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From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

A very beautiful and melancholy essay from an architectural blog, BLDGBLOG, on the Library of Dust. It includes mentions of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the reason I picked the University of Oregon for an English degree was because Ken Kesey taught there at the time), Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (which was influenced by Borges, two of my favorite writers and their fantastical visions of librari-es/ans), and a book titled Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible by Joseph Amato, which was an amazing piece of science writing about something we rarely consider anything more than a daily annoyance if we consider it at all. Geoff Manaugh writes a beautiful counterpart to the images,

“Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?”

Or do we just see ourselves in another form? The byproduct of a chemical bloom of color, the matter we used to be creating a florescence marking not the end, but continuous and constant change, even after death?

Headstone in Fernwood Cemetery without name or dateSometimes I’ll run across something interesting and hold onto it, waiting to write because not only am I sure something related will show up to give it context, but it gives me time to reflect on the connection it makes with the others. This week it was grave markers.

I received a call last week from a trade magazine, Stone in America (unfortunately not online). They had found my blog and were interested in the reasons for its genesis. It was a difficult question because as with all interests and hobbies, it can’t be distilled to a single answer. It’s the result of a love for storytelling, art and history. And conveniently that trinity is reflected in the visual stories embodied in epitaphs and tombstones. Take this item titled Comic Epitaphs from Today’s Inspiration, a blog focusing on illustration from the 30s and 40s. Leif likes the drawings, while I’m more interested in the words. Our focus is different but our interest is shared. It’s a stretch believing these are truly taken from actual headstones since there’s no more detail about them. But maybe they were never meant to truly be used as epitaphs, only as a way for folks to find a little light humor in the inevitability of death. A little mystery surrounds them.

Today their equivalent is becoming more technically sophisticated. No more colorfully illustrated and mysterious chapbooks to be found at the back of a bookstore. Now we seem to expect a whole “rich media” experience right in the moment. Which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just mindbogglingly different. The latest trend in Japan employed by a memorial stone maker there uses sophisticated graphical bar codes (called QR codes which are related to, but dissimilar from RFID chips). They are inexpensive to produce, will likely have a longer lifespan in terms of access, and can be easily read by cell phones with cameras. The idea is to point and click your camera phone at one of these bar codes and, with the right software installed, the image will link you to a web page with more information about that physical object (as long as a web page is maintained of course). It requires you use less of your imagination, but provides a whole new world of information you never would’ve had access to before. Is it art or storytelling or both? Same could be said of Stonehenge. And perhaps someday people will look at these tiny QR codes embedded in monuments wonder at them in the same way. (Thanks to Karen for the tip!)

star trek urnSomehow I’m reluctant to commit to something today that is supposed to represent me in perpetuity. There were passions I had as a teen that simply feel a tad outdated now. I loved ponies when I was small, and was a huge fan of Star Trek even up to at least ten years ago, I’m just not sure how far into the future I want to be remembered for those singular passions when I have so many more yet to explore. It comes down to that natural gap between forward moving change, and the sentimentality with which we all remember those things that contributed to our growth. That is why I relate to the tribe of folk who enthusiastically remix old passions into new forms. A friend once made me laugh with the comment that golfers would love to be buried on golf courses. At first I thought he was joking since I personally don’t golf, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. What incredible untapped potential for course owners to make golf courses more “green” by making them dual use. Why should golfing be any different from sailing when it comes to disposing of your remains in the environment you most enjoyed in life? And what a wonderful way to remember Uncle Bob: when putting your way through his favorite tee you dedicate each swing to your old friend. I’ve buried some of my parent’s jewelry in their backyard and even left a memento or two stuffed into the insulation in the attic to remain even after the house has passed to new owners. It was their favorite place so it seems more fitting to leave it there than to bury it with them in some remote cemetery where only their bones remain and not the memories they created. Besides, that way the walls will talk when time remixes what we’ve built today into the Tells of tomorrow.

