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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?

From a BBC news article, “I think that there is a huge role for philosophical reflection as a way of changing our attitude towards events over which we have no control…We have to learn to make sense of a finite life.” Philosopher Havi Carel uses the tools she understands best to place a personal perspective on her own terminal illness. She is working on a book due out in the fall titled Illness (The Art of Living). I’m sure it will contain reflections similar to the one’s she mentions in the longer article of last March from The Independent,

“Illness breaks down the neutrality and transparency of our bodily existence. But it has also given me perspicuity. I observe my life and the lives of others and see them for what they are: brief, full of emotion and agony, activity and joy. I see people arguing over nothing, worrying about wrinkles and careers. Illness makes you immune to that. From the loneliness into which my illness forced me, I became able to see the world anew.”

Her’s is a different way to view illness: as an emotional world that can incorporate well-being and the possibility that you can be ill and still happy. It is an unexpected hypothesis and one that depends on a different and more creative approach and attitude than most of us are used to, or maybe more than we are even comfortable with. After all, no one says they’re sick or terminally ill with a smile. Or do they? Which is why this a useful bit of mind-bending.

To be sure Dr. Carel has creativity to spare. On doing a bit of further research I found an article she authored (from SCAN, The Journal of Media Art and Culture) that appears to draw from similar themes only in a very off-beat and fascinating way, with a really terrific bibliography at the end. I won’t reveal too much about it since you only have to read the first paragraph of the link to see where she takes the essay, but I will say it involves illness as a metaphor to one of the most horrific monster movies of all time. The one that completely freaked me out when I was a kid and to this day I can’t bring myself to ever watch again. To draw such parallels you certainly do need to be an out-of-the-box thinker. (Thanks to Chris at Crooked Timber for the heads-up).

tonbridgepmthn.jpgThat’s the traditional comeback line to a long stare. Yet there are some things we just can’t help staring at in order to capture an essence that escapes us at first glance. That is what the photos of Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta do for me. They cause me to examine them so closely I find myself staring, captivated by what Cory Doctorow calls, “…the difference between flesh animated and the empty vessel gigantic and unmistakable, even when the before-death shot is of someone terribly ill.” And interestingly, because of the intimate juxtaposition of life before death and the amazing brief stories they tell about their feelings towards that death, they are more powerful than the similarly somber cabinet cards or postmortem photography of the late 1800s (where equally as many children as adults were photographed).

Pulling out a camera after death must certainly be difficult emotionally. I know it never occurred to me to preserve that particular moment. It’s also hard to judge what might be insensitive behavior toward other family and friends in attendance at a deathbed who might consider it an intrusion or at least be uncomfortable with it. It’s true we can watch it in the abstract on tv, or in movies, or in games, but there does seem to be something odd about, “lights, camera…inaction” when someone you love is involved. (Photo credit: Paul Frecker collection of 19th century postmortem photography)

gorywoman.pngI recently visited Mount Auburn Cemetery which is one of the earliest “garden” cemeteries in the U.S. An extremely well-kept and beautiful place (thank you Karen, my photos don’t do it justice) and I’ve even mentioned it briefly in this blog before. While I was there, leaving yet another note for one of the staff I’d been trying to arrange a meeting with, I realized that my repeated attempts potentially had the effect of branding me as yet another cemetery obsessed goth chick or slightly downbeat Ruth Gordon when actually I’m closer to being Barnesian in my approach and attitude than either of those other stereotypes. In fact I’m looking forward to reading Julian Barnes’ latest book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, since it does sound so much like what runs through my head on a regular basis. Well, the staff member never did decide to give me the time of day, and although of course I’m disappointed I can’t say I blame her. Despite my insistence I’m not morbidly obsessed with graves other than to appreciate cemeteries as rather pleasant sculpture parks, I must admit that a very early love of Edward Gorey did influence my warped sense of goulish humor and fondness for Edwardian landscapes and draped grecian urns. An idiosyncrasy that does tend to set me apart from your average Joe-anne, although from her perspective I’m likely not all that unique.

