Saturday, April 18, 2009

Embalming: Part 3, Stagecraft

Ross Hollywood Chapel, Portland, Oregon

In the two previous installments of this series, I discussed the transformation that takes place in the appearance of the deceased with embalming, and the temporary preservation that embalming allows.  Now, in part 3, I'll discuss 'stagecraft'.  Although not part of the embalming procedure, these finishing touches are an essential and often misunderstood part of the preparations for viewing the deceased.
At the funeral parlor, careful steps are taken in presentation for a family's viewing of their departed.  Usually the day before services are held, it's time for 'hair, makeup and wardrobe', or as is listed in a funeral home's federally mandated General Price List, 'Other Preparation of the Deceased'.
When we look at a person, a whole host of factors make them recognizable to us, and when any of these pieces don't match our memory, the rest don't quite fit together right.  Hair is a big one for women, and often, even for men.  Whenever possible, the funeral director arranges for the hair dresser who worked on the person in life, to prepare their hair for the funeral.  If this is not possible, we rely on photos.  It is not unusual for family members to come in to prepare hair and makeup.  This can be a difficult thing to do, but I don't think anyone ever regrets having done it.

Busby Berkeley-Stagecraft

Makeup is one of the most misunderstood aspects of preparation, and heavy handed funeral directors and embalmers are largely to blame.  In some communities, people have come to expect a 'funeral pallor' of caked foundation, waxy orange lips and greasepaint in the Broadway tradition.   I think that the fear of bad makeup is often a factor in families choosing a service that does not include viewing.   
In most cases, when the embalming work has been done well, very little makeup is needed.  Good embalming practices include the use of pigments that replace some of the reddish tones that the circulating blood provides in living tissue.  A light layer of foundation and some highlights complete this effect while leaving the texture of the skin, and natural variations in skin color and freckles visible.  Certainly there are times when more opaque makeup must be used to conceal trauma and jaundice, but good makeup work should be as invisible as possible. 
Many women have told me that when they die, they would like us to use their favorite makeup brands and colors.   This sounds like a good idea, but we are not starting with the same skin tones in death that they start with in life, so adjustments need to be made.  The majority of our work is just bringing back the original appearance of the skin as it would have looked in life before any makeup was added. Because of this difference, the foundation we use often has more pink than they would use to achieve the same effect. Similarly, a light brush of foundation and touches of red on the lips, nose, ears and eyes will make a man look like he did in life with no makeup on. 

In addition to hair and makeup, wardrobe and scene construction are a part of presentation at the funeral home.  These preparations take a surprising amount of time and skill to achieve a comfortable and well turned out appearance.  Clothing that the family brings in may or may not have fit recently, but in either case, good preparation involves alterations that make those garments appear comfortable and well fitting.  I have been told that news anchors have their suit coats altered (sometimes only temporarily,) so that they appear to fit correctly in a sitting position.  Similar steps are taken with collars and lapels for people lying in state.  Sleeves and cuffs are carefully positioned prior to placing the deceased in the casket so that the folds stay neat and attractive. 
Arranging for a comfortable appearance in the casket is another task that takes more time and skill than most would guess.  More than just a box, the casket is the setting in which a person is viewed.   Padding, mattress levels, the drape of fabric and arm supports are adjusted until the deceased is shown to their best advantage.   The skills of the undertaker create the appearance of the deceased lying at rest and comfortable in a setting that is soft, dignified and exactly the right size.

If done well, all these aspects of stagecraft go unnoticed, and the viewer is allowed to focus on their loved one.  They are not distracted by unusual skin tones, unfamiliar hair styles, ill-fitting or uncomfortable looking clothes, a stiff, awkward posture, or a setting that looks unnatural.  They see what they have come to see- not makeup, casket or artifice, but the familiar face of the person they miss the most, and the arms and hands they recall hugging and hugging them back.  They see that person at rest and at peace, and if the undertaker did a good job, they might never guess how much work went in to making everything look so natural.   

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cecil Skotnes: African Artist, dies at 82

Cecil Skotnes, who died this week at the age of 82, was one of the most important artists in South Africa in the second half of the 20th century.

His sustained and monumental exploration of indigenous materials challenged and extended existing modernist conventions. His search for a particularly modern African identity was allied to his contribution to the development of a new generation of professional black urban artists, at a time when avenues for art education for black people were being blocked by apartheid legislation.

Skotnes developed a formal language and used materials taken from a number of sources. From the technique of woodcut printing he derived a wooden matrix into which he engraved images, colouring and texturing the surfaces.

He was commissioned to make a woodcut block to celebrate the award of the Nobel peace prize to Chief Albert Luthuli. He exhibited widely across many continents and represented South Africa at the prestigious Venice and Sao Paulo Biennales. He was granted honorary doctorates by three South African universities and the government awarded him the Order of Ikhamanga (Gold).

