Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture Death + the Web

Dumb Ways to Die…the Public Service Announcement

Dumb Ways to Die
by John Mescall for Metro Trains Melbourne (2012)


Dumb Ways to Die: Australian rail company’s public safety warning video
The Guardian (November 29, 2012)

There are many reasons to admire Australians, especially their collective love for all things dark, sinister, and macabre.

But always with a smile. And maybe a Foster’s. Possibly a wombat.

So the Dumb Ways to Die song and video by John Mescall for Metro Trains Melbourne comes as little surprise:

The animated ditty is also something of an internet phenomena, and the Death Reference Desk has been following its rapid ascent.

Watch Mescall explain the idea for Dumb Ways to Die:

You can also watch the song with the lyrics underneath (not available in all countries):

Hat tip to Charles Darwin.

Death + Humor

Happy Holidays from the Death Reference Desk…don’t tell the kids.

Ho Ho Ho.

cremation Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture Eco-Death Monuments + Memorials

Praise the Lord and Pass the Cremated Remains Filled Ammunition

Holy Smoke
Planning a loved ones final arrangements can be a challenging responsibility, one you want to do with care and consideration. Allow Holy Smoke to help you create a tribute to your outdoorsman or woman like no other.

So yeah. I had heard about people loading ammunition with human cremated remains and then shooting the ammo but I did not know, until this week, that a company would do it for you.

And based on the reaction of my British friends (I live in England), many people still do not believe it is possible. And/or, the loading of live gun ammunition with human cremated remains is a distinctly American form of memorialization. Not unlike spelling memorialization with a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’.

Take that Red Coats!

But I digress.

Here at the Death Reference Desk we believe in presenting the full monty when it comes to contemporary forms of postmortem memorials. So a company such as Holy Smoke is due some respect for combining two of America’s great past times: shooting bullets and capitalism. Not necessarily in that order.

But lo, what might you receive when purchasing Holy Smoke’s ammo? Well, their website explains:

Once the caliber, gauge and other ammunition parameters have been selected, we will ask you (by way of your funeral service provider) to send approximately one pound of the decedents ash to us. Upon receiving the ashes our professional and reverent staff will place a measured portion of ash into each shotshell or cartridge. (Please note that our process uses only a portion of the ash from a typical cremation.)


Example: 1 Pound of ash is enough to produce 250 shotshells (one case).

Now, I’m not a gun person (even though I grew up in the great state of Wisconsin) so 250 shotgun shells sounds like a lot of ammo. I can’t imagine firing a gun 250 times to remember a person I loved.

Unless, of course, you’re using the Holy Smoke ammunition to defend the human race against the imminent Zombie Apocalypse!

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Bristol City Council Plans for Zombie Attack

When Zombies Attack! Bristol City Council Ready for Undead Invasion
Local authority reveals ‘top secret’ plan outlining self-defence strategies should zombies invade
Steven Morris, The Guardian (July 8, 2011)

We’ll always have England!

I live and work in Bath, which is a mere 11 miles or so from Bristol. It is safe to say that I have slept better this entire week knowing that Bristol has a Contingency Plan for Handling Zombie Outbreaks in Bristol.

Zombie specialists will of course know that Bristol’s plan is part of a concerted effort by concerned citizens to know what exactly local councils have planned when the undead strike.

We here at the Death Reference Desk have been following these various Zombie developments. You can read those stories here.

And while it’s true that these Council plans are delivered with a wink and nudge a person can never be too prepared.

As long as Bristol has Stokes Croft, the possibility of Zombie attack is imminent.

Indeed, I bet we’ll see Zombies in Stokes Croft before we ever see a Tescos.

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

CDC Prepares Citizens for Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse

Social Media: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse
Ali S. Khan, CDC Public Health Matters Blog (May 16, 2011)

Ah, zombies — irrepressible, insatiable, instantly recognizable… and the ultimate marketing tool! Librarians most recently squeeeee!ed over a comic book of zombies and information literacy.

Apparently the delicious braaaaaaaaaaaaaaains of someone (or someone’s kid) from the Centers for Disease Control and Preparedness went ding ding ding! when the rag-tag crew of AMC’s The Walking Dead journeyed to the CDC in hopes of salvation from the zombie plague. Of course, the CDC ended up exploderating, but that’s just fiction… right? Right?

The CDC is taking no chances, unleashing on the internets a guide to Zombie Apocalypse Emergency Preparedness, which (conveniently!) works in a pinch for other natural disasters like hurricanes and floods. I guess tornados and the swelling Mississippi taking out the South just isn’t sexy enough to get people to rustle up an emergency food, water and first aid kit.

If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.govWe at DeathRef applaud their efforts. (Dude! It’s the CDC!). But oh, dear hearts — don’t put “Social Media” in the title. We know what you’re trying to do. You’re almost there. Your constant reminders that zombie contingency plans also work for earthquakes quite nearly get in the way of the gag, but we suspect there were stuffy dinosaur overlords in heated board meetings that needed ample assurance this was relevant, useful and no joke.

