Death + Biology Death + Technology Monuments + Memorials

Keeping Your Dead Pets Alive Forever

Amy Finkel, Director

We humans love our pets. A lot. We love them so much that when they die the grieving process can become overwhelming. Over the last ten years the number of companies and funeral homes offering pet memorialization services, products, and bereavement literature have ballooned.

Meg came across the following in-development documentary on pet loss. The film, Furever, has got chops so we’re throwing its director, Amy Finkel, a Death Ref bone.

Ok. Enough with the bad metaphors and puns.

The Death Reference Desk has been running dead pet stories for a long time and we are more than happy to add this one to the list.

Two words: Freeze Drying.

Furever is a documentary exploration of pet preservation, or, the processes by which a deceased pet is professionally conserved. I have shot forty hours of footage of one technique, freeze-drying, which produces disarmingly lifelike results. This seemingly bizarre practice offers a unique perspective on mortality, grief, and mourning. The concepts investigated in Furever will disarm anyone who might want to dismiss the subjects as mere oddball caricatures.


Furever contributes to the dialogue on death and grief, bewildering aspects of the human condition, begun by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, dovetailing with the growing trend toward pet anthropomorphism, and the anguish that befalls the owners of deceased pets. Many dismiss or judge pet preservationists for being “unbalanced,” yet the assorted rituals in place for deceased human loved ones, while precious to those who practice them, often seem odd or unusual to outsiders.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Where New York’s Unclaimed Dead Bodies Get Buried

Artist’s Study of Island Brings the Dead to Life
Adam Geller, Associated Press (October 30, 2010)


Hart Island Project
Melinda Hunt

This is a really compelling article about a New York burial ground for unclaimed bodies. Adam Geller, from the Associated Press, wrote a lengthy piece about both Hart Island (the cemetery) and artist Melinda Hunt, who turned Hart Island into a fascinating artistic project.

It’s a great read. You will find similar kinds of articles in the Death + The Economy section of Death Ref. There is no shortage of unclaimed dead bodies these days.

At top is a short section from a documentary entitled Hart Island: An American Cemetery.

Death + Popular Culture Funeral Industry Grief + Mourning

It’s My Way or Highway (to Hell). Neither O.K.

Australia’s Catholic church bans pop songs at funerals
Reuters, Melbourne. September 10, 2010

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.
A time to give birth, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to tear down, and a time to build up.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search, and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep, and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together; A time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate; A time for war, and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, partial)

Apparently too, there is a time to play pop songs and there is a time NOT to play pop songs.

This past week the Catholic church in Australia sent down an edict banning all pop and rock music and football club songs from funerals performed in their churches. The guidelines, handed down by Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, were distributed this week to priests and funeral directors. Funerals are to be “sacred farewells”; “life celebrations” should be done before or after the formal service. According to the article:

“The wishes of the deceased, family and friends should be taken into account … but in planning the liturgy, the celebrant should moderate any tendency to turn the funeral into a secular celebration of the life of the deceased,” the guidelines state.


The article goes on to list the top 10 most popular songs played or sung at Australian funerals. I love that “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz made the cut (although is was categorized as a “popular unusual” song).

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 + 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 + Popular Culture Monuments + Memorials

Valerie’s New York Talks Memorial Tattoos with John

Valerie’s New York interview with John Troyer on Memorial Tattoos
WOR 710 AM (August 4, 2010)

Here is the link for the radio interview I did on with Valerie Smaldone on Valerie’s New York . I start discussing Memorial Tattoos about 17:30 minutes into the interview.

The piece before me is on an event promoter offering free tickets to shows when people get his logo tattooed onto their body. Good times.

Valerie asked good questions.

I look forward to a return visit to Valerie’s New York.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture

Romanian Grave Markers: the Lighter Side of Death, the Darker of Life

Săpânţa: The Happy Cemetery
Dumneazu (July 23, 2010)

While grave markers can be creative and downright wacky, most reflect the solemnity of death — just the facts, m’am, perhaps with an accurate but general epitaph, like “Loving wife and mother.” Aren’t they all? And would you really say otherwise if not?

The Happy Cemetery in Săpânţa, Romania, would. From Dumneazu’s post:

The poem accompanying this gravestone said something along the lines, “And now my children are in the hands of God / Which is probably better than being in my hands.”

Ouch. Reflecting local folk art, carved and painted wooden grave markers in the Happy Cemetery memorialize a person’s life and death through often humorous poetry and depictions of community and personal life (i.e., drinking, being a heart-breaker and/or floozy) and the scenes that led to his or her demise (i.e., vehicular homicide, beheading).

Check out Dumneazu’s post for a number of photos with accompanying commentary. Great stuff!