For the full Times obituary, visit

Monday, April 13, 2009

I Came to Nurse Him to His Death: Sid Straley

The following poems were written by Sid Straley, as she was dealing with the recent passing of her father.  I am very pleased to be able to share them here because they give a clear and beautiful glimpse into the experience of death and grieving.  Understanding how the mind and heart work at times like this can help those of us who grieve, to know that we are not alone in this fog.  This work is also for those who want to help and comfort the grieving, because to help, one must first understand the reality of grieving. 
Thanks to Ms. Straley for sharing this work and the photos that accompany it.  More can be seen on her Stumbleupon blog.

i came to nurse him to his death.

sunday, i sat in the home, holding his hand,
reassuring him, between tears, "we are taking you home."
he whispered to me, "you sound like a little piggie."
i snorted back my running nose and laughed.

monday, his body, half-paralysed,
he demanded tylenol as the ambulance crew
loaded him onto the gurney to make the short journey.
it was the loudest i would ever hear him speak again.

settled at home, tylenol administered, i asked,
"are you in any pain?" he felt the need to define this term.
his reply: "i am not in pain like i hit my thumb with a hammer.
i am in discomfort. my head, my neck, my shoulders.
when am i getting the good medicine?"

rather distressed, he waited as patiently as possible.
he asked again, "when is the good medicine coming?"
he stated, "my body feels all messed up." in a small voice.
a voice that required my ear to press nearly to his lips.

"what is happening to me?"
i answered honestly, as he would want,
"the tumour in your brain is growing. it is shutting down your body.
we talked about this happening. your brain is sending wrong messages
to your body because of the tumour in your head."
he did not reply, but he winked at me. a signal of understanding.

the delivery from the chemist finally arrived. i walked to his side
and announced, "i got the good stuff! hardcore!" he gave me a smile
and a thumbs-up sign. i began the task of drug administrator.
syringes to the correct mL, log book detailing meds and times,
white cranberry peach juice with a bendy straw to wash away
the bitter flavour. his favourite balm to soothe his dry lips.

learning to roll and reposition him. always checking his pain levels.
sitting by his side. holding his one strong hand, his right hand.
trying to understand as his voice faded even more. a cool
flannel applied to his forehead. talking to him about nothing...
about everything. knowing our time together was limited.

tuesday evening, he mumbled...
"fox hunt!" more mumbling...
"ah, what the hell do i know?!?" he clearly pronounced.
he slept, he snored. we sat, in turns,
holding his delicate but firm hand.

my respite would come at 11pm each evening,
the night nurse. i was to rest. i was to sleep.
instead, i stared at the ceiling in the dark.
anticipating the knock on my door.

wednesday, no words. his breathing slower,
deeper, but strong. he still sought us out with
his right hand. waving it in the air until one of us
took hold and stayed with him. sat with him.

voluntary swallowing was no more.
i crushed tablets and mixed them with juice.
syringe to spoon,
who knew how useful that skill would prove to be?
speaking all the while, sliding it deep into his mouth,
waiting for an involuntary "gulp" of his throat.

thursday, his temperature rose to 104F.
the nurses let me know what to expect in the
next 24 hours. medications were precisely dosed,
even though i knew it was almost over.
his hand no longer reached out to us.
it lay calmly on his chest.

i sat. i held his hand. i spoke.
i swabbed his mouth with cold water. i applied lip balm.
at midnight, i told him what he already knew,
but what i needed to say.
"i love you... thank you... you can go now..."

my brother at my door, crying. we sat on my bed for a few minutes,
holding one another. preparing to wake our mother.
we walked down the stairs to her bedroom, both sitting
on her bed and told her, "he's gone."
the three of us sat together and cried.

his death certificate reads "time of death: 6.00am"
it was 4.09am.
i plan to bet the fourth horse in the ninth race.
i can only hope the odds are 13:1.

the back story.

we all took turns with him,
except for her.
she busied herself in her kitchen
as much as possible.

she greeted guests at the front door,
as if it was totally natural
that he lie in a hospital bed
in their formal dining room.

"may i offer you a drink?"
friends and acquaintances shuffled
through the foyer, past him, to the large lounge.
"here is a coaster for your glass."
lord forbid the wood be marked,
sweating, little circles,
shadowed halos, on her tables.

