Friday, February 27, 2009

Ted Kliman: An Artist Who Explored Death and Mourning

Artist Ted Kliman, died on Feb. 16.  He came to painting later in life, and was well known for his work exploring death, mourning and the iconography of Judaism and Christianity.
Here is an excerpt from the Web site of the New Deal Cafe, which displayed his work

Kliman has often been asked, "What is your inspiration?" He replies, "I didn't set out to make these paintings, but as happens so often in art, things occur accidentally." As he began this series, Kliman said, "I realized that I was embarking on a difficult artistic path: the fusion of realism and conceptualism." Although the images were conceived in a sense of suffering, of affliction, provoked by the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust, Kliman says, "...grief and suffering are universal. I feel these paintings are symbolic and identifiable for people of all religions and cultures." Ori Soltes, professor of Art and Religion at Georgetown University has said that these paintings, "convey the emotional content of memory...they take on the contours of figures...which are eerily absent...these are texts without words, caught between the realms of the natural and the preternatural."

Study for Lamentation I
Here are some highlights from his obituary in the Washington Post:

Mr. Kliman was an educational and industrial filmmaker for 20 years before picking up a paintbrush at 45. Accepted into the Maryland Institute College of Art, he received a master of fine arts degree in 1979, immersed himself in art history and began exploring questions of life's meaning through his work.
"Some people search for the infinite," Mr. Kliman told The Washington Post in 2001. "They look to God by fasting and prayer. I search with my painting. Can a painting be a prayer?"
When he read "The Metaphysics of Cloth," an essay by Polish-born painter Ewa Kuryluk that explores Leonardo da Vinci's drapery studies, he found inspiration for what became black and white depictions of faceless, bodiless cloth that suggest human figures.
Redemption III

A professor challenged him to experiment with surrealistic techniques using the same elements. After reading Kuryluk's essay, he took his Jewish prayer shawl, draped it over a flexible mannequin and created a drawing called "Leonardo's Tallit."  Soon he was creating large paintings of cloth, which, by folding into soft, undulant swaths, he transformed into something almost tactile, lifelike.  The empty shawls had Hebrew and Yiddish lettering on them, and some referred to the Holocaust with names such as "Shoah Triptych" and "The Dance of Death." Later, he incorporated Christian icons into the shawls. He called them "The Lamentation Series."

Theodore Elwood Kliman was born in Philadelphia. He served in the Army during the Korean War and played minor league baseball before receiving a bachelor's degree in English from Penn State University in 1954.  Before launching his career as an artist, he spent nearly two decades making educational films at Virginia Tech and other universities and industrial films for a company in Baltimore.

He had artistic inclinations from an early age. He told his son Todd Kliman that he had drawn comic books as a youngster and was crushed when his mother threw away what she called his "scribbling pictures." He painted for a couple of years on the side before he enrolled at the Maryland Institute.  "He was creatively restless," his son said. "He longed to make something durable, something lasting, longed to leave behind the collaborative worlds of film and theater and stretch himself as an artist."

Dance of Death III

Although he never made much money as a painter, Ted Kliman experienced a profound sense of satisfaction.  Todd Kliman recalled two letters his father received years ago within a few weeks of each other -- one from a priest, the other from a prisoner. Both were expressions of gratitude for his work.

"He read and reread those letters for weeks," Todd Kliman recalled. "They moved him deeply. What was a few thousand dollars, he said, when you could receive a letter like this from a stranger -- two strangers, actually, and at opposite ends of life -- that was testament to the fact that your vision -- your deepest, most personal expression -- shook them to the core?"

for the full obituary by Joe Holley, visit 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Promession Considered in Scotland

A Faerie Glen in Scotland 

In September, an interview with Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, developer of Promession was posted on The Daily Undertaker.  Since then, there hasn't been much in the news about the process becoming a real option for families, but I have heard from a great many people who would choose it for themselves if it were available.  Now there is news that the promession process may be gaining ground in Scotland.  Following is an excerpt from an acticle published today in the Scotsman by Jenny Haworth.  It seems that space restrictions and environmental concerns have given authorities cause to look into this worthy process.  Although the authorities seem to miss some key points about promession, namely that the remains would make a positive rather than a negative impact on the earth, and that the liquid nitrogen is a substance that is already produced as a by-product of liquid oxygen production, they cite sound reasons for considering the process. 

