Monday, December 28, 2009

Size and Service

fat death
It's no surprise that many of us are getting bigger than our forebears. Even if we don't notice it on the street or in the mirror, we've all seen the news segments where the camera shows footage of overweight people from the neck down, citing a new study on obesity.

Some airlines have been under fire lately for charging people more if they are over a certain weight, and while this may be horrible customer service, we all know that the larger we are, the more jet fuel is required to lift us off the runway.

Expanding waistlines have an effect on funeral service options as well.

The labor and equipment required to care for the dead is pretty much the same whether a person is 25 lbs or 300. Removal from a hospital requires only one director and a standard cot, removal from a home setting requires two directors, and while the amount of embalming chemicals, or time in a crematory will vary a bit, the amount of labor and the type of equipment required does not vary depending upon the size of the deceased. At a certain point, say 350 lbs, the amount of labor, the capacity of equipment, and the range of merchandise changes dramatically. Removal from the place of death can require six directors. If cremation is chosen, freezing may be necessary. The deceased may not fit on a standard embalming table or inside a standard crematory retort. Traditionally, however, costs to consumers have stayed the same no matter their size.

fat death


Exceptions to this rule have been children, and merchandise. Traditionally, full service funeral homes have provided their services to children for nothing, or for almost nothing. Merchandise such as caskets, vaults and urns are things that the funeral homes must pay for themselves, and thus those costs are passed on to consumers, but removal, planning, paperwork, embalming, services, vehicles, staff and cremation are traditionally provided to the families of infants and children for free. The merchandise selected for people who do not fit in a standard casket or vault, and the cost of an additional grave space, if necessary, can be more expensive because of the size and strength required.

Is this fair? Well, I don't think anyone would argue that two graves should cost the same as one, or that a casket should cost the same no matter how big it is. As far as infants and children go, this is a donation of service in a very tragic situation, and few would argue that the waiving of a fees for babies and children is unfair to the rest of us.
fat death
The hard economic reality though, is that funeral homes have expenses that must be met. Mortgages must be paid, staff retained, benefits provided, equipment must be purchased and maintained. All the income from the services a funeral home provides must contribute to paying these costs, so if the services for babies are provided for free, the rest of the families each pay a little more than they otherwise would have to, to make this possible.

Similarly, when the cost of the labor and equipment required to care for the over 350 crowd is higher, but their cost stays the same, then ultimately, everyone else is paying more so that they can pay the same.

This is the way funeral homes have operated for years, and there is nothing unusual or deceptive about it. At some point every business averages their costs out over a range of consumers. Some do not pay their bills, and the rest of us must make up the difference. Some customers need more care, and take up more service and labor from staff. Some menu items cost the restaurant less, but are marked up more to cover the cost of labor and facilities across all patrons.


And so, we might assume that as people get bigger, the average casket gets bigger, the average embalming table gets bigger, the average crematory is built with greater capacity, and it all evens out again. We all pay just a little more so that babies are buried for free and big people aren't singled out for higher prices. This is part of the traditional full service funeral home model. Another part of the model is that, despite a dramatic increase in labor costs for large services, for making removals at night or on holidays, and for preparing the deceased following tissue donations or autopsies, the price for services remains the same.

However, the model is changing, and more and more families are choosing discount funeral homes that offer limited services and lower prices. Does this sound familiar? Let's go back to the airlines. Many people choose their airline based on price alone. They shop around for the lowest fare, and in turn, airlines offer less and less. If you want a meal on the plane now, you have to pay for it outright. If you want to take another piece of luggage, there is a fee.

Full service funeral homes are not at this point yet. However, market forces are driving them in this direction.

Our funeral home recently served a family who had originally engaged the services of a discount funeral home to care for their very overweight loved one. The discount funeral home lacked the proper equipment to transport the deceased from the place of death, even from a hospital type bed in a medical facility. Because we had equipment that could handle the weight in a dignified and safe manner, our services were engaged for the removal. Still, the family continued to work with the discounter until they were told that there would be a surcharge amounting to 100 percent for transport and cremation services because of the extra work and equipment involved. At our full service funeral home, cremation for adults costs the same, no matter what their size is.