"how is he?" she would ask me.
he was feet away from her, but
she could not go to his side.
i was to report to her regularly.

in manic moments, she would break free
from the safety of her kitchen.
almost run to his bed, hugging him.
his once athletic physique, frail and withering.
kissing his forehead, telling him over and over,
"i love you. i love you. i love you."

she had spent six weeks nursing him.
without our knowledge. she did not
want to "bother" us. this strategy landed both
of them in the hospital for a week in february.
she is fighting her own battle with cancer.
she was "clinically exhausted" - she had
not slept a full night in weeks.

they shared a hospital room.
the staff all thought they were so very cute.
they would argue; they would make nice with one another;
they would behave as they had for
53 years of marriage.

i could not be angry with her.
for retreating to her kitchen.
for smiling to guests as he lie dying.
she was in denial that he was leaving her.
after all these years, she could not face it.

the day he died, she repeated to us,
"how dare he do this to me?!?"
she had always threatened to leave him,
but he went first. he beat her out the door.

it was no longer a competition.
it was a loss. it 
is a loneliness.
an emptiness that she never expected
to grip her so tightly.

Photo Credit- George Poellot

leave of absence, week two - the immediate · Apr 3, 10:23pm



his body was still warm,

no longer burning with fever.

i stroked the peach-fuzz on his head.

his eyes had been closed for two days.

i gently repositioned his jaw,

closing his silent dry mouth.


as my remaining family

shuffled briefly from his side,

seeking out coffee at this early hour,

i quietly recited kaddish over his body.

my traditions would not play

a role in the coming week.


nor would his. he was an agnostic.

he had experienced the divisiveness

of organised religion first-hand.

he taught us right from wrong, but

always stressed independent and

critical thought. ask "why?"


he could not openly protest as

he had less than a week ago,

as the hospice "spiritual counselour"

had us join hands around his body,

reciting prayers now foreign to me.

i stood next to her. all decisions to follow

would be of comfort to her. within her faith.


the hearse arrived to remove the body.

i will never forget earl. the archetype of

funeral parlour employee. his appearance

made me fight off giggles; he was right out

of general casting at any large studio.

in his over-sized black trench coat, head bowed,

he solemnly asked us to leave the room.

it seemed we were only in the bedroom

for seconds. but when we emerged, the body

was gone. bed was stripped, a soft blue cotton

blanket professionally draped across it.

her body shook with more sobbing.

i held her close, supported her,

as i had promised him i would do.


everyone else went back to bed.

she and i drank more coffee,

between her crying jags, we began

to organise. the week ahead of us -

a series of events to coordinate.

no sitting shiva for me.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

San-Zhr: Ghost Town


The difference between Mythology and Religion: What we believe is Religion and what someone else believes is Mythology

Much of what we do and refrain from doing in life is based upon our conception of what happens to us when we die.  The rationale behind where we live, how we life, how we form our families and maintain our familiar relationships,  why we go to war, or resist war, where and how we deal with our dead, and where we lay them to rest, are based, in large part, upon our beliefs about the afterlife.  

In nearly every culture, and since the beginning of recorded history, we have had special places to lay our dead to rest.  These are special places that are not usually shared by the living.  Until the Middle ages, in Europe the dead were always buried outside the city walls.  Later as proximity to the relics of saints was seen as instrumental to salvation, the dead came to be buried within the church, and in the church yard.  The advent of cemeteries, much later, continued the separation of the dead from the living.   Although this age old taboo is now unravelling, with people keeping the cremated remains of loved ones with them in their homes, and scattering them in every kind of place, for many in the world, keeping the dead away from the living is a basic and important rule.    

Photo by Cypherone

In large part, the historical separation of the dead from the living had to do, in many traditions, with the idea that the spirits of the dead could be malicious, or at least bothersome.  The dead should therefore, be placed away from the living, and in some cases, steps were taken to trick them into going away, or staying away from the rest of us.

I present this idea to provide perspective on the following story.  In Taiwan, there is an abandoned housing project where no one ever came to live, because it was feared that the spirits of dead construction workers were there.  On it's face, this may sound to us to be a silly superstition.  However, if we think back to how many things we do because of OUR ideas about the afterlife, the rationale behind this ghost town in San-Zhr might make as much sense as the tenets requiring baptism or forbidding murder. 

Photo by Cypherone

Here is the story of San-Zhr village, related by photographer Craig Ferguson (many of the photos in this piece were taken by Mr. Ferguson as well).

Just before arriving in Sanzhi, there’s an interesting site hugging the shoreline - an abandoned hotel/apartment complex that looks like somewhere ET might call home. I first heard about this a couple of years ago, but it was only recently that I was able to get out there...

San-Zhr Pod Village by Craig Ferguson

Accounts vary on the origins of this complex, and indeed, as to whether it was meant to be a hotel development or a housing development. Apparently, it was constructed in the 1960s and included/was to include a dam to protect it against sea surges, floors and stairs made of marble and a small amusement park. The site was commissioned by the government and local firms and there is no named architect.