arthonorslife.jpgYesterday I took a trip to the tiny vine town Graton for the gallery opening of Art Honors Life and to meet Maureen Lomasney in person. The NYT called it “the nation’s first art gallery dedicated to cremation urns and other personal memorial art” and I’ve had it marked on my calendar for months. I first mentioned Funeria when I learned about Nadine Jarvis’ work last March so the anticipation was worth the nearly three hour drive from home. Especially when Maureen showed me a little handcrafted art book she’d created years earlier to capture personal histories. When I saw it I felt a little like I’d found a soul mate. The urns of course were all gorgeous. You can see a few examples in the (pdf) portfolio here, but we also talked briefly about those kinds of art that children or teens might want and how they would differ from what was being displayed that evening, as well as burial options besides cremation and how odd it is that we care so much for the purity of things we put inside our bodies until our deaths, when they are then artificially preserved by being pumped full of chemicals.

It was also nice to talk so openly with some of the other visitors. I met a fascinating woman who builds custom coffins on special order (I found a reference to her handcrafted simple pine box caskets based in Forestville, but that is a guess since her business is not online and I seem to have misplaced the materials she provided me when I was hurriedly noting some resources she shared—sorry Kate!). She told me a wonderful personal story about how she placed some of the ashes of her mother in an old fashioned pressure cooker because her mother loved that kitchen tool, they were sturdy and airtight, and her mother had given her one as a wedding gift long ago. I had to laugh at that because it was so sentimental and perfect and so different from what we formally think of as traditional even in the light of so many beautiful urns placed in the gallery around us.

She gave me a few more tips that I am so thankful for and I want to share here as well. First is the Funeral Consumers Allianceprotecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral” where you can find information on home-funerals and the exceptions in a few states to avoid using a mortuary completely. Second was the tip about the non-profit organization called Final Passages where Jerrigrace Lyons, founder of the project directs a Home Funeral Ministry by providing courses, pamphlets, and information packets to anyone interested in the legalities and benefits of family directed funerals. It was a wonderful evening full of great conversations. Best wishes to Maureen who hasn’t just caught the latest green trend, but has been quietly waiting in the wings for years hoping society would eventually catch up with her vision that both life and death are honored when industry is not allowed to interfere with the more deeply personal creative urge that exists in each of us.

You may remember I’ve mentioned my cat here before. And I’ve also written about my artistic interest in funerary urns. Well this past weekend I just brought home what will be the future urn for my cat’s ashes thanks to Py Simpson and Arturo at the Phoenix Gallery. It is titled (very appropriately I think), “Some Kitties Can Fly” and was part of a show memorializing the many pets who died from the food poisoning recall earlier this year. So far the cat doesn’t seem to care much. But looking at it now makes me smile, and I know I will cherish it forever. Preparing isn’t very hard to do if your heart is in the right spot. Now it’s time to start saving my pennies for my own container

epitaph.jpgOn the headstone in the picture to the left there is a very hard to read inscription without a name or a date. It says, “My glass is run, my grave you see, be sure prepare to follow me” which is a succinct little bit of preplanning advice. After all, what defines you enough to remain as your epitaph long after you’ve gone? One of the hardest choices I had to make was what, if anything, to put on my parent’s stone. I thought I remembered my mother saying once that she wanted the words, “She tried her best” or something similar, but since I couldn’t be sure she’s now stuck with “forever beloved” for eternity. I know, not very creative but I was under duress. The kids are left with the responsibility it seems. Take Kurt Vonnegut’s kids. They either get to choose this epitaph on his humor (according to Fox News anyway) or this bit about music and God. And yet what everyone remembers him for is the quote, “So it goes.” And then there are the classics. Those inscriptions that make having something to say even more difficult than it already is. What prompted me to post this though is the brouhaha over the approved “symbols of belief” permitted at the veterans memorial cemetery and a soldier’s family’s fight that he be remembered as a pagan. Maybe instead of an epitaph you just want a symbol or a statue? And would choosing a symbol instead of a string of words be any easier? Maybe just saying nothing makes the biggest statement of all?

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.

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!)

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)

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)

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)

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