So should people to pay more for services if they happened to die on Christmas, or have a large extended family, require an autopsy, or weigh 400 lbs.? I don't think so, but ultimately, the market will decide. I do know, though, that the day we determine the cost of services by the weight of the deceased, the world will be a colder place; a place where the dead are disposed of, not laid to rest.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Speech and Cemeteries: What is appropriate?

cemetery memorial
Union Brings Rat to Cemetery from NBC NYC

What type of behavior and speech is appropriate in a cemetery?

Out of respect and reverence, should we only allow the quiet prayers of the grieving punctuated by the reassuring whir of the weed-whacker and the cautionary beeping of excavators backing up? Should we allow picnics and dog walkers? Do joggers or smokers disrupt the peace of those who have shuffled off their mortal coils?

Many cemeteries are private property, most others belong to the city, state or nation, and they all have rules. In national cemeteries, jogging and picnics are not allowed. In many cemeteries, dogs and evening visitors are prohibited. However, these rules are seldom an issue because in most cemeteries, most days of the year, the cemetery is a very quiet place. And for many, that's just the way the cemetery should be, quiet and peaceful.

Certainly a cemetery needs to be a safe, peaceful and attractive place that allows mourners to commune with their loved ones. A cemetery is different from any other place, it demands respectful behavior on the level of a house of worship, and many times cemeteries are indeed hallowed ground.

At the same time, in order to remain a relevant part of the community and the life of it's citizens, a cemetery must be more than just a place for the dead. The living must also have an interest in the cemetery. It is through the interest and involvement of the community that the value of the cemetery is realized. If the living are not there to enjoy the gardens, to picnic and jog, to fill the place with purpose and meaning, cemeteries come to be viewed as a waste of land, and an unwanted impediment to progress and real estate values.

But how far should the involvement of the living go within the sanctuary of the cemetery?

Should the freedom of speech be regulated in a cemetery? Should political speech such as war protesters be allowed to disrupt a funeral? Should unions be allowed to picket cemeteries for unfair labor practices?

In the news today, Union protesters in Long Island picketed and installed a giant inflatable rat outside Holy Rood Cemetery. Perhaps the protest would not have generated much notice, but falling as is did, during the Christmas season, when many people visit and decorate the graves of their loved ones, the protest drew some strong reactions. Here is an excerpt from the NBC NYC article, and accompanying video:

Protesters waved signs, passersby honked their horns in support, and a huge inflatable "rat" stood by, signaling that this was a union demonstration. All pretty standard, except for one thing -- this protest was being staged outside the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, Long Island. "I don't think the way we are handling this is inappropriate," said laborers' local 66 organizer John O'Brien. For much of the past week, O'Brien and his men have picketed the cemetery, claiming it is using non-union workers for the installation of pre-fabricated crypts. -NBC NYC


View more news videos at: http://www.nbcnewyork.com/video.



I don't like to see this kind of thing in a cemetery. I hate to think of a grieving family confronted with shouting and a giant rat at a very delicate and emotional time. I really can't stand the idea of protesters harassing the grieving families of fallen soldiers. What's more, I'm not convinced that workers have been exploited at this cemetery. I wonder though, if there really was an injustice, would the exploitation or the giant rat be more of an affront to the repose of the dead?

