Thursday, December 18, 2008

I would like to continue the idea of objects that block the face. I don't want to repeat the crate idea, but I do want to carry that idea across in Fear. What can we use that may have the affect of the crates, but with less bulk. Maybe we just make sure parts of the face are covered. Perhaps on one person the eyes and on another the mouth. In Fools the covering the face played into themes of disconnection, isolation, and just down right foolery, but with this piece I would like it to be more of dehumanizing us, but in a way that is disturbing. Perhaps like the morose feeling one gets reading about the use of cadavers for crash test dummies and experiments talked about in "Stiff," I would like to get this same feeling seeing the fool machine cast used in this piece, without having to pander to the concept of monsters, zombies, or any of the incarnations of living dead.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Disconnected Heart

I have been reading Mary Roach's book "Stiff." Which has quickly become an inspiration for me in regards to ideas for the Fear show coming up this September. The only other book in my large collection of death tomes that has affected me as much is Phillipe Ares' exhaustive historical study called "The Hour Of Our Death" Both study death's affect on society's construct. Where Phillipe Ares' study is buried deep in ancient texts and historical literature, Roach's book is a study of the here and now. Her graphic take is submerged in humor and pathos, which I imagine is much needed to move from one dissected corpse, to discussing waters affect on body parts in plane crashes, to standing in a garden of dead bodies lying around decaying for the sake of science. One must have to find the humor in order to avoid having never-ending horrific nightmares and existential dread. She is out their "in the trenches" taking part in cadaver examinations and the observing of crash test carcasses falling from meticulously measured heights.
I am trying to figure out how to avoid the pitfall of making our section of Fear episodic in nature, which is the most used approach in neo-futurist shows, probably because we spend most of our time writing short plays for Too Much Light. The idea I have to avoid this is to have the narrative follow one member of the Fool Machine collective, not specifically as a rounded out character but as a vehicle for the study to take place. I see this person manipulated in the space by the rest of the cast. We will pursue this idea. Along these lines, I came upon this section in Stiff. The chapter explores transplants and possible soul residue from the organ's previous host. This text is from a letter a patient sent to their doctor after they had been given their life back. They had been given someone else' beating heart. I think some arresting images could be pulled from the text:
"The Consciousness of my donor's heart was in the present tense...He was struggling to figure out where he was, even what he was...It was as if none of your senses worked...An extremely frightening awareness of total dislocation...As if you are reaching with your hands to grasp something...but every time you reach forward your fingers end up only clutching thin air."
I would love to create illusions of moving away from parts of your own body, not out of body, but moving away from actual parts, this can work with the ideas around sterile deaths and our abilities to disconnect in order to save ourselves from depression, anxiety, or fear.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Coming Up for Air

This except is taken from the George Orwell book 'Coming Up for Air.' The context is that a man grows disillusioned with what his life has become and travels, or escapes, back to his hometown to revisit his youth only to discover that things have changed. He is just arriving to his old town when he stumbles upon a new grave yard and has these thoughts:

It was enormous, twenty acres, I should think. There's always a kind of jumped-up unhomelike look about a new cemetery, with its raw gravel paths and its rough green sods, and the machine-made marble angels that look like something off a wedding-cake. But what chiefly struck me at the moment was that in the old days this place hadn't existed. There was no separate cemetery then, only the churchyard. I could vaguely remember the farmer these fields used to belong to - Blackett, his name was, and he was a dairy -farmer. And somehow the raw look of the place brought it home to me how things have changed. It wasn't only that the town had grown so vast that they needed twenty acres to dump their corpses in. It was their putting the cemetery out here, on the edge of town. Have you noticed that they always do that nowadays? Every new town puts its cemetery on the outskirts. Shove it away-keep it out of sight! Can't bear to be reminded of death. Even the tombstones tell you the same story. They never say that the chap underneath them "died", it's always "passed away" or "fell asleep." It wasn't so in the old days. We had our churchyard plumb in the middle of the town, you passed it everyday, you saw the spot where your grandfather was lying and where some day you were going to lie yourself. We didn't mind looking at the dead. In hot weather, I admit, we also had to smell them because some of the family vaults weren't too well sealed.

George Orwell
Coming up for Air

I think this passage address some of the questions that have been raised about how we remove ourselves from death in our modern culture. How we satanize death in our language and space so we don't have to address it directly. Raising the question. How does shielding ourselves from death affect our attitudes about death? and for that matter, how does shielding ourselves from death affect our appreciation of life? 

Monday, June 2, 2008

Here today, canned tomorrow...

Caught this article in the Guardian and enjoy!

"Ashes of man who designed Pringles packaging buried in crisp can."

"(Fredric) Baur requested the burial arrangement because he was proud of his design of the Pringles container, a son, Lawrence Baur, of Michigan, said on Monday."

As well as this being a novel idea - it made me wonder about other people that were so proud of their accomplishments that they either chose to be buried along with something they created, or in this case, buried inside of something they created. I'm sure there's more examples that I just can't think of at the moment...perhaps the Kiss Koffin?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ghost Bike

NPR is virtually a gold mine of death-related information. Yesterday, Eight Forty-Eight reported on Ghost Bikes, a "junker bike that has been painted stark white and afixed to the site where a cyclist has been hit or killed by a car driver. Ghostbikes are intended to be memorials for the fallen and reminders to everyone to SHARE THE ROAD with one another."

To listen to the story, click here.

I've never seen a Ghost Bike. I think I would know if I had: it's bright white frame, like a ghost itself, would have inevitably caught my eye. I also think it's unfortunate that I never knew about them until now. It's a fitting, wonderful memorial to those fallen, and a reminder to all how important it is to be safe.

This is a prime example of the evolution of death practices. As more and more people ride, more get hit, and as they get hit, they are memorialized for what they were: cyclists.

More info in Ghost Bikes:

And in Chicago:

There is also an annual Ride of Silence that occurs across the country to honor those injured or killed while riding a bike. We just missed this year's ride, it happened on Wednesday night.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

capsula mundi

I luh-HUUUUUUVE this idea for an alterna-coffin. (I never thought I'd type that sentence.) Seriously, if I didn't think cremation was pretty much the way to go, I'd totes do this:

The Capsula Mundi is an egg-shaped container made of bioplastic. The body of the deceased rests in a fetal position within this capsule, which gets planted in the earth like a bulb. A shallow circular depression is dug above the capsule to symbolize the presence of the body, in the center of which a tree is planted. Over time, the groups of burial sites become a sacred memorial grove. (via Inhabitat.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hidden Truths: Chicago City Cemetery and Lincoln Park

I have been interested in exploring the history of Chicago's City Cemetery, the city's first major cemetery located in what is today Lincoln Park. It was difficult to find much of anything about City Cemetery--until this website launched. It's creator, Pamela Bannos, was interviewed on 848 this morning.

An entire website dedicated to the history of Chicago's city cemetery in 19th century Lincoln Park. Check it out. It's awesome. From the website:

From 1843 through 1859, the only graveyards in the city of Chicago were in the area of the southern edge of Lincoln Park and the neighborhood now known as the Gold Coast. This cemetery cluster consisted of the City Cemetery, the Potter’s Field, the Jewish Cemetery and the Catholic Cemetery. During these sixteen years of exclusive use, there were more than 20,000 interments.