BODIES could be freeze-dried and shattered into dust to save space and help the environment, under plans being considered by a Scottish local authority.  East Lothian Council thinks the technique, invented in Sweden, could help ease cemetery congestion, while cutting emissions from cremations.  The process would involve freezing the dead body to -18C before submerging it in liquid nitrogen. This would make the body so brittle it would disintegrate into dust when a vibration was passed through it.
Stuart Pryde, the council's principal amenities officer, told community councillors that space in graveyards in East Lothian could run out within decades, and that freezing was a serious option for the future rather than building new crematoria.
He said: "There is a new system being developed where they basically freeze-dry you, hit you with a hammer and you break into dust, so there are no gas emissions – nothing.
"The end process is the same, in as much as there is a casket which can be buried or scattered or whatever, but it does not have the need for -emitting furnaces. It is a very, very clean way of getting the same result."  He added that it was particularly relevant to Musselburgh, because Inveresk Cemetery could not be extended.
The process, known as promession, is considered more environmentally friendly than cremation, largely because it avoids the mercury pollution created by burning fillings in teeth and other metal objects in the body, such as replacement joints or surgical implants.
Exposure to mercury is linked to damage to the brain, nervous system and fertility, and crematoria are believed to be one of the main sources of mercury pollution in the UK.
A spokeswoman for the council acknowledged the process might not be popular with some. "It's considered to be a very environmentally friendly way of doing it, but of course some people think it sounds dreadful to be freeze-dried," she said.
"Who knows, in the future something like that might become as acceptable as cremations. When crematoria were first invented they were also not considered acceptable."
Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, praised the council for considering the environmental impact of disposing of bodies.
"There are certainly a lot of concerns about crematoria," he said. 
"You have got hazardous emissions from the smoke stack. There's a metal component in amalgam used in teeth, as well as in pacemakers. 
"Another concern is that like other species, human bodies are increasingly riddled with chemical substances. Like any other combustion source this can be of serious local concern."
However, he suggested East Lothian Council should carry out more research before moving ahead with the technology, to make sure that the energy used to cool the body to -18C did not negate the environmental benefit.

Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, 
biologist and head of operations at Promessa Organic AB

The article goes on to report that the Church of Scotland has no ethical issues with the process, and Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak is allowed to explain the process and point out some of its benefits, including a possible expansion of where people can be legally buried:

SUSANNE Wiigh-Mäsak, the biologist who invented the promession process, said: "The main principle of this ecological form of burial is that the corpse is transformed into an organic, odourless, hygienic powder. This, in combination with a dedicated method to separate contaminants such as mercury, sharply reduces impact on the environment in comparison with today's forms of burial.
"The use of cryogenic technology in the process reduces the impact on the air we breathe, since there are no emissions of smoke or mercury to the air. 
"Mercury emissions in particular are a serious problem for which no acceptable solution has been found. 
"Even the greenhouse effect, which has increased in pace with man's use of fossil fuels, is reduced by using liquid nitrogen instead of combustibles. The burial itself takes place in a shallow grave, in the upper mulch-forming layers of the soil. 
"Here we find life-giving oxygen and the busy little break-down specialists, the micro-organisms that are the basis for our existence, at the same time as they are a prerequisite to the process of decomposition.
"The coffin and its contents are transformed into mulch in about half a year, thus becoming an important contribution to the living earth. In this way, ecological burial does not add to eutrophication of the seas via ground water or run-off, and vital drinking water is spared. 
"Since the remains do not cause any impact on the environment, this should also lift restrictions making it possible to place gravesites freely; in the home, on family property or other places with emotional ties to the deceased and next of kin."

for the full article, visit
For more information on Promessa AB and promession visit the web site at

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Embalming: Part 1, the transformation


Two photo composites by Artist Nancy Burson in a project dealing with cultural conceptions of beauty and facial features

Embalming is a topic that nearly everyone has an opinion on, but few know much about. This post is a beginning point to understand the process and results of embalming. In future posts, I will explore more of the issues involved in embalming and the other tasks involved in preparing the deceased for a viewing.
As an apprentice, my first impression of embalming was the transformation it made upon the deceased. I noticed that when the dead arrived at the funeral home, they looked, of course like people, but not like specific people. They seemed to lack their distinguishing features. They were pale and their features were drawn back, mouths and eyes open, they were usually needing a shave and a hair cut. As the embalming preparations moved forward, the features gradually returned, and I began to see (or even recognize) what that person had actually looked like.

