Burial Death + Crime Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death Ethics

On the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Watery Grave, Murky Law
Leor Halevi, New York Times (May 08, 2011)
Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea and the history of Shariah.


Bin Laden Exits the Scene
On the Media, WNYC and National Public Radio (May 06, 2011)

It has been one week since President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I happened to be in New York City when the announcement was made so I immediately began taking stock of the entire situation. Within the annals of infamous dead bodies (Eva Peron, Hitler, Che Guevara, Mao, Lenin, etc.) Bin Laden’s corpse is an important specter for twenty-first century human history. I began collecting news articles on what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body since I knew that controversy was sure to follow.

My first inkling that something was askew came on Monday morning when National Public Radio reported that Bin Laden received a sea burial with full Muslim funeral rites. I’m not a Muslim burial rites specialist but at no time have I ever read about a Muslim burial at sea. The Death Reference Desk has certainly covered contemporary (mostly American) Muslim burial practices and you can read that information here. But even the most contemporary, American Muslim traditions still hew to much older Islamic funeral traditions.



Over the course of last week much back and forth ensued over what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body and how, if at all, it conformed to Islamic funeral practices.’s Explainer column posted one of the first good pieces on the entire concept: Bin Laden Sleeps With the Fishes. Central to what occurred was a choice by US Government Officials (I can only assume that this starts with President Obama) that burying Bin Laden anywhere would be problematic. This is a point that many people discussed so I won’t belabor it.

There is one place, however, that I imagine could be used for a “proper” burial and that is Guantanamo Bay. But even mentioning that scenario would create global havoc. That said, I bet money that Gitmo got mentioned by someone and then quickly passed over.

As a result, Osama Bin Laden’s dead body got put in the ocean because the United States wanted to get rid of it. I don’t think that the narrative is much more complicated than that. The use of Muslim funeral rites are nice but what happened to Bin Laden’s body was not a particularly Muslim burial.

Here’s the rub: that might not be a problem. In Sunday’s New York Times, Vanderbilt University history professor Leor Halevi wrote an a particularly good op/ed piece on this very topic, linked at the top of the page. Halevi’s article is the best that I have come across to date. Here’s the crux:

Bin Laden’s religious status is a matter of contention among Muslims. On one end of the spectrum are Muslims who consider him an outsider to Islam: if not quite an apostate, a terrorist whose right to an official Muslim prayer is debatable at best. (In 2005 the Islamic Commission of Spain essentially excommunicated Bin Laden, arguing that he should not be treated as a Muslim.) They must find it as perplexing as I do that the United States government granted the man it identified not as a Muslim, but as a “mass murderer of Muslims,” the dubious honor of a quasi-Islamic funeral.


On the other end are Muslims who believe that Bin Laden is now enjoying the blessings of martyrdom. From a theological perspective, it matters little to them how Americans on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson disposed of the corpse.


Which is all to say that Bin Laden’s burial was doctrinally irrelevant to some Muslims, and confusing to others. Most of the rest feel uneasy. Perhaps the United States could not have avoided that. But a deeper understanding of the history of Islam’s sacred law could have prevented us from seeming so at sea.

Here is what I know for sure: by the middle of this coming week everyone in America will be talking about something else and that over time conversations will come and go, mostly amongst academics, on whether or not Osama Bin Laden got a proper funeral.

The more immediate political question focuses on whether or not the photo(s) of Bin Laden’s dead body should be released. This question, too, will go away by the middle of the week. The photos were not released now but they will surface in the future. How soon is an open question but we will eventually see the images.

The On The Media program at the top has several good radio segments on Bin Laden, his dead body, and the future of his memory.

I have a hunch that Meg, Kim, and I will be discussing Osama Bin Laden’s dead body again in the near future since America has a long history of dealing with the infamous dead and in ways that keep those infamous dead bodies very much alive.

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.

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Web Funeral Industry

Alas, King Elvis’ Embalming Instruments are Still Dead

Auction House Drops Elvis Embalming Tools
Andy Grimm, Chicago Tribune (July 23, 2010)

I know for a fact that many people saw last week’s news item about the instruments used to embalm Elvis Presley going up for sale. I know this because many people (including my Mom…) e-mailed me the story. What I think most people missed was the announcement a few days later that the same sale had been called off. It’s true. The Presley embalming gear will not be auctioned in August.

