Archive of ‘ars moriendi’ category

Links of the Dead {May 2016}

"Famine" by David Seidman

“Famine” by David Seidman

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about related to matters of death & dying & mortality.

💀 A Future Where the Decomposing Dead Could Power Cemetery Lights
💀 3 Kinds of Grief Nobody Talks About
💀 All Must Submit to the King of Terrors, But That Is No Reason to Look So Grave
💀 In Praise of Social Media Mourning
💀 Everything dies and it’s best we learn to live with that
💀 A Different Way of Death: The Alternative Funeral Movement is Taking Hold in the US
💀 How Music Helps Us Grieve
💀 SNL – Talking about Death Experience with Brie Larson
💀 The Cemetery As a Spiritual Experience
💀 Forensic jeweller unravels secrets of the dead
💀 Keening & the Death Wail
💀 Duck, Death and the Tulip: A Tender Illustrated Meditation on the Cycle of Life

Previous installments:
Links of the Dead for April 2016
Links of the Dead for March 2016
Links of the dead for February 2016
Links of the dead for January 2016
Links of the dead for December 2015
Links of the dead for November 2015
Links of the dead for September 2015
Links of the dead for August 2015

All Must Submit to the King of Terrors, But That Is No Reason to Look So Grave

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(This was originally written for and posted at After Dark In the Playing Fields in 2010, by my partner in the enterprise at that time, who shall henceforth be known as A Kindred Spirit)

Remember friend as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you will surely be
Prepare thyself to follow me.

–Common epitaph from the nineteenth century.

I have always been fascinated by cemeteries and graveyards–not out of any real morbid sense, but often an aesthetic and even scientific curiosity.  The town I grew up in seemed to have more dead than living.  Wandering around the edges of farmer’s fields turned up long-forgotten family graveyards.  The iron fences had been sold off in a WWII scrap drive, and cows now wandered freely among the graves.  If it weren’t for the names chiseled on stone, those people would be long forgotten–anyone who remembered where they lay was was now themselves, dead.

In graveyards, we find deliberately chosen monuments to everyday people who have gone before:  reflective of the period of history they were wrought in and the values of those who erected them, with an elaborate symbolic language all their own.  Of course, humans have been custodians of their dead ever at least since the first Neanderthal tossed a flower in a long ago burial, but with historical cemeteries, we have it all laid out for our perusal: names, exact dates and the amazing realization that tombstone art, like anything else, is susceptible to fads.

Until well into the nineteenth century, where individual expression started to become more prevalent, gravestones in American cemeteries generally follow one of a few types designs that had a fairly strict progression through time.

The earliest gravestones were populated by grim reminders of the inevitability of death: skulls and crossbones, winged hourglasses.  These reflected a heavy Puritan influence:  life was nasty, brutish and short and only a select few would make it to heaven.  Everyone else was a sinner in the hands of an angry God.  Often, stones with this type of motif mention something blunt like “Here lies the body”–there was no softening of the blow of death.  Puritans were wary of succumbing to idolatry so the grim reminder of death was the only acceptable form of grave decoration.

As America accepted more and more settlers of varied backgrounds, the Puritans gradually lost their stranglehold on gravestone iconography, and by the end of the seventeenth century, the stark and disturbing skeletal renderings gradually lost their edge by the addition of wings.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the winged death’s heads had gradually phased into a regular human face, with wings (as seen above).  This too reflects the sentiments of the time–there was hope of some kind of afterlife for the deceased and mentions of corrupted bodies gradually gave way to the gentler concept of “mortal remains”.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the main motif underwent a another adjustment.  The vacant and slightly distressed looking human face gradually gave way to a winged cherub, effectively removing the sting from death.  During this time period, burials had begun to move from the dank and overcrowded churchyard settings into a more rural, garden-like atmosphere with the introduction of the cemetery park in the 1830’s.  Even the linguistic shift from “graveyard” to “cemetery” indicates the focus was now less on the rotting body and more on memorializing the departed soul.  The language on these stones now says something like “In Memory of” or “Sacred to the Memory of”.

Also popular at this time was a completely new motif: the weeping willow and urn (above). The association with weeping is certainly appropriate for a funereal setting, but the willow also symbolized the gospel, since no matter how many branches are cut off, the tree remains whole, reflecting the kinder, gentler form of Christianity that had come to replace the dour hellfire and damnation of the Puritans a few generations back. The above example is somewhat transitional between the two types, as later willow and urn stones would have a square shoulder instead of the rounded one seen until now. One significant reason for the change in style was that many of these willow and urn graves were actually cenotaphs, empty graves for someone lost far from home; at sea or in a war, but gradually the style came to be favored over the others.

