A group of seniors in New Zealand were dismayed by the cost and impersonality of coffins, and so decided to build their own. To their surprise it became a joyous pasttime, one that would not only save them and their families money but which also demonstrated that facing your own death head on and with humor is one of the most life affirming things you can do. This super short documentary will brighten your day, coffins and all.
I’ve long been fascinated with how societies treat their dead. From the mummies in Egypt to the mummies in Peru, the funerals held in the home to those held in funeral homes, how we treat our dead says interesting things about our relationship with death. Recently I’ve read three articles about how we treat dead bodies that were fascinating windows into three different views on death.
The first is this article from National Geographic on the close relationship between the living and the dead in Toraja, Indonesia. When a family member dies, they are kept in the house for an extended period of time, sometimes years, and treated as a sick person. The family will bring them food, talk to them, touch them, and wash them. When they eventually hold a funeral, it’s a huge and elaborate affair, complete with animal sacrifice of a number of buffalo to help the spirit on its way into the afterlife. The body is then interred in a crypt or a nearby cave, next to other family and community members. But even then the physical relationship between the living and the dead isn’t over; periodically the bodies are disinterred, washed, dressed, and greeted with joy by family and friends.
The second article is from the Guardian about how medieval villagers smashed skeletons to keep them from rising from the dead. Societies in many places and at many times have been known to mutilate the dead to prevent them from becoming the undead. From the New England vampire panic, where 19th century Americans burned the organs of suspected vampire corpses to end a tuberculosis epidemic, to the Tibetan practice of sky burial, where corpses are hacked up and offered to the vultures so the dead body cannot be inhabited again, humanity has often feared what happens after death. To these people, bodies represent a very real threat, and if the corpses were in any way still their loved ones, then those loved ones were now evil.
The third article is this one from Hyperallergenic, about photographer Robert Shults’s series of photographs of decomposing bodies at the body farm at Texas State University. A body farm is a facility where donated corpses are laid out in various environments and then monitored to see how specific circumstances affect decomposition. The data is then used by forensic scientists to assist in determining time of death in cases where a victim has been dead for a while before being found. While most people in our society would likely have a visceral aversion to actually viewing these bodies, for the most part there is no fear that they will reanimate, or that they pose any true danger. Indeed, Shults’s photographs are beautiful, despite their morbid subjects. He, along with those in search of this knowledge and those who donate their bodies, see death as an opportunity for learning, and decomposing bodies as tools for science and justice.
I will admit that all three of these views of death and corpses evoke a certain sense of discomfort. But that in itself is indicative of the society I am part of. Death in the majority of modern day America is hidden away, the contact with corpses severely minimized. So we have a strong reaction against anything that has to do with death, and we cannot abide even the thought of dead bodies. And I think it’s important to challenge that innate cultural belief. We have much to learn from how human beings, now and throughout history, faced mortality and related to our dear departed.
When it comes to what to do with your loved one’s ashes (or, as we were required to say when I worked for a funeral home, cremated remains or “cremains”) there are a lot of choices. You can bury them, put them in a niche or columbarium, keep them in an urn on your shelf, scatter them in a meaningful location, turn them into a diamond, mix them with concrete and help form a reef, and many, many more. What I find interesting about Chronicle Cremation Designs is how they can turn ashes into objects you use everyday. While they do offer urns and jewelry, their mugs and bowls and vases aren’t meant to be kept on a shelf or worn as precious adornment. You drink from the mugs, put fruit in the bowls. You have your loved one right there as you live your life, as a part of your life. It can be a tender way to memorialize, a way to remember that the person you loved is still with you, every day, even if in a different way.
Just a friendly reminder that too much of anything can kill you. Even water. And chocolate. And pot. Although apparently it takes an absurd amount of pot to kill you. Enjoy!
Twins have been a source of fascination for centuries. They trigger the sense of the uncanny in us that’s brought on by doppelgangers, doubles that displace us or commit atrocities that are then ascribed to us (our “evil twin”). In some cultures twins are thought to not have souls. In others they are liminal beings with special connections to the supernatural. This is manifest in the common belief that twins are psychic, able to hear each others’ thoughts and tell when the sibling is harmed or killed.
I am fascinated by the idea that this psychic connection doesn’t end at death, and a person who has lost their twin has one foot in the hereafter. I’ve written stories with this premise, and one of the potential sequels to my novella Haunted explores the idea in more depth. It’s a comforting thought in a lot of ways, that our ties with the people we are closest to do not perish when we do. And who can be closer than a twin?
Many cemeteries have columbaria, rooms or buildings with niches where cremation urns may be placed. Often these niches have glass fronts, and in addition to urns people place objects that represent the identity and life of the deceased. The above image is photographer Dan Bannino’s idea of what Alice Cooper’s niche might look like. As you can see, there are things that we would expect … the busts with his iconic eye makeup … and things we might not, such as the golf club and gloves that reveal a hobby that seems antithetical to our idea of a shock rocker.
What would fill your niche? It’s a hard thing to think of, because how could a life fit inside such a tiny space? Maybe mine would have yarn and knitting needles, a skull, a pen and ink, a TARDIS, pictures of my kids, copies of my books. Maybe a crucifix, a Red Sox cap, a Yale pennant. A guitar. A work by Dali. It’s a difficult task, which is reassuring, since it means that our lives cannot be merely boiled down to what fits in a hole in the wall.
[If you would like to see other photographs in this series by Dan Bannino, you can find them here.]
I love cemeteries, in part because monumental art is often strikingly beautiful. It’s a shame that so many cemeteries nowadays only allow flat, flush to the ground markers. It’s part of our larger cultural issues with death. Time was funerals were held in the home, and families would picnic in cemeteries on Sundays. Now we push death away, hold it at arm’s length, keep it sterile. Funeral homes take much of the burden off grieving families. And a flat marker is simple, easy for the groundskeepers to just mow right over. But what do we lose in order to gain convenience?
I first saw this video several weeks before the album was released, before David Bowie died. From the moment I heard the song and saw the video, I was entranced. The ghostly repetition, the frantic saxophone, the quakers and the jeweled skull, it’s an intriguing world with intriguing symbolism.
I was shocked when David Bowie died, because I had just seen this video. What terrible thing could have happened just when his new album came out? Then I found out that he had cancer, and I was again shocked, but also awed. The world in this video was David Bowie’s world, and the symbolism was death…but also an immortality that comes when those who love your work carry it forward. David Bowie turned his death into a work of art, and the world takes up the jeweled skull he has laid at its feet and carries it forward.
Dave Matthews’s music frequently meditates on the fleeting nature of life. My favorite is this song from his solo album, where our narrator is considering the lives bracketed by the dates chiseled onto tombstones. He both recognizes that he will one day join them in the ground and clings to the denial of mortality; he begs to not be taken all six feet down, so that he can still feel, still be alive. Of course, the gravedigger treats all the same, from the little boy who died on his bike to the grandpa who lived “forever” to 103.
I’ve chosen the live recording of this song, because Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds are acoustic heaven together.