Drowning sorrows

Ophelia Festival 2007All this rain has me thinking, there are two camps of people, those who are annoyed by rain and those who revel in it. Around here the earth has submersed herself to drink deeply. There are puddles everywhere and the toads are singing. Water is a miracle liquid for so many things. We don’t just bathe in it but we come from it. We spiritualize it by baptizing our babies in it, we fight over it, and use it for torture, and we have agencies to forecast for it. I had a roommate I shared a running joke with. Whenever anything would go wrong, a bad date, a bad haircut, a bad day at work, or we’d just wake up feeling sad the first thing we’d tell the other is, “take a bath.”

Water obviously displaces your weight and your blood pressure drops, but in many cultures bathing is also something more than that. When I was in Japan the idea of a communal bath is a ritual and part of their culture and one they credit as resulting in a well-socialized public. If you ever get to San Francisco you I highly recommend a visit to this place. It will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about. It’s a spiritual experience that will have you appreciating water in a whole new way.

(Image from the Italian 2007 Ophelia Fesitval)


Lupe, from Jessica JoslinMost people I know understand how attached I am to my cat. Jimmy Stewart had his Pooka, I have my Sphynx. It’s simple and complex at the same time. So this issue of wanting to be buried with your companion pet is not all that unreasonable or hard to understand. At least to me. Of course the Catholic Church has issues. They always have issues. But the simple fact that I have spent so much time with this animal who has been my constant companion for, well years now, means that I’ve actually thought a great deal about what is going to happen if he should predecease me. Which is likely. He is a cat after all. So I have hired artists to paint his portrait (his image will even be part of an art show in Sacramento in May to my surprise). And even besides burial I’ve considered other options. Ultimately it would be sweet to know that where I go he goes, as it has always been. If there is a heaven, it must include pets, or in my opinion it wouldn’t be much of a paradise at all.

(Photo from website of artist Jessica Joslin)

But what if a bear ate her?

Edward GoreyIt’s because I’m in a silly mood. Or maybe it’s just her picture. But I’m not sure I’d want her tossing my ashes. White is just not the color I think of when I think wilderness trek. (Now that I think of it, maybe a handsome MacGyver/Survivorman type to take my ashes to the tiptop of Mt. Rainier or skydive with them out of an airplane…now that I might go for. Heh.)

I actually like cemeteries as parks and believe they serve a useful societal function. I don’t have issues with cremation but you have to admit, burial also supports other pursuits like taphophilia, genealogy and archeology. Yes, we all turn to dust eventually, but sometimes we also leave signs of our existence behind.

Lastly, this is a complete non-sequitar, but I found it while Stumbling around on the internets and remembered how much Edward Gorey’s drawings make me laugh. Happy Monday. (Thanks Triviaqueen!)

Useful habits

cellphonejpg.jpgEven though my cellphone makes me uncomfortable and frustrated at times, I do like one of its features and that’s the ability to carry around my voice mail messages with me. I love the voices of others as much as I love listening to the radio. I suspect I will save the last voice mail message my mother left for me for as long as the technology will let me since I play it to myself when I miss her.

Which brings me to a connection with today’s Oscars (believe it or not) and the fact that ordinary people are using their cell phones to record personal memories. Like the winner of the 2006 CellFlix Fesitval. A thirty second love story shot entirely with a cell phone. Now its this kind of thing I think more people are doing than we know. And these are things that you’d put in your digital shoebox and save because they capture the fleeting moment so well.

Someday it would be fun to make a collage of all the “hi tori” voices saved on my cell phone. Now if only I had the technology to do that! Like a Flickr for messages. Until then, if you leave me an endearing message it is very likely that I’ll be keeping it. And I bet I’m not the only one.

Update: I called it! (ugh, bad pun.) Apparently with my last wish and this post I was channeling Apple’s latest iphone commercial officially revealed at tonight’s Oscars (see, you must believe). I love it when my imagination sometimes makes sense.


mandala(What would the Dali Lama Do?)

For the last week there have been six Tibetan monks visiting Sacramento (and who are on a peace tour of California) and demonstrations to local school children of their sand mandalas have been on the news. I’ve always loved the intricacies of mandalas and admired such devotion required for something so temporal. Like Andy Goldsworthy who makes his art from found objects in nature, both artforms embody the beauty of creation for its own sake.