In 1859, with the opening of Rosehill Cemetery, followed the next year by the Graceland and Calvary Cemeteries, there became additional options for burials of the deceased in the fast-growing city. In 1866, further burials in the cemeteries by the lake were prohibited. From 1860 through that time, an additional 15,000 interments had taken place in those locations.

(Burial by the lake was prohibited because graves were filling with water--as graves were dug, the water would start coming in after about 4 feet.)

In 1866, it was determined that city officials had illegally acquired a 12-acre parcel of land within the cemetery grounds, known as the Milliman Tract. For the next two years, the remains within the graves in this area were relocated to other cemeteries and the land was returned to its rightful owners. The two-year disinterment period of this section of the 57-acre City Cemetery seems to be where the history of the cemeteries’ removals becomes confused.

In 1869, the city officials passed control of the cemetery grounds, along with the northern 50-acres of unused area of the cemetery property, already used as a park, to the Lincoln Park Commissioners. The Commissioners spent the next few years landscaping the park grounds north of the City Cemetery.

In 1871, the Chicago Fire ravaged the City and Catholic Cemeteries’ grounds, effectively destroying and eliminating grave markers.

In 1872, the potter’s field disinterments commenced. The Chicago Tribune claimed the potter’s field disinterments occurred in 25 days, even though by their own calculations at the rate they estimated, it should have taken more than a year. (The ten assigned gravediggers were estimated to be able to disinter 20 bodies per day.) There were also nearly 4,000 Confederate prisoners buried in the potter’s field. In his 1999 book, To Die In Chicago, George Levy writes that many Confederate soldiers were likely left buried in what are today’s baseball fields.

In 1874, The Lincoln Park Commissioners condemned the grounds of the unclaimed cemetery lots, incorporating that area into the park. Fewer than 1,000 disinterments occurred after this point, leaving thousands buried in the park grounds.

In 1875, The Lincoln Park Commissioners removed the 150 remaining headstones with their graves to a one-acre fenced area within the park. In 1883, the stones were removed, leaving those graves in the park.

In 1877, the Chicago Tribune reported that all remaining vestiges of the City Cemetery had been removed except for the Couch Tomb, which was deemed too expensive to move. The newspaper wrote, "....the Commissioners have determined to let it remain, and plant trees thickly around it" to hide it from view.

In 1884, A.T. Andreas published the second volume of his three-volume History of Chicago. In addressing the closing of the City Cemetery, he misrepresented the 12-acre Milliman Tract disinterments, stating that those exhumations represented the entire 57-acre City Cemetery.

In 1899, the Chicago Tribune published the first story about unexpectedly finding skeletal remains in Lincoln Park. By this time, it appears that the presumption that the cemeteries had been totally vacated was incorrect.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Dead Still Walk

The dead still walk
This city,
I dreamt once that
Children burnt in a fire,
With only their arms for blankets,
Sang in the frozen night
Outside a church
While angels wept down upon them.
92 children howled and screamed
Like dying animals,
Singing for God
To let them in
Back in.

The dead still talk
In this city.
My Dad drove an ambulance
For Thompson Funeral Parlor
At 79th and Ellis
And sometimes the dead
Spoke to him through
The radio
Or called him on the phone
But when he turned
On the TV
They'd only
Stare back
Waving silently
In black and white.

The Irish dead still talk
A lot in this city.
The fog is like cigar smoke
At the foot of the lake,
And Richard J. Daley
Could always see through
The smoke.
Every wink, every nod,
Every smirk
Turned into highways,
Skyscrapers and bridges.
"I'm a kid from the stockyards--
I'll stand with you."
And he did.

Then the Irish
Licked the frosting,
Ate the cake
And sold the

Who built the pyramids?
Mayor Daley built the pyramids.

--Tony Fitzpatrick, Bum Town

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Death Test

Since I was invited to join this blog, I've been reluctant to post or to dwell too long reading these entries. Not because they're not fascinating -- but because I'm realizing that I'm sick to death of death.

I don't like to pick it apart as an academic subject, I can't stomach most artistic takes on it (movies, books, TV, theater -- but especially movies); in general, I can't treat it impartially, as if it were somehow separate from me, as a thing to dissect and ponder.

And I'm wondering, is this because of my personal experiences with death? Am I less objective, less impartially curious, because I've just been too close (as a witness, not a participant) to the dying process? Can I ever connect to it again in a way that is observational -- and somewhat aesthetically enjoyable?

So, I'm interested to know the personal death histories of this particular Death Squad. A sort of Death Purity test, if you will. Who has:

...had an acquaintance (not-close friend) or distant relative die?

...had a close friend or relative die?

...had someone in their immediate family (sibling, parent, grandparent) die?

...been to a funeral or funerals? If so, how many?

...watched somebody die?

...been on the verge of death themselves?

Thanks in advance for your answers.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wise Blood

"In his half-sleep he thought where he was lying was like a coffin. The first coffin he had seen with someone in it was his grandfather's. They had left it propped open with a stick of kindling the night it had sat in the house with the old man in it, and Haze had watched from a distance, thinking: he ain't going to let them shut it on him; when the time comes, his elbow is going to shoot into the crack. His grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger. When it was time to bury him, they shut the top of his box down and he didn't make a move.

Haze had two younger brothers; one died in infancy and was put in a small box. The other fell in front of a mowing machine when he was seven. His box was about half the size of an ordinary one, and when they shut it, Haze ran and opened it up again. They said it was because he was heartbroken to part with his brother, but it was not; it was because he had thought, what if he had been in it and they shut it on him.

He was asleep now and he dreamed he was at his father's burying again. He saw him humped over on his hands and knees in his coffin, being carried that way to the graveyard. 'If I keep my can in the air,' he heard the old man say, 'nobody can shut nothing on me,' but when they got his box in the hole, they let it drop down with a thud and his father flattened out like anybody else."

Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Smiling at Death

The following was written by a co-worker of mine in response/addition to the Chaos of Death blog. She is currently working with a group in Chicago on a performance project dealing with Afro-Cuban responses to death.

Most recently, after two weeks of scrambling, furious writing and serious proofreading, my colleague and I were awarded a large grant to produce my 2008 “dream performance.” It will use personal accounts about death, loved ones’ deaths, violence, catastrophe and aging tied into a narrative about a family that uses traditional Afro-Cuban spirituality to grapple with their heritage, family history and death of an important matriarch. Yet this post is not to explore performance ideas, but instead proposes examining the feminine orishas that will be main characters of this piece and how they might challenge our ideas of Western perspectives of death.

The Museum of Mourning Photography intrigues me as a Chicago resident. It seems very unique, how do you create a museum around mourning? In this case photography is the answer, which documents events in a way that is comforting to our contemporary society. Many envision death as the ending of a human life, and our memories and mourning center around the life of the dead. While we capture moments through photographs that we believe genuinely speak to people’s character, their essence, we still have the need to piece it all together. Thus the museum creates narratives that we hold as truth (supported by other documentation of course), which can be comforting. Marrying narratives and photographs transports us into the past, connecting our present to a not too distant past.