Overall, well done.

Death + Biology Death + Disaster Death + Humor

Bye Bye Birdies

The recent spate of mass bird deaths has taken flight across the Internet—a literal and figurative tweeting and Twittering—and dare I say crowing—on a large scale. You could say it’s causing quite a “flap.” Reported by the Associated Press, the Daily Mail and others, masses of birds have been mysteriously falling from the sky in the U.S and Europe, dead on arrival. Red-winged blackbirds, starlings and turtle doves have been the victims in these rains of death. In addition, reports of mass fish deaths in the American South and crab die-offs in England have also joined the fray. But what of it? Are these the fabled “end times”? Media hype? Or something else?

Speculation has run rampant, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey, die-offs such as these happen more frequently than is reported—but, because of instant communication now possible via the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle—people (the media included) are trying to connect the dots and perhaps make connections where there is none. The USGS calmly says,

While large-scale bird die-offs are always a concern, they are not that unusual. USGS records list at least 16 events involving more than 1,000 black birds or starlings over the past 30 years. The majority of these cases were poison related, although weather-related trauma was also the cause of some events

Although no definitive explanation has yet been found—and may never be—the speculation and hype has been staggering. It has even been dubbed “aflockalypse” by some (!) Check out the nifty Google Map tracing mass animal deaths worldwide that a lone blogger put together. Depending on your tendencies, you can allay, or perhaps heighten? your fears, by reading the Black Bird die-off Investigation page here. Oh, and there’s even a USGS webpage called the New and Ongoing Wildlife Mortality Rates Nationwide. Here, you can keep track of reported events involving “a network of partners across the country work on documenting wildlife mortality events in order to provide timely and accurate information on locations, species and causes of death.” Who knew?

We usually stick to the strictly human side of death here at DRD. Sure, we have the occasional drunken elk rampage story, (i.e. Man vs. Beast). Really, the interest for me is more about how we, as a society, are reacting to these bird deaths rather than the deaths themselves. But before you run down to your public library looking for a King James bible to check out (don’t bother because they’re all stolen of course) or borrow a copy of Evan Almighty (we can only hope these are all stolen) take a deep breath and do a little fact checking. Maybe a viewing of The Birds is in order? For now, invest in a sturdy umbrella.

*No animals were harmed in the writing of this post. However, black(bird) humor was employed at least a once or twice.

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Undead Enough for Modern Life: Zombie Rumination

My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead
Chuck Klosterman, New York Times (December 3, 2010)

Hey, DeathRef Gentle Readers. Meg Holle, Resident Zombie, here (yup, that’s me up top). As an undergrad at the University of Minnesota, my favorite class was “Monsters, Robots and Cyborgs,” offered by the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature department — probably unsurprisingly, the same weirdos who gave John his Ph.D. in Dead Bodies.

When I wasn’t deconstructing explosive alien birth scenes, asking, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” or linking the puking, peeing, pustulated, bleeding, crucifix-masturbating girl in the Exorcist to Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, I was learning about zombies. Fast zombies, slow zombies, Haitian zombies, zomaggedon, mass consumption, consumerism and Marx.

If this sort of nonsense is also a pet interest of yours (or the subject of your dissertation), check out Chuck Klosterman’s piece in the New York Times:

This is our collective fear projection: that we will be consumed. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid.


Battling zombies is like battling anything … or everything.

While there’s no arguing with the mindlessness of modern-day life, Klosterman would have done well to explore more in depth the alternating popularity of zombies and vampires. Vampires peak during economic prosperity — democrats and decadence, soul-sick in opulence, when the only thing wrong with everything is our megalomaniac selves. Zombies, on the other hand, embody the times when everything is wrong with everyone else — waterboarding, bailouts and unemployment.

Of course there is overlap. Marketing works wonders, and fake opulence or the hope thereof (e.g., the first two years of the Obama administration) still counts, and it’s not like those wars ever actually went away. But still. There is more to our monsters than the new black being the old black, unlike the old old black… which is also… coming… back.


Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Death Wish?

Remember the Doomsday Clock? Only those of a certain generation—and perhaps librarians with too much random information in their head—do. As one of those said people on both counts, an article in the October Wired magazine caught my eye. Titled “Suspend the Deathwatch”, author Scott Brown revisits (did it ever leave?) the Doomsday Clock and its place and anachronistic stance, in today’s society.

First mentioned in 1947 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (God, I love that periodical title—I literally walk past bound issues of it on a weekly basis in my work and smile, but I digress), the Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of our impending worldly doom. The closer the hands get to midnight, the closer we are to total mass extinction. I suppose the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement would be very happy if we would just get on with it already.

The Atomic Scientists describe the clock thusly:

The Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction–the figurative midnight–and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.

