Cemeteries Death + the Economy Monuments + Memorials

No More Big Dead Tombs in China

As China’s Income Gap Grows, Tombs Are a Target
Sharon LaFraniere, The New York Times (April 22, 2011)

Since 1997, official policy limits the size of cemetery plots in China, promoting low cost funeral arrangements regardless of the wealth of the deceased. That doesn’t mean it happens. From the bottom end of this article:

Most Chengdu mourners interviewed expressed skepticism about the tomb limits. At Temple of the Lighted Lamp cemetery, Kuang Lan, 42, said: “My personal opinion is if you have the money to make a bigger tomb, make a bigger one. If not, make a smaller one.”


But Yang Bin, 48, who earns roughly $150 a month chiseling tombstones at Zhenwu Shan cemetery, quietly criticized the excesses of “capitalists” who “are everywhere now.”


“This is how the Chinese are,” he said, after trudging down the cemetery’s steep hill in his thin, black cloth shoes. “If they have money, they want to show off their face. If you don’t have money, you have to work.”

And for everything that I could say, I have only one comment. It comes from the 1980s band Men Without Hats:

Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Postmortem Photography: The Aftermarket

I just happened upon a well-researched article posted to Boing Boing. Titled Ghost Babies, by Mark Dery, the post delves into the re-sale of postmortem photographs for sale on eBay and elsewhere with a little history on postmortem photography in 19th century America thrown in for good measure.

As a librarian, I found the sources to be a nice cross-section to begin further investigation. Here are the works mentioned and a brief description. These are of course but a few monographs on the subject of memorial/postmortem photography. Check your local public or academic library or interlibrary loan resource to delve further.

Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Jay Ruby.

Secure the Shadow is an original contribution that lies at the intersection of cultural anthropology and visual analysis, a field that Jay Ruby’s previous writings have helped to define. It explores the photographic representation of death in the United States from 1840 to the present, focusing on the ways in which people have taken and used photographs of deceased loved ones and their funerals to mitigate the finality of death.

Sometimes thought to be a bizarre Victorian custom, photographing corpses has been and continues to be an important, if not recognized, occurrence in American life. It is a photographic activity, like the erotica produced in middle-class homes by married couples, that many privately practice but seldom circulate outside the trusted circle of close friends and relatives. Along with tombstones, funeral cards, and other images of death, these photographs represent one way in which Americans have attempted to secure their shadows.

Ruby employs newspaper accounts, advertisements, letters, photographers’ account books, interviews, and other material to determine why and how photography and death became intertwined in the nineteenth century. He traces this century’s struggle between America’s public denial of death and a deeply felt private need to use pictures of those we love to mourn their loss. Americans take and use photographs of dead relatives and friends in spite of and not because of society’s expectation about the propriety of these means. Ruby compares photographs and other pictorial media of death, founding his interpretations on the discovery of patterns in the appearance of the images and a reconstruction of the conditions of their production and utilization. (Syndetic Solutions, LLC)

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Stanley Burns.

Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were often the only ones ever taken of their subjects and much pride and artistry went into them. It is astounding that although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen, and unknown. Today we struggle to avoid the topic of death; as a result we have closed the door on these images, which reflect an American culture in which death and mourning played a visible and active part.

These photographs were a common aspect of American culture, a part of the mourning and memorialization process. Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets, or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs.

Discussions of death in books are prolific, and we are accustomed to images of death as part of our daily news; but actual death, as a part of private lives, has become a shameful and unspoken subject.

This volume presents a chronological arrangement of postmortem photography 1840-1930; no other collection of this material has been made available despite recent interest in the American way of death. What emerges is a vivid visual history of the changes in American customs. (Excerpt from the preface of Sleeping Beauty I)

The Victorian Celebration of Death. James Stevens Curl.

In this beautifully illustrated and well-researched book, Professor Curl has rescued much fascinating material from undeserved oblivion, and his work fills a genuine gap. From humble working-class exequies to the massive outpouring of grief at the State funerals of Wellington and Queen Victoria herself, The Victorian Celebration of Death covers an immense canvas. It describes the change in sensibility that led to a new tenderness towards the dead; the history of the urban cemeteries with their architecture and landscapes; the ephemera of death and dying; State funerals as national spectacles; and the utilitarian reactions towards the end of the nineteenth century. Combining wit with compassion, Curl wears his learning lightly, and his taste for the eerie is delicately balanced by this literary personality. He has resurrected many valuable and extremely interesting aspects of nineteenth-century attitudes to death and the disposal of the dead; Curl’s achievement is as well-ordered as any sumptuous funeral, and is lucid as well as entertaining, with many surprises and associated delights. (Amazon product description)

Wisconsin Death Trip. Michael Lesy.