Of course these stylistic attributes are best seen in the longest settled-areas in America, especially New England, but almost any cemetery of a decent age will probably show willow and urn designs marking the oldest graves. In another installment, I will describe the iconographic changes taking place in the Victorian period and what the various symbols you can find in a typical cemetery represent about their permanent inhabitants.

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All Must Submit to the King of Terrors, But That Is No Reason to Look So Grave, Part II.

And they die
An equal death,—the idler and the man
Of mighty deeds.
Homer—Iliad. Bk. IX. L. 396.

In our previous installment, gravestone motifs had just shifted to emphasizing the memory of the departed love one as opposed to focusing on the stark reality of mortal remains.  Skeletons became winged heads, which became cherubs and ultimately the graceful forms of willow and urn, so prevalent in early ninteenth century burials.  By the 1830’s, even more new forms of expression were appearing as carvers turned to using more versatile granite and marble mediums instead of the more brittle shale commonly used on older gravestones.

The Victorians were well known for euphemizing all aspects of society.  Graveyards moved away from attachment to a particular church or village and became housed in the more park-like cemeteries.  Gravestones became monuments.  Even the burial containers themselves changed from the rather austere body-shaped six-sided coffin to an elaborate satin-lined “casket”.

As the Victorian era progressed, grave monuments began to take on a more individualistic iconographic language which often gave clues to the life of the deceased, their occupation or even how they passed away.  Cemeteries from this time period show much more variety in their forms and choices of decoration, celebrating the life or status of the individual dead or the grief of the survivors.

As expected, images of Christianity became very popular with crosses, the Virgin Mary, angels and doves all very common motifs.  Allegorical figures, such as Temperance, Charity, Justice and Hope and Faith are also commonly found.  A single hand pointing upward signified the hoped for destination of the deceased.

For the first time, children’s graves were given their own specific symbols:  carvings of lambs, cherubs, broken buds and daises were all used.  Another common symbol is a vacant chair–often there will be a tiny sculpted pair of shoes next to such a monument.

Obelisks, symbolizing a ray of light, became a very popular shape for tombstones, beginning in the Victorian area.  Part of this was related to the fascination with anything Egyptian, especially after Napoleon’s 1798-99 campaign and subsequent archaeological discoveries.  Obelisks were also less expensive than a sculpted monument of a similar size, and each face could be used for an inscription, making them suitable for family markers and persons of great social status.  Their height allowed them to tower over other markers and be easily located in a cemetery.

Another peculiar motif often seen in cemeteries from this time are treestones:  The Victorians had a fascination with anything rustic looking.  These were most popular from about 1880 to 1905 and could also be ordered from Sears and Roebuck, making them common in the Midwest, which had more catalog shoppers. Treestones were also favored for their symbolism, which was suitable for a family patriarch (they could be shown as lopped off, showing one had died before their prime, as below) or for anyone in a woodworking profession.

Typical example of a “treestone”, a popular Victorian motif. The cut off stump represents someone who died before reaching old age. Image by Luigi Anzivino.

Typical example of a “treestone”, a popular Victorian motif. The cut off stump represents someone who died before reaching old age. Image by Luigi Anzivino.

Broken columns served a similar function–often their height will correspond to the age of the person at death, with snapped-off columns representing someone who has died before their prime and a complete column showing someone has lived a full life. These were most popular around the mid-nineteenth century.

Another curious material for tombstones is zinc or “white bronze”, as it was termed by the manufacturer, the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. These monuments are hollow cast metal and were extremely inexpensive to purchase, but have a similar appearance to carved stone. They can also be easily spotted in any cemetery, because they are in perfect shape, having held up amazingly well compared to their more weathered marble and granite counterparts. They were only produced from 1874 to 1914, when the supply of zinc metal was needed for World War I.

Detail of a lily of the valley from a well-preserved zinc monument, showing the characteristic blue-grey patina. The lily symbolizes purity and resurrection, since it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. Image by Svadilfari.

Detail of a lily of the valley from a well-preserved zinc monument, showing the characteristic blue-grey patina. The lily symbolizes purity and resurrection, since it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. Image by Svadilfari.