Even though it has been around for a while I thought I’d post a reminder from the Dali Lama called Instructions for Life. I especially am fond of the quiet humor in #19. In fact, isn’t love like cooking and vice versa?


1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
2. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.
3. Follow the three R’s:

Respect for self
Respect for others and
Responsibility for all your actions.

4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
6. Don’t let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
8. Spend some time alone every day.
9. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
11. Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.
12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
13. In disagreements with loved ones deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.
14. Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.
15. Be gentle with the earth.
16. Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.
19. Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.

(Image from Namgyal Monastary Institute of Buddhist Studies)

The art of the obit

raven02.jpgYesterday I had a little free time and naturally gravitated to the local small town bookstore. I noticed The Dead Beat, (or Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries) by Marilyn Johnson. It was billed as a “survey both humorous and poignant of the wonders enfolded in the pages of an ordinary newspaper” with many other accolades and so I couldn’t resist, especially with such an interesting Appendix in the back that included other obituary resources on the web. For instance, did you know there was an International Association of Obituarists? I didn’t. Or that some of the most interesting tributes in the author’s view come from, of all places, The Economist? And I think I found a new link for my sidebar, The Blog of Death which sounds completely out of wack until you visit. They even have a very touching obit on the famous racehorse Barbaro, the 3 year old winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. His owners received literally thousands of sympathy cards.

I know if you’re over a certain age reading the obit page becomes a kind of habit. On the other hand, if you’ve ever had to write an obituary you know how difficult it can be. Just saying “nevermore” is not an option. Even starting the first sentence summing up a great deal of that person’s life is not only painful but seemingly impossible. Plus you are usually doing it under duress. As “the writer” in the family I was delegated to do it for my parents. Legacy.com still has them for me to read for a price. I just wish I’d done a better job in hindsight.

Think about it. Having the deceased thoughtfully leave you one they’ve written for themselves happens so rarely it’s worth mentioning. What would you say about yourself? Do you fancy yourself a writer of any sort? Save your left behind friends and family some heartache. Here are the steps: write it down! Put it in an envelope with your insurance papers. Or if you’re interested in hearing how the pros would like to see a new business model for obits, and the research of one news writer in particular, here’s an article from the Poynter Institute, Let’s Breathe Some New Life Into Obituaries.

(p.s. I couldn’t resist. Here is a rendition of Christopher Walken reading the Edgar Allan Poe poem, The Raven, with many incongruous background noises (including some very strange electric guitar) off an equally strange CD. I’m a big fan of Walken. He does so many cool weird things.)

Day of Ashes

Mom used to take us to church on Ash Wednesday so we could get little thumb prints of ash on our foreheads. We were told not to wash them off. I wore mine proudly even though I had no clue what it meant. I think I just liked the temporary tattoo. Now I know its deeper meaning and although I don’t go to church, I think having a tradition that reminds us of our mortality is a good thing.

So, for today’s memento mori an intense, weird, artistic, morbid, but interesting video where a talking MGM lion (almost gleefully) gives a soliloqy on dying and reminds us to value the time when we’re alive.

(Directed by Dennis Palazzolo. Narrated by Vito Acconci. From the book “You’re going to die”, written by Timothy Furstnau. Via Backwards City)

Life logging

poster for movie, MementoOk, I’ll just say it. Projects like this drive me nutty. I mean the whole idea behind LifeBits just seems overly narcissistic and as I’m sure my friend Paulina would say, who cares?! Yes, I acknowledge that it might have some medical application for folks who are losing their memory (although I prefer this way instead).

Or even the way in which Joanne and Bob Chew chose to record it, which is one of the most haunting and powerful discussions of memory and memory loss that I’ve heard in recent years. You really owe it to yourself to give it a listen. No amount of “lifelogging” would ever convey what is related here in a Story Corps booth in under 4 minutes.

Maybe I just don’t get it. But in my opinion the contrast between these two forms of memory preservation is a great example of what is ultimately important when it comes to recording personal histories. As the tag from the movie stated, “some things are best left forgotten.” Right?

Capturing a memory

bladerunner03t.jpgThere have been studies of how people use media to stir memory. I came across a paper by Richard Chalfin of Temple University’s Department of Anthropology titled, Family Photograph Appreciation, Dynamics of Medium, Interpretation and Memory because I was searching for the scene in Blade Runner where androids are provided memories though photographs even in the distant future. Chalfin’s paper discusses what happens when videotape replaces still photographs and how memory-making is affected by motion and sound. Questioning McLuen he asks, “Is the relation of medium, interpretation and memory the same?”