As the title suggests, this is a truly strange book. Published in 1973, it is essentially a collection of photos taken in Black River Falls, WI, by Charles Van Schaik between 1890 and 1910. The subject matter ranges from children in coffins, to farm animals, to family portraits of some of the grimmest-looking people imaginable; the photos are accompanied by snippets from newspapers. The whole package seems to confirm that the good old days were actually awful. (Library Journal)

A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. Michael Sappol.

In this groundbreaking new book, Sappol, a historian and curator at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, explores how professors and body snatchers, patients and physicians, and politicians and the public confronted the anatomical dilemma and forged a new consensus about the body and its place in 19th-century American culture. Body snatching has, of course, had its historians. Stories about the 1788 Doctors’ Mob in New York City (the angry mob of 5000 New Yorkers searching for medical students, physicians, and cadavers dispersed only after the governor called out the armed militia), the 1824 riot against the Yale medical department (spurred by the discovery of the partially dissected body of the recently deceased daughter of a West Haven farmer in the anatomy rooms), and the 1878 Harrison scandal in Cincinnati (when the body of John Scott Harrison, the recently deceased son of former president William Henry Harrison and father of president-to-be Benjamin Harrison, turned up in the dissecting room of the Medical College of Ohio) have long been a staple of American medical history and medical school anatomy courses. One of Sappol’s great accomplishments in this dazzling book is his creation of a new lens to view these well-known — and some lesser-known — episodes. It is as though we see them, and more important, understand them for the first time. The anatomical perspective, Sappol suggests, urges a serious reconsideration of the boundaries of professional medicine and popular culture in the 19th century. More than that, he seeks to explain how 19th-century anatomical view of the body led to the view of the body we know today. Crucial to Sappol’s argument is a redefining of what counted as anatomy in 19th-century medicine. With considerable verve and penetration, he explores orthodox anatomy in American medical education, advancing the claim that dissection and membership in the male fraternity of dissectors was critical to the formation of professional identity and legitimacy. (Partial excerpt, New England Journal of Medicine)

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

Arlington National Cemetery Update…Now with Hints of Conspiracy

Warner to Introduce Bill to Revoke Reserved Plots at Arlington
Christian Davenport, The Washington Post (March 30, 2011)

A quick update on Arlington National Cemetery and its ongoing problems. The lead didn’t necessarily get buried in this most recent article from the Washington Post but the entire Arlington debacle just got a lot more interesting.

As The Washington Post reports, a list has surfaced of 84 names, mostly generals and colonels, who have been promised choice spots in the cemetery, despite the ban on such favoritism. This unofficial reservation system seems to contribute to the failure to computerize records, despite millions of dollars spend on such a project, starting in 2002. It’s easier to falsify and deliberately mismanage a paper trail than it is a digital facsimile.

There has already been a Congressional investigation but I won’t be surprised if we see another.

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

Arlington Cemetery Re-Buries the ‘Unknown’ Dead

For First Time in Decades, Arlington National Cemetery Must Bury Multiple ‘Unknowns’
Christian Davenport, The Washington Post (March 06, 2011)
When the remains of a Vietnam War soldier buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were identified in 1998 using DNA, Pentagon officials proudly said that the days of interring service members as “Unknown” could well be over.

It is difficult to imagine the situation at Arlington National Cemetery getting any worse. But the bad news just keeps coming and coming. Hats off to the Washington Post, whose reporters have been rigorously following this case.

The newest revelation is that eight sets of unidentified, cremated human remains were chucked into a single gravesite because of human negligence.

When Arlington Cemetery’s problems first came to light, I remember referring to the entire situation as a ‘Code Red’ alarm for any cemetery.

I’m not sure that even Code Red is an adequate description anymore.

One day, a final tally of all the mishandled burials might be known. But I’m not counting on it.

To read more about the Arlington National Cemetery debacle, click here.

Death + Popular Culture Monuments + Memorials

History of Hip: A Brief History of Tattoos on January 11

History of Hip: Art With A Point, ‘A Brief History of Tattoos’
Minnesota History Center
345 Kellogg Boulevard W
Saint Paul, MN 55102-1906
Dates: January 11, 2011
Time: 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Fee: FREEEEE (but $5.00 to park in the MNHS parking lot)
Reservations: recommended, call 651-259-3015

Please note: This event has been moved from the Turf Club, which has been closed temporarily. Wine and beer are available for purchase in the History Center’s Cafe Minnesota.

