of articles in the Death + The Economy section of Death Ref. There is no shortage of unclaimed dead bodies these days.

At top is a short section from a documentary entitled Hart Island: An American Cemetery.

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.

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 + Art / Architecture Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

WNYC Interview on Memorial Tattoos

Morbid Ink: Memorial Tattoos
Samantha Stark, WNYC radio (July 21, 2010)

WNYC radio in New York put together a short piece on Memorial Tattoos, which coincided with my talk on the same subject for Observatory and the Morbid Anatomy Library.


MemorialTattoosThumb3Samantha Stark, the WNYC reporter who put the story together, did a really good job of tracking down individuals and tattoo artists with memorial tattoos. I found those interviews far more compelling than anything I said.

But I’m not surprised.

Memorial Tattoos almost always contain a narrative which overpowers any historical/conceptual argument.

These tattoos are a story about how one person died and another individual continues to live with his or her memory.

And that will never change.

cremation Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Morbid Ink: Lecture on Memorial Tattoos by John Troyer

Morbid Ink: Field Notes on the Human Memorial Tattoo
An Illustrated Lecture with Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
Date: Tuesday July 20th, 2010
Time: 8:00pm
Admission: $5

On Tuesday, July 20 I am giving a talk in Brooklyn on memorial tattoos. The talk, Morbid Ink: Field Notes on the Human Memorial Tattoo, focuses on research that I have been doing for a number of years. Many thanks to Joanna Ebenstein who runs the Morbid Anatomy Library for inviting me to speak.

The academic side of this research has really only taken place during the last year. But the tattoo side of my work started in 1994 when I got my first memorial tattoo for my maternal grandfather. Since 1994, I have gotten a tattoo for each of my grandparents, in the order of their deaths, down my spine. I went to the same tattoo artist for each of the tattoos, Awen Briem, and you can see her work at her studio Art With a Point. In 2008, I got tattoos for both my parents (who are still alive) as a way of honoring them before they die. Each of these tattoos is a 1/4 long sleeve down both my left and right arms. Awen did an amazing job with these tattoos too.

All of this is to say that I have spent hours and hours (and more hours…) thinking and talking with Awen about why people get tattoos. It became apparent, based purely on Awen’s anecdotes, that memorial tattoos were becoming more and more common. In case you are looking for a definition, the Memorial Tattoo is most easily described as a tattoo which a person gets after someone they know dies. The deceased can be a good friend, a spouse, sibling, lover, etc. Now, the memorial tattoo can also be for a dead pet and I see this kind of tattoo more and more. Indeed, Awen ran some numbers and roughly 50% of her memorial tattoos are for pets. This all makes sense to me since pets became a companion species for humans long ago.

The talk on July 20th will discuss a variety of issues which I think memorial tattoos produce. Some of these issues include how meaning is assigned to a memorial tattoo, what marking a living body with representations of death entails, and current innovations in memorial tattooing.

I will also talk about the strange and peculiar avenues this particular research interest has taken me down. My favorite example is that the Death Reference Desk has itself become part of my research.

Last July, I posted an article on Death Ref about a gentleman who got cremated human remains mixed into the ink used for a memorial tattoo. As a result of that post, the Death Reference Desk has started receiving questions about the ins and outs of mixing cremated remains into tattoo ink.


And since Death Ref has always functioned as a reference desk, Meg, Kim and myself have responded to all the queries. Meg, in particular, has gone to great lengths to answer these questions and those responses are still available here: Using Cremains in Memorial Tattoos. You can also find more on memorial tattoos here.

It turns out that quite a few people have thought about/are thinking about mixing a pinch of human ash (almost always from the deceased) into the ink being used for a specific memorial tattoo.

I’m not surprised in the least. Within the logic of why people get memorial tattoos, it makes complete sense.

If you are in the Brooklyn area Tuesday and/or know someone who is, then send them to the Morbid Anatomy Library at 543 Union Street, Brooklyn, New York 11215 for the talk.

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.”

Afterlife Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture

Deathly Art at DIA

Anubis, God of Death

Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, has joined the ever-growing population of deathly artworks at the Denver International Airport (DIA).

Denver’s local ABC affiliate, KMGH, reports that horrified travelers are now greeted by the 26-foot tall statue upon arrival in the main terminal.

Anubis is being erected in anticipation of the Denver Art Museum’s upcoming King Tut exhibit. The jackal-headed god now joins Mustang, also known as the “Bluecifer” or “Demon Horse” statue by Luis Jimenez and Leo Tanguma’s Nazi-inspired two part mural entitled Children of the World Dream Peace.


DIA has garnered much praise and criticism over the years for its extensive public art program which has featured a wide variety of paintings, murals and sculptures, in addition to various commemorative plaques and parquetry.

