Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

RIPNo, not the children’s nursery rhyme, but one of three interesting projects from Nadine Jarvis’ “Post Mortem Research” titled Rest in Pieces. All her work is something to marvel, but this in particular reminds me of a marriage between a piñata and a koan–a slip cast porcelain urn hangs in tree with a thread that biodegrades over a 2-3 year period until the urn falls, smashing and scattering the ashes while leaving a small toggle with the initials of the deceased hanging in the tree. If an urn falls in the forest and there is no one there to witness it…

Her art and a wide range of other funerary artists are promoted by the arts agency and organizer called Funeria that opened a gallery in Sonoma county recently. There is an excellent article in the Times Magazine about alternatives to the traditional urns most people think of when they think cremation. I feel a road trip coming on.

Changing perspectives

lightbulb.jpgWhen I first spotted the picture on the left I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if there was an instrument that could capture the very moment a person died. I wondered our life extinguishes in a similar way but our eyes can’t perceive it. If we examine something with a long perspective our vision and interpretation of it changes. It becomes more majestic, or more frightening, or both, like these pictures by a veteran storm chaser. They are quite beautiful in an awe inspiring kind of way. He has a whole section on his site about the long exposure shots like his require, but I’m assuming this must be difficult when being chased by a storm. There’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere, sandwiched between photography and storm chasing and the disasters those tornadoes have wrought in people’s lives over the last couple of days. I can sense a storm coming even if I can’t see it clearly in my own life. I see the effects of disasters on people’s lives on the news but my perspective is warped because the exposure is too narrow. Someone’s life is changing drastically this very moment but will there be more than a glimpse of that life left after the event is over? A single story? A sole photograph? These are sobering thoughts.

A personal digital history meme?

no21.jpgHow exciting! Now Dave Winer has two friends named Tori. I was catching up on my reading and he just posted this entry on his four ideas for the future and I am on board with all of them but especially idea number two.

Wendy and her friend from the insurance industry, Charles, and a few others have heard me go on endlessly about how insurance companies and cemeteries need to get with the program and work on what Dave calls “endowments” by partnering with folk who know something about accessing and preserving personal histories (i.e., librarians, usability specialists, archivists, etc.). That combined with trends like the one announced by Yahoo just this week are such good starts for an idea like this to blossom. So far most of my enthusiasm for this idea fallen only on the ears of a close cadre of like-minded people, but by mentioning it on his blog Dave’s comments could take root with some industrious engineer and potentially move this into the realm of possibility. Of course, it’s not just about storage, it’s also about retrieval and organization, but I think that once the idea becomes important enough to people of this generation, it will be unstoppable. Thank you Dave for the validation! Yours is the kind of post that keeps me keeping on. Boo-yah.

The here and now

Ram DassI first learned of Ram Dass around the same time I was introduced to Alan Watts. I was 18 and that collision opened me up to a whole world of counterculture writers who turned my consciousness inside up and rightway down. I picked up books by Carlos Castanada, Robert Pirsig and Thomas Merton among others, and for years I was immersed in a kind of spiritual philosophy that had a huge influence on the way I perceive the world today. In 1997 Ram Dass had a debilitating stroke which left him partially paralyzed and affected his speech. Despite his handicap he continues to give talks like this one on awareness posted by the Omega Institute where he “…engages you into a moment regarding your choice and arrangement of your birth and death.” On his own site there is another video where he chats with Wayne Dyer about a letter Wayne wrote and reveals how he is also still being influenced by his own past today. It is a great piece of personal history staged as a conversation between two men who have made a positive impact on the lives of thousands.

Wednesday offerings

petergabriel1.jpgSlow news day. So I only have a few small items to offer. The first is about funeral offerings in China. (from Janet). The other is a new pop song (just audio, no video) about time passing I really like from a group called The Bravery, and a video from an old favorite about fathers. Oh, and this too in case you missed it elsewhere (like on BB). A strange combo, true. Wednesdays are like that.