Also interested in family memory, Jeff Dykehouse found his calling. It’s to capture the essence of a child in hospice in a portrait for their families. And he wants other photographers to start doing it too. He started Emily’s Big Picture Project in Michigan after his 14 month old daughter died and he realized he didn’t have any photographs of her that really spoke to who she was and he wanted to spare other families the same sadness. I sometimes get cards from families after their child has passed. These cards bring tears to my eyes just thinking about them. The families tell me how much their portrait means to them, how it’s helped them get through very difficult times, how it’s helped them heal! …This is my life’s work and can’t imagine doing anything else.” Here is a six minute documentary of him talking about his work.

Though not the same Emily, I’m somehow reminded of this lonely poem of hers. “The speakers of her poems generally live in a state of want, but her poems are also marked by the intimate recollection of inspirational moments which are decidedly life-giving and suggest the possibility of happiness.” The entire poem and commentary is available through the link.

I measure every Grief I meet
by Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain – 
I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –

I like charts

Chinese zodiacJust a couple of quick things I thought might come in handy depending on the circumstance. The first one is The Big Religion Chart and at least they admit: ”…an attempt to summarize all the complexities of religions and belief systems into tiny little boxes on a single, quick-reference comparison chart. Yes, this is impossible. As we always warn with our comparison charts, this is no substitute for reading about religions in greater detail,…” The only issue I have with it is that it doesn’t subdivide religions into sects. Christianity confuses me the most sometimes. Besides the obvious, I can never remember the nuances between Lutherans, Presbyterians and Anglicans. But as charts go, its pretty much points out how varied all our beliefs are. It is a wonder we can ever agree on anything let alone religion.

The next handy dandy cheat sheet is not exactly death related but will help you better search for anything you’re particularly interested in if you like to use Google for a search engine. It’s the Google Guide and I promise, it will turn you into a power user.

Finally, happy Chinese New Year. My little Chinese astrology chart says people born in the year of the boar, “…don’t make many friends but when they do, they make friends for life, and anyone having a boar-year person as a friend is indeed fortunate.” I have a friend who says there are people in your life he calls “epic friends” who will be there for the entire ride and be by your side at the end. I don’t think you need to be a boar-year person to be an epic friend. But I do think everyone’s story needs one.

In lieu of flowers

giving.jpgBringing flowers to the grave is one of the oldest funerary traditions humans have. They were buried with the dead in ancient civilizations in recognition we are part of nature and they represented the regenerative power of life and death. But these days charitable giving is more practical in the hope donations in someones memory will serve a useful purpose beyond the grave.

I learned yesterday that a friend of mine lost a friend of his, in his 30s with a young wife and child. He died of complications from skin cancer. He was a gardner and his income was meager to begin with. It seems we are all one disaster away from tragedy. My friend’s father donated some money to help them through the crises but I remembered another organization that might help, Modest Needs. It is a small registered charity who, “…have stopped the cycle of poverty for 3012 individuals and families who stood to lose everything over a short-term financial emergency.” I passed the information on to him as something that could help but it got me to thinking about the donations I’ve made in the past and how best to vet the charities you give to.

I personally like to donate close to home when possible because you know the people or personally use their services. When I lived in Montana I tried to support the Montana Horse Sanctuary, and I heard good things about Trout Unlimited.

On a larger scale Oxfam has always been one of my favorites which was rated higher than a  similar organzation I also like, Heifer International. I don’t think you can go wrong with either one. My cousin donated to them in my father’s memory and I always thought of their global missions as important ones. When I have had extended family pass away from diseases like cancer I have donated in their name to the Cancer Society even though their record doesn’t seem very good lately. Once I remember spending a lot of time finding a place that would plant a tree for me in rememberance but when I’ve gone back to find it again it seems that charity has disappeared. If you have any favorite charities or ones you’d want people to keep in mind, please go ahead and put them in the comments so we all can bookmark them.