A few years ago, Minneapolis tattoo artist Awen Briem and I gave a joint talk on Memorial Tattoos. In fact, you can read all about Memorial Tattoos here on the Death Reference Desk. Meg, Kim, and I have been fielding questions about the ins and outs of these tattoos since day one of Death Ref.

On January 11, 2011, Awen and I will be together again to discuss tattooing. This particular talk will be in St. Paul, MN at the world famous Minnesota Historical Society. We will be discussing the broader history of human tattooing, with special attention paid to memorial tattoos.

The talk is sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and a big high-five to the MNHS for organizing a series called the History of Hip.

A complete description of the tattoo talk is below. And you can read all about Awen at her tattoo studio’s website Art With A Point.

History of Hip: Art With A Point, ‘A Brief History of Tattoos’
Minnesota History Center, St Paul MN

Dates: January 11, 2011
Time: 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Reservations: recommended, call 651-259-3015 or register online


Never just the domain of sailors and outlaws, tattoos have a rich and storied history. From Pacific Islanders to American hipsters, body art has long been a popular form of self expression with many layers of meaning. Dr. John Troyer will discuss the history of human tattooing, as well as some of the key traditions associated with the practice. Tattoo artist Awen Briem will weigh in on tattoo customs and share thoughts on memorable designs and clients she’s worked with at her studio, Art With A Point.


History of Hip explores the mysterious factors that confer hipness on an artist or a fad, and trace the origins of creative genres that still register with artists, audiences, and tastemakers today. Snacks provided.

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

Year End Look at Arlington Cemetery’s Future

Restoring Arlington Cemetery
Washington Post Editorial Board (December 27, 2010)
What does it mean to restore accountability in the nation’s cemetery?

This is a good, succinct Washington Post Editorial on everything that’s gone wrong at Arlington Cemetery. This last year has been particularly bad for Arlington Cemetery and you can read Death Ref’s coverage of those problems here.

The Washington Post Editorial Board also mentions the fixes being implemented to help remedy the problems. One key improvement will be the the use of a computerized tracking system for all the graves. It is hard to believe, given Arlington Cemetery’s national significance, but before now all the graves were kept track of on pieces of paper.


That system didn’t work particularly well. In early December, for example, the Washington Post ran a story on 8 sets of cremated remains found buried in the same, single gravesite. What was most interesting about that specific case was that the US Military brought in an Army Anthropologist (who usually works on gravesite forensic investigations) to ascertain what happened.

So, on the whole, 2011 will be a tricky year for Arlington Cemetery.

Especially since US Military personnel continue to die overseas, and those individuals deserve what the Department of Defense calls a dignified transfer to the grave.

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

And the Problems at Arlington Cemetery Just Keep Growing…

2 Bodies Found in Wrong Plots at Arlington Cemetery
Christian Davenport, Washington Post (September 15, 2010)
Arlington National Cemetery officials discovered that two people were buried in the wrong plots after exhuming their remains last month, an Army official confirmed Tuesday.


More Details Emerge about Bodies Buried in Wrong Arlington Plots
Christian Davenport, Washington Post (September 21, 2010)
The mystery of missing bodies at the nation’s most hallowed military burial ground keeps getting more troubling.

Two more articles on the problems at Arlington National Cemetery recently ran in the Washington Post and the situation is going from bad to worse. Way worse.

These are two interrelated articles, separated by about a week and represent a huge problem for cemetery authorities: bodies in the wrong plots, plots marked with headstones that lack bodies, and multiple sets of remains in single plots.


Early on, when the problems at Arlington Cemetery first emerged, I suggested that mass disinterments might be required. This was partially in jest but I am beginning to think that it could happen. These are Code Red, worst case scenarios for ANY cemetery, let alone Arlington National Cemetery which handles military funerals.

At this point, it is hard to know what Arlington officials can do other than check every single grave. That is a total of 300,000 graves (give or take), with approximately 6,900 new funerals every year. Even if officials cut the total number in half, it’s still 150,000 graves that need checking and that would be a Herculean task.

You can read all of Death Ref’s Arlington Cemetery reports here.

cremation Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Monuments + Memorials

If Cremated Human Remains Can’t Go In It Then You Don’t Need It

Company Presses Your Ashes Into Vinyl When You Die
Olivia Solon, Wired (August 27, 2010)

Many many people saw this Wired article on human cremains being mixed into vinyl records when it first popped up two weeks ago. I know that many people saw this article because everyone kept sending it to me and/or asking me about it. Then a Death Reference Desk Facebook “liker” put it on the Wall of Death, which meant that I had to do something other than just report this story. Our readers keep us on our toes.