images.jpegYou could argue that every day we all unintentionally or indirectly kill something; ending the life of an insect caught in the bathtub, eating meat or eggs, or wearing leather. But this blogger has a job which requires her to euthanize injured or sick animals:I work with a lot of injured wildlife. Also not wild animals that are just in a lot of pain. Sometimes I have to euthanize them. I decided to record each animal I euthanize here.” What a very tough job that must be even if you manage to find a certain peace in understanding it as an act of grace. I’m sure there are instances where the job is overwhelming. I remember very vividly the vets who helped me with jcee, and earlier with little edd. I was more than a wreck, but each time they brought a kind of mercy to the end of those lives I loved and I was so grateful for their powerful acts of kindness and understanding. There is nothing more difficult than making the decision to end an animals suffering and then having to watch the consequences of that decision, but at least advances in medical care and human understanding has made it so the end doesn’t have to be painful. Although I also wanted to be a vet when I was a kid I sensed way back then I didn’t have the fortitude to be able to hurt something in order to help it. I’ve always truly admired people like this who can.

sontagbook.jpgThis one hit home for me, an excerpt from “Swimming in a Sea of Death, A Son’s Memoir” from an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

“Thinking back, I wish I’d hugged her close or held her hand. But neither of us had ever been physically demonstrative with the other, and while much has been said and written about how people transcend their pettier sides in crises, in my experience, at least, what actually happens is that more often we reveal what lies beneath the waterline of what we essentially are.”

In his book David Rieff writes about his mother, Susan Sontag, and her struggle with cancer. She died around the same time as my own mother, with mine being only a few years older. David voices some of the same “unanswerable questions of a survivor” that in hindsight plagued my ability to talk openly with my own mother about her failing health and the forced cheerfulness, or in my case ignorance, of the gravity of her diagnosis. And while my mother was not a famous writer, I can say without hesitation she loved life equally as much in her own way, whereas my feelings tend to drift towards the “…eighteenth-century French writer who wrote a friend asking “why, hating life as I do, do I fear death so much?” That was Larkin’s perspective, too. It was even Canetti’s when he wrote, “One should not confuse the craving for life with endorsement of it.” Regardless of a personal perspective on death, Rieff puts the difficulty of consoling another facing it into sharp focus, and everyone who has confronted similar situations will be left nodding their heads. He talks of the things he felt he should have seen, the do-overs if given the chance. He examines them without the overly sentimental perspective one would expect from a child who has lost a parent. They are simply those unanswerable questions we are each left with in the end, “Did I do the right thing? Could I have done more? Or proposed an alternative? Or been more supportive? Or forced the issue of death to the fore? Or concealed it better?” and there is no predicting them. Listening to him talk about what he wanted from her and what he felt she wanted in her own death is an interesting reflection on death and his mother’s struggle to deny it purchase.

deadbug.jpgThe Dead Bug Funeral Kit comes with a 32-page Illustrated Buggy Book of Eulogies with Ribbon Bookmark, Casket, Grave Marker, White Clay Flower, Burial Scroll, and Pouch of Grass Seed.” So this is where I show a lack of a sense of humor (which usually I pride myself on). But as silly as this is, it’s not very green. A cardboard box would be much more appropriate. And it’s expensive, comparatively, considering I believe a good bug is a dead bug. But then bugs are just not my thing. Bugs need to decompose to enrich the soil. We all do for that matter. Wouldn’t it be better to teach our kids those lessons than purchasing treacle in a tin? Or at least have them construct it carefully themselves? Or hey, junior’s first lesson in cremation perhaps? After all, what kid doesn’t like to burn things.

Anyway, so it’s kitschy. Ok-fine. As far a pop culture goes I’m far more interested in interpreting the dream at the end of No Country for Old Men. You may consider that link a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film, so if you’re sensitive about such things, just come back to it later. All Cohen brothers films are worth seeing on the big screen. I went to see it today while carting around the apocalyptic anthology Wastelands (which surprisingly contains no Cormac McCarthy) and it’s no wonder I’ve lost some of my sense of humor. Bleak as these stories are (and pleasing to my catastropharian soul), it’s hard to be that concerned for insects that will remain, and likely rejoice, long after the rest of us are dead and gone.

