Categories
Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Stephen Colbert Discusses Dead Bodies Having Sex

Body Worlds Plans Cadaver Sex Exhibit
Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report (September 16, 2009)

Oh Gunther von Hagens, you are the gift that just keeps on giving and giving and giving to the Death Reference Desk. But this time, dearest Dr. von Hagens, you have truly achieved a pop-cultural milestone. None other than Stephen Colbert, he of The Colbert Report and clearly deserving namesake of a new wing on the International Space Station, dedicated two whole minutes to discussing your plastinated bodies posed in sexual positions.

Sure sure, Death Reference Desk overlord Meg broke the story and I produced my own necro-analysis last week.

Stephen Colbert

But it is safe to say, I think, that achieving a two minute commentary from the one and only Stephen Colbert means that you, yes you GUNTHER VON HAGENS, have arrived. Now, the only question is when you will finally jump the shark…but that is a different pop-cultural discussion for another time.

Until then Herr Professor Doktor von Hagens, mull over these wise words from Stephen Colbert himself:

This major breakthrough ends one of science’s enduring mysteries: what does it look like when zombies do it?

Indeed…

(special thanks to my book editor’s assistant for sending me the Colbert link…that’s just how I roll…Thanks Beth!!!)

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Body Worlds Plans Cadaver Sex Exhibit
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Categories
Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Blue Screen of Death… Memorial Tattoo?

I don’t think this is quite what John means by death memorial tattoos, but I can’t help myself: a man got a tattoo of the insidious Microsoft Blue Screen of Death, ensuring geek awe, miffed stares and the sure-to-be short-lived internet fame of his string-bean arm and intriguing wall art. Oh my.

Blue Screen of Death!

Categories
Death + Popular Culture Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Tweeting Grief: Yep, We’re Sad. And Sarcastic. And Delivering Sales Calls, Late.

Detecting Sadness in 140 Characters: Sentiment Analysis and Mourning Michael Jackson on Twitter
Elsa Kim and Sam Gilbert with Michael J. Edwards and Erhardt Graeff
Web Ecology Project (August 18, 2009)

via Fast Company, “Has Twitter Handicapped Our Ability to Mourn?”
(Dan Macsai, August 20, 2009)

FAIL WHALE MichaelIt was bound to happen, in fact, I’m surprised it took this long — a hand-coded analysis of 1,860,427 tweets about Michael Jackson’s death to determine whether we’re sad or sarcastic, and whether other humans can detect it. Key findings from the Web Ecology Project, a research group in Boston that focuses on online community and culture, include:

  • At its peak, the conversation about Michael Jackson’s death on Twitter proceeded at a rate of 78 tweets per second.
  • Roughly 3/4 of tweets about Jackson’s death that use the word “sad” actually express sadness, suggesting that sentiment analysis based on word usage is fairly accurate.
  • That said, there is extensive disagreement between human coders about the emotional content of tweets, even for emotions that we might expect would be clear (like sadness).
  • Tweets expressing personal, emotional sadness about the Jackson’s death showed strong agreement among coders while commentary on the auxiliary social effects of Jackson’s death showed strong disagreement.
  • We argue that this pattern in the “understandability” of certain types of communication across Twitter is due to the way the platform structures the expression of its users.

Presumably this last finding refers to the 140 or less character limit. Brevity is the soul of twit. It can also lend itself to stilted expression, leading to factual tones and shallow-sounding proclamations (whether or not reticence is a traditional hallmark of grief).

I must, however, disagree with the referring article’s summation: That “Twitter has handicapped our ability to mourn.” Twitter just happens to be the communication toy du jour. People aren’t using it to mourn, they’re using it because they’re using it for everything else: to broadcast breakfast, to announce locations, to link, network, connect, spam, waste time and save lives. If it’s contributing to degraded mourning and grief, that’s because it’s guilty of comparable, more common and entrenched communication blunders (however admittedly interesting and useful for some communication and organizing behaviors).

Twitter is just one (minor) tool: presumably people are expressing themselves more fully (and we know they have) through talking with friends and family, writing lengthy blog posts, making tribute videos, moonwalking poorly and watching other people moonwalk poorly, and buying gads of MJ swag.

I’m also not so sure about this (from the original study):

There were also tweets that combined emotion and objective reportage on the events of the tweeter’s life, including: “Feeding the baby and feeling sad about Michael Jackson! He left is [sic] too soon!” and “Shocked by Michael Jackson’s death. Such a sad, sad day. Going out for a couple of sales calls, late.”

This combination of life status update and emotional update leads to consensus among the coders, perhaps because the accompanying life status update helps clarify that the tweeter is not being sarcastic.

I don’t detect sarcasm in those expressions, but the inclusion of self-reportage gives tweets an air of attention deficiency and mild narcissism (yes, it’s your Twitter account, but is this really about you? even if it’s natural to connect oneself to the deceased [and necessary in the case of celebrity death — otherwise, wherein lies the personal interest and investment?]). The second example about the sales calls, especially, sounds indifferent and distant to the point of postmodern perfection, which I suppose can be its own form of genuine grief and numb. But to me, that doesn’t make it “sad,” even if the tweeter says “sad,” twice.

Oh, social science. Now I’d like to see research done on this research article, hand-coding and analyzing the hand-coders analyses and rating their abilities to perceive emotion.