After mulling over various story angles I realized that the most interesting thing to point out was this: Mixing cremated human remains into ANYTHING to produce an object of some kind which is then kept as a memorial isn’t new. In fact, Meg, Kim and I have been discussing the myriad ways human cremains get used since day one of Death Ref. You can read those posts here.

I was even in New York this summer giving a lecture on people who have cremated remains put into their Memorial Tattoos. The Comments Section for one of our Memorial Tattoo postings has morphed into a Q and A area for people who want to use created remains in a tattoo. I’m mentioning the tattoos and cremated remains because I know that people are fascinated by the concept.

So what And Vinyl is offering to do with cremated remains isn’t all that new but it is cool. The only problem that I have with the concept is this: I have no idea what record album I would choose and/or combination of songs. I’ve been thinking and thinking but I can’t come up with the perfect mix.

Anyway, the human-ash-pressed-into-vinyl story got me thinking about some of the other ways cremated remains are used to produce objects. These are just the ones I know about and could find. I even looked for companies putting cremated remains into glass bongs but I couldn’t find any. That said, I bet the entire cost of a Life Gem (please see below) that someone, somewhere is turning grandma’s ashes into a sweeeeeeeet smoker.

So, in no particular order we have:

Life Gem rings.

Customized Pencils

Ashes into Glass bowls, paperweights, and other designs.

Urns which look like YOUR HEAD.

Ashes which go into Space

Eternal Reefs and cremated remains in the ocean.

Fireworks which give ashes that rockets red glare feel.

Ashes into Art, which is similar to the Memorial Tattoos.

Huggable Urns in the shape of Teddy Bears. Wowza.

Hourglasses because like the sands….oh nevermind.

And remember: Most of these options also work for Pets. So that means you can have your pets’ created remains turned into a semi-precious stone, a memorial reef, and blasted into space.

I don’t know about the Head Urn but maybe.

Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Crosses Ruled to Violate Separation of Church and State (and State)

Tenth Circuit: Utah Highway Crosses Violate Establishment Clause
Clifford M. Marks, Wall Street Journal Law Blog (August 19, 2010)

Roadside memorials involving religious symbols — invariably Christian crosses — have long caused controversy regarding their legality with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, also known as the separation of church and state. Because roads are managed by state and local governments, detractors argue that planting crosses implies a state endorsement of religion or particular religions. A 2007 district court ruling disagreed, claiming that “crosses merely [send] a secular message about death.”

This ruling was reversed on Wednesday in a federal appeals court with a case about roadside crosses for deceased Utah highway troopers — an apparent state-endorsement of religion double whammy (government employees on government property being commemorated with Christian crosses, unlike arguably slightly less controversial cases involving private citizens doing the same).

As the WSJ Law blog states, the judges held that “a ‘reasonable observer’ could conclude that the presence of the crosses amounted to a state-endorsement of Christianity” and further that

“This may lead the reasonable observer to fear that Christians are likely to receive preferential treatment from the [Utah Highway Patrol],” the judges wrote, adding elsewhere in the opinion that “unlike Christmas, which has been widely embraced as a secular holiday. . . . there is no evidence in this case that the cross has been widely embraced by non-Christians as a secular symbol of death.”

Check out the full tenth circuit court opinion (pdf).

Those who have been paying any attention at all, willingly or not, to the vitriol around present-day religion in America can be sure this won’t be the end of this and similar cases.

Death + Technology Death + the Web Monuments + Memorials

Social Networking’s Sudden Morbidity and Mortality

Twitter. And Facebook. And death.
Future Tense with John Moe, American Public Media (August 16, 2010)

Just recently, Twitter announced new guidelines on what it will do when a user dies. Twitter now joins the ranks of Facebook and Myspace in coming up with policies for dead members.

We here at Death Ref have been covering this issue since day one. You can find all kinds of information at our Death + The Web link. Indeed, just last week both Meg and Kim posted items on social networking websites and death.

The radio program Future Tense interviewed me about what social networking sites are doing and the broader history of human memorialization.

You can listen to the interview right here:

Death + the Web Monuments + Memorials

1000Memories, a Thousand Possibilities


Despite the option of putting a deceased Facebook user’s account into memorial mode (and necessity, to avoid suggestions to “reconnect”), Facebook is for the living. That’s okay. Social media sites weren’t intended to handle death, and only years after their inceptions recognized the dilemma and developed related policies, as Kim’s last post explains.

