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.


painscale.jpgFrom the what doesn’t kill you department, I had to laugh only because the descriptions from the Schmidt Sting Pain Index are so wonderfully rich. It made me consider creating a personal pain scale and how I would index those pains I’ve felt. After a bit of reflection I realized some of the worst pains weren’t physical at all.

Like comedy writers, a group of people getting together to describe their pain in a colorful way would be such therapy wouldn’t it? There are so many varieties and causes of pain and yet they are all also so familiar. And we all know that humor is an essential part of pain management, don’t we? Despite that I hesitated sharing it briefly because we aren’t used to talking about our pain. In fact pain in my family was something you learned to disguise and if you showed it you were weak. Well, in an effort to overcome my own training here is my personal scale, low to high, for pains that have stuck indelibly to my mind. (As they say, it’s all in your head):

1.0 Dental work: a dull mildly throbbing pain that blurs vision and sneaks up in intensity after the medication has worn off. Like biting down on your tongue and drawing blood after chewing ice.
2.0 Ear surgery: a stinging spinning pain that prevents standing or lying down. Imagine being slapped on the side of the head with an industrial rotary sander.
2.5 Being dumped: a quick, sharp kick to the chest that makes difficult to swallow and creates an internal implosion. Like being thrown from a horse down a steep dirt embankment (and yes, that happened. I thought I broke my neck because I couldn’t breathe. Being rejected is similar).
3.0 Getting beat up: Strikingly similar to 2.0 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index only instead of revolving door, I would suggest several flights of cement stairs. Crunchy and intense are good adjectives.
4.0 Going through divorce: an extended burning yet bittersweet pain that affirms what you thought you already knew but just couldn’t put your finger on. Often requires extended self abuse and excessive consumption of alcohol. Similar to a prophylactic appendectomy.
4.5 Putting a pet to sleep: Surreal, sharp and manically freakish pain. Like watching an open wound being cauterized with a hot poker over an open flame or resetting a compound fracture with a brick. Makes you wish you could pass out.
5.0 Watching a loved one die: Brutal and numbing. Like being stretched, drawn and quartered for hours after being whipped, you just want it to end quickly, but are too tough to plead.

How about pains you’ve felt? I’m sure childbirth has a good description. And getting shot. Or breaking glass in a car accident. I’m not making light of pain, it’s an unavoidable part of being human. The trick is to maintain compassion while examining it from different angles (like Dr. Nuland does in his award-winning book How We Die), which tends to make it easier to share, and in turn, makes it easier to bear.

And before we part, I’ll share a joke told by Harry Shearer today about the kerfluffle over Houdini’s painful death. “What will they find there? … Geraldo Rivera!” owww.

UPDATE: Just in case you’re shy of showing your soft side, I just came across the press release for the National Tour to Encourage People to Let It Out funded by, no kidding, the Kimberly-Clark (aka Kleenex) folks. Here’s an unintentionally amusing quote from the study, “Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans believe New Yorkers let it out the most. However, just 38 percent of New Yorkers say they let it out in the last week, compared with half of Los Angeles residents and 44 percent of those from Chicago and Washington, D.C.” (Here is study itself, Letting It Out in America: The Social Landscape for Expressing Emotions (PDF; 76 KB)) So, when was the last time you let it out?

UPDATE 2: Pain Detection and the Privacy of Subjective Experience Source: American Journal of Law & Medicine. “I suggest that while the use of neuroimaging to detect pain implicates significant privacy concerns, our interests in keeping pain private are likely to be weaker than our interests in keeping private certain other subjective experiences that permit more intrusive inferences about our thoughts and character.”

Dying is not a trend

illusion.jpgAs humans we tend to make sense of things by searching for meaningful patterns. Librarians are especially guilty of this tendency and because of this I’m always checking my own potential for apophenia. It’s seeing your make and model car on the road more frequently because that is what you’re focused on. So when I see popular culture references on dying come up I understand it’s only because I’m looking for them and not really because they’re truly becoming popular. Of course this article (in the new-new age version of the old age Utne Reader) from What is Enlightenment magazine wants to have us believe that stories with a spiritual edge are more popular than ever,

Two new independent film festivals hit the scene last year, created specifically to honor the up-an-coming trend known as “spiritual cinema.” This independent spiritual film (or “spindie”), based on a play by a seventeenth-century French dramatist and starring Kirk Douglas, was selected as 2005 “best feature” at both events.

