Afterlife Burial

Jewish Burial Gets Back to the Roots

Reviving a Ritual of Tending to the Dead
Paul Vitello, The New York Times (December 13, 2010)
A new generation of Jewish volunteers is learning how to prepare a body for burial using techniques that attend to “the feelings of the dead.”

It has been a good year for people who want to re-discover the roots of Jewish funereal practices. Last March I posted a story about a documentary film which documented a group of Jewish women preparing a dead body.

What is really interesting to me is how Jewish (and Muslim) customs are being studied by non-Jews and non-Muslims for their own dead. Indeed, a good number of Natural Burial and Home Funeral proponents borrow ideas from both Islam and Judaism.

This New York Times is a variation on that theme, where non-Orthodox Jews living in Brooklyn want to learn what is done when a person dies. I also find this situation more and more, where a certain religious group suddenly realizes that most of its members do not know what to do when a member of the faith dies. I’ve spoken with funeral directors who have been asked point blank what a certain religious faith requires– from members of that faith.

Everything eventually gets sorted out but it still makes for awkward conversations.

I wouldn’t mind knowing, either, what these funeral practices look like in 1000 years.

That to me is the most important point to contemplate: what stays and what goes.

What does it all morph into since dead bodies will most certainly still be around.

Burial Death + Art / Architecture Eco-Death

Skyscraper Burial in Mumbai

Vertical Cemetery is a Greenery Clad Final Resting Place for Mumbai
Yuka Yoneda, (September 28, 2010)

We’ve posted before about vertical burial — that is, placing corpses in upright containers for burial in the ground standing up. The proposed Moksha Tower in Mumbai takes this concept to a whole new level by providing burial space in a skyscraper, giving “burial” and memorial options in a physical space while conserving precious horizontal green space that might otherwise be used for parks — or housing for the living.

While this design is clearly not in any spiritual tradition, the Moksha Tower attempts to appeal to the four major religious groups in Mumbai. According to an article from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the tower “acts as a symbolic link between heaven and earth”:

For Muslims, it provides areas for funerals and space for garden burial; for Christians, areas for funerals and burial; for Hindus, facilities for cremation and a river to deposit a portion; for Parsis, a tower of silence is located on the roof of the tower.

Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Crosses Ruled to Violate Separation of Church and State (and State)

Tenth Circuit: Utah Highway Crosses Violate Establishment Clause
Clifford M. Marks, Wall Street Journal Law Blog (August 19, 2010)

Roadside memorials involving religious symbols — invariably Christian crosses — have long caused controversy regarding their legality with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, also known as the separation of church and state. Because roads are managed by state and local governments, detractors argue that planting crosses implies a state endorsement of religion or particular religions. A 2007 district court ruling disagreed, claiming that “crosses merely [send] a secular message about death.”

This ruling was reversed on Wednesday in a federal appeals court with a case about roadside crosses for deceased Utah highway troopers — an apparent state-endorsement of religion double whammy (government employees on government property being commemorated with Christian crosses, unlike arguably slightly less controversial cases involving private citizens doing the same).

As the WSJ Law blog states, the judges held that “a ‘reasonable observer’ could conclude that the presence of the crosses amounted to a state-endorsement of Christianity” and further that

“This may lead the reasonable observer to fear that Christians are likely to receive preferential treatment from the [Utah Highway Patrol],” the judges wrote, adding elsewhere in the opinion that “unlike Christmas, which has been widely embraced as a secular holiday. . . . there is no evidence in this case that the cross has been widely embraced by non-Christians as a secular symbol of death.”

Check out the full tenth circuit court opinion (pdf).

Those who have been paying any attention at all, willingly or not, to the vitriol around present-day religion in America can be sure this won’t be the end of this and similar cases.

Afterlife Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture

Deathly Art at DIA

Anubis, God of Death

Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, has joined the ever-growing population of deathly artworks at the Denver International Airport (DIA).

Denver’s local ABC affiliate, KMGH, reports that horrified travelers are now greeted by the 26-foot tall statue upon arrival in the main terminal.

Anubis is being erected in anticipation of the Denver Art Museum’s upcoming King Tut exhibit. The jackal-headed god now joins Mustang, also known as the “Bluecifer” or “Demon Horse” statue by Luis Jimenez and Leo Tanguma’s Nazi-inspired two part mural entitled Children of the World Dream Peace.


DIA has garnered much praise and criticism over the years for its extensive public art program which has featured a wide variety of paintings, murals and sculptures, in addition to various commemorative plaques and parquetry.