Perhaps this explains Catholic and Afro-Cuban (Caribbean) religious aesthetics concerning imagery of the divine. Afro-Cuban Lucumi religious images are undoubtedly influenced by Catholic saint imagery. There are great debates as to the degree that enslaved Africans syncretized these Catholic saints with their own “deities”. Without rehashing cultural anthropology from its American beginnings with Afro-Americanists like Boaz and Herskovits, and drawing on extensive field-work in Afro-Cuban religious communities in the U.S. and abroad, a narrative emerges. Africans and Afro-descendants were and are not as concerned with representing their deities with Catholic imagery as with recognizing the divine everywhere. And thus building altars, ritual costumes, statues, photographs commemorating the (divine) dead and other artistic expressions are just as important as the divine themselves for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren (etc.) of these enslaved Africans; the last of which arrived to Havana around 1886.

Yet the academic, primarily anthropological, narratives we have created around New World Afro-Cuban (Brazilian, Trinidadian, Puerto Rican, Haitian, etc.) religious aesthetics and imagery have become incredibly problematic. Like many “indigenous” religions of the world, Afro-Cuban Lucumi (Yoruba derived from Nigeria) divine forces are characterizes as a pantheon. In this “pantheon” the “gods” have clothing, attitudes, divine “powers”, colors, numbers, foods, etc. that define who they are.

The orishas become syncretized with “gods” in scholarship and in national folklore; casting Changó as a King and the “god” of thunder, lightening, masculinity and strength complimented by the Queen orisha, Oshun, “goddess” of the rivers, sensuality, sweetness, and femininity. And in this light, how do we conceptualize obscure orishas in the “pantheon” that do not have Changó and Oshun superstar status? We have to rethink the ideas of pantheon and static identities that too often characterize these Afro-Cuban divine forces.

Orishas are like many indigenous concepts of divinity where God can be seen in many divine forces of nature that concur with human nature. On this level Afro-Cuban beliefs become concur with Western Judeo-Christian monotheistic perspective on divinity. There is one God and the orishas simply help us in dealing and communicating with this complex force that interacts directly with humans.

Oyá, Obbá and Yewá are Afro-Cuban orishas of the cemetery. They govern death just as the female orishas Yemayá, keeper of the oceans and mother to humans, and Oshún, keeper of female sex organs, sexuality and reproduction, govern birth. The fact that female energies are responsible for life and death is our first departure from ancient European pantheons, which characterize the underworld as a world of men, just like the world of the living. Perhaps more importantly, it forces us to rethink Oshun and stereotypical depictions of femininity in the West and in Afro-Cuban culture and religion.

After all, Cuba, like all former European colonies and former transatlantic slave trade societies, is in the West. However, the Judeo-Christian views of death as the end of the human life and transition into Heaven or afterlife in these faiths still marks death as a departure from the human life. In fact, the human life in Christianity is what determines one’s eligibility into the type of afterlife, a somewhat unique view of death compared to indigenous cultural worldviews, which propose death itself as the token into one afterlife—usually connected to the world of the living.

In Afro-Cuban patakines or mythology, Oyá, Obbá and Yewá are not just female, they are warriors. They are among the few women who can go to battle with the men and critique male orisha power and dominance while at times even rejecting it. Oyá is the storm and cemetery gate-keeper. She is the hurricane that accompanies Changó’s thunder and lightening. Obbá, the cemetery grounds keeper, is the first and faithful wife of Changó to the extent that she cuts off her left ear as a show of devotion, only to find that another wife had tricked her into doing so. Yewá, a pristine virgin, is seduced by Changó and then aborts her child, finally fleeing to the underworld after rejecting the harshness of life among humans and orishas. She lives in the grave and is the decomposition of the body.

What powers do these divinities hold outside of their correlation with forces of nature? And are they positive? They do not bring life, but death. They do not love men endlessly yet become bitter, suffer from jealousy and envy, and are taken advantage of because they are vulnerable. They bring destruction in storms so that things may grow anew. They allow anger and bitterness to fruition into new loves and the dead to pass so that life may take its course. In Afro-Cuban mythology and religion, the human body transitions through death through the “hands” of these divine women. The spirit does not journey to an afterworld unknown to living men, yet dwells among the living: family relatives, loved ones, friends and all that they knew while alive. They continually work on earth to better humanity, using their wisdom as older spirits to enlighten the flawed world of men. Oyá, Obbá and Yewá are the keys to this transition into pure spirit, in which we still enjoy the same card games, jokes and rum that we did while alive. In mourning a practitioner might suggest that you pour the favorite drink of the loved one you miss, light a candle and sing along to their favorite tune while it plays on the stereo. And in doing so, you might crack a smile and not dread your own transition into death. Mourning is about narratives and documentation just as much as it is about the unseen, the spirit, the difficult things that are hard to write, to record or even remember. Mourning is about sadness but it is also about ritual celebration as Western Afro-Cuban culture illuminates, where divine energies and the dead are celebrated alike with dance, song, food, drink, smiles and tears continuously throughout our lives. There is a saying among practitioners: “el muerto pare el santo” meaning the dead give birth to the saints or the divine. Without the dead there is no divine, no rebirth, no living. Afro-Cubans and Afro-descendants are survivors of enslavement, injustice, oppression and continued psychological and physical violence; too many tears are shed during life to celebrate death in sadness, and so death is met continually with smiles.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Exclusive Graveyeards

Exclusive Graveyards: From the Chicago Evening Post, re-published in the New York Times March 17, 1906.

"Everybody will be pleased to know that our excellent fellow-citizens, the union men, are going to have a nice cemetery of their own, where they can be laid away without any fear of contamination from the "scabs." And now that they have acquired this comfort and degree of elegance we venture to hope that they will permit us to enjoy our own cemeteries and proceed thereto at the appointed time without unnecessary impediments or hindrances. If the union hack drivers and the union gravediggers and union casket makers will proffer us the same consideration we are willing to give to them, everything will be lovely, and our various cemeteries will exist in peace and concord."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jodie Hamilton and Mourning Photography

There were a number of things that struck a chord with me during our visit at the Museum of Mourning Photography, so many that it is difficult to chose what to write about. Like Evan, I was taken in by the many photos of mothers cradling their deceased children, their eyes fixed on the camera, the secrets of what thoughts occurred in their heads during the minutes required to take the photo now buried as deep as the dead children in their arms.

I was overwhelmed by a photo in one of the Sleeping Beauty books of a young woman seated, eyes open, book in her lap as though she has just been reading, and scrawled along the side of the photo is written "Mother not ready to let go of only daughter--photo taken after dead 9 days." According to the notes in the back of the book she had been put on ice so her mourning mother could delay burial.