The glow of Health as pictured in vintage Japanese magazine covers via Gatochy

The first few steps often made the most dramatic changes. The eyes and mouth were closed and set into natural expressions, the person was bathed and shaved, hair washed and combed. Then the embalming fluid was introduced, flushing out discoloration and returning a firmness to slackened cheeks and lips. The pigment in the fluid began to bring back the glow that once shone from oxygenated blood flowing through capillaries below the surface of the skin.

Duotronic embalming machine
At this point, under the care of a skilled embalmer, the skin tone, expression and facial features of that person had returned to a very close approximation of the way they appeared in life, and I was amazed, because I could see the person. In addition to the vast improvement in sanitary issues, I could see the character and personality of a specific person who, only a few hours before, had looked like they could be anyone or no one. This made an impression upon me. The fact is that it is a much different experience to be around and to look at a person who has been embalmed, and one who has not been embalmed. I am confident that if people really knew the difference first hand, almost everyone without a religious or philisophical prohibition against embalming would choose it without a second thought. The difference is that vast.
In life, our cheeks, laugh lines and other features make us recognizable and express our unique character. Above, a picture of Portuguese personality and beauty via Gatochy

You could argue that Chet Baker looks like he's already dead in this photo from the documentary film of his life "Let's Get Lost", and in fact, he died shortly after this picture was taken, but I think that the photo shows the personality that lines and other facial features give to a person's appearance. These features are lost due to the effect of gravity on the facial features of a person who has died, and not been embalmed.
Today, people have many decisions to make during funeral arrangements, and whether to embalm or not is one of the big ones. Legally, a private family viewing can take place without embalming, and many people choose this route, or choose not to view at all. Whatever the choice, people should be aware of what they are getting, and in my professional opinion, they are getting a better look at the deceased if the funeral home staff is allowed to do their work prior to viewing.

Part 3, Stagecraft

Monday, February 23, 2009

Conchita Cintron, Pioneering Female Bullfighter, dies at age 86

Conchita Cintron

Conchita Cintron, who has died of a heart attack aged 86, broke into the male-dominated sport of bullfighting at the age of 13 and became one of the world's first famous woman matadors.
Cintron, was a Peruvian who became known as La Diosa Rubia, or The Blonde Goddess. Famous for her bullfighting skills on foot and on horseback, Cintron reportedly killed more than 750 bulls during her career in Europe, Central America and South America.

"She made an indelible mark on a period of bullfighting history," Hugo Ferro of the Portuguese Bullfighters' Union said. "She was probably the best-known woman bullfighter," he said.
Born in 1922 as Concepcion Cintron Verrill, daughter of a Puerto Rican father and an American mother, she faced her first bull at 13 and made her debut in 1937 at the main arena in Lima, Peru.
During the 1940s, Cintron became one of the most famous women in bullfighting at a time when few females became matadors, whose job it was to manoeuvre around the animal at close range, then to stab it to death with a sword.
"She wasn't the first woman, but she kept going season after season and made a name for herself," Ferro said.

Cintron was seriously injured in 1949 in Guadalajara, Mexico, when a bull gored her in the thigh. Carried to the ring's infirmary, she pulled away from doctors, returned to the ring and killed the bull. She then fell unconscious and was rushed into emergency surgery.
That same year in Spain, where a law prohibited women bullfighters from dismounting their horse and fighting on foot, she simulated the kill by touching the bull on the shoulders - where the sword would go - as it passed her, drawing cheers from the crowd. She fought in more than 400 events in Portugal, Spain and several South American countries before retiring in 1949.
Cintron learned bullfighting with Ruy Zarco da Camara, a Portuguese who ran a riding school in Lima. He taught her the Portuguese form of bullfighting on horseback. After fighting in Spain she made her debut in Portugal in 1945.
She retired aged 27 and married a Portuguese, Francisco de Castelo Branco. She is survived by a son. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Paul Olson: Undertaker and citizen of the year

