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escorted by hoplites [infantrymen] in full armor; the high-pitched keening of the women fills the air, soon to be superseded by the orator's sonorous words.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.

Che Guervara’s corpse and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Last Man to Ever Let You Down

This is a wonderful article from last summer published in the Chicago Reader about Wunder's Cemetery and it's current and past caretakers. It is glimpse into a caretaker's world: check it out. Here are some lovely photos from the article:

The 27 Club

I am posting this on behalf of John Szymanski

There has been a large number of (predominantly rock) musicians over the years that have all died at the age of 27...which, in some circles has been dubbed "The 27 Club". There is even a Wikipedia article on this very subject, as with most other subject of great importance.

The first four musicians in this group all rose to fame in the 1960s, and have achieved quite a good level of, shall we say, immortality!

-Brian Jones, 1941-1969, drowned in his backyard swimming pool
-Jimi Hendrix, 1942-1970, died of asphyxiation of vomit after overdose of sleeping pills
-Janis Joplin, 1943-1970, heroin overdose
-Jim Morrison, 1943-1971, unknown causes, though rumors of heroin and heart failure abound

The list however, also includes:
-Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994, self inflicted gunshot wound
-Robert Johnson (bluesman), 1911-1938, either strychinine poisoning or gunshot
-Alan Wilson (Canned Heat), 1943-1970, overdose
-Pete Ham (Badfinger), 1947-1975, suicide by hanging
-Chris Bell (Big Star), 1951-1978, car accident
-d. boon (Minutemen), 1958-1985, car accident
etc etc.

What is it about the age of 27 that causes or influences so many deaths of musicians? Of course, one could look at it as a major coincidence, and say "hey, there's plenty of musicians who died at any age!", but it's also tempting to thing there's some sort of karmic or other spiritual or devilish spirit at play here. Excuse me while I find my black light and fuzzy Hendrix poster...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Last night I attended Nancy's wake. I have not been to a wake in over ten years. I think that makes me a very lucky person. The funeral home was in Homer Glen and the drive there was dank and moist with clouded fog that crowded the road we traveled on. When we began our trek there my mom said from the back seat, almost to herself, "this is what it was like outside when my sister died." We could barely see ten feet ahead of us, like we were shrouded from the rest of the world, or like we had driven away from the world, or the world chose to hide itself from us.

There were a lot of people there, a lot of family, a lot of friends; Nancy's family, however, stood on one side of the room whereas her husband's family stood on the other. There was much tension in the room, but thankfully no arguments. There were pictures of Nancy posted to boards, the boards mounted on easels. The photos spanned her entire life. I also looked through her wedding album. It was 1974 when she got married and she looked so young, and she looked very happy. She was married in the same church her daughter was married in only three months ago and where her funeral was held this morning. At the end of the large room, she lay in an open casket.

Before I even knelt before her I started crying. The grief came very suddenly; looking at her laying there, so still and painted over, seemed incredibly unfair to me. She was such a good woman. When I did kneel before her, I couldn't even pray. I'm not a religious person, but wanted to pray something for her. I wanted to say something to the God I believed in for her. But I started choking and I couldn't think of anything but "sleep."

Then I felt a presence and looked to my right. My best friend's mother-in-law stood there, only a few feet from me, waiting her turn. She was too close, like if only she had been a foot further away I wouldn't have felt like my space had been violated. I don't think she knew, but then I felt rushed and got up. I didn't really give Nancy a good look. I couldn't really. Cancer had whittled her body away to nothing; she wore the red wig she bought after all her hair fell out; she wore her glasses; the dress she wore to both her son and daughters weddings. After I got up, my best friend and I looked at the top of Nancy's red-wigged head and talked about how good she looked. That's what I do remember about funerals, especially all the open casket Catholic funerals I went to as a child. They would say, oh, so and so looks good. They did a good job. So and so looks so peaceful, don't they? It's the nice thing to do. And Nancy did look good, for having died in the condition she was in.

Thankfully, though, my friend said, "her mouth is a little stretched and weird."