UPDATE: And now death takes a holiday in South Korea where a little over $300 will get you a fake funeral. I admit, what people willingly spend their money on is often beyond me.

the world to meIt has been difficult to write this last month because my closest companion passed away on August 31 and I really haven’t known how to write about it. I still don’t. I knew he would never live as long as me, and that his broken heart would actually kill him sooner than the average life expectancy for his kind. But I think because I loved and cared for him so fervently he managed to hold on for me a few years longer than predicted. I know deep down I should be grateful for that extra time instead of mourning the fact that I didn’t have more. But that is inevitable isn’t it? Which brings me to Kevin Kelly’s discussion of Life Time, and how important it is to recognize how much we have left, with tools and predictions to help you count your own numbered days down. It’s all very fascinating and even a bit puzzling, as if a daily reminder of your eventual death to will keep you hopping about, motivated and ultimately anxious about those (lost) minutes ticking by. (Apparently I am going to die on Tuesday, July 22, 2042 but to me those kinds of predictions are really no more reliable than my horoscope.) Regardless, I think the point is you really never have enough no matter what the prediction or number is. I never held jcee in my lap enough. I never told my mother I loved her enough. I never took the time to ask my father about his life until it was too late and he could no longer remember it. Last Sunday I stumbled upon Garrison Keillor’s monologue, News From Lake Wobegon, on the radio. It was beautiful and worth listening to….he talked about how fall and the golden days of September remind us how we always hope there will be more….how all good things come to an end and how it is the end, the knowledge of death, that makes life so unbearably, heartbreakingly beautiful. Put it on your podcast list for listening during these fall afternoons. The poetry of it I think much better than clockwatching…

roseofjericho1.jpgJust when I start feeling a little guilty about not posting more frequently, a tiny bit of rain falls. Today the Nonist reappeared after a long drought with a metaphor to share in the form of the Resurrection Plant (also called the Rose of the Virgin or Rose of Jericho). I love Nonist’s site. It has been around a long time in internet years, but rather than worrying about posting on any set time schedule there only are posts that are meant to be there. Each one is a gem and today’s is no different. In turn this has made me feel better. Roses of Jericho do what they are meant to, when they are provided the opportunity, no more, no less. This little plant has been around hundreds of years and survives because it has learned to adapt to lean times. But like the nonist, sometimes I do wish anxiously for rain.

(UPDATE: Oh, and that reminds me. Here is something I’ve been saving that is related to that. These two things work together nicely I think).

callingangels.jpgHow many roads, how many times…that’s part of a folk song I sang when I was a kid. It is also part of the Hitchhiker’s codex,
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
…So the search for the ultimate question began. Lacking a real question, the mice proposed to use “How many roads must a man walk down?” (the first line of “Blowin’ in the Wind“)

And just where is she going with this you might ask? Well, I do have a point and it concerns our apparent love for steps and processes and the compulsion to answer how far, how long, how many. As if by following the rules we can somehow achieve a kind of grace. If we can break anything down by components we feel we have a handle on it.

So while the quote below comes from part of a long silly list (#21 to be exact) of “things you should know by 50” I’m actually relived to see there is no order to the progression besides just the small steps it takes to get through the day. It is a bit of kitchen wisdom by Larkin Warren:

“After the first death, there is no other,” wrote Dylan Thomas. That doesn’t mean the ones that come after won’t break your heart, but it’s the first that punches your soul’s passport. Welcome, fellow human, to a different country than the one you woke up to this morning. The air’s different here; so is the scenery. Your knees don’t work so well; in fact, you may want to fall to them.”

And I agree with Yuna, this is not age specific learning.

speaker.gifIn a recent eulogy I heard the pastor recite Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “To every thing there is a season…” and it pinched because although I know he meant it as a source of comfort, it reminded me of that other old saw, “timing is everything.” Damn, why must my timing always be so different from yours? And which season would death best fit anyway? We are learning the physics of time is an artificial construct but one thing scientists seem to agree on is that, like the universe, it is constantly flowing away from us. How do you capture the time someone spent on earth in the few minutes allotted to you at a memorial for it? Some people are suddenly inspired and bring that person to life because it is “the most important thing they’ll ever do.” They don’t talk only about themselves, unless doing so involves the whole audience. They might not even talk at all.
When Einstein lost his lifelong friend, Michele Besso, in a consolation letter to Besso’s family he wrote, “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” It is a heartfelt sentiment, but I’m sure he was as frustrated with that stubborn illusion as I am. It could be that dream time is the only other illusion where we are still able to join those whose time for us has come and gone and where what we say doesn’t matter as much as that we remember.