The problem with the freedom of speech is that it only counts when the speech makes us uncomfortable. No one needs protection to say something everyone agrees with; it is the controversial and unpopular message that our freedom of speech was created to protect. Protecting our freedom of speech, in turn, protects us all by allowing the voices of dissent to be heard and considered.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sanctuary: Part 2, Moving In

In a previous post, 'Sanctuary: Living in the Cemetery', I looked at a situation in Africa, where governmental forces moved to evict impoverished people who were compelled to make their homes in the cemeteries there. The idea of people living among the dead may certainly seem disrespectful and unhealthy to many of us. In fact, there is an ancient and widespread taboo shared by many cultures that prohibits the dead from resting in the same space as the living, and vice versa. In the Christian tradition, however, church yards and cemeteries also have a history of functioning as sanctuaries and places of last resort for people without other options.

cemetery memorial ritual

As these photos show, people throughout the world, including the Philippines, are compelled by economic and social circumstances to make their home among the dead, seeking sanctuary in the hallowed ground of cemeteries. They work, sleep, eat and play there; and while a cemetery may not be the most appealing place to live, there are certainly worse places.

cemetery memorial ritual

Are these photos disturbing because we find the less than sacred activities of life disrespectful among the dead, or is it because we find it unhealthy or degrading for the living to be compelled to live among the dead? Are we concerned about the effect of the living on the dead, or the effect of the dead on the living? In any case, we realize that for many reasons, from sanitation, to our ideas of the nature of life and death, this taboo is still a powerful one for us.

cemetery memorial ritual


Is this so different than keeping an urn with the cremated remains of our loved one at home with us though? Is it different from burying our loved ones on the family farm or scattering their ashes at the cottage? Some religious leaders would argue that it is not, and that for their own good, the dead must rest together in a community of saints until the resurrection.


cemetery memorial ritual

This religious prohibition is no longer followed by as many people today. More and more, in a very mobile society, people choose to keep the ashes of infant children or parents with them because they may very well move across the country several times before dying themselves. They want their dead to move with them. Green burialists and others increasingly advocate for permission to bury outside traditional cemeteries. The dead are interred on farms and forests that may or may not be used for other purposes. The ashes of golfers and football fans are secretly scattered on the fairway and in the stadium.

As the wishes grieving families run afoul of religious and legal guidelines, those guidelines may adapt, they may turn back the tide, or they may be ignored. In any case, it is clear that our concepts of life and death, as well as the proper relationship between the two, are changing. Instead of the living moving into the cemetery though, it is the dead who are moving in with us.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Solar Cremation in India?

Hindu death cremation
Solar Cremation may soon be an option at an innovative new crematory in the city of Barot, India. Special reflectors are used to heat the cremation chamber to very high temperatures, offering an environmentally friendly option to electric power and traditional pyre cremations currently employed in India.
Here are excerpts from the Times of India, and the Meri News:

The crematorium has been built as a chamber with special scheffler reflector developed specifically for this concept. The reflectors are designed to heat a two meter long crematorium chamber to above 700 degrees centigrade. "The facility was made operational on an experimental basis recently. It will be commissioned within two months and shall be free of cost for everyone using it," said trustee Uday Dalal. The traditional system of cremating people on woodpile consumes over 300 kilogram of wood. Many trees are felled to meet the requirement. The old method the woodpile was then to some extent replaced with electric and gas fired chambers. Times of India

Contrary to popular perception, electric crematoriums also lead to more pollution than the traditional Hindu style of cremation, involving burning the body on a pyre. The UNDP report informs that electric cremation is nearly seven times more intensive in terms of emission of green house gases as compared to the traditional Hindu style. Solar crematorium also appears to be a viable option, suggests V Ramesh of Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited. India is the front runner in this regard, with Baroda, a city in Gujarat equipped with the world’s first solar crematorium. It was developed by Wolfgang Sheffler, a Swiss national and Ronnie Sabbawala of Rashron Energy and Auto limited. The body is burned exclusively using solar energy. The second solar crematorium is to be erected in Patna, Bihar, by 2009. But this method also has certain disadvantages. Solar crematoriums are impossible in many parts of India during the winters and monsoons. Also, they can be used only during the day as long as the sun shines. Meri News

Important questions remain on how well this method will work, and how widely it will be accepted in India, let alone elsewhere. It is important to keep in mind that the traditional cremation in India does not achieve the degree of combustion that is expected in North America and Europe. 700 degrees Centigrade is at the low end of incineration temperatures used in the West, so this method would be more time consuming and result in more recognizable remains. Adoption of this method may be difficult for families and operators unless the technology advances, and higher temperatures can be created in the chamber.