Then there was this photo:

This is the Parsons family of Houston, Missouri. They were murdered by Jodie (or Joda, or Jody, depending on which source you are researching) Hamilton on October 12, 1906. It is not clear how exactly they died--or rather, there are several different versions of how they died. First Jodie shot Barney (or Carney) Parsons when he confronted him and his family on a road as they were departing Houston, Missouri. Mr. Parsons had sold his share of crops/land to Hamilton as the family planned to leave town, but apparently there was bad blood and the deal did not run smooth. Parsons and Hamilton did not like each other at all, and Parsons haggled the price until he was satisfied; clearly Hamilton was not. So after the family packed up their things and got on the road out of town, Hamilton decided to follow them and confront Parsons again. It did not go well; Jodie shot Barney Parsons, then beat him with the butt of his rifle until the patriarch of the family was dead. This is were it gets a little murky...he then beat Mrs. Parsons to death with the rifle in some accounts, in others with a pole ax. I've also read that Mrs. Parsons was pregnant. In other accounts, she was not. In some accounts he also beat the children to death, in others he slit their throats with their toy knives. He then loaded the bodies into the wagon and drove them over to Piney Creek where he threw them into the water. Not long afterward fisherman found the bodies after they had traveled some downstream. The bodies were pulled from the water, and the photo above was taken of the whole family. Unlike most mourning photos we have seen, this has details that speak to the violent deaths these people endured. Just as the dehydrated, skeletal children tell of the horrors of cholera, the Parsons family tell a tale of murder.

In this way, this photo represents for me a hybrid of sorts. It is part mourning photo, part evidence without being at the scene of the crime. They are part sleeping, part bloodied. They look at peace, but the marks upon their relaxed faces reveal that they did not know peace in death. No doubt this photo was used to provoke anger and sympathy in that small, midwestern community.

Jodie, Joda, Jody Hamilton eventually confessed to the murders, but tried to claim insanity due to a kick in the head he received from a mule as a child. The law didn't buy it. He was hanged on December 21, 1906. He was hanged twice; apparently the first attempt was unsuccessful, so they had to bring him back up on the gallows, retie the noose and try again. One the second try, he died. He was twenty years old.

The murders were featured in the New York Times. You can read the original article, published on October 15, 1906, here.

On a side note, not at all related to mourning photography but still the dead, there is another old NY Times article I found from August 2, 1902 about a gravedigger's strike that happened in Chicago. Funeral processions already in progress were turned away from the cemetery gates as a result of the strike. You can read the article here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

funeral symbols

Anthony at the MoMP was quick to point out the meaning of various symbols discovered in his photos. This made me aware of the large amount of symbols used in funerals and burials. I just never thought of it. I looked into it further and found some gems of memorial symbols. (some of which might come in handy in a covert cemetery trip)

Wheat refers to life and the Scythe refers to death. The symbols of wheat and the scythe invokes a previous discussion that we had concerning the Grim Reaper. We discussed the Scythe and to some degree we discussed wheat as as symbol of life. In this context it would make sense that the Reaper would carry a scythe, a tool to cut down the harvest, to cut down a more celestial harvest.

Symbols that refer to the affect on the family are striking to me. Perhaps because it concerns the living. Some tombstones may have a broken column. this refers to the passing of a head of a family. Presumably a Patriarch or Matriarch. A broken ring refers to the family's circle being undone. The death of an only child. The last of a line. Referring to what has not and will not continue. A weeping willow refers to perpetual mourning.

The symbol of an anchor often refers to hope. One website attributed this to Pope Clement who was tied to an anchor and drowned. Apparently the anchor was a common hidden symbol, a disguised cross. Often the chain is broken. An anchor may also be used to mark the grave of a sea faring person. However, some sites disregard this meaning entirely.

There are many references to the resurrection or eternal life. This is understandable considering that these concepts provide much hope for the mourning. An angle flying, birds, crown, a light, a torch, a star, a rooster, a lion, trumpets, bees, shell and crown all refer to the resurrection or eternal life. I am not aware of all of the subtleties between these symbols. To begin with we can make the distinction between the resurrection and eternal life. The rooster, lion and the trumpets no doubt refer to the resurrection. The trumpets and lion refers to the second coming of Christ. The rooster refers to the awakening of the dead. The angle flying, bird, crown, light, star, and torch presumably refer to eternal life as opposed to the resurrection specifically. The crown could refer to God and that the deceased is closer to God and the service of God. I would place the light, star, and torch in a category together; a continued shine of the spirit. I am at a loss as to what to make of the bees and shell.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Fashion of Mourning

I was inspired to do a little search on the stages of mourning dress, based on the caption of one of the photos at the mourning museum (something to the effect of " in so in the second stages of mourning dress..."). Anyhow - an excerpt from a good, concise website:

"The Fashion to Mourn Publicly:

The complexities of wearing mourning dress took hold as the Victorian era progressed following the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria wore her widow’s weeds for the long remainder of her life until 1901, when the Edwardian era began. Many who saw themselves as high society including those in the lower classes followed her example.

The middle classes in particular, wishing to follow and accept the higher canons of decency of the upper classes, emulated every example she set. They liked to use black edged stationery, envelopes, notepaper and visiting cards. They tied little black or purple ribbons around dressing table bottles and the like and added similar purple or black ribbons even to the clothing of infants.

Prayer books and bibles had to be bound in Black morocco leather and handkerchiefs edged in black. The list was endless, but all touches were intended to convey to the onlooker through a series of signs and symbols visual messages that the deepest feelings of sadness were felt at the loss...

Mourning Clothes and Crape

Mourning was an expensive activity and also wasteful, because it also had to be fashionable. Identical in fashion styling to the modes of the day, it used different colours and materials. When more than one death occurred in a family with little space between them, mourning clothes would inevitably be worn for several years non stop. As normal clothes were put away they would often be out of fashion by the time mourning was over so they were sometimes remodelled and often discarded.

Crape (always spelt with an ‘a’ to indicate mourning crape) was the most used fabric for mourning clothes. It was used in such vast quantities in the 1890s that Courtaulds built a textile empire on the sales of the crape cloth alone. Crape was dull looking silk gauze like a crimped and stiff textured material and mostly dyed the deepest of blacks, although white crape was used for the widow's cap.

Black was the chief mourning colour in the immediate months after a death for deepest mourning. Dull surfaced black fabrics such as crape, plain bombazine, paramatta, merino wool and cashmere were also favoured and used depending on income...

Stages of Mourning

A widow would mourn for two and a half years, with the first year and a day in full mourning. During that time pieces of the crape covered just about all of a garment at deepest mourning, but the crape was partially removed to reach the period of secondary mourning which lasted nine months. After that the crape was defunct and a widow could wear fancier lusher fabrics or fabric trims made from black velvets and silk and have them adorned with jet trimming, lace, fringe and ribbons.

In the final six months a period called half mourning began. Ordinary clothes could be worn in acceptable subdued shades of grey, white or purple, violet, pansy, heliotrope, soft mauves and of course black. Every change was subtle and gradual, beginning firstly with trims of these colours being added to the black dresses. These were the transitional mourning dresses from secondary mourning to the final stage of lesser ordinary half mourning where colours like purple and cream rosettes, bows, belts and streamers along with jet stones or buttons were introduced.

Similar rules applied for the wearing of hats or bonnets. As the mourning progressed, so the hats and bonnets became more trimmed and fancy, whilst veils became shorter until they were eventually removed altogether...

The Demise of Excessive Mourning

The fashion for heavy mourning was drastically reduced during the Edwardian era and even more so after the Great War. So many individuals died that just about everyone was in mourning for someone. By 1918 a whole new attitude had developed and this was hastened even further by the Second World War."