UPDATE: To go with the post, a very sweet tune called Time by Kelley McRae (nice site but I sure wish Flash would let me link directly to the song). Thanks Lux! My, but she is Patsy Cline reincarnated and I’m only sorry I won’t get to see her as St. Joan.

lilith.jpgThis post has a little something for everyone. It combines science, sex, death and art. If there is a better combination let me know. While mentioning sex in the same sentence as death challenges some taboos it has never been unusual for creative types to link them and I don’t have to regurgitate all kinds of philosophical drivel for you to understand the inherent connections let alone the ones you’d normally not associate. But today I’ve found a few interesting links worth mentioning. You have to love the BBC for this quote, “So sex and death are indeed deeply connected, if not quite in the way the poets thought. The longer life and shorter reproductive span of the human female point, I believe, to the superior biological usefulness of older women.” Now that I have your attention, here is the entire End of Age lecture, either in transcript or podcast form. That’s the science part. These Reith Lectures are fascinating stuff which only proves once again there is never enough time to read everything I want. Nor is there time to listen to or view everything I’d like to either. I found this “beautifully honest” gem on “Facettes de la Petit Mort,” or “Faces of the Little Death,” thanks to another writer, Erin O’Brien. That’s the sex and art part. Coincidentally, I think the viral way the “Beautiful Agony” site is being promoted is very appropriate in a we’ll-scratch-your back-if-you-scratch-ours kind of way. Seems they are not only creative in content and presentation but in experimenting with subscription services too. Good for them. A few days ago Erin also shared some personal observations on the death of her brother worth pointing to as well. There are some very creative people out there working in relative anonymity that should encourage us all. It has been a very interesting morning. (Thanks also to ECRR)

bird-cry.jpgSharing sorrow publicly makes you vulnerable to the rude behavior of spiteful people. Some say the act of blogging simply welcomes the burdens of any celebrity: you open yourself to public scrutiny so your life is no longer private–you provide a pulpit for the opinions of others who feel it their right to comment on you, your lifestyle, your perceived talents or your mental state. Others say netizens should follow a code of conduct that asks us all to be nicer to one another. It’s idealistic of course, but hardly enforceable. There will always be the Iago archetype. Proving that point, this blog post contains only a poem written by someone who has just lost her dog. The comments started out with the usual condolences offered by her shared community that turn hurtful when anonymous commentors chime in. It’s a pity really but then again it’s no wonder people often prefer to keep their sorrows to themselves. Nothing makes her grief any different from Whitman’s

Tears! tears! tears!
In the night, in solitude, tears,
On the white shore dripping, dripping, suck’d in by the sand,
Tears, not a star shining, all dark and desolate,
Moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head;
O who is that ghost? that form in the dark, with tears?
What shapeless lump is that, bent, crouch’d there on the sand?
Streaming tears, sobbing tears, throes, choked with wild cries;
O storm, embodied, rising, careering with swift steps along the beach!
O wild and dismal night storm, with wind-O belching and desperate!
O shade so sedate and decorous by day, with calm countenance and regulated pace,
But away at night as you fly, none looking-O then the unloosen’d ocean,
Of tears! tears! tears!

stewart.jpgDuring my routine Sunday morning reading I came across this picture for Mothers Day, and was stunned to recognize the pose of death I saw in my own father close to the day he died. I find it very admirable that the Muir found the strength to share it with the world. It reminded me of the book by C.S. Lewis, “In A Grief Observed, author C.S. Lewis shares the journal he wrote after the death of his wife Helen Joy Gresham, nee Davidman. As his stepson observed, few could have written so powerfully and honestly about his pain and grief, few would, and fewer still would have published the journal (Lewis xix). Lewis begins his journal as an attempt to face and temper his grief. “Come”, he says, “What do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape. Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable (28).” I do understand why we avoid it if at all possible, but I also see that sharing it can bring a little relief. It’s as if releasing it into the air sets it free from holding us captive. And it certainly is powerful how we remember our parents on such days–so very different from when they were alive. Mothers and Fathers days transform into orphan days unless you have children of your own. Holidays create a strange sense of remembrance. Like the phantom memory of a missing limb. And along with interesting observations (even though it may seem initially like a non sequitur), two of my favorite thinkers, John Stewart and Bill Moyers, have a great half hour discussion where about half way through Stewart starts talking about being a parent, feelings of sadness, and how he fights back against it. A really worthwhile interview to spend a few moments on.

