Death + Art / Architecture Grief + Mourning

Death Bear,

Need to Get Over Your Ex? Call Death Bear
Laura T. Coffey, (February 12, 2010)

Ah, Valentine’s Day — the most prodigious of the Hallmark Holidays, buttering up lovers (and by buttering I mean fattening) and sending single people into quiet rages, whether feeling left out of others’ romantic schlock or when needing to justify or prove indifference, which invariably comes off like denial.

It may be especially bad for those recently devastated by love’s crueler arrows – specifically, the snapping off of that arrow, having it jammed the rest of the way through one’s heart, and watching love run like hell. Sigh.

The end of a relationship can feel like death — or at least to the precocious living, scrambling for extreme metaphors to give meaning to these darkest of times. AND that bastard left a pile of his crap in your apartment that you’re too furious/wimpy/apathetic to demand that he pick up, and/or haul out to the trash yourself.

Enter Death Bear — that is, if you’re lovelorn in Brooklyn. Upon summoning via text, performance artist Nate Hill will don his gloomy alter-ego, a seven-foot tall, weirdly narrow bear with an over-sized hard plastic head. This phantom is all black except for the ghastly humanoid hands that collect the memories you want to forget — at least the physical manifestations that call them forth. Your ex’s clothes. Lame CDs. All those heart-sharing soul-binding letters that were obviously LIES.

From Nate Hill’s website:

We all have someone or something we would rather just forget. Things fall apart. Love hurts. Dreams die. But when you summon Death Bear to your door, you can rest assured that help has come. … Death Bear will take things from you that trigger painful memories and stow them away in his cave where they will remain forever allowing you to move on with your life. … Let Death Bear help you, and absorb your pain into his cave.

Awesome. And remember, this isn’t just a Valentine’s affair. Getting dumped, like death, can happen anytime of the year — and Death Bear will be there.

Death + Art / Architecture Death Ethics

Quodlibetica: The Death Issue


Friend of Death Reference Desk, Collier White, has just published the second issue of his collaborative writing/arts/criticism blog, Quodlibetica. The theme? Death. Olly, you know how to get us.

The issue, or “Constellation”, as it’s called, describes the issue thusly:

Death is an ideal subject for art: marginalized, terrifying, and ultimate. In our second constellation, Quodlibetica looks at death in contemporary art and invites writers and artists to talk about death, art, and ethics: Jan Estep questions whether killing animals can ever be justifiable in the name of art, while Collier White visited with Pamela Valfer, an artist who draws and works with dead animals. Patricia Briggs explores death and violence, kept at a distance, in Roxanne Jackson’s work. In our portfolio, Ana Lois-Borzi explores death up close, in a grieving process mediated by art. Christina Schmid focuses on angels and road movies, staples of American folklore, in current and recent shows at Franklin Artworks and form + content, while Collier White’s reviews of Antichrist and The Box dive into pop culture’s lingering obsession with death.

Explore and engage with this well-written addition to the universe of arts criticism.

Image: Terike Haapoja. Photo by Jan Estep.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + the Law Death Ethics Death Ref Questions

Using Cremains in Memorial Tattoos

Samantha asks the Death Reference Desk:

A couple relatives and I just had my aunt’s ashes put in ink for a memorial tat. My question is since she was so sick, will there be a transfer or will it be okay since she was cremated?

The short answer is: Yes, it’ll be okay. Cremators run between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, which is well beyond hot enough to destroy the pathogens that made the aunt sick. As a result, the cremains will be rendered nonhazardous and useable in tattoo ink.

The long answer is also: Yes, it’s okay, meaning there won’t be a risk of catching her disease. However… internet scavenging and talking with those in the know reveal a lot of confusion about the health risks with using cremains in memorial tattoos: hearsay, misinformation, nondisclosure and a heck of a lot of personal experience — much of it positive — but nothing by way of definitive research or official guidelines from either the tattooing community or health officials.