San-Zhr Pod Village by Craig Ferguson

 Local papers at the time reported that there were numerous accidents during construction which caused the death of some workers. As news of these accidents spread, no one wanted to go there, even to visit, and the project was subsequently abandoned. The ghosts of those who died in vain are said to still linger there, unremembered and unable to pass on. The complex was left in its unfinished state because no amount of redevelopment will bring people to the area due to superstitions about ghosts, and it can’t be demolished because destroying the homes of spirits and lost souls is taboo in Asian culture.  When I was there, I met four young university students who were passing by and stopped for a look. They didn’t want to get too close to the buildings for fear that the ghosts would take them. They told me there was “heavy evil” in the buildings.
San-Zhr Pod Village, by photographer Craig Ferguson,

San-Zhr Pod Village by Craig Ferguson

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Biker Funeral

Procession for 'Rebel Rick'

Love bikers, or hate them, but you have to admit they know how to throw a funeral. Even before the advent of motorcycle hearses, bikers put on impressive processions mixing military and tribal elements into very memorable -if scary- ceremonies.  The phenomenon is not limited to the United States, as this series of excerpts from articles on the funeral services for New Zealand / Australian "Bikie", "Rebel Rick" shows.  I think we could all learn something from the bikers about how to make funerals meaningful.
Biker Ring

Window panes shuddered across the nation's capital as 380 members of the outlaw motorcycle gang the Rebels rode through town to honour a slain club hardman.  Rebels leader Alex Vella had summoned members of the Rebels — the nation's largest bikie gang — from all over the country to come to Canberra yesterday to honour Richard John Roberts, 57, known as "Rebel Rick", a convicted drug dealer and "enforcer" for the club.  The large convoy, which stretched for kilometres, travelled from the nearby town of Queanbeyan through some of the busiest streets of Canberra stopping only for a one-minute silent vigil along the way. Police blocked off roads and escorted the convoy for much of the journey.

- from

Slain Rebel motorcycle gang member Richard John Roberts took his last ride yesterday.  His coffin, covered in red and white roses, travelled on a side car in a procession of about 380 bikies escorted by police through Canberra to the Norwood Park Crematorium.  The 57-year-old - known as "Rebel Rick" - and fellow club member Gregory Carrigan, 48, were shot dead in the Canberra suburb of Chisholm last Tuesday. About 700 members of the Rebel motorcycle gang, dressed in full colours, gathered to pay their respects to Roberts, the former president of the West Australian chapter of the gang.  They were joined by about 300 friends and family members, including Roberts's sons Ricky, 15, and Ryan, 13, their mother, Bev, and Roberts's girlfriend.


The coffin carrying Roberts, who was born in New Zealand, was greeted with a rousing haka as club members formed a guard of honour in front of the crematorium.  During the journey to the crematorium, the bikies stopped and took their helmets off for one minute as a mark of respect.

Rebels national president Alex Vella said the death of his friend had nothing to do with tensions in Sydney following a brawl at the airport between the Hells Angels and Comancheros, during which 29-year-old Anthony Zervas was bludgeoned to death.  "It's a sad day for the family and the Rebels," Mr Vella said. "He was a hard-working man, a heart of gold ... he was respected by many people."  Roberts's good friend "Pappa" remembered him as a hard man with a big heart, who was always the last to leave a bar.  "He was feared by those who didn't know him and loved by those who did," he said.  "Rebel Rick was one of those blokes who had a certain something about him. Rebels knew it, chicks knew it, and he knew it."  The grandfather of Roberts's children, John Parker SC, said Roberts had been a loving and good father. "He was a hard nut with a soft centre," he said.  Members of the crowd, which spilled outside the crematorium, wept as Roberts's favourite song, My Way, was played. After the funeral, there was a deafening roar and a cloud of petrol fumes as the Rebels drove off to their clubhouse in Canberra's Fyshwick for a wake.  An ACT police spokeswoman said both the funeral and the procession were incident-free.


"Rebel Rick" Memorial Folder

Bikies from Rebels chapters as far away as southeastern Victoria, the NSW central coast, Gundagai and Sydney attended the funeral.  Earlier, a procession of more than 300 bikies and an empty hearse moved through the northern suburbs of Canberra from a Rebels clubhouse in Queanbeyan to the Norwood Park Crematorium under police escort.  The coffin containing Roberts' body was carried on a sidecar.  A police car stood by as the bikies, most of them wearing helmets, ran a red light at the entrance to the crematorium.  Roberts and Gregory Carrigan, 48, were shot dead outside a southern Canberra house last week. Police have charged 20-year-old Russell Field with their murders.  The slayings were initially thought to be an explosion of violence between outlaw bikie gangs, but a long-time Rebels member has said they resulted from a bitter ''love triangle''.  A spokeswoman for ACT police said the funeral and the procession through Canberra on Monday morning were incident-free.

The funeral was held as the NSW government is considering introducing tough new laws aimed at stamping out violent bikie gangs.  The proposed laws would allow police to apply to the Supreme Court for an order to prohibit members identified in an outlaw motorcycle gang from associating with each other.

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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.