Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

No Tittering of Mourning Magpies

Magpies Hold Funerals for Fallen Feathered Friends
Lester Haines, The Register (October 21, 2009)

Animal Emotions, Wild Justice and Why They Matter: Grieving Magpies, a Pissy Baboon, and Empathic Elephants (paid access only)
Marc Berkoff, Emotion, Space and Society (August 27, 2009; doi:10.1016/j.emospa.2009.08.001)

Reporting on an unfortunately toll-access article from the journal Emotion, Space and Society, Lester Haines at The Register relays the claim that magpies appear to hold rituals for dead pals:

Dr. Marc Bekoff observed four magpies alongside a fallen comrade, and recounted: “One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”

Similar behaviors have been observed in other magpies, as well as in ravens and crows. Unfortunately The Register article is brief and the real deal’s under lock and key (well… $9.95). Several readers have weighed in in the comments, however, and probably without reading the actual research, many dismiss the claim as bad science and overt anthropomorphism, an accusation Beckoff has previously countered with, “It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions.”

Hear, hear! (Full disclosure: I am closing in my 10-year anniversary as a vegetarian.)

Then again, I do enjoy rigor in my rigor mortis research — I’d like to know more about it. As for the post title, I love animal / social group names. Everyone knows it’s a murder of crows, many, an unkindness of ravens. Magpies are a gulp, tiding or tittering. Tee hee! And no one would be laughing at a funeral. At least not these magpies.

cremation Death + Technology

Japan Goes… Library Tech? with Urn Storage and Retrieval

Japan’s New Hi-Tech ‘Graveyards’
Jason Rhodes, Reuters (October 13, 2009)

via Treehugger, “Japan’s High Tech Graveyard Solution as Burial Space Grows Scarce” (Jaymi Heimbuch, October 15, 2009)

Due to scarcity and high cost — sometimes more than $100,000 — for urn burial plots in Japan, storing cremation urns in space-saving warehouses is growing in popularity. Such buildings contain special mourning areas where loved ones can swipe a card with the deceased’s location; a robotic arm will retrieve the urn from the vault and deliver it the mourning area, complete with somber music, flowers and video screens showing photos of the deceased.

The video above is in Japanese; whether or not you understand it, you still get the gist. I can’t get over how much this is like high-tech library deep storage, such as UBC’s Automated Storage and Retrieval System. Yes, it’s seen as cost-effective, and even has the ever-popular green slant and humorous old man approval: from the BBC article,

“One of the things to consider is the price, it’s reasonable,” said Toshio Ishii, who at 82 years old was looking for his own grave. “And I think it will be nice to be stored with other people. It’s more fun, there’ll be company.”

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 + 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.

cremation Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology

Urn Design Comes to a Head

Death masks are so eighteenth century. Cremation Solutions – purveyor of creative cremains transformations—offer urns that look like the noggin of the dearly departed, or whoever’s head it is you want to be stored in.

Personal Urn from Cremation Solutions

I am suspicious of company names that boast “solutions,” as that implies the industry in question has all sorts of unnamed problems. But I suppose cremation does have problems, if your problem is wanting to be buried in a replica of your favorite celebrity’s head. Dilemma solved!

Working from ordinary photographs, modeling software and 3D printing can reconstruct objects—in this case, creepy heads with hollowed centers to hold ashes. From the photos on the site, it looks like the skullcap slides right off—convenient, sure, but this is an urn, not a cookie jar, and the overall product could stand looking less lobotomized. Hair is also a hindrance; it can be added digitally upon request or you can throw on a wig yourself for extra realism and remembrance.

The full-sized option at $2600 will store all the ashes of a person while the $600 keepsake urn holds only a portion of ashes. It is unclear whether the keepsake size results in a smaller compartment for cremains or in an entirely shrunken head. Either way, it is a more affordable option for those who wish to purchase multiple heads for multiple mantles for maximum soulless gazes following everyone in the room simultaneously no matter how hard one tries to hide.

I suppose in this weird world, there is a market for this product. But from the vague photos and the lack of explanation—the process more thoroughly explained, along with a description of the materials—the personal urns don’t seem particularly high quality, especially for the price. One could likely recognize an urn head as being a certain person, but it’s not terribly realistic. The question is, would you want it more realistic.

If you’d want this thing at all, probably yes. So I wouldn’t amend that preneed just yet. There’s bound to be something better soon as 3D rendering technology improves.

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.

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 + the Web

Death’s Not Dead! Leastwise Not Online

Dying is no reason to give up online social life
Richard Mullins, Tampa Tribune (May 26, 2009)

In this AP article, Mullins gives a snapshot of some of the online memorializing and alert services available from or through funeral homes or independent providers. Want your loved ones emailed reminders about your death anniversary for all eternity? No problem. Get swept up by the Rapture and need to pass on some last minute instructions, warnings and/or neener-neeners to all the heathens in your life? You’re covered.

It makes sense that our desire to express ourselves in life carries over into death—and web tech being the medium du jour, why not a virtual cemetery? Nor is it surprising that creative (and often, *ahem*, exploitative) minds look to make a buck on new trends and technology, especially when selling—or better, collecting rent on—essentially nothing for someone who doesn’t even realize it’s happening.

But it is interesting that we look to the web—a rapidly, constantly changing beast—for permanence and perpetuity. It is no small irony that the site (profiled in the article), where you can pimp your loved one’s virtual Zen Garden memorial with golf clubs and other swag (for additional fees, of course), is no longer operational.