(Photo credit: Catalogue for Philanthropy)

Spontaneous shrines

Roadside shrines in Buenos AiresOne of my favorite subjects in folklore study is the roadside shrine. Every culture has them, from folk Shinto and their spirit kami to the Irish who have a long standing folk tradition of marking deaths in open places. There is one down the street from me now, a boy was killed on his bicycle. A reminder of death and danger as well as a significant place to go, a special place because he traveled it on a daily basis, back and forth to school. I have heard that authorities like to remove these memorials because they are distracting, because they are messy and unsafe. But people still create them because they need to.

I sense that this event on MySpace is similar,

Matt Frank had been dead for eight hours when the first goodbye message to him was posted on his MySpace page.
The note was short and simple: I love you. I’ll miss you.
Dozens more followed, as disbelieving friends took to the Web to mourn the 17-year-old and three other teenagers who were killed Sunday when a car — crammed with nine passengers — slammed into a utility pole after a late-night house party in suburban Chicago.

The article goes on to say how much the family appreciates the short notes left behind by their friends along with the hope that this page will remain a memorial and not be taken down by the provider.

It is natural for people to visit the places important to the dead. Whether it’s online or off. There is a new company dedicated to preserving space online for just that reason called Respectance.com (see sidebar for their blog). Their service is still in beta now, but eventually it will be an online space where you can leave and share memories that will remain, whether it’s poetry, pictures or video. It is like creating an online shrine to not only your own beloved but for visiting the shrines created for others too. The only thing missing is a sense that the person was there. And I think that’s one of the more difficult battles for companies trying to help out our increasingly fractured communities in such a way. It’s like visiting a memorial at a gravesite. Once you’ve paid your respects, is there reason to make the pilgrimage back again someday? For some there will be. (Thanks to Matty for the tip. Photo credit: tinyart)

Death by numbers

Graph of accidental deaths on Many-Eyes.comI’m not the first person to notice we have become a society obsessed with numbers and statistics. But still, it is hard not to sense the impact of a good visual representation of data. I saw a presentation by one of the brilliant designers who created Many Eyes, a public service from IBM labs that “enables collaborative visualization of publicly available data sets,” like this one on causes of death. Anyone can use this tool to upload their excel data and turn it into a tool that a community can comment on rather than just blindly accept at face value. Then there is the more sobering counting of military deaths in Iraq from the beginning of the war until October, 2006 and yet it is easy to overlook both debilitating injuries and the very real individual losses by just looking at a flash animation. These numbers say the town where I grew up is the second most expensive place to die in the country . Of course that makes sense because living there is out of my price range too (But LA is the cheapest? How does that make any sense?). Finally, I couldn’t finish the post without mentioning the ultimate in numbers, Death and Taxes even though it isn’t specifically on death, or even inheritance tax, but at least its on two things you can be sure of. Oh, and then there’s the dead pool, but playing those numbers is a little dark for my taste.

What to do with your leftovers?

Ghanian coffins from AfricaThere are so many sites and ideas about the ways to dispose of a body its really overwhelming and hard to keep up with. Nearly any keyword search you do in combination with coffin or burial you’ll come up with inventive ways humans have conjured to make sure the body is safely packaged, or recycled, for its return journey to dust. Makezine.com even has a few creative suggestions on burial. There was a site I saw that I can’t find now about making your own willow basket casket but they seem to have discontinued it. Oh, and then there was that taxidermist…but that’s probably still a taboo idea for people. Personally I used to want to be cremated and have the ashes mixed with metallic fleck paint to be spray painted on something fast, something like a rocket. After all, if Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary finally made it into space, why not me? But lately I’d be content to just be turned into fireworks. There are people who want their remains crushed into diamonds, and people who want to be buried in me-pods. In every culture from the nomads of the Eurasian steppe to the pyramids of Egypt we have always wanted to give our loved ones a good send off.

Now the most recent amusement I’ve spotted is actually a virtual one in the online community SecondLife. For those who haven’t heard of it, well, you obviously have better things to do with your time. But it’s a growing community (complete with several community libraries and dedicated librarians) and you know it’s serious when companies start to explore marketing opportunities there. Like the Dutch funeral company who has decided to hold a “coffin design contest”.

Entries will be photographed and displayed at the Bogra office during March, after which a jury of experts will select the winner, which will be “taken into Real Life production by Bogra Netherlands. This coffin will also be displayed at (international) funeral fairs as the first coffin that has been designed in an online community.