I think it's interesting that mourning clothing was inspired by Queen Victoria - that even one who is in the deepest stages of loss has an eye on the Who's Who of Grieving. The last image that I can remember in which fashion and image are united with grieving are shots of Jackie makes me wonder about "showing" people that you are grieving: is it done because the griever is unsure of the authenticity of their own grief therefore "watch me grieve watch me be sad I swear I loved the deceased and in watching me you wouldn't doubt that at all..." or does conforming to a sort of etiquette help the griever uphold a sense of strength and grace that they feel they've lost? Is custom and tradition in place to help us through the process of grieving?

In Asia the color for grieving is off-white - families will make clothing out of muslin. I remember when I was in seventh grade I wanted to make a kerchief to wear to the Renaissance fair and I fashioned one out of some old muslin I found in the garage. When my mother came home and saw that muslin on my head she 'bout had a heart-attack and started screaming at me. Apparently it was material she had bought for my grandfather's funeral years earlier. It really really spooked her. Yeah. My bad.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

"How I Held Her"

Examining the extensive collection at the Museum of Mourning Photography it should come as no surprise that those of children were the most striking. The children, often little more than infants and newborns, were poignant in themselves. They were still and shrunken tiny bodies sometimes captured more in death than in their short lives. Yet it was the living that caught my attention time and time again.

On the faces of the numerous grieving parents we saw, there is a seriousness that goes beyond their losses. It might be a sense of duty that they have to future memories of the deceased or a resignation to death's presence. This is not to discount the emotions that we would now most associate with the death of a child - despondency, incomprehension. Those are in the pictures too, in the blankness of a gaze, the heaviness of posture, or the gesture of a mother not just cradling her baby's body, but holding its hand as if to comfort it. Still, I perceived a sense of social obligation in these photographs. I saw (or believe I saw) people stoically determined to put aside the emotions they must have been feeling to capture the moment and their loved ones for posterity, and that is what makes this whole practice so alien.

The title of this post comes from a picture in the book Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography - American and European Traditions. The photo was of a family posing outside of their home. A daughter, probably an infant, has recently died, but the remoteness of the home prevented a photographer from reaching them before her body had to be interred. There is some indication that they lived in the hills and the daughter perished during the winter. The family is alternately seated and standing. There is a small table with them, tilted forward. There are words etched onto the photo indicating that this is the table where her body was laid out, and this was how one of the sons sat to hold her.

There is irony that the photo that sticks with me the most is one of the few where the corpse is out of sight. There were certainly others that I could choose, from the grotesque (small children who died from dehydration (likely cholera) that left them as shrunken and skeletal as concentration camp victims) to the touching (a man who climbed into the bed where his wife was laid out just to be beside her one more time). Still, it is the rural family posed to reenact how they mourned that I can't leave behind. Or rather, it is their need to recreate their last farewells for posterity even in the absence of the physical person whose memory they presume to preserve.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spring and Death

"There's a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell of either death or of spring--I hope of spring. But don't let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me. And if nothing more, invisibility has taught me my nose to classify the stenches of death."

--Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Alterna-coffins part one

Hi y'all. Thanks for adding me.

I mentioned that ReadyMade magazine (and, I think, AdBusters) did a feature on designers who did a post-modern-age challenge -- designing products for the 21st century -- and that one of the things was a kind of Fed-ex-envelope-lookin' body bag for burial. I couldn't find that article (I'll chase it down later) but I did find the digital reprint of ANOTHER article in ReadyMade about an artist who's designing alternative urns for burial:

It's made me recall some of the work I did at Lanternhouse in Cumbria - they're way into alternative funerals and other rituals (weddings, baptisms, celebrations of all kinds). In fact, when they were run by Welfare State International, they released some books called the Dead Good Guides, which are handbooks for alternative rituals and ceremonies. I have a copy of the Funeral one if anyone wants to read it.


"So I tattoo instructions on my ass / That say 'don't ever put this body in a casket / burn it and put the ashes in a basket / and throw them in the Puget Sound / I don't ever want to be underground.'" - Kimya Dawson

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Antigone and Polyneices

My first quarter of graduate school I chose Antigone as the primary source for my final paper in Intro to Graduate Study. The result is an essay about how Antigone's love for her brother Polyneices drives her to bury him in the ground, thus breaking Kreon's law and ensuring her own death. I argue that it is love and a kinswoman's duty to ensure respectful burial, not a just feminist mentality, that drives Antigone to commit her crime. My research involved burial practices in ancient Greece, the origin of Thebes, the myth of Seven Against Thebes (also known as the Theban Dead, and also immortalized in a play by Aeschylus). Also Antigone was, by the way, the first play of the Oedipus Cycle penned by Sophocles.

This is from a source article titled, "Sophocles' Antigone and the Funeral Oratory:"

"To create a democratic, this is, public funeral, the demos [a rhetorical term for the population of an ancient Greek state] appropriated rites of aristocratic funerals which its legislation had been continually restricting since Solon. The demos displayed the bones for two days...under a tent in the agora [a place of assembly in ancient Greece]. Here, families mourned their husbands, sona and brothers with whatever customs they wished. The concession to familial loss and grief, loosened from normal curbs on public display, contrasts the first two days with the rituals of the third. On the dawning of this day, no longer are the bones distinguished by the names, identities, and economic and social differences that separated individuals
in life. Now they are 'the dead'...while laws denied the family's right to bring outsiders, slaves, strangers, and paid mourners into its funerals, anyone could join in the public ceremony. Setting forth from the agora, the procession moved solemnly toward the [public ceremony]. It was perhaps escorted by hoplites [infantrymen] in full armor; the high-pitched keening of the women fills the air, soon to be superseded by the orator's sonorous words. When the dead arrive at the public cemetery, the mourners seek renewal through an oration that replaces not only the familial rites of fertility and purification but also the praise and laments sung for
individual heroes by poets."

And interestingly, the role of women in burial rites:

"During the archaic period, women exercised influence upon social and political life through their prominence in burial rites. Beginning in the sixth century, legislation was passed that sought to curb their participation and tone down the extravagance of their lamentations and displays of grief. Private funerals, formerly conducted outside and through the streets, were confined to the household. Lament by women in public was prohibited."

Further: "women were the proper agents of a traditional funeral women performed fertility rites to assure the dead a quiet rest and to purify the land for the living. Bewailing the dead, women beat their breasts, lacerated their cheeks, and called upon the dead."

Women played a major role in ancient Grecian burial, but so did the state. This was the role death played in society during Sophocles' time, and so he wrote a play the people could identify with. The people of Thebes in his play are strictly forbidden from burying Polyneices because he is considered a traitor. The proper punishment for a dead traitor is also a horrific punishment in terms of displeasing the gods and barring a soul from moving into the underworld. Burial was vital, and Polyneices was left exposed to decay and be feasted upon by animals. "The ancient Greeks had distinct methods of burial, and it was often believed if you were not provided a
proper burial along with the appropriate rituals, you were destined to suffer between worlds until your rites of passage into the underworld were completed." This is from Kristina Bagwell's website on burial rituals and the afterlife in ancient Greece, linked above. Antigone is not just a woman who defies the leader of the state, who happens to be a man. She is a sister ensuring the rightful passage of her departed brother, as is her duty to do. As she argues in the play, the will of the gods be done, not obedience to a law instituted by just one man.