I said, "Yeah." I looked at her. "But otherwise..."

"Yeah, otherwise, she looks good."

There were cookies and cakes and chips and dip and sodas and water in the other room. I had a flashback from my grandfather's wake; I was twelve and wandered into the lounge where my father's sisters sat smoking and grieving. I remember hovering at the doorway for a moment, wandering what my place was in the whole situation. I didn't want to intrude on a grief I didn't yet fully understand, let alone feel. I remember being bored, but feeling guilty about the boredom.

After about two hours, we got back in the car and went home. I thought of my friend, and was amazed by how well she was holding up. I knew Nancy for all these years because I am her daughter's best friend, and I could barely keep myself together. Or maybe, it's just that she only lets go when she is by herself.

Death of a father, pt 1.

Two weeks ago, at about this time, I received a phone call alerting me that my father was dead. It was not a total surprise – he had been battling multiple myeloma (a rare cancer of the plasma cell) for almost 3 years.

Thirteen hours previous, my sister called my workplace to tell me to get prepared, because he was obviously dying. I prepared by immediately going to my apartment, and booking a one way flight. I wanted to see him before he left us, and I wanted to stay with him until he was gone.

I didn’t make it.

Loosing someone that has always been a fundamental element in ones life… I find it incredibly confusing. My grieving process is a slow and methodical one, avoiding any public displays, and perhaps that puts me at a loss. I’m sitting here wondering how very long it will take for me to reality to settle in. There were years of yo-yo health combined with chemo treatments, broken bones, radiation, stem cell transplants, dialysis, transfusions, medications, medications for the effects of other medications, watching a once strong man become frail. I thought that seeing his body at the wake would give me a sense of finality to all of that. But it didn’t. His septum was crooked, and he was waxy bronze with thick, unnatural make-up. His lower torso disappeared inside of a box like a stage magician trick, his wedding ring was gone, and he was far to still. It obviously was not him.

So I’m confused. I know that something major has changed. I can tell by the way that people gaze at me sympathetically, gently touch my arm, hug me with more meaning, awkwardly look away. And I have to remind myself that they are doing this because the one continuous male presence in my 31 years of life just doesn’t exist anymore. There is only stark, vacant space where he used to be.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Undertaking

A lot of my excerpts have been from Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker, and one of my new favorite writers. This is a short excerpt of a PBS special called "The Undertaking" - which focused on Lynch. I like hearing his voice, and his poetry.

The entire episode can be watched here:

Meyers and Chopra Talk Death

I was watching Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel with Mike Myers and Deepak Chopra. They talked about death quite a bit. Three really good stories that I hope I can remember properly.

One was Chopra going to deliver his father's ashes to the River Ganges. A man comes down and asks him questions about his father and his family in order to record them, as is tradition. So, Chopra and the man go inside the building where these records are kept. The man shows him that his father did the same thing for his parents. And, if he wished, Chopra could leave a note for his own children when they did the same for him. He did. Now, when his children go to place his ashes in the Ganges, they can view a message from their father, wishing them love from beyond the grave.

Myers and Chopra were doing an improvised interview and discussion for the show. They stood in a theatre and just talked in front of an audience. Death was brought up. Look behind you and you'll see death following. Look behind you again and he's even closer. Look again. Even closer. And the audience was laughing during this, which was his point. This is how humans deal with the knowledge of our own mortality. We laugh. We can't help it. Which, explains why so much comedy comes out of pain. This quote has been assumed to be taken by a few different comedians, so I won't specify anyone. “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.”