I have had the honor to work with one of the great undertakers, Paul Olson of the Olson-Holzhuter-Cress Funeral Home in Stoughton, WI. This past Tuesday evening, Paul Olson was awarded Citizen of the Year by the Stoughton Masonic Lodge, Kegonsa Lodge No. 73. He has been an undertaker for 57 years, and a well loved fixture of the Stoughton community for many more. He is as deserving of this award as anyone, though, as humble as he is, he suggested 5 or 6 others that he thought should have been named instead.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Olson recalled discussing his calling with his father as a young man. The elder Olson wasn't sure that Paul should become an undertaker, but Paul noted that his father, as a farmer, was a servant to the soil, finding his calling in working the earth, and in turn, Paul would become a servant to people, helping them through their difficult times. In fact, Paul has been an exceptional undertaker, and has brought great comfort to his neighbors over the years through his service.

I have learned many things from working with Paul Olson. Here are just a few:

  • Treat every one with respect and care, no matter what their station in life. Be just as gracious to them on the street as you are in the funeral home. People, especially small town people, can tell if you are genuine.

  • The quality of the service you provide is more important than anything else you can offer. In an era when funeral homes compete to offer new services and products, what people really want and need is a friend who listens and gently guides them through a difficult time.

  • Be modest and speak plainly. People are impressed by your ability to connect with them and understand them, not by an air of self-importance or a fancy car.

  • All the steeples point in the same direction (this is a quote from Paul's father); we must respect the beliefs and traditions of others, whether we share them or not.

Though Paul is semi-retired, he still comes in to the funeral home every day and has a watchful eye on preparations and services. Many families still request him, though these days he only rarely meets with families to make funeral arrangements. Why do they still ask for him, when there are other directors with newer skills, who offer personalized folders, video tributes, dove releases, thumb print charms and glass balls blown with cremated remains and swirled colors?

They trust Paul. For 57 years he has been the same gracious, caring man who has guided, served, and befriended their family through the generations. They know him and he knows them.

"All the steeples point in the same direction"

Friday, February 20, 2009

Closing, Lowering, and Giving Dirt

As an undertaker, each family I serve has different ideas about what their service should be like, and I follow their wishes.  Most often, people want something similar to what they've seen before.  There is a comfort for grieving families, whose world has turned upside down, in following familiar rituals, and despite all the buzz about personalization, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of tradition and ritual.  
Another part of my job is to suggest new things to families that, in my experience, have helped others.  I try to encourage participation in the service,  and the consideration of rituals that may be new to them.
As I have discussed in previous posts, traditions that are considered normal and appropriate in some places can seem disturbing in others.  The traditions of closing a casket in front of family members and watching the casket as it is lowered into the grave, followed by sprinkling a handful or shovel of earth into the grave,  are not as extreme to people where I work in rural Wisconsin as a sky burial or promession would be, but many here  say they couldn't bear to do any of them.
Where I used to work in Portland, Oregon, watching as the casket is closed and again, as it is lowered are regular parts of the service, and I think that they can be healthy and meaningful for grieving families.  In the Jewish tradition, among others, family and friends sprinkle the casket and grave with earth.  This is a wonderful symbolic act of participation in the burial and accepting the reality of death.  At my father's burial, I shoveled some earth into his grave, and even at the age of 8, it was a moving and cathartic experience for me.  
One of the most important things a funeral does is to allow the grieving to accept the reality of death in a safe and comforting atmosphere.  Participation in the rituals helps us to perform that last loving service for the deceased, and that in turn allows us to accept emotionally, the reality of the situation, so that we may in time move on back into life.  In our minds, we know that the person is dead, but our hearts are reluctant to accept this unpleasant fact.
Watching and helping with these tasks can be emotionally demanding, but I believe it makes the rest of the journey that much easier.  We will certainly cry when we do it, but those emotions need to be expressed and worked through, and the funeral can be the best time to do it. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Buried by a Chain Gang: White Tanks Cemetery