Ugh. “Spindies.” Sounds like spin. You know when the media creates its own clever catch word while “trendspotting” popular culture any reporting is going to take what is a normal cultural tendency and push it out of proportion. Still, the movie, Illusion, does look interesting. In fact the setting of a screening room reminds me of one of my other favorite movies, Afterlife. The idea that movies and memories are so closely linked isn’t just a trend though. It’s part of the mystique of the industry and why losing ourselves in visually told stories is so appealing at a fundamental level. There are a couple other films I’ve run across recently in the same category. One of them is Two Weeks. The trailer makes it seem more overtly sentimental ala Terms of Endearment than the review. The other is Eve Of Understanding which is more about the emotional fallout after a death than the actual dying. This film has a beautiful soundtrack with an interesting premise—what it means carrying out someone’s last wishes.

So forget about it being spiritual cinema. That’s just a catch phrase of some marketing wonk. They’re no more a trend than the human condition is a trend and these end of life stories do what all stories do, they connect us to one another.

Just listen to me

How often we read amazing, unbelievable stories from people who push the credibility index and yet are otherwise intelligent, reasonable humans. I remember sitting in uncomfortable silence as the manager of our department told his staff that God told him to quit his job and move to Arizona. Everyone honestly tried to be respectful, but afterwards we couldn’t help but ask why God preferred Arizona. Maybe he confused his voice of conscious with a higher power and if you believe there is God in everything, well then he was spot on. Art and literature constantly remix the parable of the unfortunate soul whose strange stories no one wants to hear; The Greeks with Cassandra, Shakespeare his fool, France had Joan, and Jung the archetype,

“Almost all non-literate mythology has a trickster-hero of some kind. … And there’s a very special property in the trickster: he always breaks in, just as the unconscious does, to trip up the rational situation. He’s both a fool and someone who’s beyond the system. And the trickster represents all those possibilities of life that your mind hasn’t decided it wants to deal with. The mind structures a lifestyle, and the fool or trickster represents another whole range of possibilities. He doesn’t respect the values that you’ve set up for yourself, and smashes them. …The fool is the breakthrough of the absolute into the field of controlled social orders.” (Joseph Campbell, An Open Life, p.39)

It’s no wonder we become a little shy of dismissing someone with a message. Yesterday I saw the report in the LA Weekly (via Boing Boing of course) about the 10th anniversary of the Heavens Gate suicides, but it’s not the sensationalism of the event that makes the story for me. It’s the fact we’re all often baffled why anyone would feel or desire something we cannot (or vice versa)–whether it’s love or something similarly spiritual. And any mention at all of “outer” space rather than inner makes it seem like too much science fiction. But is it even that? Maybe it’s just the fact that there is a message to be passed along and different people use different metaphors. It’s true that everyone has a story, some are just better storytellers. (see also previous post, Belief is hard.)

Comfort food

wafers.jpgEven though I don’t cook I watch the cooking porn shows on tv. Watching good cooks effortlessly whip up something in 30 minutes plus commercials fascinates me. Most comfort foods are uniquely personal. I like breakfast, and in particular oatmeal pancakes and eggs. They take me back to North County San Diego, a little diner that no longer exists, and overcast beach days that keep the tourists away. In a much less complicated way soup kitchens and bread lines bring daily comfort to thousands. Everyone has comfort food that mixes with a comfort memory and produces a comforting mood. What no one mentions is if comfort food has any connection to this (or this) because it seems that at least a few people think so.

What is dying well?

dyingwell1.jpgI’ve learned so much after the fact from reading about death and grief practices it’s a marvel to me how little thought I gave the process until I was directly impacted by it. Maybe that’s the way we all deal with it, or not. Wendy recently sent me a quote from Ira Byock, a well-known and respected hospice doctor who has written and presented on the topic for patients and caregivers. This is his take,

“Often the term ‘good death’ is used to describe the goal of terminal care. It has the disadvantage of connoting something that is static and formulaic. Furthermore, it perpetuates the confusion between death -about which we know nothing- and dying, the personal process of living with progressive decline and impending demise. The phrase ‘dying well’ seems better suited to describe the positive end of life experience that people desire. in conceptualizing ‘dying well’ and the related notion of ‘wellness in dying’, it is not necessary -and would be misleading- to glorify the experience. Dying, even for those who attain a sense of wellness, is rarely easy and may, instead be arduous and unpleasant.”

Death, like birth, may involve struggle that we don’t expect. A painful, protracted, agonizing trauma. How does one prepare for that? Or maybe that’s why we instinctively chose not to think of it until it happens. We take birthing classes but devote little study to our inevitable departure. Maybe we just need death midwives as guides to help us with through the pain. (Although not directly related to dying well, the POV film is available on Netflix and the PBS website is beautifully structured resource of historical information on death practices I’ll continue to reference. Thanks Wendy!)