At the top of this post you will find a Chicago Tribune article announcing the sale’s cancellation as well as a statement by the auction house, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, on what happened.

Ooooohhhhhh the intrigue.


images_managed_press_elvis_toolsHere is a sampling of the items from the defunct sale: forceps, needle injectors, aneurysm hooks, an arterial tube, lip brushes (for makeup), rubber gloves, a comb, eye liner, and a toe tag.

I’ve even included a photo of some of the gear.

Most people commented on the sale this way: “Gross.”

I, however, had an entirely different reaction. Since I am a Death Studies Professional my first thought was “No way. It’s fake.” There is absolutely no way to prove the provenance and authenticity of this embalming equipment (short of DNA traces, if that’s even possible) since everything listed could be bought from any embalming supply company. Some written materials were also included in the sale but I did not see any images of the documents.

And, lo, it turns out that the authenticity of said embalming instruments became an issue after the initial news story drop. As a result, the auction house could do nothing but pull the sale.

There is another angle on this entire debacle. It turns out that the Memphis, TN funeral home which questioned the authenticity of the instruments is owned by the Texas based Service Corporation International (SCI).

That’s an interesting twist.

SCI is an ENORMOUS funeral industry conglomerate and it owns funeral homes all over the world. I have to imagine that once SCI HQ heard about the sale it decided to take a looky loo at the situation and, indeed, SCI released the following statement:

“We feel the sale of these items is entirely inappropriate…Their removal and subsequent submission for auction are inconsistent with our policies and our commitment to all families we serve to treat the loved ones in our care — be they celebrities or not — with privacy, dignity and respect.”

I’ll take SCI at its word that the privacy, dignity, and respect of the Presley family is important but I also think that SCI wanted to hang onto this property. If these embalming tools are authentic (which I still doubt) then it’s the kind of thing any corporation wants in its private holdings.

Interesting enough, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers pulled the original sale announcement off its website. You can that here. Our good friends at BoingBoing, however, still have that posting up.

So there you have it. Buyer beware. Especially when dealing with run-of-the-mill embalming equipment.

Death + Popular Culture Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials

Plain or Fancy?

Seems like funerals or memorial services are either getting simpler or more complex these days. Green burials and simple home rituals are gaining momentum, but so are high end funeral extravaganzas that spare no expense. In an article that appeared in yesterday’s U.K.-based Independent newspaper, “the rise of the distinctly unconventional celebrity send-off is proof of a distinct shift in British attitudes to the final journey of the dead.”

Enter Lori MacKellar, who has been labeled a “celebrity undertaker”. Ms. MacKellar, a former contemporary art publicist, has been responsible for some of the recent funerary fetes of British celebs and luminaries such as Malcolm McLaren (punk rock visionary) and Michael Wojas (legendary barman). While she takes umbrage with such a title, Ms. MacKellar sees herself as performing a very important role in the the creation of lasting memories for the deceased family and friends. As she puts it:

“The departure point is always what the family want to do. In the case of Malcolm McLaren, the family had very clear ideas about what sort of funeral they wanted and we helped to arrange it. The bus was provided by a friend and there were so many ways that people were able to express themselves. We were a little bit worried that at one point some fans might give the ‘punk salute’ by spitting towards the hearse. Of course, that never happened and people were also very respectful. I think the family were pleased with how it went.

If Michael Jackson’s memorial service here stateside is any indication of the lengths the rich and famous will go to to ensure a lasting legacy for time immemorial, then I’m not sure what is. The entire city of Los Angeles was practically shut down last July on the day of the memorial service at the Staples Center. The city racked up (and was criticized for) $1.3 million dollars in expenses on that day to pay all the associated costs of such a large event, including but not limited to, police officers, sanitation workers and traffic control. A few weeks ago, nearing the one year anniversary of MJ’s death, Anschutz Entertainment Group and the estate of Michael Jackson have agreed to provide $1.3 million to the city of Los Angeles to help cover the cost of last year’s memorial.