"No suffering will be so terrible/as to die for nothing." --Antigone

"If you must love somebody/go down there and love the dead." --Kreon

Originally Posted by DINA

Monday, February 25, 2008

Love and Death in the Time of Antigone

Hey all,

So...I wrote a post about Antigone and funeral/burial practices in ancient Greece. But for some reason, whenever I try to post it, a large portion of my text vanishes. But, oddly, you can read the whole thing as a draft under "Edit Posts." So there you go. I'm going to leave it there, sorry for some reason I just can't get this particular post to post in its entirety.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Humans Are Dead

Special thanks to Dana Dardai...a different take on death-inspired music. He. He.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Death Inspired Music

Several weeks ago a newly released boxed set of murder ballads and disaster songs from the early years of the twentieth century called "People Take Warning!" was reviewed on NPR.

A few of the song titles:

The Fate of Talmadge Osborne
Burning of the Cleveland School
The Death of Floyd Collins
The Little Grave in Georgia
The Murder Of the Lawson Family
Fate of Rhoda Sweeten
Poor Ellen Smith
The Sinking Of The Titanic
The Unfortunate Brakeman
Memphis Flu
Tennessee Tornado

I would love to listen to some of these tracks, to experience how death cultivated art for the ears eighty years ago. They sing of death, and now dead themselves, they are memorialized in this box set and available on So it goes. People often sing of sorrow, and murder and death still rise to the surface in todays music--for some reason, "Jany's Got a Gun" comes to mind, although I am sure there are stronger contemporary examples out there--but these tunes, just from their titles, speak of an unashamed examination of death. There's no veiled language here, no metaphors, just Death, exactly as he stands. No frills, no fear. Just Death.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Respecting the Dead

Among the truly stupid things I remember doing in high school was the afternoon that I and a small group of bored, Byron-lite theatre students decided to go visit a mausoleum.

Dressed as vampires.

I said it was stupid.

Some of us only went in black clothing wearing terrible-tasting fangs and crazed expressions. At least one of us went for the full Bela Lugosi effect, with a flowing cape, pale white face paint, large white fangs over individual canines, and that trickle of blood near the corner of his mouth.

And we marched up and down the halls of the mausoleum as if we owned the place, as if the whole thing was some kind of monument to the characters we were playing, ignoring the obvious fact that vampires visiting mausoleums on a bright spring day would doubtless have burst into flames between the parking lot and entrance. Ultimately, one of the attendants chased us down and threw us out, telling us we should be ashamed of ourselves for our lack of respect for the dead.

Think about that phrase: "Respect For The Dead."

It's the idea that simply by finishing your natural term of conscious existence you will have earned a sort of nebulous admiration from those of us who remain living. We are asked to show reverence for one's state of death even though it is in fact nothing special, even though it is the one thing that unites every living creature that has ever existed on this planet. We go to funerals that overflow with silence, because noise would be disrespectful, apparently, to the one person in the room for whom noise no longer means anything.

I'm not excusing the behavior of myself and my youthful pre-goth peers. The mausoleum staff had every right to throw us out for making a nuisance of ourselves. My point is that the attendant wasn't demanding that we show more respect to the dead, he was asking that we show more respect to the living, to the actual grief felt by the people who were there to wade in the memories of their loved opposed to those who just showed up to clown around in bloodsucker clothing.

That's what he was asking, but he said we should Respect the Dead.

Why? Why is this phrase so prevalent? Why can't we agree that showing some reverence for a living being's emotional turmoil is on its own a reasonable request? Why drag the dead into it?

Is it an attempt to use fear as a disciplinary tactic--to threaten the offenders with retribution by restless spirits--because merely pointing out the pain you cause others isn't as effective a declaration? Is it in fact a personal, internal fear, that the disturbances caused by others will lead to these same spirits going after you?

A number of famous stories and films have been made on the subject of disturbing the sleep of the dead and the consequences thereof. I can't think of even one story as famous in which characters only disturb the grim solace of the bereaved living and suffer as a result.

Buddhist Meditation Part 2

(The following is the meditation on death from "Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh -)

"Bhikkhus, imagine a sack which can be opened at both ends, containing a variety of grains: brown rice, wild rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, white rice. When someone with good eyesight opens the bag, he will review it like this: 'This is brown rice, this is wild rice, these are mung beans, these are kidney beans, these are sesame seeds, this is white rice.' Just so the practitioner passes in review of the whole of his body from the soles of the feet to the hair on the top of the head, a body enclosed in a layer of skin and full of all the impurities which belong to the body: 'Here is the hair of the head, the hairs on the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.'

This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body; observation of the body from within or from without, or from both within and without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, 'There is a body here,' until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice observation of the body in the body, O bhikkus...

As a skilled butcher or an apprentice butcher, having killed a cow, might sit at the crossroads to divide the cow into many parts, the practitioner passes in review the elements which comprise his very own body: 'Here in this body are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.'

This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body; observation of the body from within or from without, or from both within and without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, 'There is a body here,' until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice observation of the body in the body, O bhikkus.

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground and lying there for one, two, or three days, bloated, blue in color, festering, and he observes, 'This body of mine is of the same nature. It will end up in the same way; there is no way it can avoid that state.'

This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body; observation of the body from within or from without, or from both within and without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, 'There is a body here,' until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice observation of the body in the body, O bhikkus.

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground, pecked at by crows, eaten by hawks, vultures, and jackals, and infested with maggots and worms, and he observes, 'This body of mine is of the same nature, it will end up in the same way, there is no way it can avoid that state.'

This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body; observation of the body from within or from without, or from both within and without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, 'There is a body here,' until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice observation of the body in the body, O bhikkus.

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; it is just a skeleton with a little flesh and blood sticking to it, and the bones are held together by the ligaments, and he observes, 'This body of mine is of the same nature. It will end up in the same way. There is no way it can avoid that state.'

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; it is just a skeleton, no longer adhered to by any flesh, but still smeared by a little blood, the bones still held together by the ligaments...

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; it is just a skeleton, no longer adhered to by any flesh nor smeared by any blood, but the bones are still held together by the ligaments...

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; all that is left is a collection of bones scattered here and there; in one place a hand bone, in another a shin bone, a thigh bone, a pelvis, a spinal column, a skull...

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; all that is left is a collection of bleached bones, the color of shells...

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; it has been lying there for more than one year and all that is left is a collection of dried bones...

Further, the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; all that is left is the dust which comes from the rotted bones and he observes, 'This body of mine is of the same nature, it will end up in the same way. There is no way it can avoid that state.'

This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body; observation of the body from within or from without, or from both within and without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, 'There is a body here,' until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice observation of the body in the body, O bhikkus.

- end of meditation

I couldn't believe my luck when I found this meditation on death to follow up on my december blog post. I wasn't even looking for it. Serendipity + death = one happy buddha.

But in all seriousness - when I read through this for the first time, I was struck by the sheer length of it, as well as the detail, and I thought it was incredibly morbid. Good lord. You want me to sit in the lotus position and meditate on charnel ground and ligaments and smeared blood and cows by the side of the road for how long?...but then the repetition, and the tempo of the prose started to do its work and everything fear-based fell away. The thoughts and the details fell away and all that was left was...a little bit of humor, and a realization that THAT is all it is...details.