The message in the medium

godtube.jpgOr is it the ghost in the machine. Anyway, was it only a matter of time? GodTube appears to be a mix between This Week in God with little personal documentaries ala Friends of God. The variety is actually pretty interesting by which I mean I’m not sure if it is satire or serious, or both. And it seems this trend towards differing HolyTubes will only get worse. I’m afraid I’m speechless, and I’m sure Richard Dawkins is apoplectic.

Spiritual hygene

breathspray.jpgCould it be that it’s just my breath?

Oh, and the marketing blurb for these sin removal products is heavenly. The smile factor in these items reminded me of the very cool handbag I own made from a Mexican blanket with the picture of the Virgin Mary on it, and that in turn reminded me of So in search of more religious swag I typed in that keyword and found a whole slew of really wonderful handmade art for sale by the artists that created them. If you have something handmade you’d like to sell, spiritual or not, or just like unique and one of a kind items, this site is the best. (Thanks for the reminder Marcos!).

A temple for tears

bmtemple.jpgWhere is it okay for you to cry? In a room alone? Usually that’s where most of us do it. I was chatting with a friend this weekend about supportive communities for people grieving any kind of loss (divorce, death, abandonment) and the topic of places where it feels safe to cry came up. Of course there are grieving centers across the country, usually for teens and children but generally supportive of anyone in need. They provide counseling to help people move on and cope with loss. Their mission is not to create sanctuaries that silently allow people to openly show and share their grief.

Then I remembered the temple built at Burningman in 2001. If you haven’t heard of this yearly festival in the Nevada desert just search on the term and you’ll find enough social analysis and fan pages to keep you busy for months. Fundamentally it is a gathering of people who challenge perceptions of art and intentional community in a big way and you’ll always hear “burners” speak with a kind of awe about their whole experience–but the festival and its community are not exactly what I’m focusing on here. What fascinates me are the temporary temples built out on the Playa by installation artists David Best and Jack Haye and a crew of dedicated builders each year. Their structures constructed out of salvaged materials, elicit powerful reactions and are stunning and emotionally powerful spaces.

The Mausoleum or “Temple of Tears” was built to allow visitors to grieve death in a social space without having to analyze their reactions. During the event its altars were stacked with contributions, mementos, and tributes to the dead, and participants covered its walls with inscriptions. On entering the silence and focused attention of the crowd gathered there was always apparent. This complex and eloquent monument to the departed moved many people to tears. Pilgrims visiting it were encouraged to write prayers on the walls, mourning loved ones and commemorating those who had passed away. At the end of the festival, Best hosted a mass ritual of grief and burned his masterpiece to ash. And then he built another one, and another and another.

Art therapy often helps people overcome grief through the creation of talismans or ritual tools from found and discarded materials. They become physical symbols of pain and catalysts for creative catharsis. The social ritual of burning this amazing work of art was as powerful as seeing the structure constructed. Just think if there were the possibility of this kind of artistic ritual incorporated into the grieving process more often how liberating it would be.

Funerals online

Peter Power, Photographing GriefIf you didn’t already see this post you’ve come to the right place. The S. Clark & Son funeral home in Northern Ireland is offering netcasted funerals as an optional free service. What you won’t see on Boing Boing was a similar observation posted a couple weeks ago on the Respectance blog about a man in Iraq attending his father’s funeral in Michigan via the internet, but in his instance a friend helped make the equipment setup possible. And as remarkable as this all sounds, “casket cams” are nothing new. has been promoting similar services since 2001 (and lest they miss a market opportunity, they do weddings too).

Eventually there will be no reason to be disappointed at folks who can’t possibly make the trip out west to see old Uncle Art get planted. Now they can watch from the comfort of their own easy chair. I could make all kinds of puns out of this one but I’ll spare you because all that netcasting stuff is so last millennium. If I really wanted to blow your mind, this is where I would say virtual grief gets a little, well, strange.

Travel guides

boatman.jpgAll cultures have funerary literature. The ones that come to mind most frequently are The Egyptian Book of the Dead which provided instructions for the soul’s journey to the next life and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, that has Buddhist monks guiding the souls of the dying through death to their next incarnation. In the Christian tradition it has been guardian angels that have acted as the soul’s guide to paradise. The hymn In Paradisum invokes the angels to escort the soul to heaven, and is still sung at Catholic funerals and around Easter.

I had no idea my left ear was so important.

Here’s a documentary produced by the Film Board of Canada in 1994, and narrated by Leonard Cohen. (In two parts, part 1 is 47 mins long, part 2 is 45 mins long. Save them for a day when you have a little free time.)