This is certainly a promising first step, though, and many of us will watch closely as solar cremation is tested in India.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Technology Facilitates Ritual at Japanese Cemetery



In Japan, a novel solution has been found for overcrowded cemeteries - high rise columbarium condos with a high tech vending machine style retrieval system. Families insert a card at an altar and the urn of their loved one is brought to them for a visit.



This innovation shows that when something is important enough, we can find ways to facilitate it. For other posts on cemetery crowding and solutions, visit:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Faron Young's 'Bucket List'

Thanks to T. Tex Edwards for the link to this great video. The 'Bucket List' is nothing new. Hopefully this song from fast-liver Faron Young will inspire you to make the most of your time here!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"We were all dreading it, but it was an amazing day"

no funeral

"Mad Mike" and Fay Vercoe (photo from Dartford Messenger)

"It was an amazing day." How often do you hear a funeral described this way? Actually, I hear this kind of sentiment quite a lot after funerals. No one looks forward to attending a funeral, but when it is an appropriate tribute to the person we have lost, when friends and family participate in ritual and remembrance, the results are moving and uplifting. No service or expression of sympathy can take away the pain and grief of loss, but the presence and participation of friends and family demonstrate to us that our loved one is missed by others too. Their support acknowledges that this life had meaning, and its departure is a serious and important loss felt by many.

The rituals we follow can be old, newly made, or a combination of the two, like a motorcycle procession. In any case, participating in them is a public expression of the importance of this event and helps us to accept and work through our grief.

The acknowledgement of our situation, the remembrance and tribute to the unique personality of our loved one, and participation in rituals that are relevant to us and the spirit of the deceased,can all have a wonderful and meaningful effect on us. That is what funerals are all about.

Here is a wonderful example from an article fr0m The Dartford Messenger / KM Group, by senior reporter, Danny Boyle:

Just days after battling out of hospital, Fay Vercoe, of West Kingsdown, paid tribute to husband Mike as she laid him to rest on Friday, following the smash in Italy. About 250 bikers from across Europe followed his coffin, carried in a motorbike sidecar, from a Farningham pub to the funeral of the well-loved 66-year-old, known affectionately as Mad Mike. In her first interview, 62-year-old Mrs Vercoe, who only left Darent Valley Hospital last Tuesday, said: “Going to Mike’s funeral was a goal I was determined to hit, it was the least I could do for him.

“We were all dreading it, but it was an amazing day. It was absolutely incredible to see the sheer number of people that turned up. Talk about lifting the spirits.”

Mrs Vercoe was riding on the back of her husband’s new Triumph Thunderbird when tragedy struck near Trento, Italy, on September 22, just one week into a trip with the Motorcycle Touring Club of Europe. She paid tribute to her husband: "Mike was the life and soul of everybody’s party. He loved to dance, which we would do whenever we could, and he was a talented artist. “But bikes were his true love, he’s been riding since he was 16 and very experienced. He was a happy guy who lived for the moment.” for the full article, visit The Dartford Messenger

Monday, November 9, 2009

Is Ritual Important?

no funeral
This incredibly moving photo from The Vancouverite was sent out by my esteemed colleagues at Seattle's Evergreen Washelli Funeral Home, who assisted the family of slain Seattle Police officer, Tim Brenton. The photo shows some of the 220 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who attended Officer Brenton's funeral services.
In addition to being a powerful statement of respect and remembrance for Officer Brenton, the uniforms and solidarity shown here are an important lesson to anyone who plans a funeral or memorial service: Ritual is Important

When a loved one or colleague or neighbor dies, we need to acknowledge the importance and gravity of the event through our clothing and our demeanor. Even our presence is powerful, meaningful and healing for those who have lost a loved one.