We get a lot of traffic at DeathRef from people searching for info on memorial tattoos and the use of cremains therein; sparked by Samantha’s question, I decided to do some more digging. A quick note for those unfamiliar with the topic: a memorial tattoo is any tattoo that commemorates a deceased loved one (person or pet), perhaps with his or her image, name, birth and death dates or other personal or religious symbols. That’s it — you don’t need to have cremated ashes mixed into the ink to have a memorial tattoo, in fact, most people don’t. The idea is, however, growing in popularity — if not in practice, then certainly in public awareness about it.

There are three main areas of contention: health, legal/liability issues and ethics. The health concerns are understandable but possibly misdirected — that is, having more to do with cultural taboo than science. While precautions must be taken to ensure everything is sanitary (as with any normal tattooing), the idea that death in all its forms is inherently dirty and to be avoided at all costs — and certainly not deliberately injected into one’s skin — seems to play into the health and safety-oriented objections.

Nonetheless, and most certainly, following cremation, care must be taken to ensure no contamination is introduced to the ashes (from careless handling, airborne germs, etc.). Disagreement exists whether the ashes are “sterilized” from the cremation itself. Many suggest the ashes should be oven baked at home or at a hospital or lab before being mixed in the ink; just as many call foul (me included), as the temperature in the crematorium definitely far exceeds anything you could do at home and likely in other facilities as well.

A UK tattoo artist writing in The Tattoo Forum elaborates on the idea of sterilization, stating one method “involves the further use of heat and the other involves a chemical exposure process” but withholds details due to “the restraints of not allowing unlicensed tattooing.” Fair enough? Perhaps… it is frustrating, though, to be unable to access solid, reliable information. If there’s any chance the cremains have been contaminated (for instance, if they’ve been stored for an extended period in a non-hermetically sealed container), then they should definitely be sterilized in some manner.

The major health-related claim is that the body will reject the ashes as a foreign substance. As such, only a tiny portion should be used, with no significant pieces of bone present — only the finest particles. How tiny is tiny? Sue C. in a Yelp thread says her artist retrieved cremains for her tattoo on the tip of a toothpick.

Also keep in mind that the term “ashes” is misleading; cremains are pulverized bone fragments, sand-like in texture. Some suggest first grinding them further with a (sterilized) mortar and pestle. Either way, they won’t dissolve in the ink but instead remain suspended. In a blog post at Ask BME (Body Modification Ezine), someone comments that she “had a good sized ‘chunk’ put in on purpose so that I could feel him [her dog] in there.” This is probably not recommended — then again, in this case, it seems to have turned out fine.

The cremains will thicken the ink — the more present, the denser the ink, which may give it a slightly raised feel, almost like puffy paint. This would be long-term — different from the initial scabbing, which is common in regular tattooing as the area heals.

As for rejection or other complications such as infections, these happen with normal tattooing, either from personal predisposition (being allergic to or irritated by certain kinds or colors of ink), non-sterile tattooing equipment or environments or poor post-tattooing care. Needless to say, you should always get inked by a professional and follow all instructions for keeping the tattoo, cremains-infused or not, clean as it heals.

Does the addition of cremains increase one’s risk of complication? Well, wouldn’t we all like to know. It would seem reasonable to say yes, as it introduces one more variable, but given all the other variables and protocols to avoid problems, an increased risk could be negligible or even eliminated with proper procedure and care. In other words, someone vigilant about doing everything right may be no more or less likely to have problems than for regular tattoos. Of equal importance and interest, for problems that do arise, it’s likely impossible to know which is the culprit: the cremains or the ink itself, which is just as much a foreign substance.

The practice is legal insofar as it’s not explicitly prohibited — but there are certainly laws about the misuse of human remains. Whether this applies is up for debate. People who get cremains-infused memorial tattoos obviously have no qualms about it, in fact, they see it as the ultimate tribute: a way of having a part of the person with them forever, and in a more serious, permanent way than other death memorializing, such as jewelry that incorporates ashes.