Mr. Brown’s contention is that “we need an instrument that measures a wider variety of potential apocalyptic scenarios.” He goes on to suggest a Doom Queue—a lineup of ever grisly scenarios that would jockey for number one position. And better yet, he suggests we can all crowd source it with users picking and rating their fave apocalypse. Sounds good to me. As some of you may have attended last weekend’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, it seems the perfect way to capture our collective anxieties and at least give us something slippery but tangible to put our money on rather than a doom-laden clockface staring into the abyss.

But in case you are still setting your watch to the old Doomsday Clock, it’s 6 minutes to midnight. Sweet dreams!

Cemeteries Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Cemeteries: More than Just Gloom and Doom

To Attract Future Customers, Cemeteries Hold Parties to Die For
Graveyards Plan Concerts, Sky-Diving, Clowns; ‘Meet Us Before You Need Us’
Araby Williams, Wall Street Journal Multimedia Producer and
Stephanie Simon, The Wall Street Journal (August 12, 2010)

The Wall Street Journal ran this short video on cemeteries working to attract a wider audience. This isn’t a new phenomena. The Hollywood Forever cemetery in Hollywood, CA (whose website doesn’t seem to be working…) started showing films on the sides of mausoleums back in the 1990s.

In an odd twist, using cemeteries for more public events is actually in keeping with their 19th century conception.

The WSJ video does a good job of discussing these points.

Afterlife Death + Humor Death + Technology Defying Death

Head of the Household


There was an interesting article in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine about cryonics; or more to the point, cryonocists and the people who love them. The article is fascinating for the fact that it delves not so much into the science informing cryonic preservation (as our last cryonics post did) but rather, about how differing beliefs about the practice in the context of marriage can be problematic. It’s he said/she said taken to a whole new level. Ba-da-bing!

Peggy and Robin, the couple primarily featured in the piece is especially interesting because wife Peggy (the unenamored one) is herself a hospice care worker, well-versed in end-of-life issues but vehemently opposed to husband Robin’s plans for the final disposition of his head after death. Peggy finds the quest “an act of cosmic selfishness.” Robin, an economics professor, is “a deep thinker, most at home in thought experiments” but sensitive enough to understand the potential abandonment issues. Apparently, this type of discord has a name—and could be confused for the punch line of an Andy Capp cartoon. According to the article:

Peggy’s reaction might be referred to as an instance of the “hostile-wife phenomenon,” as discussed in a 2008 paper by Aschwin de Wolf, Chana de Wolf and Mike Federowicz.“From its inception in 1964,” they write, “cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists.”

Even though the article is intended as a serious look at the marital strife that can be caused by deeply held beliefs about death, life and what comes after, I couldn’t help but think about Woody Allen movies and imagined New Yorker cartoons—and my own marriage. While my husband has no plans for cryonic preservation, his vague plan involving the reanimation of his skeleton, a large glass vitrine and the gerryrigged ability to emit recorded voice clips with the push of a button, has generated much discussion and debate in our marriage. My husband is a bit of a joker, but in this he is dead serious (pun intended). All I can say is, I love you honey, but I hope I die first.

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Death and the New Yorker Maiden

Humor and Death: A Qualitative Study of the New Yorker Cartoons (1986-2006)
NCBI ROFL blog (June 07, 2010)

I read the New Yorker magazine every week and have been reading it for years. In fact, I was reading the most recent issue just today. One of the magazine’s best features is its cartoons. Most of the cartoons alternate between extremely funny and utterly incomprehensible. The impossible to decipher ones are often the best part of each magazine because a reader has to think, a lot sometimes, about what the hell is going on in said cartoon.

Some of the funniest New Yorker cartoons involve death, dying, dead bodies, and, of course, funeral directors. I actually keep a file of death related New Yorker cartoons but I haven’t updated it in a while.

And I always thought to myself that it would be quite the project to analyze all the death and dying cartoons in the New Yorker.New-Yorker-CartoonWell, I no longer need to analyze the New Yorker cartoons because two authors (Matzo M. and Miller D.) working on a joint paper in Palliative Support Care (2009 Dec;7(4):487-93) have published their own exhaustive study. The title of their paper, Humor and death: a qualitative study of The New Yorker cartoons (1986-2006), sums it up.

It’s important to point out that the Death Reference Desk came across this study via the NCBI ROFL blog (acronym watch: National Center for Biotechnology Information and urban slang watch: Rolling on the Floor Laughing), run by two Ph.D. students in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California Berkeley.

But what I’m really shocked by is this turn of events. These two enterprising Bio-Engineers (cue They Might Be Giants please) got hold of this article before the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) run by Marc Abrahams. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that NCBI ROFL even SCOOPED the Annals of Improbable Research on a killer story.

So, let the Death Reference Desk be the first blog to nominate the authors of NCBI ROFL for a 2010 Ignobel Prize in Science Journalism.

Eustace Tilley would be proud.

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.