When our world has turned upside down, we need the comfort of familiar ritual. Walking through those formal steps and acting out those time honored rites helps us to accept and deal with the new reality both inside and out.

Personalization and improvisation are important and increasingly popular in funerals these days, but we should never forget the importance of ritual because ritual speaks for us when the right words just cannot be found.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Humberto Luis Rivas: Photographer of Silence dies at 72

art and death

BARCELONA – Award-winning Argentine photographer Humberto Luis Rivas died Saturday in Barcelona, where he had lived for the latter half of his life. He was 72.
Rivas, called the photographer of silence because his portraits attempted to capture the interior qualities of the people he photographed, was born in Buenos Aires in 1937 and arrived in Barcelona in 1976.
Rivas’ death came just two days before Barcelona City Hall was to award him the Gold Medal for Artistic Merit in recognition of the value of his images.

From the Latin American Herald Tribune obituary. For the full text, visit http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=346985&CategoryId=13003


art and death memorial

art and death

Friday, November 6, 2009

Atlanta Undertaker on StoryCorps

funeral director ritual ceremony

“I strive ever day to make people feel better.”

Sam Reed, a mortician and the caretaker of Atlanta's historic Oakland Cemetery, talks about how his interest in the funeral business started at a young age.

Listen to this charming story on StoryCorps

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cross Bones Graveyard: Remembering the Outcast Dead

10/27/2009
In Southwark, South London, a disused cemetery dating back to the 17th century has taken on new life and purpose. Known as Cross Bones, this is an unconsecrated burial ground associated with the churchyard of Saint Saviour's parish. It was used for the burial of prostitutes and later, for the burial of paupers. Today, the site has been recovered from overgrown waste ground, and the designs of developers. It is now used as a memorial shrine and a reminder of the hypocrisy and disrespectful treatment the residents received in life and in death.
cemetery memorial funeral protest
Passing by Crossbones Photo Credit - Ciara Leeming

Here is a brief history from Cross Bones-The Living Herstory:
Close to the junction with Union Street, you'll see a vacant plot of land, enclosed by London Underground boards on which someone has chalked a skull and crossbones and the words: "Touch For Love". The rusty iron gate is adorned with a bronze plaque, ivy, ribbons, flowers, feathers and other curious totems. This is Cross Bones, an unconsecrated graveyard going back to medieval times. The Tudor historian John Stow refers to it as a burial ground for 'single women' - a euphemism for the prostitutes who worked in Bankside's legalised brothels or 'stews'.
Such women were condemned to be buried in unhallowed ground. Yet many were actually licensed by the church. For some 500 years, the Bishop of Winchester exercised sole authority within Bankside's 'Liberty of The Clink', including the right to licence prostitutes under a Royal Ordinance dating back to 1161. These women became known as 'Winchester Geese'.
crossbones cemetery memorial funeral protest
Plaque on the Gate of Crossbones - Photo Credit - Ciara Leeming

The graveyard was finally closed in 1853, on the grounds that it was 'completely overcharged with dead' and that 'further burials' would be 'inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency'. …[T]he graveyard slept peacefully and unmolested for the best part of a century. Then, in the 1990s, London Underground built an electricity sub-station to supply power for the Jubilee Line Extension. Prior to the work, Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation of the site, removing some 148 skeletons. By their own estimate, these represented: 'less than 1% of the total number of burials that were made at this site.'

cemetery memorial funeral protest crossbones

Here is an excerpt from the Museum of London regarding the Cross Bones Excavation:
Excavations carried out in 1992 on the site of Cross Bones Cemetery, recorded part of a post-medieval cemetery to the west of Redcross Way in Southwark. 148 inhumations were recorded and are thought to date to the last 50 years of use of the cemetery approximately from 1800 to 1853 when the cemetery was closed.
The Cross Bones burial ground served the poor of the parish of St. Saviour’s, Southwark, but the ground is thought to have originally been established at least as early as the 17th century, as a single women’s (prostitutes’) cemetery. By 1769, it had become a paupers cemetery and remained so until its closure in 1853.