UPDATE: Interesting how the anti-war history of the “real” Mothers Day proclamation touches on that discussion too.

A man set the clockI was talking with a friend about what triggers people to plan for their eventual death and it seems the biggest reason is age. People automatically assume death is for the old when of course that’s really not the case. Here is a story covered by CNN about Miles Levin who is a teenager dying of cancer. For a news article it is sensitively done, although I tend not to consider this kind of event hard news so I temper the sensationalism of the story a bit for my own benefit. There is a comment from the CNN video that says Miles “has little time to make life matter” but in the grand sense we are all held to similar limitations, only he knows when his time will end and most of us do not. Of course I’m not immune to the fact that as a teenager he has not had the chances to experience as much of life as his elders have and that is what makes his observations especially poignant. That he uses his disease as an opportunity to comfort others is what makes him an exceptional human. I wonder what will happen to his blog after he dies? No one seems to be asking that. (Thanks to Epicenter for the link)

cpr.jpgThis article reminds me of the old saying, “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden change in direction.” (…or some say the sudden stop at the bottom), but scientists have uncovered something they didn’t expect to find, that it’s not the lack of oxygen that kills you, but the attempts at resuscitation. And this might lead to changes in the way doctors treat those whose heart has stopped. “Biologists are still grappling with the implications of this new view of cell death—not passive extinguishment, like a candle flickering out when you cover it with a glass, but an active biochemical event triggered by “reperfusion,” the resumption of oxygen supply.” I think one of the more interesting lines in this report is the second to last one, “The body on the cart is dead, but its trillions of cells are all still alive.”

Of course that is all the technical side of doctors trying to save lives. On the flip side of this coin there are those signs where life is fading and how to know what to look for to understand the process of helping someone die. For instance there is evidence that hearing is one of the last senses to leave which makes talking to the dying reassuring. In either case it seems, thousands of cells are listening.

presidio pet cemetery Copyright © John Teoh 1997-2000If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that I find euthanizing a pet one of life’s more difficult and painful experiences. Yesterday Paulina described the death of Pink “…the mangy old tom cat who has brightened my days” and I asked her if I could share her private feelings because I’ve always liked her descriptions and she writes in a way that is poetic without being squishy sentimental. Similar to love there are different kinds of grief. She mentions “pureform” grief, as in simple (not to be confused with simplistic)…undiluted with conflicting emotions. This puzzled me because my own experience with grief has always seemed so layered that finding a pure form of it would be like the pure distillation of anything: more intense, more powerful, not subtle at all. But she describes it better than I do (posted with her permission),

“..I’m a person where the grief hits in waves, maybe in private (not much of a weeper); and the form my grieving takes here is at times the disbelief kind–still expecting him to Show Up, bang on my door, jump into my lap when I am sitting outside reading, greet my car… one of the manifestations of pureform mourning: you just keep expecting the beloved, the departed to appear/re-appear…

I was also thinking about how, even more so than most human-animal relations, this was a relationship of mutual courtship, and not an arranged marriage. It was truly a situation where I had been observing Pink’s spriteliness/pluck/beauty/drollery/humor/indefatigeable charm for months, letting him gradually approach–and I still remember the day he first jumped into my lap. He roamed around the nabe, and I was always amused and admiring of him: for a cat, he had true sentience and interactivity (would always look you in the eye. would talk with you, absolutely non-skittish and fearless, doglike in his aplomb. He would demand to be held or skritched or lie on your stomach, but then he would wander off…). and with time, he and I became ever more bonded, spent more time together. People told me that in the last year or so, he hung around my house even when I wasn’t home…There are no complicating ambivalences as most human love relationships have. He and I just dug each other, enjoyed each other’s company, and grew ever more fond with time.