Children of the World Dream Peace has probably garnered the most attention, inspiring multiple conspiracy theories about its message and meanings. With its gun-wielding, sword-brandishing, gas-masked soldier figure, you may be able to see why. The giant blue mustang with the glowing red eyes and popping black veins has also struck fear into the hearts of travelers—although more for its ominous presence—than any overtly death-inspired message. Although, the fact that the artist, Luis Jimenez, DIED from being crushed under the sculpture when it fell on him, may also add to the creep-out factor.

But now Denverites and weary travelers can gaze upon and contemplate the newest addition to the airport—Anubis—the Egyptian god of the dead and embalming. According to Ancient Egypt Online:

Anubis is the greek version of his name. The Egyptians knew him as Anpu (or Inpu). Anubis was an extremely ancient deity whose name appears in the oldest mastabas of the Old Kingdom and the Pyramid Texts as a guardian and protector of the dead. He was originally a god of the underworld, but became associated specifically with the embalming process and funeral rites. His name is from the same root as the word for a royal child, “inpu”. However, it is also closely related to the word “inp” which means “to decay”, and one versions of his name (Inp or Anp) more closely resembles that word. As a result it is possible that his name changed slightly once he was adopted as the son of the King, Osiris. He was known as “Imy-ut” (“He Who is In the Place of Embalming”), “nub-tA-djser” (“lord of the scared land”).

The interpretation and criticism of art is a heady business. Assigning meaning is never cut and dried—even when the artist him/herself explains the creation. Despite observations by sanctioned or unappointed art critics, we are all ultimately left to our own devices in this process. Much as in death, it’s a solo trip. So if you have visited or will visit the DIA and have any extreme feelings one way or another about their art collection and its possible deathly implications, drop us a line and give us your insights.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Terri Schiavo Five Years On

5 Years After Schiavo, Few Make End-Of-Life Plans
Matt Sedensky, Associated Press (March 30, 2010)

Five years ago today, Terri Schiavo died in Florida. March 31, 2005. I can’t believe that five years have already elapsed, in part because I was in the middle of finishing my Ph.D. dissertation on the dead body and also because the chapter I was working on dealt with Schiavo’s case. I had already decided to write on the right-to-die issues surrounding Terri Schiavo (in 2003, actually) but then events took a turn and the entirety of America watched her death unfold.

There is a lot more to say about Terri Schiavo and the court case(s) which surrounded her eventual death. No other human death has ever been so litigated in the American court system. In place of an indulgently long essay, here is an extremely useful Schiavo case timeline put together by the University of Miami Ethics Program.

And now, five years later, it’s hard to know how anything has really changed as it regards End-of-Life issues. What I do know is that the political battle which the Schiavo case caused has gotten less media attention but it remains a constant battle all the same.

More than anything what I think the Schiavo case demonstrated was the overwhelming sense amongst many Americans that they should be able to die as they wanted without governmental intervention. These sentiments made a mess of supposedly clear cut political ideologies, so much so that many conservatives and liberals found an issue upon which they agreed. Pro-life conservatives remained the most vocally opposed to letting Terri Schiavo die and that point has not changed.

This is death in the 21st century. And it isn’t going to get any politically simpler.

Burial Funeral Industry

Washing the Dead for Jewish Funerals

Jewish Burial Practices
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, PBS (February 6th, 2004)

Last week on the Death Reference Desk I wrote about American Muslims washing the dead body before a funeral. A friend from graduate school, Jakki, saw the post and sent me a fantastic PBS segment on the Jewish tradition of washing the dead. Jakki summed up postmortem body washing for both Islam and Judaism this way: “Jews do the same (another example of our common heritage).” And she is absolutely correct. Indeed, of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) it is the Christian Church which has moved the furthest away from washing the dead body. There are many, many historical reasons for the move away from body washing and I have a hunch that the practice might return.

Until that time, however, the contemporary practice of corpse washing falls mostly to Muslims and Jews. Check out the video linked above, and as with last week’s Muslim body washing post, note the combination of both traditional prayer and public health required protective gear.

Happy Passover to one and all.

