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 + Humor Death + Technology Monuments + Memorials

Death: The Final Frontier

A Geek Funeral
kdawson, (September 29, 2009)

While the obsessively geekerrific can always go for the deluxe Star Trek casket or urn, I rather enjoy this gutted SPARCstation-turned-urn engraved with classic Trekkie nerdery, submitted to Slashdot by reader Sam_In_The Hills for his late brother:

SPARCstation urn

At the memorial service, friends and family scrawled kind thoughts and remembrances on Post-it notes and slid them into the floppy drive of this circa 1990 machine. BRA-VO.

I also couldn’t help but notice that Slashdot uses the tag “geekurn.” I am sad to report it’s the only item tagged as such — but the precedence has now been set. Don’t let us down, Slashdot.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials



People are crazy about their pets. Diamond tiaras, cat condos, doggie daycares serving gourmet kibble, anti-depressants and acupuncture for the unstable pet in your life — all this and more is available for Mr. Wiggles or Li’l Boots. After all, they’re not simply a dog or a cat — they’re family. Current statistics, trend analysis, and the recurring crazy stories bear this out.

Considering that pets replace children for many, it follows that we treat these family members with the same kind of concern we normally reserve for our human brethren. But our animal companions are mortal too and so it follows that an end-of-life plan is just one of the many ways we can show how much we care for that beloved pet.

The pet cemetery industry — like the human one — fulfills our need to remember the dearly departed. According to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, there are 600 active pet cemeteries in the United States. And let’s not forget the related satellite industries such as pet funerals, pet urns/memorials and pet insurance which are also big business. Although there is some contention as to the oldest, the Hartsdale (NY) Cemetery and Crematory was established in 1896 and calls itself “America’s First and Most Prestigious Pet Burial Grounds.”

I remember seeing the captivating Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, years ago. As many reviewers have suggested, this isn’t just a documentary about pet cemeteries; it’s about the human condition. By turns funny, tragic and bizarre, the film captures and distills emotional truth in a compelling narrative. Roger Ebert named it one of the 10 best films of all-time.

On a personal note, Squeakers, my own feline companion of seventeen years, died last year. I chose cremation over burial or any other number of ways I could have memorialized my pet. Call me dispassionate or cheap, but I just couldn’t see forking over a small fortune to memorialize my cat for eternity.

Thinking I would receive a bag of ashes and a bill, I was actually taken aback when I got the call from the vet to come and pick her up. Instead of the ziplock bag I was expecting, I received a small box, covered in hand-made paper, embedded with pressed flowers. Attached to the box was a card and an envelope. The card was signed by the entire veterinary staff, with wishes of condolence flowing out. And the most unexpected of all? A tiny plastic bag (like the kind that comes with an extra button for a new blouse) containing a chunk of her fur and a small piece of card-stock paper with her inked paw-print — her inked paw print! What the? These intimate and personal touches took me by surprise. I guess it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t authorize the cutting of fur and the inking of paws. But I guess that’s how things are done when no specifications are given.

Not that I was angry — if anything, I was a little miffed that the box containing the ashes was hot-glued shut. I guess they thought viewing the ashes would be too much too bear. So being the curious sort, I took a knife and opened it up. I had to see what was left of old Squeaks. As expected, they pretty much looked like all the other cremains I’ve seen. Call me cold, but they are now sitting unceremoniously in a box in my storage unit on the outskirts of Portland. But really, is that pile of dust Squeakers anyhow? Doesn’t she live on in my memory and more gloriously in the photo above? I’d like to think so.

If you want to learn more about pets and death, search your local library catalogue under such terms as pet death, pet loss, pets and grief, pets and bereavement, etc.

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”

Monuments + Memorials

Ghost Bikes: The End of the Road


I’ve been looking at and thinking about bikes lately. I’m in the market to buy a new one and my mind is kind of going crazy with all the possibilities. At any time of year, it’s hard not to think of bikes here in Portland, OR. They’re everywhere. Portland is the most bike friendly city in America and has the highest per capita bike commuters every year.

Something else that comes to mind when I think of bikes is safety — and whether or not I will be crushed or otherwise vaporized by a two ton car on the way to my destination.