I love it. Avatars designing virtual coffins for companies selling real coffins to humans. I think I’ll stick to my Thai spirit house. At least I don’t have to worry about where I’ll keep the leftovers. (Photo credit: Walt Jabsco)

Pebble for your thoughts

Pebbles on a headstone at a Jewish cemeteryRecently I attended a Jewish funeral and was touched by the tradition of leaving small pocket-sized stones on headstones. I remember seeing it at the end of the movie Schindler’s List but it never struck me as something many families did until just recently. I remember flowers always being such a big tradition in my own family. My mother would make it a point of never visiting a graveyard without something to leave as a marker of her visit, but it does strike me that those flowers die and wilt and look sad and often even leave a mess for the caretakers to clean up afterwards. Just strange to me that flowers are never part of the Jewish mourning process. I wonder though, do the pebbles just pile up and end up making a mini-cairn that overflows the headstone? Or do they too get removed by the groundskeepers so that more can be left another day?

There are other fascinating Jewish mourning traditions that I wish more of us would adopt. The idea of “sitting shivah” is something so valuable that I’m surprised more cultures don’t emphasize it more. Here is what that site has to say about it,

People pay “shivah calls” to fulfill the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners. These visits demonstrate community concern at the time of loss. The visits help the mourners over the feelings of isolation or desertion, both of which are natural feelings after the death of a loved one. Even if many people have gathered, those present should be sure a party-like atmosphere does not develop. Conversation should center on the life and memories of the departed. Contrary to popular belief, talking about the deceased is helpful to the mourner. Such conversations help the mourner to begin the process of getting over their grief. If you have been through a time of personal grief and the mourner asks you how you felt or how you managed, share your own experience. Mourners often take comfort in knowing that others have experienced similar feelings.”

A mitzvah is a commandment, and a physical act of kindness. It is as important a commandement as the rest of those you hear so much about. Pretty different from sending a sympathy card and I’m sure very difficult for any of us to do this busy day and age.

Movies to save and share.

bunny.jpgNo, it’s not a top ten list of my favorite movies (although I did do that once already), but it is a list of movies that either I have seen on the subject of death or keep intending to buy. You may recognize one or two, and maybe you have one of your own to share?

Gates of Heaven (1978) documentary about the pet cemetery business has got to be on the top of my list. Of course, it has pets in it right? But don’t just take my word for it, it was recently reviewed on NPR and it sounds just lovely. I haven’t seen it yet but it sounds like a keeper so it’s on my next amazon splurge.

After spending some time in Japan, the movie Afterlife (1998) hit me in places both familiar and unfamiliar. If you had just ONE memory to keep, which one would it be? A very hard question to answer for someone otherwise focused on capturing personal histories. The style of this movie is absolutely beautiful. Very poetic mixure of east and west.

A classic probably most have seen but still holds up is The Loved One (1965). A very black comedy and I love the tag line, “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” Seeing this movie and the related classic, Harold and Maude (1971) in my youth probably most affected the way I see funerals today and why I think having a sense of humor about it all is the most poignent approach to death I can think of.

And along those lines is the curious The Young and the Dead (2000). Another well done documentary about the death business and the changing roles of cemeteries. You don’t know whether to smile or cringe when confronted with so much nostalgia and that actually encapsulates the feelings most people have about how they’ll be remembered.

The Hours (2002) was one of those movies that had me pushed way back in my seat in the theatre and had me exhausted by the end. It deals with depression and suicide as an end to life from the lives of three different women in three different ages. Powerful stuff and not all that easy to watch but these actresses are all so outstanding it is like having your own out of body experience. For me the exchanges between Ed Harris and Meryl Streep will remain long after the film was over.

Although I haven’t seen it and it did get bad reviews I’m going to list it here anyway and see if anyone else has any opinions. The Fountain (2006) was supposed to deal with the themes of death and spirituality. Seems that people either love it or hate it so I’ll have to see it when it comes out on DVD which should be soon. From what I’ve read if you can try not to be too literal you’ll probably enjoy it.

And then there’s the stuff that’s online. Here is one for kids (and adults) written by a grief counselor and done in computer animation called “Bunny” that handles the subject matter well and is being used to introduce end of life concepts to children and in college level death and dying courses. (Seven mins.) Tom Waits voice at the end is just perfect.

I made a few of you sniffle with this other music video off YouTube from DCFC called “I will follow you into the dark.” It’s a keeper that just couldn’t be left out. Bunnies must be some after world totem animal. All that following them down rabbit holes all our lives must be the reason.