I also appreciate the awareness of the simultanaiety of the "process of coming-to-be" and the "process of dissolution". This is a theatrically sophisticated meditation.

I remember the conversation we had at the last meeting; I mentioned that I thought all this study on death would have a negative effect on my emotions but that in fact it was taking away my fear. And John said something about studying death to learn to be as present as possible.
So I would like to try this meditation, to sit in my stewy body while someone reads this to me. Anyone interested?

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Lasts of the Lines

Some deaths clearly represent more than others. Though disruptions to particular lives might be great, most individuals pass without causing anything approaching epochal perturbations to the worlds they leave behind. Conversely, the deceased rarely carry the weight of cultural tradition and continuity into the Beyond. Even the deaths of world political and religious leaders don’t cause societies to cease to function for any real period of time. Certainly nations may mourn, people may intensely reflect, and power struggles may ensue, but daily rituals resume, memories persist, and life goes on. Except when it doesn’t.

One question that has come to mind now and again as part of this project is how to get an audience to move beyond simply the death of an individual (or even large groups of individuals) to experience those rare instances when much more than a body and life goes to the grave. What does it mean when a sizeable piece of supposedly collective memory, a language, or even an entire culture dies with a solitary person? What happens when the things known and experienced by the dead cannot even be comprehended by any other living soul on earth. What does the individual experience when they look forward to see the inevitable and look back and side to side-to-see that they are truly the last of a line? As performers, writers, and researchers is there anything we can do to convey that experience to an audience?

* * * * *

This has nothing whatsoever to do with I Am Legend. I did not see the movie, though I read the book years ago and can imagine it could fit with the theme. The initial inspiration for this post was a story that I remembered coming out of Canada about a year ago. Six hundred sixteen thousand six hundred and thirty-six Canadians fought in the First World War. As of the November 2006, there were three left alive, all over age 105. As the disappearance of this generation approached, the Canadian Parliament passed a resolution to hold a state funeral for last surviving veteran. By February '07 Lloyd Clemett died, leaving only two. Percy Wilson died a few months later. This left only John Henry Foster Babcock, 146th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.

If you think that seemed like a morbid sweepstakes to win, you weren't the only one embracing it. A survey taken in Fall 2006 found that 75% of Canadians were in favor of the state funeral. It seemed a venerable way to commemorate the loss of a direct connection to a significant moment in the nation's history. The problem was that none of the veterans alive at the time of the resolution's approval wanted the honor. The three agreed that bestow the honor on one could not possibly commemorate all of them. The deeds and death of one could not possibly carry the weight of all that history and experience. (To make matters more intriguing, Babcock never saw action and has actually lived in Spokane, WA since the 1920s. He will die an American citizen.)

* * * * *

Two much more dramatic examples of cultural extinction come to mind. The first is that of Dolly Pentreath who died in her home in Mousehole, Cornwall, England in December 1777. Dolly is widely acknowledged as the last native speaker of Cornish on Earth. There were no documented native speakers after her death, though the language has survived in snippets and revival attempts in the centuries following her death. One estimate has the total number of fluent, non-native Cornish speakers at 300.

Much has been mythologized about Dolly Pentreath. Stories abound about the fish-wife (though she never married an actual man) and her cursing, beer drinking, and pipe smoking. Most of all there was her refusal to use anything, but Cornish though she spoke English. Legend has it that her final words were "Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!" ("I don't want to speak English!").

Regardless of the specific truths behind Dolly lore, it does seem as if she knew that she may be the last true speaker of her beloved Cornish. This was largely due to her story being recorded in-person by antiquarian Daines Barrington. It is certainly possible that Barrington found her by chance and not because she was the true last speaker. Nevertheless the question remains: how might we convey to an audience the understanding of death by someone facing death not only as a human, but as the carrier of a tradition and culture they hold to so fiercely.

* * * * *

San Nicolas was home to a tribe of Native Americans about whom little is known. They probably spoke a language from the widespread Uto-Aztecan family, but when The Lone Woman of San Nicolas was eventually brought from the island to the mainland at the request of missionaries, none of the local Indian translators were able to communicate with her. The decline of the San Nicolas population probably began shortly after contact with Europeans in the 17th century due to disease and/or resource and trading pressures brought by the settlers. A crisis point was reached between 1810 and the mid-1830s as fleets of Russian and Aleut fur trappers hunting the island's large seal population sparred more frequently with the indigenous population. In 1835, missionaries evacuated everyone from the island, except one 20-something woman who was believed to be missing her child.

The woman was baptized as Juana Maria in the final weeks of her life. For the 18 years prior she lived alone on the island of San Nicolas, about 50 miles off the coast near Los Angeles. She was finally brought from the island by Captain George Nidiver. Because no one was able to communicate with her beyond crude sign language, we do not know what life was like alone on the island or how she reacted to being the last of her people to live any semblance of a traditional life on their ancestral island.

It does appear that she lived reasonably well under the circumstances. She was described as being in good health and eagerly interacted with Capt. Nidiver and his crew. Further, she was said to be "astonished and delighted" by the "civilization" she found on the mainland, perhaps indicating that she may have believed that she would never see people or society again. Sadly, she contracted dysentery shortly after reaching the mainland and never recovered. She would die under the care of Capt. Nidiver's wife, but without any knowledge of the fate of her people and with an unknowable sense of her place in her people's history.

Where in the World is Carmen Santiago's Body

(Heath Ledger's apartment, NYC)

Here's an little interesting Google Map mash-up of where various celebrities died in NYC.

I remember seeing a similar map mash-up indicating the various cemeteries where celebrities' bodies are located but I have to say that I've never really responded to any of this cemetery stuff. The actual location of a death seems far more intriguing to me than the sites where we sanitize it all with our rituals.

(New Orleans' home, owner unknown)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lady Bluebeard

Yesterday there was a really fascinating article on the front page of the Chicago Tribune about Belle Gunness, also known as "Lady Bluebeard," a serial killer who lived on a farm near La Porte, Indiana in the first years of the twentieth century. The article focuses on a student forensic anthropologist's attempt to uncover whether the body currently buried in Belle Gunness's grave is, in fact, Belle Gunness. This is another side to How the Dead Speak; only this time, the subject is a serial killer.

Gunness was a wealthy Norwegian widow who lured suitors to her quiet farm via charming and explicit love letters, promising marriage. When a suitor arrived at her home, she fed them a hefty old-fashioned Norwegian meal laced with strychnine, waited for them to die, then took them to the cellar where she would then dismember the body and bury the remains in the hog pen.

The world came to know Belle Gunness when her farm burned to the ground in 1908, allegedly killing her and her three children. Her body, however, when discovered, was headless. A relative of one of Belle's many doomed suitors was the one who insisted that authorities search the property for bodies. They did, and they found more than just one body:

They found 11. It is estimated that Belle Gunness killed as many as thirty people during her lifetime. From the article:

Gunness' first husband and two of their children had previously died unexpectedly after suffering from symptoms of poisoning. She collected life insurance on all three. A week after Gunness remarried, her new husband's baby from a previous union was dead, Simmons said. Several months later, her husband died when a sausage grinder allegedly fell on his head. Again, she collected life insurance.