White Tanks Cemetery

In a fascinating article from 2007 for the ezine of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Angela Le documents the burial of indigent residents of Maricopa County by a sheriff's chain gang.
It is a sad situation for the dead to be buried by conscripted strangers in a desolate desert cemetery. However, I am struck and deeply moved by the fact that a poorly funded county has determined that even the least of it's residents deserves the basics of a respectful burial and a solemn ceremony. I am reminded of the protocol used in ground zero when even a small portion of a victim's remains were discovered. Work stopped and all present stood at attention as a hearse slowly drove that precious piece of a person from the site. The public would not think of allowing a less respectful treatment of an unknown person, yet so many of us decide not to 'make any fuss' when a person we know and love dies, even when funeral services are well within our means.
Here is an excerpt from Ms. Le's article

Sister Mary Ruth Dittman is one of the few who pray at a child’s grave.

When there’s no one to care, chain gangs bury the poor and the unknown of Maricopa County. Half an hour west of Phoenix, a chain-link fence encircles a desolate gravel lot. The sign out front says “Sheriff’s Chain Gang at Work.” Inside are hundreds of rows of coaster-size brass markers engraved with real names or simply Jane Doe or John Doe.
This is White Tanks Cemetery, the indigent burial site where Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s chain gangs bury more than 300 bodies a year. Since 1994, the site has received more than 2,984 bodies, including babies. There are no trees or grass or a sense that anyone comes to visit—other than a few scattered artificial flowers and a small American flag and Teddy bear resting next to the only headstone.
White Tanks Cemetery is funded by Maricopa County taxpayers. “Therefore, every expense is either standard or very minimal,” said Roger Coventry, a deputy of the Maricopa County public fiduciary. The public fiduciary determines who is considered indigent.

A chain gang prisoner prays at a burial in White Tanks Cemetery.

Toward the back of the lot, 15 women work together to lift a blue casket out of a van and prepare it for burial. They wear military boots and black-and-white striped shirts and pants with a pink shirt underneath. This is the only female chain gang in the country.

“It made me sad when I helped lower the body in the grave and saw there was no one here for him and wondered what he did that would have led to this,” said Bernita Bentley. She volunteered for the chain gang to get out of the “hole” (prison lockdown). “It made me think of my family and if something like that would ever happen to them.”

This ceremony was for James Bell, who had died of coronary artery disease. He was buried in the cemetery because no family members claimed his body.
A chaplain recited the 23rd Psalm 23 and sang “Amazing Grace” with the chain gang members, interrupted every few minutes as squads of five jets from Luke Air Force Base flew over. “I don’t even notice the jets any more,” said Kevin Blair of the Maricopa County’s facilities management.

Male chain gang members represent the family as they lower a casket.
Blair and his staff used to bury the bodies until the chain gang took over 18 years ago. “The services have become less significant, and we [staff from facilities management] became indifferent when the bodies were buried,” he said. Blair and his staff still come to the burial services every Thursday.
The chain gang members represent the deceased’s family and friends. Malantha Sanchez called this an honor. “When you’re a child of God, you can represent anybody. They are like my brother or sister.”

A round brass marker is the only way for a family to identify a grave.

Since the county doesn’t want to spend a lot of taxpayer money, it provides only the bare minimum for burials. Although more expensive, the county decided to do burials rather than cremations because of liability for any fault that might occur. “Typically people don’t sue for a burial,” Coventry said, “but if there’s a problem, then we can do disinterment and other arrangements can be made. The families can authorize a cremation if they want to.”

Sister Mary Ruth Dittman of Phoenix has been coming to the burial services in the desolate gravel lot every Thursday since 1991. “I was expecting lush green grass,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting this.” While reading the obituaries one day, she noticed the name of a 13-month-old baby. “[I] thought it was a baby I had cared for once at one of the hospitals I volunteered at,” Sister Ruth said. “I found out where the funeral was and attended.”
Every Thanksgiving, Michael Santoro holds a candlelight vigil with other volunteers from André House, a Phoenix ministry for the homeless and poor. “We pray for those who have died in the last year and place flowers over their graves,” Santoro said. “We believe there are three deaths—the death of the body, the soul and then the memory. We want to do this candlelight vigil to preserve the last death … the memory.”