UDATE: Oh, and here’s an interesting family ritual that almost ties all this abstract stuff together! (Except that story on the Chinese. I’m not sure I could tie that into anything else even if I tried.) It reminds me of something sweet my friend John does every month. (Link courtesy of Crooked Timber and of course).

Something to remember you by

1800 funeral cardMy mother was the youngest of 16 children. Yes, I’ll say that again for effect. Sixteen, and no twins. Being the youngest she was also the last to die. I’m sure this was extremely hard on her, yet after a while attending all the funerals became so ritualized she could put herself on auto-pilot in order to make it through. As a child I witnessed many of these Catholic mass rituals. One of them always reminded me of the hobby of collecting trading cards and I would think it is strangely related to the custom of cabinet cards in the early 1900s because those cards were also used as memorial cards after death around that time. What she collected were the prayer cards (I’ve actually never heard them called holy cards) handed out at every funeral and mom had quite a collection from not only her own family, but from other family and friends too. Some of them were very beautiful, usually had quotes from scripture but most were on hard card stock in full color. She would sometimes tuck them in her bible or put them in strange places, like a sock drawer so that she would be reminded of these people at different times.

I was talking with Cathy once about keepsakes. About how we all tend to keep something small and “clutchable” of someone (like a lock of hair) we once knew and how the digital world takes that away from us. Another example of the changes in American cultural history at play. Who would you rely on if you wanted something like that to be handed out at your funeral? Would you just leave it to chance? Or would you want to design something more personal? I have some very creative friends. I would truly love to see what they would come up with. Maybe someday I will have a party where the guests will all be asked to create a memorial card with my digital camera and the mountains of art supplies I have lying around. Now wouldn’t that be interesting?

How not to help

portal.jpgMy good mood changes when I become frustrated with, or even deeply disappointed in, what people claim as a “portal” resource on their website. Then my professional peeves emerge and I feel the start of a rant coming on. I know when people say libraries/ians will be soon be replaced by the internet they’re just naive so it’s even hard to debate them. But I still cringe when a client happily tells me they’re going to create a portal because I know through experience how much time and effort is required to maintain one.

Try doing a “let’s pretend” exercise with me. You have some research to do, under duress (as is usual when dealing with death issues), and you find this supposedly professional death care web directory (last updated 3/18/07!) boasting, “…we believe to be the most extensive in the industry.” And then (despite their small print disclaimer) click on half the links supplied. Oh, I know you don’t have the time, but trust me. I did. What I found makes me grind my teeth. This is not helpful. It is an advertisement half loaded with rotting, untrustworthy or completely useless links. And why? Because whoever manages this “resource” is too overworked or frankly doesn’t care enough to vet the links with a human eye and brain and make sure their references meet a few critical standards. It gets worse. Other sites then blithely reference this page because they are too busy to do a little due diligence as well, perpetuating this poorly constructed crap around and around the web. And we hear complaints about wikipedia being an untrustworthy source? Jeez, wikipedia is brilliant compared to this travesty.

Before there were such things as “content management systems” or “information architects,”–and that would be about 1993–the web was a wild chaotic and creative mess. And that was okay since none of us knew what we were doing, we just did it for the creative and even social (yes, social before “social networking” too) joy of it. I love the tubes and nets, and what I find on them energizes and surprises me. I know I always will be connected to working with the web in some way. But now that more than ten years have passed those constructing websites have hopefully learned some things. I could list them but there are other places where that is done much better. What I’m talking about is care and concern. A little attention to the details perhaps? Design content so that it is helpful, useable, and useful. If you don’t have time or manpower, well frankly, no content is better than bad content so do us all a favor and just resist the urge. Or go even one better and hire a librarian (or content strategist, or information architect or whatever you want to call these generalists obsessed with organization and information seeking). Then you can boast about your “directories” being the truly useful resources they are meant to be.

</rant stepping off soapbox> Thanks for listening and if you supply a “list of links” ask yourself, are these really helping my visitors or adding to the value of the website in some way? Or am I just using them for padding to make it seem like I truly care about a particular topic. I think I need another cup of coffee.