Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning

Day 11: Planet of the Apes Grieving for Their Ape Kind Dead

Want to Understand Mortality? Look to the Chimps
Maggie Koerth-Baker, New York Times Magazine (June 25, 2013)

Today is the release date for the new Planet of the Apes movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

We’ll set aside all the timeline problems and alternative universes this specific reboot created. And no one should ever speak again of Tim Burton’s terrible remake.

What everyone should be discussing is how apes grieve for their dead. The New York Times Magazine ran an article in June 2013 on this topic. The Death Reference Desk has also written about Chimpanzees and grief before, in 2010 and 2009.

You can also read more generally about animals and death here.

Whenever we Humans start discussing our primate cousins and grieving, we run the risk of going on an anthropomorphising rampage. That said, it’s clear that our Great Ape relatives could teach us a few things about understanding mortality and the finality of time.

Afterlife Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning

Gravity is a Movie about a Dead Child

Gravity (2013)
IMBD (December 22, 2013)


Do not read this Death Ref post if you have not seen the film Gravity and would rather not read about the plot before seeing it.

You have been warned.

After much talking and planning, I finally saw the movie Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Almost all of the reviews I’ve read or heard focused on Gravity’s use of 3D effects (which are very well done) and the somewhat existential-metaphysical-slightly New Agey-religious language used by Bullock’s character Ryan Stone.

What very few people seem to realise, I think, is that Gravity is a film about a dead child and parent grieving over the unexpected death of that child. In this case, it’s Bullock’s character and her daughter who accidentally died while playing tag at school.

It is also a film about living people talking to the dead and this is something that both secular and religious people do (whether they admit it or not) on a fairly regular basis. It’s completely normal and part of what is often referred to as a Continuing Bond after a person dies.

Case in point, near the end of the film George Clooney’s character Matt Kowalski suddenly reappears even though it’s clear that he must be dead. Bullock and Clooney have a conversation about how to get back to earth, which pulls Bullock’s character from choosing to die and instead motivates here to return home. The scene concludes with Clooney’s sudden disappearance and Bullock asking him to say hello to her dead daughter.

Sure sure, the world’s entire fleet of space stations and ships are ripped apart by space debris during the film and there’s a survival story involved but it’s just the spectacle that underscores the dead child narrative. I also get the sense that some of the perceived neo-Theological/New Age Christian critiques come from the scene where Bullock speaks to the dead Clooney about the dead daughter. Again, I didn’t see that as particularly religious rather it was a grieving parent asking a friend to check in on a beloved child.

The real genius of Gravity’s meditation on life and death is this: I firmly believe Bullock’s character Ryan Stone dies in the moments before speaking with the dead Matt Kowalski and that the film concludes with her entering a secular afterlife.

Of a kind.

Death + Crime Death + Popular Culture

Unexplained Dollhouse Deaths in LONDON

Of Dolls and Murder UK Premier
Horse Hospital in London (November 30, 2011)


“Of Dolls & Murder”: The World’s First True Crime Puppet Show
Colin Covert, Star Tribune (September 27, 2011)


Of Dolls and Murder
Bruce Goldfarb, Welcome to Baltimore, Hon! (September 25, 2010)

This is a Death Reference Desk post which begins in December 2007.

At that time, I was contacted by Minneapolis based filmmaker and writer Susan Marks about her new documentary film. She was working on a film about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, located in Baltimore, Maryland. I had never heard of the “Nutshells” (as they’re called by those in the know) but once Susan brought me up to speed on the project, I wanted in.

The Nutshells are an astoundingly detailed set of miniature dollhouse dioramas, some 18 in total, and each of them represents an unexplained death. All of the dioramas were painstakingly created by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy woman who went a long ways in founding the field of modern forensic science. All of this during the first half of the twentieth century. Harvard University (where Frances Glessner Lee was based) originally kept the Nutshells but then sold them to the Maryland Department of Health in Baltimore.

Of Dolls and Murder

Here’s the rub: the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are so exquisitely detailed that police departments still use them today for crime scene investigation training. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, nothing beats a well built diorama!

This all brings me back to 2007. Susan wanted to interview me about representations of death, dying, and dead bodies in popular culture, film, art, and science. Making a documentary film about the Nutshells was pretty straightforward (more or less) but what Susan wanted to ponder was a bigger question. She wanted to understand how the Nutshells might shed light on the current fascination with all things dead, dying, and CSI.

I have never seen the Nutshells, only photographs, but in those images I was struck by the following thought: We humans aren’t looking at the dead dolls for crime scene clues. No. We humans look at those dead dolls (and the dolls look back) in order to find some kind meaning, if that’s even possible, in death.

The Nutshells aren’t about unsolved deaths. They’re about the human imagination grappling with the postmortem insecurities which surround the dead self.

The finished documentary, Of Dolls and Murder, will premiere in the UK on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at the Horse Hospital in London.

John Waters narrates the documentary (he’s from Baltimore too…).

I’ll be conducting a Q and A after the Horse Hospital screening.