For those cyclists who do die on the way to their destination, there exists a certain kind of memorial — the ghost bike. Part memorial, part warning, ghost bikes can be found in many cities across the Unites States and the world. Painted all white, often with sprays of flowers (real or fake) and cards and various tributes adorning them, they are usually locked up to a street sign nearest the location the cyclist was hit or met their death.

The first ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, MO in 2003 and was the brainchild of Patrick Van Der Tuin, a motorist who witnessed the death of a cyclist in his city and placed the first memorial bike at that site. See his website here.

Websites such as and are dedicated to the dissemination of information about ghost bikes, where they can be found and bicycle/motorist safety advocacy. The New York City Street Memorial Project, a group dedicated to larger issues of pedestrian and cyclist safety on the busy streets of New York, has also taken up the cause of ghost bikes. A recent NY Times article features the organization and the story of Amelia Geocos, a 24-year-old young woman who collided with a van and who died of her head injuries.

In addition, an article just yesterday describes the mystery surrounding an “unofficial” ghost bike seen in Washington Heights, a northern Manhattan neighborhood.

Roadside memorials have a long and rich history. The ghost bike phenomenon is a fascinating extension of that. I think the new bike I will purchase will not be white. (The picture used in this article is attributed to the New York Times).

Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Minneapolis Event: Death and Memorial Tattooing Lecture by John Erik Troyer, Ph.D.

Free Public Talk: Death and Memorial Tattooing
When: Wednesday, July 29, 7:30pm – 9:30pm
Where: West Bank Social Center, 501 Cedar Avenue South, Minneapolis 55454 (above the Nomad World Pub)

Ok. So it’s a little weird to promote my own talk this way on the Death Reference Desk, but as many people know I am called to perform… to the DANCE….

Tattoo for Jean Troyer

For this talk, I will present some new research on Death and Memorial Tattooing. I am interested in how people choose to remember/memorialize a dead person and/or pet with a tattoo. I will be joined at this talk by Awen Briem, Minneapolis tattoo artist extraordinaire, and the tattooist who has inked six of my seven tattoos. Since 1994, and through several tattooing sessions, we have spent A LOT of time discussing memorial tattoos. You have to talk about something while the needle works…

In late June, I presented some of this research at the Envisaging Death: Visual Culture and Dying symposium at the University of Birmingham, England. My talk was entitled A Labor of Death and a Labor Against Death: Memorial Tattoos in Late Modernity — I can promise that this talk on Wednesday night at the West Bank Social Center will be a lot of fun. Awen and I both want the audience involved in our discussion of Memorial Tattoos.

Feel free to e-mail me with any questions:
And check out Awen’s amazing Tattooing Blog.

Yours in Death and Tattooing….

— John Troyer

Death + the Law Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Memorials Face Roadblocks

Should Roadside Memorials Be Banned?
New York Times (July 12, 2009)

As part of their “Room for Debate” series, the New York Times provides five varying perspectives (along with well over a hundred reader comments so far) on the issue of roadside and neighborhood memorials. These shrines of grief—including crosses, photos, flowers, stuffed animals and other mementos—spring up seemingly spontaneously at the sites of accidental death and murder.

With most of them displayed on public property along highways and city sidewalks, however, opinions vary on their appropriateness and legality. Are such memorials safety hazards for decelerating, distracted motorists and, for the ones including religious symbols, violations of church and state? Or are they “outlaw” expressions of the people that will not and cannot (and perhaps should not) be suppressed?

One contributor is Melissa Villanueva, director and producer of Resting Places, a documentary about roadside memorials that explores the controversy in depth. The film is presently seeking distribution—here’s a trailer.

cremation Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Mixing Death: Cremated Remains in the Ink of Memorial Tattoos

Olympia Resident Has Ink, Cremated Ashes Under His Skin
Christian Hill, The Olympian (July 10, 2009)

Memorial Tattoo with Cremated Remains This is a wonderful article on Memorial Tattooing, or a tattoo that an individual chooses after a person or pet dies. The article also explains an old tattooing practice, namely the putting of cremated remains in the ink used for the tattoo. After my parents die I plan on having their cremated remains mixed into ink for new memorial tattoos.