Myers was always a fan of The Beatles. When George Harrison died, he was devastated. Then, he got a letter. It was the last letter Harrison ever wrote and it was written for him. See, Myers always felt so sad at the end of A Hard Day's Night. Because, when the helicopter flew away at the end, he wanted to be on it. In this letter, Harrison wrote how he was a fan and that he was sorry he had to fly away on the helicopter without him again.

posted by: Shaina Lyn-Waitsman


Nancy Dugan, nee Haase, age 52, of Oak Forest, beloved wife of Gerry, loving mother of Christine (Charles) Weccele, Steven (Linnea) and Patrick; cherished grandmother of Bridget and Hannah; dear daughter of Robert and Joan Haase; fond sister of Robert, Jr. (Kay) Haase; also nieces and nephews. Funeral Tuesday, 8:30 a.m., from Modell Funeral Home, 12641 W. 143rd Street, Homer Glen, to Incarnation Church. Mass 9:30 a.m. Internment Holy Sepulcre Cemetery. Member of Oak Forest Jaycees and Daughters of the American Revolution, Swallow Cliff Chapter. Nancy passed from lung cancer, in her memory she would have liked for one person to Stop Smoking. Visitation Monday, 3 to 9 p.m.

Tonight I attend her wake; tomorrow, her funeral.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Firing squads

Bilal is correct in verifying Anthony's comment; one shooter is given a blank. This way, everyone in the squad can assume that they were the one with the blank. There is a psychological phenomenon called "diffusion of responsibility" that describes this feeling. Wikipedia article.

I also found this page about modern firing squad rituals from all around the world, including, to my shock and horror, Utah.

Here's a segment from a paragraph on Thailand.

On the day of execution, the prisoner was taken from their cell and photographed and fingerprinted. They were then taken to the execution chamber and handcuffed to a cross like wooden frame with their back to the machine gun, 4 meters behind them. A white cloth blindfold is applied and the hands tied with a sacred Buddhist cord. Flowers are hung from the prisoner’s hands as an offering to Buddha and a canvas screen is pulled between the condemned and the gun. A target is fixed onto the screen level with the prisoner’s heart and the gun aimed at the centre of the target. The executioner takes up his position, watching another member of the execution team who raises a red flag, and on the signal from the prison governor, the flag is dropped and the executioner fires a fully automatic burst of 15 rounds into the victim’s heart.

The picture is of Thailand's last shooting executioner. The country officially moved to lethal injection in 2003. An interview with him is available here.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Fools Collective Meeting
1/27/08 @ The Edgewater
Attending: John, Luke, Evan, Ryan, Kurt, Jessica, Anthony, Chloe
Minutes taken by Luke

Possibility of a trip to the Museum of Mourning Photograhy ( was discussed. John is coordinating a trip (or multiple trips) via email.
Possibility of a cemetery tour was discussed. Specifically mentioned was Bachelor’s Grove, though its unclear whether they give tours or we would need to sneak in.
In order to schedule some physical workshops for the Collective, Anthony is going to email John some available 3Pear dates which have come open. John will then use those to determine the best times to have workshops.
One-off performance ideas are needed. Specifically, the Collective should be thinking of ideas for spaces in which to do these performances. Basements, theaters, alleys, public places, etc.
We talked about using a wiki to track some of our ideas/collaborations, but it was brought up that a wiki is more of a central repository of information. If the blog is insufficient for our purposes, we should consider moving to a message board-style format.
Questions were raised about how to be notified when comments are posted on the blog. Evan has since discovered that this feature exists in the blog settings. Up to ten email addresses can be added.
Kurt and Peter talked a bit about using video and images in our work. Specifically mentioned were Resurrection Mary (a popular Chicago ghost), death photography (and the idea that trying to preserve something kills it), and investigating the history of cremation.
I was told to write down “witches don’t have souls.” I drew a little scale with a witch on one side and a duck on the other.
Anthony brought up the fact that when firing squads would perform executions, only one member of the squad would be given a real bullet. No one knew who this person was. This served to relieve the conscience of the firing squad members. It is an example of a disconnect between intention and act.
One-off shows:
How does the audience enter? How do we treat them?
Perhaps there should be a death survey: How do you want to die? Would you like to have the real bullet or the fake bullet?
We need to drum up a test audience for our audience boxes.
We should look into French horror theater, aka Grand-Guignol.