Keep an eye out for Of Dolls and Murder. I have a hunch that it is going to be much discussed this year and next. It’s already won audience awards all over the world.

Here’s another trailer to sample of the darkness.


Death + Art / Architecture Grief + Mourning

Sick Beauty in the Stains of Death: Sarah Sudhoff’s “At the Hour of Our Death”

At the Hour of Our Death
Sarah Sudhoff

Our worldly possessions speak to how we live, while their particular aesthetics — the whorl of this cushion, the filigree of that doily — hint at personality. In her series, At the Hour of Our Death, artist Sarah Sudhoff explores how our stuff reveals how we die, and reminds that we do die, and so do the ones we love from whose deaths we are detached. Sudhoff photographs the stains left behind from suicides, murders and other messy deaths.

Filmmakers Mark and Angela Walley produced a short documentary about Sudhoff and her work:

[Video not working because Vimeo is evil? Click here.]

Sudhoff’s intention with this work is to draw attention to the often invisible process and remnants of death. Normalized efforts to erase or conceal — or incinerate, as is the case of the fabric swatches she photographs — the evidence that death leaves behind, including the body itself immediately swept from view until the funeral, isolate us from our loss and make grief impersonal and arguably more difficult than it already is.

I say “arguably” because seeing the blood splatters of a loved one’s suicide would probably freak out and traumatize most people more than it would aid their mourning. Nevertheless, this sanitizing of death is a denial of reality and dislocates our understanding and acceptance of death. Sudhoff’s work recognizes and acknowledges the marks death leaves behind, on pillow shams and drapes but also on us.

A bit morbid, sure, but this is the Death Reference Desk. And if I may, while granting Sudhoff legitimacy in her artist statement, and at the risk of being creepy or insensitive, I am personally less interested in the death tie-in than I am in the pure aesthetics of the work.

Ignore for a moment that these images are saturated with the gore of the dead. Why? Because otherwise is too easy — too emotional, too blatantly taboo and therefore transgressive, and while Sudhoff does not seem to aim for shock, the context sends interpretation down a single, obvious, kinda gross but we-should-feel-good-about-ourselves-for-thinking-about-death-and-the-consequences-of-its-social-sublimation path.

And you know what? These photographs are really rather pretty on their own and function as effective works of art without all that weight.

sarahsudhoffIn the serendipitous way propriety and rules and stuff impose boundaries on Art, Sudhoff was unable to photograph actual crime scenes. Instead she is allowed to shoot their remnants pulled from the biohazard boxes of a death scene cleanup company. Fabric swatches are tacked to a wall, flooded with lights and photographed. While perhaps she would have done this anyway, this arrangement forces intense close-ups on the fabrics, as opposed to wider angle, let’s-see-the-whole-room, imagine-the-moment shots that would put us closer to the dead.

Instead, we have only a moment, and that moment is abstract and evocative. The textiles themselves are both art and commodity. Even a foam carpet pad, with its texture and color, has a weird, familiar but rarely recognized beauty.

The stains that seep can be seen as corruption or defacement — defects in these products. And yet there is balance and harmony, a rightness in the randomness. Nonetheless, even if you didn’t know it was blood, the creeping distortions signal that something is dreadfully wrong, complicating that beauty (or, ironically, enlivening and enriching a mundane pattern).

Combined with context — knowledge of what these stains don’t represent but actually are — Sudhoff’s work achieves a subtle power easy to overlook when we’re so quick to look away.

If you’re into this stuff (heh), check out Sudhoff’s other photo series linked on the left side of her website, including medical waste and sacks of unclaimed cremains.

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

Kevorkian Revisited

Independent Minds: Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Listen to the audio)

Heard an interesting public radio broadcast this evening. It’s a series titled “Independent Minds” and tonight’s profile featured Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The show illuminates, through interviews, audio clips and sound bites, the life of the controversial “Dr. Death” and attempts to separate and dissect the man and the myth.

Want more Jack? Check out trailers for the upcoming HBO film You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as Kevorkian. Directed by Barry Levinson, it also stars Susan Sarandon, John Goodman and Brenda Vaccaro. I don’t have cable and it could be a while before it shows up on Netflix. So if anyone catches it, by all means let us know and share your thoughts!

Death + the Law

No Next of Kin

A Certain Kind of DeathA Certain Kind of Death
(2003). Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock
New York: Wellspring. DVD / VHS documentary.

WorldCatFind in a library

What happens if you die and there are no friends, no family, no spouse — no one — to dispose of your body, arrange your funeral, attend to your personal effects or take care of any number of the details of your demise? Unknowingly, you kick off a chain of events, procedures and protocols that may or may not be compatible with your “last wishes,” for you enter the status known as “no next of kin.”

shoesA Certain Kind of Death is an amazing piece of documentary filmmaking. Given unprecedented access to the processes that go on behind the scenes when someone with no next of kin dies, the filmmakers present a stark and moving portrait of this “certain kind of death.”

Coincidentally, an article in the Oregonian tackled this exact subject just days after I viewed the film. A video embedded in the article shows an employee of the state medical examiner’s office explaining how he searches for next of kin.