Ultimately, a funeral or memorial service is a reflection of the life of the deceased. So whether plain or fancy, the ways in which we honor, celebrate and remember the dead is really a mirror on our collective values and ideologies. What will YOUR memorial or funeral say about you?

Death + Crime

Vote or Die… or, “and”

Episode 20: This Ungainly Fowl
Nate DiMeo, The Memory Palace (October 16, 2009)

Poe, painted by Oscar Halling in the late 1860s.In honor of Election Day in the United States and in roundabout follow-up to Edgar Allan Poe’s century-late funeral, check out the above recent podcast from Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace.

Nate describes the circumstances surrounding Poe’s mysterious death, who was found in the street outside a Baltimore tavern, delirious and dressed in another man’s clothes. Taken to the hospital, he floundered in and out of consciousness; unable to articulate what had happened, he died a few days later.

One theory, as Nate relays, is Poe was randomly kidnapped and coerced into a vicious form of voter fraud known as “cooping”: in between quick clothes changes, threats, beatings and drugs, he was carted by thugs around the city to different polling stations and forced to vote.

Listen to the podcast! You know, after you exercise your right and duty to vote, once, not drugged or smacked around, and wearing your own clothes. (It’s short — under 5 minutes. By the by, The Memory Palace has some wonderful treasures… sort of like a This American Life for the 19th Century. Do explore!)


Houdini’s Final Disappearing Act

Houdini's grave.

A Halloween Tale: Houdini’s Lonely Grave (New York Times Video Library)

Harry Houdini was quite a character. Not only was he one of the most heralded magicians of his generation, but the mystique surrounding the man grew exponentially when he died on October 31, 1926. Some believed Houdini to be a practitioner of the “dark arts” or at least that he possessed supernatural abilities. How else to explain some of the seemingly impossible tricks he performed? In fact, Houdini’s death was due to peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix. Certainly, dying on All Hallows Eve only added to the man, the myth and the legend.

Born Ehrich Weiss (variant spellings include Erik Weisz) in Budapest, Hungary, the self-named Houdini was not only a magician, but an actor, escape artist, film producer and skeptic. He was particularly interested in debunking so-called spiritualists of the day who claimed the ability to communicate with the dead. Apparently, his wife Bess did not share the same beliefs as her husband. For ten years after Houdini’s death, Bess held seances every Halloween, attempting to summon him from the great beyond.

Today, you can visit the grave of Harry Houdini at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York. Although downtrodden and in disrepair, the cemetery still entices Houdini fans to visit and pay their respects. Interestingly, his wife Bess, who died in 1943, requested to buried next to him. But because she was not Jewish, was not allowed burial in Machpelah and was instead interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York.

For further exploration of the life of Houdini, you may enjoy:

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloma

Houdini: The Movie Star — Three Disc DVD Collection

Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman

Burial Monuments + Memorials

Poe’s Funeral Draws Hundreds

Edgar Allan Poe Finally Getting Proper Funeral
Ben Nuckols, Associated Press (October 6, 2009)

The late Edgar Allan Poe had a memorial service Sunday, October 11, in Baltimore, Maryland. Yes, that late Edgar Allan Poe—the beloved American writer of the macabre who has been dead for 160 years.

Hundreds of mourners in period dress, including Alfred Hitchcock and H.P. Lovecraft impersonators, paid their respects to the man whose first funeral, following his mysterious death in 1849, fetched only a handful of attendees. The memorial service Sunday — there were two, actually, to accommodate all the mourners — was one of many events celebrating his 200th birthday.

To see some footage of the Poe replica and procession, including some retro morphing effects in the ABC video, check out the links below (it seems to be popular lately to disable embedded video… jerks).

160 Years After Mysterious Death, Edgar Allan Poe Gets Proper Funeral (ABC)

Second Send-off for US Writer Poe (BBC)

Edgar Allan Poe’s Final Send Off (Reuters)

At the beginning of the ABC video, I twice saw an ad for a mouse trap — count yourself lucky if you watch it, too: “Nothing to see, nothing to touch, you just throw it away.” …Because that’s just how we like our death: disposable.

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.

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.

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.