Children of the World Dream Peace has probably garnered the most attention, inspiring multiple conspiracy theories about its message and meanings. With its gun-wielding, sword-brandishing, gas-masked soldier figure, you may be able to see why. The giant blue mustang with the glowing red eyes and popping black veins has also struck fear into the hearts of travelers—although more for its ominous presence—than any overtly death-inspired message. Although, the fact that the artist, Luis Jimenez, DIED from being crushed under the sculpture when it fell on him, may also add to the creep-out factor.

But now Denverites and weary travelers can gaze upon and contemplate the newest addition to the airport—Anubis—the Egyptian god of the dead and embalming. According to Ancient Egypt Online:

Anubis is the greek version of his name. The Egyptians knew him as Anpu (or Inpu). Anubis was an extremely ancient deity whose name appears in the oldest mastabas of the Old Kingdom and the Pyramid Texts as a guardian and protector of the dead. He was originally a god of the underworld, but became associated specifically with the embalming process and funeral rites. His name is from the same root as the word for a royal child, “inpu”. However, it is also closely related to the word “inp” which means “to decay”, and one versions of his name (Inp or Anp) more closely resembles that word. As a result it is possible that his name changed slightly once he was adopted as the son of the King, Osiris. He was known as “Imy-ut” (“He Who is In the Place of Embalming”), “nub-tA-djser” (“lord of the scared land”).

The interpretation and criticism of art is a heady business. Assigning meaning is never cut and dried—even when the artist him/herself explains the creation. Despite observations by sanctioned or unappointed art critics, we are all ultimately left to our own devices in this process. Much as in death, it’s a solo trip. So if you have visited or will visit the DIA and have any extreme feelings one way or another about their art collection and its possible deathly implications, drop us a line and give us your insights.

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.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Death + Humor

No Sexy Time Allowed in Japanese Cemeteries

Nude Cemetery Photos Result In Charges
Renowned Japanese photographer faces up to six months in prison
Associated Press (May 20, 2010)

What is it about cemeteries, coffins, and all manner of death objects that makes people want to rock the sexy time? I know I know. I’ve read plenty of Freud and Lacan too, but still…What I like about this story is that the Japanese photographer in question has taken the ‘I admit that I messed up’ route and that he will pursue other venues for his creative expression.

I haven’t seen the calendar in question, this would be the calendar that the models were posing for, but this entire story reminds of a post Meg posted in February. That particular news item involved a series of ‘Sexy Coffin’ calendars from Italy and Poland. The Italian calendar is particularly (in)famous and has been around for a while. I actually own a few years worth but keep them hidden in a discreet brown paper bag….

But this Japanese incident also reminded me of the photography work by Spencer Tunick, who creates massive tableau shots featuring hundreds of naked bodies. What I admire about Tunick is that he keeps coming up with new ways to make his photos interesting.

So the lesson, I think, for Japanese photographer Kishin Shinoyama is that he should have brought 300 nude models to the cemetery thereby using the sheer force of nakedness to shut down any complaints. Ok…this isn’t really a feasible plan but I’d be curious what hundreds of naked people in a cemetery might look like in a photograph.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Death + the Web

The Dark Arts, the DIY/craft juggernaut, is the go-to place to buy and sell all things handmade. If you are familiar with this phenomenon, you would know that if it’s vintage button earrings and owl-themed stationary you desire, then Etsy has it locked down.

The Etsy craze is so hot right now that it was recently featured in a NY Times story. Online since 2005, Etsy employs 74 people — and one dog named Dottie — according to the “About” section of their website. And, you really know you’ve made it when another site pops up mocking yours — see

Since I am interested in craft and DIY culture, and I like to troll Etsy from time to time, I decided to do a little searching on some death-related terms and see what comes up. I figured I’d see some skeleton-themed, Halloween-y stuff and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. But digging a bit deeper, one comes across a most interesting array of death/dead/dying oriented items that are available for purchase for that special someone in your life.

I compiled a list of search terms and their corresponding hits below. But alas, there are some false hits. For example, in searching the term “dying,” Etsy doesn’t make the distinction between a seller writing that you may be “dying” to get your hands on her vintage fabric scrap neck gator vs. actual items that somehow are related to the actual act of dying. The “Advanced Search” supposedly allows you to narrow your search by adding the minus (-) sign, but it doesn’t always work. So, to use the “dying” example again, if you search on that term, you will also be given items that are tie-died and die-cut. As you can imagine, this annoys this here librarian. The date of this search was Sunday, February 21, 2010.

  • We found 11,675 results for dead.
  • We found 3,470 results for death.
  • We found 16,098 results for dying.
  • We found 549 results for coffin.
  • We found 337 results for funeral.
  • We found 11 results for morgue.
  • We found 62 results for burial.
  • We found 161 results for suicide.

Peering further into these categories, here now are but a few of the handmade goodies on offer (click the photos to see the items in Etsy). I’ll let you explore some of the more “shock and awe” items on your own.

Toe-Tag Party Invitation

Natural, Green Burial Casket

Vintage Wells Fargo Casket Tag

Human Bone Necklace