It took all 14 women to lower James Bell’s casket. The chaplain sprinkled holy water on the casket while a woman at either end of the grave threw dirt on the casket. After Bell’s service, the female chain gang prepared for the next five burials. The chaplain flipped back the pages in the Bible to the 23rd Psalm.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Parachutes and Lawn Chairs: Echoes from the grave


In life sometimes, we make special connections with others.  Sometimes in death, these friendships are echoed.  The father of a friend of mine had a special relationship with the guy who lived across the street, and though they almost never crossed the street to talk they were great friends.  For years and years they enjoyed yelling back and forth to one another from their lawn chairs and driveways.

It was an interesting and fitting twist of fate, then, when the two men ended up being buried only yards away in the same cemetery-separated only by a strip of the cemetery road.  I can imagine their continued conversations, yelling across the road to one another, in the years to come.  

The next story seems like something out of the Bucket List, or a 1970's Walter Mathau movie, but on Valentines Day this year, the ashes of two old friends from unlikely origins parachuted together into popular natural attraction 'Center of The World' in Yuma, near Felicity, California, where they were buried. 

The ashes of two unlikely friends dropped from the sky Saturday to be buried at the Center of the World.  One man belonged to the Hitler Youth as a child. The other survived a concentration camp.  However unlikely, Wolfgang Lieschke and Herbert Loebel did become friends as adults living in America. In accordance with their families' wishes, the West Point Parachute Team delivered the men's ashes to their novel and final resting place Saturday.
The ashes were dropped by parachute and buried at the Center of the World. The popular tourist attraction is located west of Yuma, along Interstate 8, in Felicity, Calif.
"Both were eminent men in their era who became close friends and who will rest together in consecrated ground," said Jacques-Andre Istel, the mayor of Felicity and friend of both men. "Both had close links to parachuting and both served humanity."
Other than the fact they were all friends, Istel did not elaborate on why the families of Lieschke and Loebel decided to bring the men's ashes to the Center of the World or from where they were brought.
Often called "the father of American skydiving," Istel trained the Army's first free-fall parachute team, which led to the creation of the Golden Knights.
Istel organized a sizable celebration Saturday, full of ceremony and military pageantry. The U.S. Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps played taps, and the Golden Knights Army Parachute Team performed an air-to-ground salute. The U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard also made an appearance.
In addition to the burial, the ceremony marked two men's induction into the Hall of Fame of Parachuting. Inducted were Lt. Col. Henmar "Gabe" Gabriel, founder of the West Point Parachute Team; and Ted Strong, a designer and manufacturer of parachutes.
Dignitaries at Saturday's event included local military leaders; Christian Stocks, the Los Angeles-based consul general for Germany; and Ed Scott, director of the United States Parachute Association.
Loebel's widow, age 93, also attended.
Istel shared a little about the colorful and remarkable lives of the two men buried Saturday.
Lieschke grew up in Germany and belonged to the Hitler Youth as a child. As a young man, he moved to the U.S. and served in the 82nd Airborne Division. He later worked as art director for Boeing Aircraft Co. and as an executive vice president for J. Walter Thompson, which was the world's largest advertising agency at the time.
Lieschke met Istel when they trained the Army's free-fall parachute team. "He was a very modest man," Istel said, adding that Lieschke was also best man at his wedding.
Lieschke designed many of the symbols at Center of the World, including the blue window found in the Church on the Hill.
Loebel was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"He survived in a very ingenious manner," Istel said. "When the Nazis asked his profession, he would answer that he was an electrician. He knew that if he had given his real profession - electrical engineer - he would have gone straight to the gas chambers. They didn't want any smart Jews alive."  According a Web site run by Loebel's family, after his time at Auschwitz, Loebel was "briefly conscripted by the Red Army."
In America, Loebel became a well-known photographer. He started out in fashion photography, but then branched out into special effects. According to his family's Web site Loebel had a hand in the old Canon AE1 commercial involving a plane jump and, more famously, the iconic Energizer Bunny.
"After surviving Auschwitz, he died at age 89," Istel said. "He was crossing the street and hit by a driver."  Lieschke died in 1999 and Loebel followed in 2006.
"They were lifelong friends," Istel remarked.
An engraving at the burial site, just south of the Chocolate Mountains, features a portion of Psalm 121. It reads in part:
"I raise my eyes toward the mountains. From where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth."
from the Yuma Sun, written by Darin Fenger.  For the full article with photos, visit