She became a legend, labeled by the nickname "Lady Bluebeard." Rumors swirled for years after the fire that Belle's "body" was someone else's, and she had faked her death. That is what this forensic anthropologist is trying to find out. I can't wait to find out too. Did she fake her death, or did she die? The alleged body of Belle Gunness has been exhumed, and its headless remains are being examined, and DNA pulled to compare to DNA in the saliva Belle left behind on one of her love letters to a victim. He had opened the envelope with a letter opener, thus the preserved DNA.

Above all, it amazes me that I never heard of this story before--that a serial killer was discovered not very far away in La Porte, Indiana (which I have visited), only twenty five or so years after Dr. H. H. Holmes confessed to murdering 27 people, although he may have murdered many more. H.H. Holmes is the subject of Erik Larson's book Devil in the White City. When I think of Holmes and Gunness, I think of how killing must have brought them some form of joy; a pleasure that ordinary life cannot bring, but rather bringing the end of life. Perhaps it brought them peace, as if fulfilling some void that other humans possess naturally. Or maybe it was just power.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Incense and Nakedness

Though this isn't something I read or watched, it was something that I thought was a fantastic story. My uncle just passed away last week, two days before the Asian New Year. Sunday was his funeral, I was unable to go because it was in California.

Anyhow, my brother was standing outside with my aunt, uncle, and cousin, and this is how that conversation went (P.S. it was a Buddhist funeral):

Brother: Uncle Ted, are you okay?
Uncle Ted: (Wiping eyes) Yeah, I just can't handle the incense. It drives me crazy.
Crazy Aunt: Yeah, I can't stand it in there! Do me a favor, when I die, forget all this fucking chanting. Just throw me a fuckin' party!

Disillusioned Cousin #4058: If I have an open casket, I want to be buried naked. Just let it all hang out...

(sound of gong)

Anyhow - actual post to follow re: some more Buddhist death deliciousness.

Monday, February 11, 2008

When all tomorrows are laid to waste

What if I said that [the boy i]s a god?

The old man shook his head. I'm past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You'll see. It's better to be alone. So I hope that's not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it's not true. Things will be better when everybody's gone.

They will?

Sure they will.

Better for who?



Sure. We'll all be better off. We'll all breathe easier.

That's good to know.

Yes it is. When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: Where did everybody go? And that's how it will be. What's wrong with that?

- From The Road by Cormac McCarthy (pp. 172-3)

Meeting notes 2-3-08

Meeting Time: 2/3 Super Bowl Sunday, at Konak’s
Attending: John Pierson, Luke, Kurt, Jessica Anne, Tanya, Peter

*The Giants won. We toasted, insincerely, with a “yay.”

- The latest posting on the blog before this meeting was Kurt’s, about firing squads. Kurt found some information on firing squad statistics and techniques from all over the world, particularly in Thailand, where they set up a canvas screen that one officer shoots through, while the accused is tied with his hands above his head, on a cross.
- John brought up “GUILT” as a possible theme for shows. Specifically, looking at the audience as “judge.” This fits in with Ryan’s idea of giving the audience a task, or journey, that they go through during the performance (“Your task is to ‘survive’ the following experience.”)

*I have written “audience’s experience as separate.” Anyone know what that is in reference to?

- John proposed an “action item:” to encourage the comment section on the blog as chances to relate personal, first-hand experiences with death, whereas the post areas are mainly dedicated to factual, read information. (I’d amend that in retrospect, considering Dina’s very excellent posts concerning her friend’s mother’s death, which is a very immediate and complicated story, which does need the space as a main post; more discussion about this later? - Kurt)

- Tanya made a connection between the steps of death (decomposition) and the steps towards acceptance when in mourning.
- possible exploration of these steps; “itemizing” the steps, looking at each one as individual inspiration for stage pictures, themes, etc. Also good material for physical workshops? “translating those steps into physical space”

*Note: Tanya has access to a cold, cold, cold roof.

- this seems to be a common reoccurrence in discussion. Worth looking into more deeply. John assigned Kurt the task of getting his words together regarding this theme.
- performance idea: create the setting of the death of an audience member
- maybe Peter’s delay camera can be used for this

- Discussion about the “Sterile Room,” a performance idea where individual audience members are analyzed, objectively, as bodies. The staging of this would be “hospital-like”, surgery room-ish, where the performers are in an enclosed (curtained?) space with the lone audience member. This form will continue to be discussed by the collective.

- Continue to stray away from death as a morbid idea, and look at it in a “positive” light, or at least that which gives meaning/joy/appreciation/whathaveyou to life. Peter comments on Greek mythology, where the gods are jealous of man, because they are able to die, so their life is that much more meaningful (and that’s why the gods fuck with people.)

*performance idea: Book of Death – recording dates of birth for the audience, lining them up and having them record their birth and death in a kind of logbook

- exploring the clean up of death, what is done to “change the room” when there is a death. Luke brings up personal story of his friend (“Eugene sent me a text message that our friend had been eaten by an alligator”)
- Peter comments on a specific industry that cleans up after people who have died alone.

*I have written: “box of last thoughts that you would have before you died”. Anyone know what that is?

*performance idea: eulogies, and living wakes for audience members

*I have written “cheese death” Anyone? Anyone at all?

-- Jessica comments on the box of ashes, and there is some discussion as to what it is that goes into the box, by the time the family gets it (teeth?bone? hair?)

- Some discussion on the state of the audience as they go through the performance event. “They’re dead from the get-go,” or the idea that the audience members should be going through the experience as an objective body. We should continue to differentiate between “death” and “dying”; the difference between death through the perception of being dead, and death through the perception of being alive

-- NEXT MEETING we should have some carpenters there that can help with making the audience boxes

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And Immortality.

We slowly drove - He knew not haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his Civility -

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess - in the Ring -
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain -
We passed the Setting Sun -

Or rather - He passed Us -
The Dews drew quivering and chill -
For only Gossamer, my Gown -
My Tippet - only Tulle -

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground -
The Roof was scarcely visible -
The Cornice - in the Ground -

Since then - 'tis Centuries - and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity -

--c. 1863


Bereavement in their death to feel
Whom We have never seen -
A Vital Kinsmanship import
Our Soul and theirs - between -

For Stranger - Strangers do not mourn -
There be Immortal friends
Whom Death see first - 'tis news of this
That paralyze Ourselves -

Who, vital only to Our Thought -
Such Presence bear away
In dying - 'tis as if Our Souls
Absconded - suddenly -

--c. 1862

Friday, February 8, 2008

And PT Barnum wanted her Leg

So I am reading a book about the Banquet Years in France. And like it was with Fools where everywhere I look I saw crates, now everywhere I look I see DEATH. That is no surprise, because death IS everywhere, sometimes we just don't want to look too closely. Anyway, this picture is of Sara Bernhardt. Is this a photo of her dead in a coffin, does it belong in the Mourning Museum? No. She is alive! Sarah was given a coffin by a fan while she was in France. Supposedly he said he would buy her anything and she asked for a coffin, and he gave her one. She was said to carry that coffin with her on tours. She wouldn't normally sleep in it, but it sat at the end of her bed until her real death. What I don't know is if she was actually buried in this coffin. I must investigate.