Categories
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 VetoCorleone.com

Death Masks of the Famous from Socyberty.com, 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”

Categories
Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Video Game Ways to Die

King's Quest III

I am not a gamer. All those newfangled surround sound polygons make me want to hurl. But as a plucky youth with a computer geek dad, I had the fond and formative experience of devouring Sierra computer adventure games, especially the King’s Quest series.

I recently discovered via MetaFilter that a handful of painstaking souls have recorded and compiled all the various ways to die in these games and several others. In particular, YouTuber MrWhitman has posted dozens of retro game “Ways to Die.”

Ah, King's Quest! Instilling bad puns and ogre fear in children of the '80s everywhere!
Ah, King’s Quest! Instilling bad puns and ogre fear in children of the ’80s everywhere!

Reliving the King’s Quest deaths with nostalgic glee, I can’t help but recognize that, given the care in capturing every death in a wide range of titles, even and especially when that death is terminally boring, Ways to Die videos are more than just for the laffs and (perhaps) reminiscing the age of less gruesome gameplay. It is also about documentation — the compilation and collocation of information, even if that information seems trivial.

How is it important or useful? I’m not exactly sure. And yet, I approve — not just for the jolt back to childhood, but the belief that in some weird way, this is a cultural and generational transmission. Back in the olden days, you could die from a scratch from a scraggly 8-bit scribble, and it would devastate you.

King's Quest II

And like the games of today, discovering all the creative and absurd ways to off yourself is just as challenging and fun as avoiding it. Are these expressions of thanatos, exploring death and dying in a safe environment? Or perhaps just getting one’s money worth? After all, once immersed in a spellbinding narrative and mesmerizing virtual world, you never want the game to end — even if that means finding every way possible to die in it.

Categories
Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Grief + Mourning

Pocket Cemetery, the Breakfast Bar of Grief

Bereaving the latest celebrity death, or perhaps your dog? Need an on-the-go cemetery for your on-the-go life? Want to pay $2.99 to type “RIP” and click send into an unread utter void, also known as the Prayer function? There’s an app for that.

Pocket Cemetery for the iPhone allows you to inscribe virtual tombstones for dead celebrities (including Michael Jackson!), and even people you actually knew, or pets you had one time. Creator Wayne Perry calls it the “little virtual heaven in the palm of your hand.” I call it crap.

Okay, okay… it’s easy to rip on this — tear it up, that is, not let it rest. But the immediate ridiculousness aside, I am curious about the nature of the demand for the product (Perry boasts over a 1000 pixel tomb hungry customers since his YouTube MJ pitch above). If placing real flowers on a real grave is a symbolic expression of mourning, missing and honoring the dead, what does it mean to enact this symbol… symbolically, sending nothing to nowhere? Is it a matter of convenience, as so many cell and web apps tout? Perry himself cites not being able to visit his grandmother’s grave — and most people will never get to visit their favorite celebrities’ final places of rest. Or is it reluctance to do the real thing for real, and the need to have a familiar technological, commercial wrought-and-bought interface by which to mediate grief?

If you need a phone app to remind and assist you in feeling sad, you’re doing it wrong. Yet, we’re not just comfortable with such simulacra, we rely on them to provide simultaneous detachment and engagement — distance from things unsettling while providing the feeling we’re doing something meaningful. Unlike other web and communication tools, however, with virtual memorializing, the parties with whom we are obliquely interacting happen to be dead. It’s hard to say how much that complicates the matter, though it does seem to underscore the long understood: mourning and grief is all about us.

I can also see shock-factor irony taking part in its popularity. If I were hip enough for an iPhone, I might throw down for a Pocket Cemetery to celebrate its bad taste, just as I’d love to have a Snuggie to parade around parties in the wee hours of lesser sanity. The PC has already attracted some unintended use, such as people creating graveyards filled with people they wished were dead. “I didn’t design it for that,” laments Perry as IPhonePocketCemetery on YouTube.

Fair enough — but I hope he’s not surprised he’s hard to take seriously, especially after his follow-up pitch with Billy Mays, whom he credits his own talent, and Farrah Fawcett: “I have a lot of memories of her. I was a 15-year-old boy with that sexy poster hanging on my wall.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think eulogic sincerity — or pitchman integrity — exactly comes through with the fond reminiscences of being a horny teenager.

Categories
Death + Popular Culture

Body (We Are the) Worlds: Michael Jackson to Be Plastinated

Michael Jackson Set to Be Embalmed at the O2 Centre after Missing the Deadline for Cryogenic Freezing
Mail on Sunday (June 26, 2009)

It looks like Michael Jackson might get his world tour after all — or at least a perpetual stream of curious fans trotting past his moonwalking corpse. The day following the singer’s sudden death, Gunther von Hagens, the macabre but brilliant mind behind the controversial Body Worlds, announced a months-ago made agreement with the Jackson family to plastinate MJ’s body.

We can’t say we’re surprised — yet we can’t yet put a finger on what it all means, still surrounding by the thundering pulse of celebrity death tributes and tears. Is this a fitting, never-ending end for a bizarre life and (as of yet) mysterious death? An ensured, eternal spotlight for the consummate showman? A monster, as some would have him, made all the more horrific? The last and lasting exploitation of a fragile man full of ghosts? The list goes on, and oh, how the masses shall writhe with shock and delight…

Stay tuned.