But I have yet to see mention of whether the deceased were aware of and consented to the idea, or discussion of whether this matters. It also has a ways to go as far as social and cultural acceptance (that whole “death is taboo and dirty” thing again). Those with cremains tattoos say they choose wisely who they tell to avoid needlessly disturbing people, and that the tattoo is meant for personal remembrance anyway — not for showing it off, at least the boasting the dead person is actually in the ink! part. Without question, some people are appalled by the practice — including tattoo artists who refuse to do it. Several websites report the difficulty of finding a willing artist.

This reluctance is more than moral objection and routine squeamishness. Though no laws forbid the practice, tattooists often fear liability if something goes wrong, even with waivers cogently signed. Though it’s not specifically illegal, there is legal uncertainty with this uncharted territory. Having a normal tattoo go awry is one thing — everyone involved knows the risks. Having one with cremains bubble with lesions because well, the truth, Your Honor, is there’s a dead person in there… is quite another, regardless of whether the cremains are the reason for complication.

Not only is it difficult to track down an artist who does this, those who do do it don’t seem to advertise it, at least not on the web. This may point to a desire to keep it underground — not for exclusivity, but to avoid public and official scrutiny that may try to regulate or ban it altogether. Is this a real possibility? Hard to say. Tattooing in the United States has spotty regulation, and this seems to me like unwanted attention, however ecstatic and grateful the customers who choose to remember their loved ones in this way.

Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see how the practice evolves in social, medical and legal contexts — and I apologize in the meantime for my speculative tone and inconclusive take on the topic. As said, information is scarce, especially authoritative, research-based facts, and it may take awhile for this to improve. Growing in popularity or not, it’s still a fringe practice — one that creeps out even the freakiest.

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.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture

Lecture on Dead Animals at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program
Death Ref’s own John Troyer and artist Roxanne Jackson in Dialogue
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
2400 Third Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN
Thursday, October 15, 2009 7pm (FREE)

I love my job. I will be giving a talk at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on all dead creatures great and small. And preserved. It is a conversation with artist Roxanne Jackson about her newest solo exhibition at the MIA. Here is the official announcement:


On October 15, we are excited to announce that Dr. John Troyer, Death and Dying Practices Associate at the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, will be talking about Roxanne Jackson’s work in relation to taxidermy and technologies of preservation.

An ambitious new Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) solo exhibition by local artist Roxanne Jackson explores the complex nuances between animals and humans. The show, “We Believe in Some Thing,” on view through November 1 in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ two MAEP galleries. Jackson’s ceramic sculptures, wall installations, and video explore human and animal interaction but also critique the assumed polarized differences between humans and animals. She asks, among other questions, “Are we more alike than different?”

dead animals

It is a free talk, open to the public and I promise highly entertaining. I know from dead animals.

I might even bring my own private taxidermy collection to the talk. I know. I really have a private taxidermy collection.

Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Mausoleum Mural Dedication


Here in Portland, OR, one of the largest hand-painted murals in the United States is being dedicated tomorrow—and it’s on the side of a mausoleum—in my neighborhood!

The 50,000 square foot hand-painted wildlife mural on the side of Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home is being dedicated tomorrow, Friday, October 2 and will include a rooftop tour as part of the ceremonies. On Saturday, October 3, the Audubon Society of Portland will lead a hike through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge for an up-close look at the mural.

Details in The Oregonian here.

For more information about Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home, check out this past Death Reference Desk post.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Humor Death Ethics

Dead Bodies Having Sex: the Backstory

Cadaver Exhibits Are Part Science, Part Sideshow
Neda Ulaby, National Public Radio (August 10, 2006)

Death Reference Desk technical guru Meg posted an article on the newest planned exhibition by German anatomist and showman, Gunther von Hagens. This would be Gunther von Hagens of Body Worlds fame. The article discusses von Hagens’ plans to exhibit dead bodies posed in sexual positions.


There is a fascinating backstory to this corpse-a-palooza sex show and it all begins in 2006….