“…this enlightening two-part series explores the sacred text and boldly visualizes the afterlife according to its profound wisdom.” A Way of Life” reveals the history of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and examines its traditional use in northern India, as well as its acceptance in Western hospices. Shot over a four-month period, the film contains footage of the rites and liturgies for a deceased Ladakhi elder and includes an interview with the Dalai Lama, who shares his views on the book’s meaning and importance.

(found on the Cynical-C blog who also posted something on Timothy Leary and his reinterpretation of this book as a basis for his psychedelic experiments)

Write me a letter?

Girl Reading a Letter, Vermeer (1663)The advent of email has everyone keeping many more letters than they ever would have had they been written long hand. For those interested in preserving personal histories the fate of correspondence is the one conundrum that keeps archivists awake at night. With email the problems become even more complex: how to store it, how to index it, what is appropriate to keep and will any family member even be able to access it in 30 years when software programs change and digital storage becomes increasingly splintered. With all the new social software applications my personal data is spread over a half dozen online companies already. A trend which will only increase. I visited the Internet Archive the other day in search of a web page I created in 1996 and came away frustrated and disappointed I didn’t have the foresight to save it myself. But then, what if I did? Would it be on a Syquest disk somewhere? A zip drive? a floppy? Who knows. I keep it all, but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible.

Which brings me to the idea of ethical wills. Although the term has been around a long time, I don’t like it because it is too easily confused with living wills, or other legal documents and it isn’t a legal document at all. Its purpose is really very simple and can be created by anyone at any time. For instance, soon to be married or expectant couples can use an ethical will as a way to pause and reflect on values important to them, for parents who’ve legally given up or lost custody of their children through divorce it provides something meaningful to pass along. For seniors it provides opportunity to reflect on their life experiences, interpret them, and preserve this for future generations. In all cases, creating an ethical will provides a sense of completion and peace with the past. It doesn’t need to be complicated or complex. Here are some examples. These letters become a part of a legacy as much as any family heirloom. I’ve got this idea about a digital shoebox in the corner of my internet closet and I often think about what I would place inside. Don’t you?

Pallative care

seawaves.jpgI remember sitting in a theater watching The Sea Inside and being filled with emotion. The script is based on the true story of artist and poet Ramon Sampedro who broke his neck in a diving accident off the coast of Galicia, Spain, and became a quadriplegic. For 30 years he sought the right to die with dignity, seeking the assistance of his physician and friends. But assisted suicide is forbidden in Spain, and his accomplices would have been subject to criminal prosecution. One particularly comedic scene involves a paralyzed Catholic priest who visits Ramon to engage him in a philosophical discussion on why he should give up thoughts of suicide and live until God takes him. I highly recommend this movie. It will make you laugh and cry and think deeply of how you’d like to be treated if something similar were to happen to you.

I know that talk about pallative care, assisted suicide (or euthanasia) is a very delicate subject and there is no way I can conveniently cover it in the brief blog posts that I’m in the habit of creating, but recently there has been some talk making its way through the internet tubes and because I have such strong feelings about it myself, I feel compelled to at least bring it up and provide the references if not commentary. There is a review here from the blog Voloka Conspiracy that discusses the leading contemporary ethical arguments for assisted suicide and euthanasia. These are complex legal arguments that will make your head spin so I’ll toss in a pop culture op-ed piece from the tech trenches just to bring the debate down a notch. And then, because I never expect to change anyone’s mind about these types of closely held beliefs I’ll include a list of references that cover both sides, everything from “death mid-wifery” to a number of societies who provide news and information to their members.

Finally, there’s the point I really want to make.

The old city cemetery

sactocemetery2.jpgSpent a beautiful morning at the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery yesterday. The docents leading the tour were both such a wealth of information not only about the cemetery’s history (I was lucky enough to see the archives) and customs (all Muslum headstones must face Mecca), but they could be master gardeners as well for their deep knowledge of plants. The cemetery was opened in 1849 with a gift of ten acres from John Sutter with pioneer families planting wonderful gardens that fell into disrepair in the 1950s. Today it’s been restored by volunteers with historic gold rush era roses, native California plants, bulbs and flowering shrubs. With temperatures in the 70’s and the sun shining and seeing everyone out with their hoses and hoes it was a really beautiful scene and I took a few pictures to share.