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Vulture Club: The Tower of Silence


It is a benefit for us all to learn about the funeral customs and traditions of others because it opens us up to new possibilities and helps us to see our own culture in a new light.  An excellent example of cultural differences in funeral customs is the 3000 year old Zoroastrian / Parsi tradition of sky burial.  Sky burial is a custom that is considered wonderful, kind and proper in one culture, and  a repugnant desecration in many others.  The relativity of this situation and earnestness with which both views are held should help us to open our minds to the many possibilities that exist, respect the traditions of others and understand how our traditions may  seem horrid to others, even while we cherish them. 
Recently, in a discussion about green funeral options, the topic of animals devouring the dead was brought up and I mentioned the Zoroastrian / Parsi tradition of 'sky burials' where remains are left for vultures to devour in 'towers of silence'.  Though not for everyone by any means, this may well be one of the oldest and greenest of disposition options. 
In the discussion, I noted that in modern times the vultures are disappearing, and I mistakenly blamed antibiotics in humans for the decline in the vulture population in India.  
I decided to look into the subject further for the Daily Undertaker and found that in fact, the decline in the vulture population is due to drugs that are given to cattle (and may be banned already.)  I also learned that efforts are underway to bring the vultures back.    This is a positive step for Parsis, vultures, and for the ecosystem as well.   

Tower of Silence
Yazd, Iran-Walking across the wind-whipped plains of the forgotten city, a young Iranian woman dressed in colorful floral garbs points out a sand-dusted tower hovering in the distance like a dormant volcano under a relentless sun. “This is where we put tens of thousands of corpses over the years,” she explains with a congenial smile.
The funerary tower is part of the ancient burial practice of Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. Zoroastrians (known in India as Parsis) regard sky burials, in which the bodies are exposed to natural elements including vultures in open-topped “Towers of Silence,” as an ecologically friendly alternative to cremation, consistent with their religion’s reverence for the earth. A Zoroastrian priest clad in a long, cotton robe explains: “Death is considered to be the work of Angra Mainyu, the embodiment of all that is evil, whereas the earth and all that is beautiful is considered to be the pure work of God. We must not pollute the earth with our remains.”
The priest believes that open burials are a fulfillment of the central tenet of his religion, which is to practice good deeds. With a forlorn expression, he notes that, 3,000 years after the tradition of open burials began, there are not enough Zoroastrians left alive to keep the tower in Yazd open. Instead, today’s Zoroastrians who want to observe traditional burial practices must request in their will that their body is sent to a forested suburb in Mumbai, India, where the last Tower of Silence still operates.

A View of the Mumbai Tower of Silence in an old Stereopticon

"We're your friends 'til the bitter end" 
(from the vulture's song in Disney's Jungle Book)

But the Tower of Silence in Mumbai has had problems of its own: 
Mumbai- The Parsi tradition of keeping bodies in the Tower of Silence to be devoured by vultures was under threat as birds of prey had gone almost extinct in Mumbai.  Now, the Bombay Parsi Panchayet has decided to import and begin breeding vultures, on which Parsis rely to dispose of their dead.  The project is being led by scientists at the Bombay Natural History Society, who have seen recent success in breeding the endangered birds in conservation centres in Haryana.  Once governmental permissions have been obtained, about a 100 of the almost extinct scavengers will be brought into Mumbai at first and will be housed in three aviaries, two of which will be at the Towers of Silence.  Leaders in the community and 98 per cent of all Parsis still opt for the traditional method of disposal – that is, consigning bodies to the Towers.  So breeding vultures, they say, will not only ensure they are fulfilling their religious duty, but also helping ecological conservation.  "It's a win-win situation for the community, maybe now, instead of 98 percent, 99 percent of Parsis will come back to this method of disposal," said Khojesti Mistry of World Alliance of Parsi and Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ).  