cemetery memorial funeral protest


Again from the Cross Bones site:
The shrine at the Cross Bones Memorial Gates in Redcross Way dates back to the first Halloween of Cross Bones in 1998. As the Halloween of Cross Bones evolved as an annual event, a succession of home-made plaques regularly appeared on the wall around the gate. Each was eventually vandalised, or perhaps removed by the site-owners, to be replaced by a new plaque until, in 2005, Southwark’s ‘Cleaner Greener Safer’ fund paid for the official bronze plaque and the ivy planters which now adorn the gates. Meanwhile, the spontaneous shrine at the gates was continually renewed and transformed as a living artwork and memorial to the outcast dead. In 2004, the community self-help Green Angels rededicated the shrine, introducing new elements into the remembrance ceremonies performed there. This marked the beginning of monthly vigils at the site.

cemetery cross bones memorial

Local residents and the group 'Friends of Cross Bones' continue to resist development of the graveyard site that would displace once again, the outcasts who were compelled to be buried here in the first place. Their struggle continues with the aim of permanently protecting the shrine at the Memorial Gates and to dedicate part of the site as The Goose Garden memorial public park.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Putting Your Best Face Forward: Younger pictures in obituaries

10/25/2009
Look carefully at the obituary page of your local newspaper and you'll notice that the photos of the deceased often show them to be much younger that they were at the time of death. If the age difference is significant, it can be confusing for readers because they will often pass by the obituary thinking that the familiar name belongs to someone else. This is especially true with military service photos because today's dress uniforms and portraits are often very similar to the ones used in earlier conflicts. I understand the desire to use a meaningful photo, and love to see the old ones, but as a funeral director, I counsel families to use one that friends will recognize in the obit, or to use two photos to show both ages.

obituary memorial art

A recent study suggests that there is more to this phenomenon than meets the eye. A trend has been found where the age disparity of these photos grows greater each year. The reasons behind this trend are not necessarily linked to vanity, as most photos in my experience are not chosen in advance by the deceased, but by the survivors.
obituary memorial art

The study was examined in an article published in the Jerusalem Post today. Here is an excerpt:

A recent study at Ohio State University that looked at photographs published in The Plain Dealer of Cleveland found that the number of obituary photographs showing the deceased at a much younger age more than doubled between 1967 and 1997. And women were more than twice as likely as men to have a youthful obituary photo, said OSU social work Prof. Keith Anderson, who coauthored the study.
Anderson said either spouses or adult children of the deceased chose the photographs. They understandably wanted a photo that they thought represented their spouse or parent at his or her peak, he said. But what is remarkable is how we as a society define these peak years.
In 1967, about 17 percent of the obituary photographs surveyed in the daily newspaper were "age-inappropriate" - meaning they showed the deceased at least 15 years younger than when they died. By 1997, the rate (among 400 obit photos) had increased to 36%. "Obituaries and their photographs are one reflection of our society," wrote Anderson in the study published in Omega: Journal of Death and Dying. "Our findings suggest that we were less accepting of aging in the 1990s than we were back in the 1960s." for the full article, visit the Jerusalem Post

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Foreign Cemetery: Far from home

10/24/2009
Foreign Cemeteries and special foreign sections of cemeteries can be found all over the world. Due to economic circumstances, logistics or a stated preference, foreigners are buried where they die rather than return home for burial. Some died in a military campaign, some are ex patriots who consider the new land to be their home, and some died on their journey to the new place and have never known life there.
In any case, a foreign cemetery is a special place that helps us to remember how important a cemetery can be. It is stirring to think of the lives of adventure that have ended so far from where they began, and how a little patch of soil in a strange land is almost a part of another world.