Perhaps this autumn one might need to take an atmospheric walk in the local cemetery and pay particular attention to the details of each monument. The choices were deliberately made, influenced by fads, economics and personal preference. I always find it amazing what can be learned from simply observing the quiet gestures of the dead.

(Image at top: Virgin Mary statue in Woodland Cemetery, Burlington, Ontario by Kevin. Religious iconography became popular in the Victorian era and the use of new materials such as granite and marble allowed for more elaborate sculpted forms.)

Elsewhere: Keening and the Death Wail

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I recently interviewed musician Gemma Fleet of The Wharves on her project “Lost Voices” Volume 1. “Keening and the Death Wail”. Gemma provides us with a fascinating look at a dramatic mourning tradition as it relates to the Irish funeral and other cultures worldwide, as well as tackling it from a feminist perspective, and how it ties into the grieving process.

Keening & the Death Wail | Death & the Maiden

Links of the Dead {4.22.16}

Art by Noah Scalin

Art by Noah Scalin

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about  related to matters of death & dying & mortality.

Previous installments:
Links of the Dead for March 2016
Links of the dead for February 2016
Links of the dead for January 2016
Links of the dead for December 2015
Links of the dead for November 2015
Links of the dead for September 2015
Links of the dead for August 2015

Dearly beloved, with heavy hearts that we mourn the loss of Prince…

💀 No Doves Cry Here: Prince Retrospetive

💀 A Look Back At Prince’s Unfiltered And Unapologetic Style

💀 His Music Does The Talking’: Manager Owen Husney On Prince’s Legacy

…and elsewhere

💀 Graveyard Botany: Patricia Lundy writes on haunting flora which festoon final resting places.
💀 Speaking with the Dead: Life and Learning in a Cadaver Lab by Madeleine LeDespencer
💀 A list of valuable Grief Reads, via Modern Loss
💀 Literal Heartbreak: A Spouse’s death can make your heart skip a beat
💀 Six Feet Over helps people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide through funerals & more
💀 The Complicated Wallpapers of Grief: A review of the film Midnight Swim
💀 Pain Is Not Redeemed by Art: Grief, Loss and Creative Practice
💀 Beverly Hills of the Dead: Luxury Tombs complete with Kitchens & Air Conditioning
💀 Most Distinctive Obituary Euphemism for ‘Died’ in Each State
💀 5 things you can do to join the Death Positivity movement and value life more

Links of the Dead {3.22.16}

Elegy. Sandra Yagi

Elegy. Sandra Yagi

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

Previous installments:
Links of the dead for February 2016
Links of the dead for January 2016
Links of the dead for December 2015
Links of the dead for November 2015
Links of the dead for September 2015
Links of the dead for August 2015

 

Macabre To The Bone: The Art of Lozzy Bones

7 Things No One Tells You About Losing A Parent As A Child

Artist Uses 3D Printer to Turn Human Ashes into Objects

Attention Whore Becky Has Open Casket Funeral

Companies offering pet bereavement days for employees after death of pets

Grieving in Community: A look at the way different communities treat grief vs the Western culture

Barney The Cemetery Cat, Who Comforted Mourners For 20 Years, Has Died

Corpses Attempt Hilarity: If you’re a Cards Against Humanity fan—then you need the first deathcare version!

Companies Want to Replicate Your Dead Loved Ones With Robot Clones

Shrouds or Lingerie? Traditional Female Burial Garments

Death Memoirs: Why The Grave Subject Sells So Well

Order of the Good Death members Bess Lovejoy and Megan Rosenbloom have put together a list of deathy books for all manner of death interests.

How We Mourn the Famous and What It Says About Collective Grief

Links of the dead {February 2016}

Life preserving coffin in doubtful cases of actual dead

Life preserving Eisenbrandt coffin in doubtful cases of actual death

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

Previous installments:
Links of the dead for January 2016
Links of the dead for December 2015
Links of the dead for November 2015
Links of the dead for September 2015
Links of the dead for August 2015

Oh For Goodness Sake – Stand At My Grave and Weep Already!

Coffins, Crape, and Other Victorian Omens of Death

The Wills Party

4 Ways To Think Outside The Box When Honoring A Loved One

A touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.