In August of that year, NPR featured a report by Neda Ulaby on Gunther von Hagens. You can listen to that interview by clicking on the link at the top of the page. On the whole, the report is about the Body Worlds phenomena sweeping America during that summer.

Then, as if by MAGIC, intrepid reporter Neda Ulaby drops this dead body bomb:

Recently, [Gunther von Hagens] sent a questionnaire to 6,500 people who he says have agreed to donate their bodies to him after death. They were asked a number of provocative questions. For example, would they consent to their body parts being mixed with an animal’s, to create a mythological creature? Would they agree to be “transformed into an act of love with a woman or a man?” Von Hagens says that on the sex question, the majority of men liked the idea, while the women did not.

Talk about burying the lead…or burying something. Wowza: that double entendre works on a number of levels.

Plastinated Bodies
But it is all true. Gunther von Hagens plans on fusing dead animals and dead humans together (because, of course, humans aren’t animals….) to create Mythological Creatures. Or, as one former student once proclaimed: “You mean like centaurs and stuff.” Yes yes. I do mean centaurs and stuff.

But the magic doesn’t stop there. Oh no. Von Hagens was clearly making plans to pose dead bodies in sexual positions by at least 2006 (if not earlier). Well, actually, von Hagens says “…transformed into an act of love…” and when you listen to the NPR report, it’s really creepy sounding.

Magical Centaur

Thus began my own personal obsession with tracking every new exhibition by von Hagens to see when he would finally, finally show dead bodies having sex. It seemed fairly obvious that von Hagens would create this exhibition since I GUARANTEE that it (meaning dead bodies doing it) will make MORE MONEY than any of von Hagens other shows. And that is saying a lot, since Body Worlds recorded its 28th million visitor in July 2009. The mythological creatures will most certainly appear at some point but only after a small mint is made with the corpse sex.

And so it has all come to pass. On May 7, 2009, Gunther von Hagens opened a new Body Worlds exhibition in Berlin, Germany (the Berlin link is gone so I am using a Zurich, Switzerland link). In one section of the exhibition, entitled Cycle of Life, von Hagens placed two different pairs of bodies having sex on display. In a statement released by von Hagens, he explains that the exhibit “offers a deep understanding of the human body, the biology of reproduction, and the nature of sexuality.”

He is also making it clear on the Body Worlds website that he wants to bring the copulating corpses to London. I know. The Brits will beat down the door to see it. Here is the full “look out London, here we come” pitch by von Hagens.

At least at the end he wished everyone best wishes.

Sadly, the London Body Worlds exhibition closed at the end of August. The last time I checked, von Hagens never did move the dead bodies having sex to the O2 bubble. But rest assured, I will keep track of this situation for one and all.

And what would this post on dead bodies having sex be WITHOUT at least a short video clip from YouTube. This gem is entitled Copulating Corpses from from Von Hagen[s] Exhibition and it features an awesome song by the band Evanesence.

Enjoy…the darkness…

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology

Body Sex Worlds

Body Worlds Plans Cadaver Show Dedicated to Sex
Jason Rhodes, Reuters (September 11, 2009)

via Discover, “Sex, Death, Science, And Art?”
(Sheril Kirshenbaum, September 13, 2009)

Plastination inventor and all-around evil-weird genius Gunther von Hagens is at it again — and by “it” I mean pushing the boundaries of most noxious, notorious controversy… and by “pushing” I mean thrusting, by “boundary” I mean vaginas, and by “controversy,” if you haven’t guessed, I mean dead, skinless bodies having sex.

Body Worlds has already sparked fiery condemnation for their display of one cadaver couple in love’s embrace (reverse cowboy style) for its “Cycle of Life” show (see a few photos here… um, probably NSFW? Who knows). The plan is to produce a new show entirely dedicated to sex — not as an inside-out Kama Sutra diorama of death, as cynics might believe, but to depict “anatomy and the function,” says creative director Angelina Whalley (also von Hagens’ wife) in an interview with Reuters.