I seem to run into a Great cat about once a decade: Sentiment, [in the 70s], Buck was my lord of flatbush I obtained from a private rescue catlady in queens in 1985; and Pink entered my life in 1995. I know I made the right decision to have him put to sleep (I noticed him drooling the day I brought him in to the vet, so obviously the tumor was really interfering with his ability to swallow) but the grief I feel over his death is of the most basic kind: of questioning why death has to exist (well, duh!) and why we lose those we love and all the classic dumbass shaking your hand against fate that all true mourners go through.

You don’t often find beings you connect with. Kindred spirits are so rare.

Pureform grief.”

At first I would think that missing something is such a human condition. Then I come home and my own cat is all over me as if he hasn’t seen me in weeks (no, it’s not about food) and I wonder if that’s just something we share with pets and something that happens with bonding of all kinds. Is it even a chemical thing? A form of pure emotion that manifests between two beings, happens with repeated contact and increases with mutual respect?

And strangely enough this mention of loss and cats reminds me of the final portion of “Last Words” published in the New Yorker after William Burroughs‘ death.

Thinking is not enough.
Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, no Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict. Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love.
What I feel for my cats present and past.
Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
LOVE.

didion2.jpgIt’s not only the weather in California that is consistently different from the rest of the country but there is an attitude that goes with it that few authors have ever tried to explore. That’s why I’m so drawn to Joan Didion because her writing, especially Where I Was From, managed to help frame some of the ambivalence I feel about being a native daughter myself. There is a good review in the New York Times about it although I think they miss the sense of California dreaming she invokes. If you are ever curious about the entitlement most Californians seem to flaunt then reading this book will help you understand part of that mystique.

Making the cultural examination personal, explaining sensations as well as history, that is her true talent because The Year of Magical Thinking is one of those books that make you feel like a friend is in the room talking about how grief feels. Even with a mood of numb detachment, so many passages are spot on you will recognize yourself in them. Which is why a stage play adapted from her memoir called The Sound of One Heart Breaking makes so much sense. Here is one passage in particular that stuck with me,

Survivors look back and see omens, messages, they missed. They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered onto he hood of the car. They live by symbols. They read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment in the decision to replace it. …One day I was talking on the telephone in his office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message? Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary?…

This book won the National Book Award in 2005 and even on Amazon you can see how many people have bothered to leave reviews. It is a beautifully told story about a difficult subject. I hope this play comes to her old home town someday soon.

kanji symbol for soulI really want to understand quantum physics and neuroscience but these are a few of the many topics I’ve just never been able to wrap my brain around (and yes, that was a pun). But whenever people write about Digital Immortality I have to admit a curiosity because if that is true, then perhaps all this going on I do about preserving personal histories will be moot by 2027 anyway. Of course my faith in all this talk of transhumanism and singularity is challenged whenever I have computer issues and have to reboot because of a mysterious glitch so I rarely give it much serious consideration. But every once in a while I come across a post suggesting a potential convergence of science and religion. It mentions the “science of consciousness” and in conclusion states,

“…if it could indeed be scientifically proven that “consciousness exists apart from the purely mechanistic or biological workings of our temporal bodies,” what kind of ramifications, if any, would such a revelation have in the area of Artificial Intelligence? Or, for that matter, cybernetics. Especially given the recent advances in quantum computing which may theoretically allow humans to “upload” themselves into computers within the next 50 years….Indeed, based on this new “quantum consciousness” theory, if we may someday have the technology to upload a complete human brain neural simulation, would we still be limited to retaining only data, with no way of retaining a person’s underlying “consciousness?” Would the person remain, or just the memories? And what does that even mean?”

Just in terms of brain science and the question of soul the article and the links in it bring up interesting things to think about. Is a person only the sum of their memories? Will technology enable people to preserve their own memories despite those same memories being malleable and changeable? Is it even more important to preserve memories than it is to buy them a headstone? (via Anne Galloway, “Memory seems to be much more important than forgetting now, and we assume that computers will continue to collect information and the Internet and the Web will continue to grow. Even when sites try to die, they persist as the undead or ghost sites.”) Or is the process of forgetting integral to creating a personal mythology? In other words, forgetting is as important as memory and the two must (not merge but) find a balance somehow, like science and religion. Whew. Maybe these stories on remembering and forgetting will add some perspective.

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?

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.

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!)

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. Eulogycast.com 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.

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)

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