Burial Funeral Industry

Washing the Dead for Muslim Funerals

The Washing: In the Muslim Custom of Bathing the Dead, She Found a Deep Sense of Reward — and Shaved off 40 Sins
Reshma Memon Yaqub, The Washington Post (March 21, 2010)

Modern human migration has created a real dilemma for the first, second, and third generations of immigrant children. When a relative dies, many of these young people will be called upon to handle the funeral ceremonies for the deceased. Yet, the individuals involved (most of whom will be adults by that time) don’t have a good idea about what they are supposed to do. What is the current funeral ritual? I have encountered this situation in both America and the United Kingdom. Indeed, funeral directors in both countries explain that children of immigrants often ask the funeral directors (who are thoroughly local) what to do at the funeral. As always, a good funeral director will know the answer.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a first person essay by a Muslim-American woman who was called upon to wash the body of her deceased relative. The article really quite moving. I have to say that this particular essay is one of the most interesting pieces on modern American funerals that I have read in a long time. I was particularly struck by how the author captured the mixing of traditional Muslim postmortem preparations with public health requirements, i.e., the wearing of latex gloves and face shields while washing the deceased.

I was also impressed by Reshma Memon Yaqub’s full on admission that she wasn’t entirely sure what to do but knew that she was supposed to do it.

While I was working on this post, I came across a May 2009 article from The Oregonian, entitled Islam’s ritual of washing the body bestows respect on the dead, and it lists a lot of useful information which anyone interested in global funeral rituals will enjoy reading.

More than anything, these articles point to the following truism: human migration brings cultural changes for both life and death. This is a good thing.

The world would be a much sadder place if all the funerals were the same.

Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Facebook Memorializing: What’s Church Got to Do with It?

R.I.P. on Facebook
Lisa Miller, Newsweek (February 17, 2010)

Grieving and memorializing through Facebook, along with Twitter and other sites, has faced criticism for being impersonal and superficial. Lisa Miller, religion editor at Newsweek, introduces a religious perspective on Facebook as a community space for grief:

We live in a disjointed time. Many of us reside far from our families and have grown indifferent to the habits of organized religion. More of us — 16 percent — declare ourselves “unaffiliated” with any religious denomination. …

The Christian ideal of “the community of saints,” in which the dead rest peacefully in the churchyard, as much a part of the congregation as those singing in the nave, is something any 19th-century churchgoer would have instinctively understood. In the absence of that literal proximity, Facebook “keeps the person in the communal space — the way a churchyard would,” says Noreen Herzfeld, professor of science and religion at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

All of which raises tantalizing questions: the average Facebook user has aged to 33 years old. In two generations, will the pages of the dead outnumber the living? Will our unchurched children be content to memorialize us with a quip on a “wall”? Something is gained, but what is lost in this evolution from corporeal grief (the rending of garments) to grief tagged with a virtual rose?

It’s fascinating to think of Facebook as someday having more dead than living account holders (I personally don’t think it has that kind of longevity, but hey — you never know). Though I suffer no anxiety about it, I’m also curious how online interactions compare to traditional, meatspace experiences, in individual instances and for societies over time. This isn’t a new form of grief, but a new vehicle for expressing the old grief.

I do, however, take issue with the idea of “unchurched children being content” with virtual memorials. In addition to it weirdly suggesting that Facebook is or shall become a den of heathens, it also seems to suggest that the “unchurched,” on Facebook or not, have less meaningful or are otherwise remiss about grief and memorializing.

Technological advances in communication and community do not discriminate between the religious and the nonreligious — or for that matter, those who go to church or those who identify as Christians but don’t regularly attend services. The “churched” are just as susceptible to “being content with” what contents them in every other aspect of their wired lives — including online discussions and memorials about the people they cared about.

Incidentally, that sounds like a congregation — and one that doesn’t require ascribing to a set of beliefs to participate and feel welcome. …Though you do need to agree to Terms of Service, this is generally less monumental than consigning, resigning or denying your soul.

cremation Death + the Law

UK Hindu Man is Burning Down the House

Hindu Wins Northumberland Funeral Pyre Battle
BBC News (February 10, 2010)

Hindu Man Wins Court Battle for Open-Air Cremation Pyre
Matthew Taylor The Guardian (February 10, 2010)

It has been a big week for cremation in the UK. On Wednesday, Davender Ghai, a 71-year old Hindu man from Newcastle won a landmark court case on Appeal. The Ghai case is fairly straightforward: when he dies, he wants to be cremated on an open air pyre, as opposed to inside an industrial grade crematorium furnace. Mr. Ghai is a devout Hindu so his request is grounded in religious reasons.

When Mr. Ghai first made the request in 2006, he was told ‘No’ by Newcastle officials. He then took his case to the UK Courts and kept losing until this most recent decision.