How to Transform Our Discomfort Around Death and Loss

Necrophiliacs Are People, Too: New Book Humanizes This Misunderstood Taboo

The living paths of the dead

The ‘Funeral Clothes Project’

5 books explore the ways that we are shaped by the knowledge of our mortality

Mysteries of Vernacular: Hearse

The Rebozo: Fashion, Feminism and Death

Our Strange, Unsettled History of Mourning

The Role of Death in Finding Meaning in Life

aromatherapy for grief & loss

Facing Mortality Through A Lens

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

A Year In Fragrance: Tea Rose

mama

My mother was a complicated piece of business.  That reads more harsh than what I meant to write, and I am feeling kindly disposed this morning, so perhaps I will amend that to say that my feelings about my mother are the real complications here.

When I was eleven years old, I couldn’t fathom saying such a thing.  My mother was this amazing, radiant being; she was like unto God.  I don’t know what, precisely, I based this upon – perhaps nothing at all save a daughter’s faith and devotion that was as yet untested. 20 cats?  That’s ok, I loved cats!  My mom didn’t drive? No problem, my grandma took us everywhere that we needed to go! No money? Ah, we were happy and well-cared for, who needs money? I recall gazing at her, one evening, rapt, and exclaiming “I can’t imagine ever having a fight with you, mom!” She smiled enigmatically, knowing better.

(When I grew much older and had to divest her dilapidated beach cottage of 20 sick felines and several heartbreakingly unwell dogs; when I got my driver’s license and became my mother’s chauffeur at all hours of the night; when I loaned her money time and again which would never be repaid–that is when my feelings became irreversibly complicated).

However, by the time I was fourteen years old, they were certainly going through some complex changes.  My beautiful, brilliant mother was, without a doubt, a raging alcoholic.

I think I have blocked out much of my home-life during my teenage years at this time; I recall going to school, I remember spending time with my boyfriend, I can re-live just about every single moment I ever spent at my first job…but there’s not much I remember about my mother, save surreal flashes of trauma here and there. A Thanksgiving morning when our refrigerator broke down; the kitchen flooded, she had a meltdown and subsequently entered rehab for the first time.  3am early mornings when she cornered my sister and I in a bedroom while she ranted and raged for hours about god knows what, while terrified and confused, we wondered how we would function at school the next day.  My senior year of high school when she disappeared for two weeks entirely. These things.

The one thing I can unfailingly conjure up now, twenty years from now, perhaps even on my deathbed, is her scent: Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose.

A scent upon which my grandmother would often remark in disgust “You smell like a funeral parlour!” Tea Rose permeated the fabric of my mother’s clothes and floated around her from room to room in a fragrant cloud. My mother wore exotic, jingling belled anklets which would tinkle and announce her presence as she made her way throughout her home–but Tearose often loudly preceded those tiny chimes.

I purchased a bottle for myself recently, and a week later I am just now able to bring myself to slide the cellophane from the plain, somewhat retro looking brown box and remove the bottle.  I’ve been afraid to spray it, not knowing what images and memories the perfume will invoke. Not ready for the the feelings it will inevitably stir up.

Initially somewhat sour and strange, this is an incredibly potent fragrance, that opens chilly and green and bitter.  It smells less of rose petals and more, I imagine, of chilled thorns, after a frost. Prickly, biting.  Slightly metallic, like the mineral tang of blood, but without the hemic crimson associations.

If it smells like roses, these are not any roses I would wish to be familiar with.  These are not lush, inviting midsummer roses in full bloom, nor are they delicate, blushing buds.
This is more like …roses, plucked too young, brainwashed and warped and corrupted and distilled into  something astringent and spiky and cruel.  If it were a color, it would be an otherwordly emerald, facets glowing strangely, lit from within by distant, verdant starlight.

If you’re patient, though…if you wait long enough…. Let it dry. Give it time. Walk away. It then becomes just a rose. Any rose. All roses. And in it I can smell my mother’s summer cotton night gowns. I can smell the evenings she spent reading us James and the Giant Peach when we were very young. I can smell the soft, warm fur of her favorite Siamese cat.

I can smell the very best memories I have of her, and there is nothing left of the complications.

This is not to say that Tea Rose is a fragrance that I can, or want, to wear.  Although I enjoy the scent of roses, I’ve never wanted to smell like one.  Tea Rose is a bottle I will take off the shelf when I am having angry thoughts, hateful thoughts, or a bad day when I am blaming my mother’s failures for my own shortcomings.
Just a small spritz, with a light hand.
A reminder that my mother was only human, as am I.  We can only be who we are.

And a rose is, after all,  just a rose.