Certainly the reintroduction of vultures does have a very real and positive impact on ecosystems in India.  The vultures, although creepy to some, play a vital role.  When vultures are missing from the ecosystem less desirable animals such as rats and packs of wild dogs move in to scavange.  In addition to species diversity issues, these animals pose a threat to the health and safety of the human population. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nadine Jarvis: Challenging Post Mortem Traditions

February 10, 2009

"My motivation for this project was my interest in the death and decomposition of materials and how the degradation of materials could be used to aid the grieving process."  -Nadine Jarvis

Designer Nadine Jarvis has produced some very thought provoking art work using cremated remains.   But before you say, "Oh, I've seen those paintings and glass sculptures with the ashes mixed in", think again.  Ms. Jarvis is operating on another level, exploring concepts of impermanence, decay and renewal, that are intended to make us examine our own ideas about death, and more importantly, help the grieving along their path. 

She refers to her work as "an ongoing research project that looks to challenge our  post mortem traditions and to offer proposals for alternate treatment for our deceased."  She has designed urns that lengthen the death ceremony to give more time for the grieving to come to terms with their loss.

In her project  RIP -Rest In Pieces,  A ceramic urn is suspended from a tree.  The cord holding the urn  has a lifespan of 1-3 years. The thread gradually degrades causing the urn to drop, and smash as it hits the ground. Each Rest in Pieces ceramic urn will eventually fall to the ground – smashing the container and scattering the ashes to the wind, while leaving a permanent memorial behind.  A video of the ultimate dramatic event can be viewed below.

Jarvis' bird feeders are somewhat less suspenseful than the suspended ceramic urns, but nonetheless are remarkably charged with life, activity and renewal.  Just the idea that a bird feeder could make thought provoking art and death statement is surprising to me, but these unassuming and beautiful pieces pack a conceptual punch.  Enlisting the aid of birds, Jarvis draws out and dramatizes the return of remains to the earth. Feeder
A bird feeder made from bird food and human ash. The person is reincarnated through the life of the bird.

The Bird Feeders – made from either solid castings of bird food, beeswax and ash or rotationally moulded with the ash encased inside – encourage birds to either eat and naturally purge the ash or peck through the edible exterior and allow the ash to be released over a period of time.  The ceramic urns and bird feeders redress conventional methods of commemorating the deceased, ultimately removing the responsibility of ash scattering by allowing external factors to decide when to lay someone to rest.

As a lover of drawing and writing, by far, my favorite of the lot is Jarvis' pencil box.  Incredibly, carbon from cremated remains is used in place of graphite in the pencils.  Jarvis has many thoughtful details worked into this piece, but somehow what I like best about this is the fact that you get so many pencils.  This will help to prevent them from being too 'precious' to use every day which would defeat the whole purpose.
Don't worry about mistakes and shopping lists, there are enough pencils for a lifetime!

From Ms. Jarvis' site, here is a tantalizing list of thoughtful features worked into the Carbon Copies pencil case design:
Pencils made from the carbon of human cremains. 240 pencils can be made from an average body of ash - a lifetime supply of pencils for those left behind.Each pencil is foil stamped with the name of the person. Only one pencil can be removed at a time, it is then sharpened back into the box causing the sharpenings to occupy the space of the used pencils. Over time the pencil box fills with sharpenings - a new ash, transforming it into an urn. The window acts as a timeline, showing you the amount of pencils left as time goes by.
Nadine Jarvis

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Ms. Jarvis on
Q. How did the design of the Rest in Pieces and Birdfeeder projects develop?
A. I have always been fascinated with the life and death of objects... My work has always dealt my concerns about impermanence in materials, technology and people. Through my work I have investigated the relationship between person and object and the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behavior.
The Rest in Pieces and Birdfeeder projects were a continuation of this interest and came from my research into the death of materials and concepts of nothingness. It developed as quite a ‘back-to-front’ project, I wanted materials to lead my project and so I started gathering interesting materials and experimented with them – watching them fall apart over time. I started to think about death in terms of grief, and how the degradation of materials could be used to aid that grief, and imagined how the deceased could be reincarnated through the design of memorial objects.
© Design Museum


What's next? Well, the image above is from Jarvis's project 'Scatter'.  That page on her site is still under construction, so I don't have any details on it yet.  However, judging by her previous work, I'm sure this container is much more than meets the eye.  Thank you, Ms. Jarvis, for challenging and qualitatively changing our 'postmortem traditions'.  I hope that these ideas can move beyond the gallery and become available for use.  I never wanted to be cremated, but if I can be a box of pencils?........

Information used in this post has come from the artist's website,, and from the Design Museum,
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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.


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