I am providing an extremely rushed explanation of the case. Burning through it, you might say. The Guardian and BBC News articles at the top explain the case history. I also wrote about Mr. Ghai’s case a few weeks ago on the Death Reference Desk.

So let’s skip ahead to why the Ghai case is important. Two important questions were pondered by the Appeals Court: 1.) What is a building, as stipulated in the 1902 Cremation Act? And, 2.) Does the mere thought of an open air pyre cause the general public mental anguish?

In a nutshell, Davender Ghai agreed to a pyre enclosed by four walls (with no ceiling) and his lawyers demonstrated that his request didn’t cause the general public mental angst. Indeed, it seems to me that this form of ‘natural cremation’ (a term cleverly invented by Mr. Ghai’s legal team) will have a huge appeal to all the natural and green burial people in the UK. How that gets managed is an entirely different question, since Mr. Ghai made his request based upon religious reasons.

More than anything, this case demonstrates that supposedly immutable death laws can be challenged and changed to encompass the world’s religions. And in the case of Mr. Ghai, his request faithfully follows the law.

Watch this video to see Devander’s Ghai’s happiness with the decision. I have never been happier for an individual’s eventual death…

Video: Devout Hindu wins funeral pyre fight – Watch more Videos at Vodpod.
Afterlife cremation Death + the Law

Open Air Cremations UK Style

Funeral Pyres judgment Reserved
BBC News (January 18, 2010)

Hindu Fights for Open-Air Cremation
Metro (January 18, 2010)

Last week, a really interesting and potentially important court case appeared before a British Appeals Court. A British Hindu man, Davender Ghai, wants permission from the Newcastle City government to have his body cremated on an open air pyre, which was banned in 2006.

There are several interesting angles to this story. First and foremost, every reason that the UK Courts have given as to why the open air cremations should not go forward is suspicious. Health and safety concerns can be easily monitored and controlled. Indeed, a health and safety officer could be dispatched to make sure that the law was followed and that the public health codes were not violated.

Perhaps the most significant (and unspoken) reason that the UK Courts have sided against Mr. Ghai is squeamishness. Given the fact that any number of UK Death Professionals (and I know of which I speak) could make sure that any open air cremation followed any and every conceivable best practice, the resulting reason seems to be that Court officials find the basic concept distasteful.

Unfortunately, that is not a legal reason to ultimately block Mr. Ghai’s funeral pyre wish.

The Appeals Court is expected to rule later in 2010.

Death + Popular Culture

Santa Muerte…Saint Death Accepts Everyone

Devotion to Saint Death
William Booth, The Washington Post (December 6, 2009)

I don’t really know a lot about Santa Muerte or Saint Death. After I read this article, I remembered seeing the various Santa Muerte statues in Mexican stores but never really thought twice about it.

Santa Muerte

This Washington Post piece (linked above) brings a whole new angle to worshiping (some use the word “cult”) Saint Death. The article also includes an amazing photo montage of the monthly Saint Death festivities in Mexico City.

And, as always, YouTube has something to contribute…

Death + Crime

Venezuelan Bone Thugs-N-Burglary

In Venezuela, Even Death May Not Bring Peace
Simon Romero, New York Times (December 10, 2009)

Caracas, Venezuela, has long had a bad reputation when it comes to crime: murder, robbery and kidnapping are commonplace ills, as well as crooked cops who cover things up. Criminals are increasingly targeting a new pool of victims — the dead — immune to murder but not kidnapping and assault.

Vandalized coffins are strewn in front of the mausoleum of Joaquin Crespo, a Venezuelan dictator, in the Cemetery of the South in Caracas, Venezuela. (Meridith Kohut for The New York Times)

Tombs are shattered and graves dug up not for treasures buried with the bodies or even for scrap metal, but for the bones themselves, which are used in rituals for Palo, a Cuban religion. The bones are said to have ancestral energy; the more important the deceased, the more powerful the bones and, presumably, the more effective the ceremony.

Skulls fetch $2000, while femurs get about $450. Meanwhile, police demand bribes from journalists wishing to cover the story and told a grieving man that it’s illegal to close his own parents’ grave (never mind opening it in the first place). Inside it, the man’s mother’s skull had been stolen; underneath her was his father, still intact and susceptible to ransack, which the man hoped to prevent by repairing the tomb.

Check out the Times video for more about Palo and the bone thievery. One palero, or Palo practitioner, claims they “do not get the bones the way people think” but gives no insight into how they do. The guy seems a bit shady, but I still gotta wonder — is Palo alone the reason for this black market of human bones? If not… what the heck is going on?