Links of the Dead {January 2016}

British singer David Bowie performs on stage in Brussels, on May 20, 1983. (AFP/Getty Images)

David Bowie performs on stage in Brussels, on May 20, 1983. (AFP/Getty Images)

 

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

Previous installments:
Links of the dead for December 2015
Links of the dead for November 2015
Links of the dead for September 2015
Links of the dead for August 2015

9 Reasons It Is Not Crazy To Grieve A Celebrity Death

In His Final Performance, David Bowie Embraced Death

A Paean to the Goblin King; wise words from Angeliska on stepping into the shadow of David Bowie’s death and using the righteous lessons he taught us. Do the hard work! Live with aplomb! Let your every wild facet shine.

A Young Neurosurgeon Examines the Meaning of Life as He Faces His Death

“But Harold, we begin to die as soon as we are born. What is so strange about death?”

Death and the birth of feminism

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Talks About The Beauty Of Life And Death

11 Signs You May Be Dying In A Victorian Novel

“Just Buried”–Funeral Home Weddings

Funerary Darlings: The Tradition of Child Pallbearers
The Day I’ll Finally Stop Grieving

The year my partner drowned, I bought a lobster — and set it free.

How Uganda Came To Earn High Marks For Quality Of Death

Love champagne? Thank a French widow

 

 

Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke

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My mother, my sister and I; I am feeding my sister her foot. Fuck her if she can’t take a joke.

“Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke”.

My mother would often declare this with regard to just about everything – I still don’t even precisely know when this is an appropriate tack to take, but it remains one of my favorite inner-monologue responses to this day.  It so perfectly encapsulates her attitude about life and everything attached to it.

I recall telephoning her one afternoon after a particularly rotten day at work, early on in my job, when I hadn’t quite toughened up and gotten on board with how my particular employer operated. I had been called into the office and essentially advised that I needed to make some changes or I was done there.  In a teary phone call I relayed all of this to her, and, though I didn’t ask her, the question hung in the air, over the miles between us.  What should I do?

“Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Just quit. You’ll find something else.”

I laughed and calmed down and the next day I went to work and did not quit. That was terrible advice.  My mother quit a lot of jobs and burned a lot of bridges and I did not want to be my mother in that respect.

Today marks two years since my mother passed and this phrase has worked its way insidiously into mine and all of my sister’s vernacular.  I suspect none of us really know what it means, but it somehow now always feels fitting.

Two years ago last night my mother called to tell me her doctor notified her that she was doing much better, the chemo was doing its job, and she was on her way to some kind of recovery. She informed me that she wanted prime rib for Christmas dinner. I was irritated because I figured she wasn’t going to show up anyway  – she often promised an appearance at family dinners and then backed out at the last minute – and then I would have made a pain-in-the-ass prime rib for nothing. I told her I would make it happen, but that she had better show up for dinner if she knew what was good for her.

This was the last conversation I was to ever have with my mother; the next day she was dead.

Fuck me if I can’t take a joke -right mom?

 

Links of the Dead {December 2015}

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Black Moon, 2015. Kristin Forbes -Mullane

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

Why A Double Funeral On Your Birthday Is The Best Party You’ll Ever Have
The Best Show for Your Grieving Child (and You)
Five surprising findings about death and dying
7 Wickedly Beautiful Coffee Table Books About Death
Facebook expands suicide prevention tools and will intervene something’s wrong
Why Dead Pets Matter
LA’s Unclaimed Dead Receive Prayers, And A Final Resting Place
Everything Dies -A Death Positive Coloring Book!
Tea and Cake and Death at Death Cafe Orlando
Giving Birth at the Age Mom Died
High school holds funeral for resident lab skeleton after discovering his bones were real
A moment that changed me – the death of my sister and the grief that followed
Post-Mortem Staging: Morbid Trend in Puerto Rico
Why Greeks are exhuming their parents
The Rise of the Artisanal Funeral
6 Modern Momento Mori for a Beautiful Mourning
‘The leftover scraps of ordinary life’ –  photographer documents late husband’s belongings
12 Loving Ways to Have a Fantastic Death
Meet the New Faces of Death over at Dirge Magazine: Sarah Troop | Bess Lovejoy | Amber Carvaly | Megan Rosenbloom | Carla Valentine

 

Previous installments:
Links of the dead for November 2015
Links of the dead for September 2015
Links of the dead for August 2015

 

 

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