I wonder, though, how many copulating corpses can be shown before it ceases to be educational and tends toward, you know, pornographic and creepy. DeathRefer John Troyer penned an essay about this very possibility (in terms of illuminating theory, no doubt) for a forthcoming anthology. Drat copyright and its meddlesome restraints! We’ll post a citation when it’s available.

The Body Sex Worlds will presumably make the museum circuit, maybe even in shopping malls like its rival, Bodies: the Exhibition. And perhaps therein lies the motivation — to edge out the competition with more artful effects and outrage. After fourteen years of touring, your traveling corpse road show becomes a one-trick pony show. Hey, now there’s an idea… errr, no no, just kidding. Please.

You may have noticed that I said “vaginas” above with no mention of anal boundaries: Somehow it’s imagined that the scandal compounds when the corpses involved are homosexual — or at least von Hagens is sensitive to this “very delicate subject.”

Oh whatever, Mister. Is he really that concerned about society’s ability to “handle it”? Or are dead men having sex merely being reserved to fill the coffers for the next round? And perhaps his not being gay prevents him from feeling he can depict it properly and respectfully.

Then again, he isn’t dead, either — and that hasn’t stopped him in the least.

Death + Art / Architecture

You’re Going to Die

You’re Going to Die (2000) – Timothy Furstnau

Here is a nice work of video art and death introspection for the long weekend’s end…

Death + Art / Architecture

Curious, Morbid, and Gruesome Anatomy in England

Exquisite Bodies: Gruesome wax models go on display
Andy Duckworth, The Guardian (August 24, 2009)

A short post on a really fantastic exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. The exhibit, Exquisite Bodies, runs until October 18.


The Guardian ran a short video piece on the exhibit (tagged at the top) and it features Kate Forde, the Wellcome curator who put the exhibition together.

My friend Joanna Ebenstein was the Curatorial Adviser on the exhibit and take it from me: Joanna knows from dead bodies.

Joanna runs the Library of Morbid Anatomy in Brooklyn (on the banks of the lovely Gowanus Canal…) and she also edits the MUST READ Morbid Anatomy blog.

Finally, a WARNING….the Guardian video contains disturbing images…which is totally awesome.

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

Death Masks: Still Being Made?

From time to time, we will feature questions we receive across the Death Reference Desk.

Jason writes: I was reading in “The Rest is Noise” that there was a death mask made of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who died in 1951. This got me to thinking: Do people still have death masks made? Are there companies who make them? Your recent article about the urn-head made me think of this.

L'Inconnue de la Seine
L'Inconnue de la Seine

Well Jason, the short answer is no — not really. But, the long answer is a bit more nuanced. Essentially, death masks aren’t really being made — forensic photography has made documenting the dead an easy and efficient process. However, as it concerns death masks to memorialize individuals in an artistic way — this is still going on. Only now it is called “lifecasting”.

Lifecasting is the process of casting faces–or other body parts (!) — while a person is still alive (Cynthia Plaster Caster comes to mind as a modern cultural reference). Lifecasting allows sculptors to create a “living memorial” to a person still alive — but may be created in all likelihood for later use as a posthumous tribute. In addition to faces, pregnant bellies, breasts (for pre-mastectomy patients, for example), and any and all variations upon a theme can be cast.

There is even an association called the Association of Lifecasters International. And, here’s an article from Art Casting Journal, August 2001, that lays out the connection between death masks and lifecasting.

The Lancet even got in on the act with this journal article. Sorry, this is a citation only — check your local library for full-text access.

Lasting impressions: the ambiguous appeal of life casting
The Lancet, Volume 359, Issue 9314, Pages 1353-1353, J.Wildgoose

And to flesh things out (no pun intended), a few sites with interesting death masks:

The Laurence Hutton Collection at Princeton University — this is the most comprehensive and scholarly site out there

The 7 Creepiest Death Masks From American Political History from

Death Masks of the Famous from, including Beethoven, Hitchcock and Dante Alighierti

Bubble wrapping death masks from BoingBoing

Undying Faces — a large site “dedicated to the history and preservation of life and death masks”

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.