Death + Art / Architecture Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

WNYC Interview on Memorial Tattoos

Morbid Ink: Memorial Tattoos
Samantha Stark, WNYC radio (July 21, 2010)

WNYC radio in New York put together a short piece on Memorial Tattoos, which coincided with my talk on the same subject for Observatory and the Morbid Anatomy Library.


MemorialTattoosThumb3Samantha Stark, the WNYC reporter who put the story together, did a really good job of tracking down individuals and tattoo artists with memorial tattoos. I found those interviews far more compelling than anything I said.

But I’m not surprised.

Memorial Tattoos almost always contain a narrative which overpowers any historical/conceptual argument.

These tattoos are a story about how one person died and another individual continues to live with his or her memory.

And that will never change.

Death + the Web Death Ethics

Legacy for Hire

A recent post by Idle Words blog caught my eye. It’s about the unscrupulous practices of, the back end machinery behind obituary notices in newspapers across the country, including, but not limited to, the venerable NY Times.

Idle Words did a little research (which Boing Boing then posted) to uncover exactly what’s going on with Legacy—because their mode of operation is less than transparent. At issue is how their online guest books work and the deceptive and manipulative way money changes hands in the process. The process is this: you sign the guest book after which you are greeted with a warning that states that the guest book will expire in a little over a month. You can make sure this doesn’t happen by paying $29 to keep it up for a year, or go for the eternity package and pay $79 to keep the guest book alive “in perpetuity.”

While that might seem a bit crass, that’s not really the issue. Through some investigation, Idle Words discovered that creating an online death notice is a less than forthright when it comes to the money. At no time in the process do they tell you what the charges are (from $79). For that, you need to drill down into the small print back at (in this case) the NY Times rate sheet page—outside of the confines of the obituary creation stage. I dare you to even find where the rate sheet info is because I can tell you it’s under deep cover—and I’m a librarian!

Says Idle Words:

[The] site takes money from bereaved people without disclosing what it’s billing them, gambling on the fact that they’re probably too preoccupied to care. Whether or not this kind of thing is legal, it is completely unethical. Even an undertaker who has upsold you on everything from coffin to funeral buffet has to show you a number before you sign on the dotted line.

I applaud Idle Words for looking into Legacy’s practices. Maybe this exposure will shame them into changing their “business model”.

Death + the Law Death + the Web

This is What It Sounds Like When Avatars Die…

Virtual Estates Lead to Real-World Headaches
Chris V. Nicholson, The New York Times (November 02, 2009)

I am not an online gamer so I don’t have any experience with the bazillions of virtual worlds inhabited every day by living people. That said, it’s impossible to spend any time online these days without hearing about World of Warcraft, Second Life, or the Sims, so I know all about these places. I never really gave much thought to what happens to a person’s accumulated virtual world wealth until I read this article.

Death Avatar

The key question is this: who (or whom) inherits or keeps your ‘stuff’ after you die but your online persona hasn’t? A number of e-mail services and social networking sites have changed their policies to deal with user deaths. I wrote about a recent Facebook change here. And, as the article linked above describes, Yahoo ended up in court over the release of a dead solider’s email to his next of kin.

The article mentions a company which handles many of these online-property issues, The Digital Beyond, and if I were going to law school right now I would absolutely focus on individual internet property rights. More and more of everything is online and unless the national power grids all go down then that situation won’t change anytime soon.

Lady DeathThe article also discusses this apparently HUGE online incident (based on what the almighty Google showed me) from a 2005 World of Warcraft funeral. Mourning avatars gathered in-game to pay their respects and were slaughtered by a rival group. It’s all like some kind of crazy drive by shooting at a funeral for a rival gang member or something.

But since this incident involves an online funeral turned avatar massacre, someone produced a YouTube video. I won’t pretend to understand what is happening in this video but it looks like a lot of gaming nerds got really really upset:

This kind of makes me want to know what is going on in these online worlds. But not enough to actually become a gamer. Death already eats up enough of my online time.

Death + Technology Death + the Web Monuments + Memorials

No More Status Updates from Dead FB Friends

Facebook ‘memorialises’ profiles
BBC News (October 27, 2009)

It was bound to happen sooner or later. You know, someone dies and then Facebook goes ahead and suggests that you add him or her as a friend. Yikes. It’s one of the many technology dilemmas when it comes to death and dying in the interweb age.

Upon receipt of proof of death, Facebook will now turn a deceased member’s profile into a memorial site, allowing existing Facebook contacts to view the profile but otherwise locking it down, including removing potentially sensitive information.


I haven’t read through the full Facebook policy, but at some point a new policy will have to be developed: how long does the memorial page remain active? And/or can some next of kin have the page removed even though other members of the family disagree? These cases will all come up.

Such is human death in late modernity.