The audience boxes should limit perspective. Perhaps we can incorporate a video delay so the audience member sees what happened to the box just before they got in, or what happened to the previous person in the box. We could take a photo of the audience member and their friends all standing around the box, like a mourning photo. We could have these available as the audience leaves.
The boxes should be built and then given to the Fools to design. Lee Valley Hardware was mentioned as a potential resource for materials/plans.
Death is not a unique experience, perhaps we should survey the audience and somehow use that information. A death mad lib?
The tech for the boxes should include sound. Perhaps we can work it out so that each box its own sound system. Ideas: convey the impression of being buried alive, someone speaking to you through dirt and wood. Have claw/nail marks inside the boxes.
Images that were brought up: refrigerator filled with a person, emerging from the boxes at the start of the show, having different light sources for each coffin.
We should somehow acknowledge the fact that we are directly above a funeral home.
We had some meta-discussion about how to make the show itself more accessible to the audience. We need to be considerate of how we frame the experience, i.e. what happens before our section should somehow clue the audience in to what they are getting ready to experience.
Death is a visceral topic and there are many social taboos around it. The taboo against “morbidness” would be an interesting thing to explore through our one-off shows and then incorporate into the final.
We can also deal with how those left behind deal with death. The traditions are too numerous to mention. Is it celebration, mourning, etc? How do people meld and mix together all the emotions surrounding death into a cultural tradition?
Maybe the goal for the audience is to survive.
Is there a narrative through which we explore all of this? A mission? “Resurrect the dead girl?” Can we have an “audience corpse”? Perhaps the audience is the manipulator of the show.
Action Item: think about box types for different audience types.
Should the Fool Collective propose a show for film fest? A really bad horror film? A silent film?

Bury Me Standing, Post 1

"Gypsies everywhere went to unusual extremes to prevent death. Not just the death of loved ones, but of any known ones. It went beyond compassion into the more exigent realm of the superstitious. The more diligent would try to scare death away, perhaps literally by screaming at it, or by raising their skirts and flashing at it. They may try to trick death by changing the name of a sick person to that of someone they hated - a known thief, or a policeman - with the idea that no one, not even death, could want to inhabit that soul. Others would try to fob the bad luck off onto some other creature. In Britain in the 1940s, Brian Vesey-FitzGerald recorded how Gypsies suffering from pulmonary disease attempted a symbolic transference by breathing three times into the mouth of a live fish, and then throwing it back into the stream from which it had been fetched. The hope was that, confused, death would go for the fish."

- Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing, p.248

Greatest Fears

So I was inspired by both Peter and Ryan's last blogs, about death dreams and ear spiders, respectively. Ryan, thank you for triggering my gag reflex. Anyhow, my first reaction was "Wow. Spiders in my ear. That's like, my greatest fear." And then I vetoed that thought because my greatest fear, ever since I was about four years old, is being crushed by a piano.

Needless to say when we were moving the pianos up the back stairs for Fluxus I 'bout done had a heart attack as I stood on the landing squeezing my intestines and feeling my jaw petrify from bone into stone.

I don't know whether this fear came from the fact that I was forced to play the piano when I was a child; I knew instinctively that it wasn't my forte and I was afraid I wasn't going to be quite good enough at it. Or whether I just hated practicing and thoughts of death by piano was actually a rebellious fantasy. All I know is that I would often stare at our beautiful antique stand-up piano and imagine myself under it, being pressed, contained, suffocated, more afraid of being conscious while it was happening than of the pain itself.

I also had a recurring dream of infinity, where I would be forced into some repetitive act in the afterlife, and again, the fear of being conscious during this endless afterlife overrode any fear of pain. The first dream that I can remember, again when I was four years old, was that I was stuck in a piano key, a miniature me, forever and ever conscious of the white ivory walls as I was played, pressed, contained, suffocated. Only you can't suffocate when you are dead, can you?

I wasn't an overly-morbid four-year old. But what are the images that we initially associate with when we first become conscious of death? Why? And are we interested in the why, or more interested in the physical reactions to these images? The what. I like the what, because I often feel like it's not my job to ask why. You could ask why for eternity, and never find the answer. And that would be suffocating.