foreign cemetery memorial
A separate Japanese Cemetery sits in the middle of Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon

In the middle of the historic Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, where I once worked, sits an even older Japanese Cemetery that feels like a tiny piece of Japan. Stepping in from the sprawling wooded Rose City Cemetery with it's beautiful, but conventional, American monuments, through the gates, and into a tightly packed rectangle filled with exotic shapes and script always started me thinking of homesickness and longing for home; of relatives who may never have learned of the fate of their kinsmen in a new world.

foreign cemetery memorial
A poem on the gates reads:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Thomas Gray (1716-1777)


Across the world on a bluff overlooking Yokohama, sits a counterpart to Rose City's Japanese Cemetery. The Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery's first resident was an American sailor who died before ever reaching Japan. In addition to Americans; many Russians, Germans, British, Dutch and others rest in Yokohama, but not quite in Japan.

Here is a history from the Cemetery's home page:

In the mid 1800's the city of Yokohama was only a small fishing village with a small population. Yokohama's road in the becoming a modern day metropolis began in the 1850's when this country was still bound by a strict isolation policy, which was enforced by the Tokugawa Shogun-ate, literally making Japan an off-limits area for the rest of the world. When Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships (Kurofune), they demanded that Japan renounce the national isolation and open up its ports to the world. Consequently soon after the Japan-America Friendship Treaty was signed at the Yokohama village. Japan was no longer a sanctuary for the Tokugawa Shogun-ate, with the isolation policy shattered it was the sign of the beginning of the fall of the Tokugawa-Bakufu (government by the shogun-ate) and the introduction of the Western industrialization in Japan. It was around this time that the Japanese government had allocated in the Yokohama's Yamate area (Bluff) a sizeable area of land to be used as a cemetery for the foreign nationals who were living in Yokohama.

foreign cemetery memorial

With the news of Japan officially being opened up as a port, the city became in a manner of speaking a melting pot of the nations. Citizens from a multitude of nations came to the city, many consulates were opened and foreigners flocked to the city in the hope of establishing new business ventures, there were teachers engineers and merchants, people from all walks of life came to the city. It is not an exaggerated remark to state that these people were in a manner of speaking the Founding Fathers of the City of Yokohama and perhaps the pioneers of making the country of Japan what it is now today. As the influx of foreigners continued, the population of the city began to increase exponentially and in just a manner of 20 years the city of Yokohama became a major trading port of the world


As time passed, history witnessed two World Wars and the Great Kanto Earthquake also devastated the city of Yokohama. From around this time the number of available plots in the cemetery slowly dwindled and today regrettably there is only a extremely limited number of plots left.
From the late 1800's the cemetery was operated and maintained by the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery Executive Committee. The committee, which is comprised by an all-volunteer staff, is responsible for the finance, maintenance, upkeep, and the daily operations of the cemetery.

foreign cemetery memorial


Recently Ianin Maloney wrote a piece that illustrates beautifully the emotional impact and importance of these cemeteries. Following is an except. For the whole article, visit Japan Today
foreign cemetery memorial



During difficult times, it is always comforting to know that you are not alone, that others have stood where you stand, have gone through what you’re going through and come out the other side. Regardless of how adventurous we feel when first we board the plane that takes us from home, the route that is new for us is nonetheless well traveled. While it is sad to say there is nothing new under the sun, there is often safety in numbers. This feeling, this understanding of the part we play in the unfolding of history, returned to me with increased clarity recently when I visited the Foreign Cemetery in Yokohama.
These men, and the hundreds of others here, came to Japan to seek fortunes, knowledge, adventure, and never left. As I stand and read the names, dates, hometowns, my imagination is filled with daydreams of men my own age stepping from their ships into an amazing new world, full of hopes and fears, confronted by many of the issues I have dealt with in making Japan my home. Language, culture, the daily struggle to get by, to learn, to fit in. Some things never change.
It is rare that we can step outside our subjective bubble and locate ourselves in some kind of context. For me, Yokohama Foreign Cemetery is a special place because the peace and tranquility, as well as the reality of the bodies fading to nothing beneath the grass, allow me that privilege. Between the gravestones and monuments I can read the continuity of existence. I can see bonds between me and the generations that have gone before. I can glimpse for a moment my station in humanity.
foreign cemetery memorial