But now there’s 1000Memories, a no-fee, ad-free site specifically designed to bring together family and friends to share photos and stories and even undertake charity projects in a loved one’s name. While not a social media site per se — it’s reasonable to suspect that over time the memorial pages will stabilize and become more or less static — pages are the product of user-supplied content and interaction, including commenting on others’ contributions.

But even without sustained interaction (which certainly may happen), the collaborative nature of the memorials offers evocative possibilities. Not only can far-flung friends and family come together virtually to remember a loved one, it gathers in a range of voices that piece together a multifaceted life. Memories through the eyes — and in the words — of a young grandchild will be much different from those of a spouse or old fishing buddy, and it is precisely this variation, provided enough people participate, that can make the memorials so rich.

Also, significantly — the site is gorgeous, and nothing breeds confidence like good design. Unlike so many new web startups, 1000Memories gets a huge Win with actually showing what the product does before you create an account, with a few examples available to explore.


According to the Terms of Service, “Privacy settings are administered on a per memorial basis and site administrators are able to set and adjust the privacy as relevant.” Sounds reasonable. Non-private pages are also indexed and discoverable on the open web, and purportedly available “forever” — imagine the boon it could provide for genealogists, now or in the future (or lazy This American Life interns, looking for story leads).

Also stated: “Persons establishing memorials agree not to restrict the right of any legal next of kin to assume or share administrative responsibilities and fully participate in memorials established.” Yikes. Yes. 1000Memories must tread the ground of family feud craziness and black sheep.

I’d like to see a base-line bio page with general information — birthplace, education and career milestones, possibly a family tree — editable by all or in the hands of the memorial administrator, with links to the deceased’s personal blogs and other social media identities. Naturally this could be contentious — while such sites are often easily findable anyway, you may never intend your ultraconservative/-liberal relatives to read your opposing-view political rants or other sticky revelations of heart and mind. Additionally, linked sites may not remain into perpetuity, though some sort of archival mechanism would also be slick. Nonetheless, including such content would be a way to further draw in a person’s life, and in their own words.

Check out a short interview from TechCrunch with two of the co-founders, Brett Huneycutt and Rudy Adler:

We’ll be keeping our eyes on this one!

Death + the Law Death + the Web Death Ethics Monuments + Memorials

Dead Netizen

There’s been much talk of late about what happens to your online social connections, not to mention your email and all the other ways you exist virtually, after you die. With Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and others there’s you and then there’s virtual you.

As more and more people join the virtual you ranks, the implementation of protocols and practices become necessary when the real you dies.

Yesterday, Twitter announced their new policy for deceased users. Prior to this, they had no policy in place.

In July, the NY Times published a story about what happens to your Facebook account after you die. Facebook’s policies, specifically the ability to “memorialize” someone’s Facebook page, have been in place since October, 2009.

But one size does not fit all as policies and practices vary greatly among the various email and social network providers, making it a confusing maze for those trying to navigate through it after a loved-one’s death. Various sites attempt to sort it all out. But, as technology changes and new social networking and email sites emerge, so too will protocols need to change. In writing this post, I ran across a post discussing the legal ramifications of deceased users and their “digital property”. It seems future lawyers are trying to understand it too—perhaps all the better to eventually litigate it, I imagine.

Think about this: a typical scenario might be a person who has a Facebook, Twitter and Gmail account—and probably a work email too—although I imagine most family member’s are less concerned with work email and understand that companies and organizations have exclusive rights to their employee’s email accounts. Ultimately, however, your virtual fingerprints are everywhere. Gaining access after your death—should someone need or want to—can be potentially confusing and frustrating for everyone. And what if it goes completely against your last wishes? Do you want your family and possibly friends, noodling around in the remains of your virtual life?

All sort of websites have emerged to help you figure out these existential questions and more. Some of the sites, like, are for the living to remember and memorialize the dead. Some sites, like, are virtual vaults that keep usernames and passwords safe until you die and the info is then released to selected friends and family members. And still other sites, like, allow you to craft out messages while you are still alive that will then only be released to friends and family upon your death.

Despite the best efforts of Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and others to address the post-mortem needs of their members and the people who survive them, it’s still an ungainly, swirling, complex mass of legal, moral and ethical issues. It seems progress is being made, but I think it will always be a messy business the more you and virtual you become intertwined and perhaps ultimately, indistinguishable.