They are really trying hard to turn this old cemetery into a park (since it is no longer used for burial—it’s full!), but not a park that focuses on expansive lawns because, as one tour guide said, “grass contributes nothing.” Instead they hope to provide food and refuge for birds and wildlife, cut down on the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and provide a place for the community to gather, picnic, and enjoy nature in the heart of a very large city. I think conservation of old abandoned places is as important as preserving existing open space. Sometimes we lose site of the smaller spaces in our haste to save broad expanses of public land. Readily accessible inner city spaces are just as much in need of care for those who find it difficult to leave the city. I applaud the Old City Cemetery Committee for their dedication to this beautiful public resource.

Green burials

colorfulcasket.jpgAlmost ten years ago now Bruce Sterling was talking about the green movement in design. Not many people were listening then, but he started Viridian and kept at it. I don’t always like his bombastic approach but I do admire him for his tenacity. Now every time you turn on the tv there is talk of the greening of America. Green burial is not design in the strict sense we’re used to, but it is a part of designing our environment responsibly and contributing to those ideals even in death. At the end of February KQED did a beautiful video segment on green burials and the effects of embalming. Their report reveals that due to our “casket consumption,” we bury more metal each year than what was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge along with 1.6 million tons of concrete that would pave a double lane highway from California to Phoenix. Wow. Each year. There’s another audio report here, on Good Dirt Radio which mentions land conservation, the legalities of home burial, and finding a green cemetery near you. Both sites contain links to green burial resources locally and around the country. Very handy stuff to bookmark. Trust me, we all will need it someday.

Cremation is also mentioned and they highlight the same spot that my friend John said I should visit, Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes. “The columbarium was designed by Julia Morgan and is open to the public. It consists of a labyrinth of little galleries and open air gardens. But the best part are the “library” rooms full of shelves full of urns shaped like books! What an amazing idea. I love sitting in rooms surrounded by books. But in these rooms, every book was a human life. While there I pondered what kind of book urn I might want to rest in. I think maybe an unassuming little volume tucked away in a corner near a cozy chair.” Another link between libraries and cemeteries. Now I know I said I like tiny spaces, but when it comes to books, I think I’d like to be the size of the OED on one of those fancy stands! How grand would that be? (Thanks John! Photo credit: KQED QUEST Flickr set)

She’d be disappointed if I forgot

Frances and Wallace OrrSo I never do. Happy birthday Fran, wherever you are.

#31 (e.e. cummings, 100 selected poems, 1959)

if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have
It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses

my father will be(deep like a rose
tall like a rose)

standing near my
(swaying over her
with eyes which are really petals and see

nothing with the face of a poet really which
is a flower and not a face with
which whisper
This is my beloved my

(suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

Rock talk of the day, necrogeography. What an interesting word. I will need to add it to my other list of interesting words. It is the study of the changing morphology of cemeteries. According to this article (I’d link to it but I’m afraid of the copyright police – just search on the name of the author and you’ll find the pdf online – or ask me), it “…relates intimately to architecture, sociology, psychology and economics.”

My favorite line in the article is this, “I have reached the conclusion that the cemetery in the United States is a microcosm of the real world, and binds a particular generation of men to the architectural and perhaps even spatial preferences and prejudices that accompanied them throughout life.” Pretty interesting hypothesis which leads me to think of my current spatial preferences and prejudices and how they’ve changed over time. (I like tiny spaces, would that be relevant?) Of course a lot of the author’s efforts goes into analyzing the structure and size of formal western-style tombstones and the physical layout of cemeteries. But what about these kinds of markers? Not American granted, but stones weren’t always nicely carved with names and dates and conveniently placed. In fact if you’re a real rock hound you know that tombstones are really pretty recent in the scheme of things. And when you leave strange rocks behind, people tend to tell stories about them.

Life in a cherry blossom

sakura.jpgThe ornamental cherry blossom is so much a part of Japan when I see the cherry and plum trees blooming all over the valley now it brings the same emotional reminders of that place and the meaning the symbol holds for the Japanese (and for Americans too). The metaphor represents the ephemeral nature of all life and you’ll see it in many movies where the point is to remind you that life is short, the bloom on the tree is temporary, beautiful and fragile. The tree is called sakura and the public watch for the sakura zensen, or cherry blossoms like we wait for the leaves to change to their fall colors in the Northeast. Full bloom typically hits Tokyo at the end of March or the beginning of April when the ground gets seriously slippery with the pink petals. Parks, shrines and temples attract groups of “flower viewing parties” known as hanami and this custom dates back to the 3rd century. Around here the ornamental cherry and plum trees are already in full bloom. The petal showers will start soon, like an Akira Kurasawa movie. Stop and inhale. Appreciate the moment, it is fleeting.

Update: Very interesting art project called Cherry Blossoms that really brings this point home. (From We Make Money Not Art).