Friday, October 23, 2009

Superfriends Funeral: We buried @NickolasMichael today

Here is a sweet example of personalization and participation in funerals from Twitter today. The deceased was layed out in his favorite Superman shirt. His friends followed suit, wearing their superhero shirts as they carried their friend to his place of rest.

This one post says so much about what can be done right at a funeral.

The clothing that the dead are dressed in should reflect the personality and spirit of that person. Whether its a suit, overalls, a uniform, or ritual religious garments, clothing can be an important expression of our personality, individuality, membership in an important group, and even humanity. Not everyone should be layed out in a Superman shirt, but not everyone should be layed out in a conservative suit or dress either.
Participation can be very important for survivors in their path back to life. Through participation, we accept and act out the ritual and reality of the death and this helps us to understand and express our emotions in a healthy and meaningful way. Each of these pallbearers have gotten much more from their involvement in the service than they ever would by sitting passively through it.

Connection with community is one of the most valuable parts of a funeral. These men have come to publicly support one another and the family of the deceased, and by dressing in this manner, they show a solidarity with the deceased, with one another and have shown in a public way that this life and its passing is important to them.

Here is the message that goes with the photo:

"We buried @NickolasMichael today in his favorite super man shirt & we carried him out wearing ours to honor him"

In response, one comment read: 'I hope when I go I have some friends like you. My condolences to you and his family."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Obituaries of Note: Nancy Spero


Nancy Spero, an artist whose political and moral conscience had a lasting and profound effect on the art world, died at age 83 on Sunday, October 18, 2009.

memorial art death ritual
Detail and full view of Azur -2, 2003
feminism art obituaryHere is an excerpt from her NY Times obituary by Holland Cotter:

Born in Cleveland in 1926, Ms. Spero studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and there met her husband, the painter Leon Golub, to whom she was married for 53 years until his death, in 2004.

The couple moved to Paris in 1959, where Ms. Spero steeped herself in European existentialism and produced a series of oil paintings she had begun in Chicago on the themes of night, motherhood and eroticism. When they settled in New York City, which became their permanent home, in 1964, the Vietnam War and the social changes it was creating in the United States affected Ms. Spero profoundly.

To come to grips with these realities, Ms. Spero, who always viewed art as inseparable from life, developed a distinctive kind of political work. Polemical but symbolic, it combined drawing and painting as well as craft-based techniques like collage and printmaking seldom associated with traditional Western notions of high art and mastery.





And from Adrian Searle's article in the Guardian:

Nancy Spero's death on Sunday took a great artistic conscience from the world. ……Spero's work was determined and unerring. During the 1960s she focused on the Vietnam War: helicopters whined overhead, bombers emptied their loads on an undefeated populace. She developed a cast of characters and a repertoire of images which she repeated and recombined in different ways every time they were shown. … Her figures danced and raved around the walls of galleries and museums worldwide, swarming in a cacophonous, mischievous, floor-to-ceiling choreography.

…. Her art could also be riotously funny and sexy as well as macabre, and she made many works which dealt with female jouissance and eroticism, pleasure and pain. Spero was a spearhead of feminist art in the 1960s, calling for greater recognition of women artists and women in the New York art world.

Spero was a vital, energetic artist. She never lost her curiosity in the world, nor her sense of anger at its injustices, and she found a way of making work which combined the graphic with installation, relevance and timelessness.

death art feminism obituary
Detail and Full view of Black and the Red 111
memorial art funeral

So, can an artist make a significant contribution to society? I would say so.

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