Saturday, July 25, 2009

Maeve Berry: Incandescence

I became acquainted with the thought provoking artwork of Maeve Berry several weeks ago through fellow blogger, Charles Cowling, and it has taken me that long to figure out how I feel about it. Ultimately, I decided to share her work with my readers because it brings up some questions that are vitally important to the subjects of Death, Art and Memorialization - and because of its surprising beauty.

art cremation death

Ms. Berry's 'Incandescence' is, in her words, "a series of images capturing the last moments of the human body in the material world." The photos are taken through the aperture of a cremator, and present something that very few people have seen in their lifetimes. Having seen the cremation process myself, I was pleased and surprised by the beauty and reverence of Ms. Berry's photos. A great deal of the cremation process is not something that is easy to watch. The reduction of the body by heat and flames involves some very disturbing imagery, but this is not Ms. Berry's focus.

art death cremation

What she has documented is the end of the process where the last amounts of combustible material in the body feed the flame and disappear, leaving only bone behind. Here is a statement about her work from the Diemar Noble gallery:

"Taken within a cremator, the images aim to confront the taboos surrounding death imagery in modern society. 'Incandescence' presents death as an art form, allowing the viewer a dual perception: an initial visual perception on a purely aesthetic level, followed by a secondary mental perception informed by the title and closer inspection of the images. The main concept driving this project was to afford death portraits, of natural deaths, a place in the art gallery amongst all other images of life events. She fills the void that exists in the modern art gallery with regard to the representation of death. Death is inevitable but frequently avoided by image-makers. The ‘final’ photograph is no longer prevalent in family albums. Her photographs, in addition to being evidence of the human condition, are aesthetically pleasing allowing the viewer to linger and reflect without feeling uneasy. Maeve Berry explores this visual void, demystifying and stripping back all material trappings - bones laid bare to reveal beauty in the thing that we fear the most."

art cremation death

The 'Incandescence' series represents an important step in acknowledging the reality of our mortal situation. In our culture, death is most often either ignored, or portrayed in a callous, graphically violent Hollywood manner. What has been missing is art like Ms. Berry's, that provides an accessible and aesthetically inviting imagery of death. In presenting the reality of dissolution without the disturbing gore that would turn us away, we are left to face the real issue that has not been adequately addressed by so many of us. Berry's art draws us in to a deeper and more personal exploration of the significant role that the inevitable demise and dissolution of our physical bodies plays in our lives. Accepting our mortality, and pondering our own demise on a deeper level can help us to make the most of our limited time, and deal with our deaths and the deaths of those we love in a more compassionate and positive manner.

art death cremation

As an undertaker, I have some reservations about the privacy issues involved in this kind of work, and I hope that Ms. Berry has obtained the informed consent of the families of the deceased involved in this project. Certainly though, the identities of the deceased are not apparent in the photos. In fact, at this point in the cremation process, what I see in these photos is more an example of our universal condition, than an image of the individual.

I also have reservations about the idea of 'death as an art form'. Documenting death and basing art on it can be an art form, but I feel that referring to death itself as an art form conveys the idea of art being the purpose and most notable result of death. This ignores the wider implications and consequences of death for the individual and that person's family and community.

art death cremation

That said, I think that this series provides and important opportunity to explore the ideas of death in our art and culture, and I applaud Ms. Berry for her courage and vision.

For more of this series, visit the Diemar Noble Gallery

cremation art death

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Living Room

memorial death ritual

Here are some photos of graves that may seem very unusual to us. They say a lot about how people envision the after death existence of their loved ones. Certainly we all want our loved ones to be comfortable in death, to have whatever they need, and perhaps, even be held in high regard by the other residents of whatever plane of existence they happen to be on.

memorial death ritual

In mainstream western culture, it is common for people to imagine that after death, we will no longer need a couch, or a drink, or a pair of shoes. But in many parts of the world, the afterlife is envisioned to be very similar to this one. The dead need food, money and a place to dwell. They might need a car to get around. They might find a job, or fall in love.

memorial death ritual

Where I work, families don't bury living rooms for their dead, but many send along candy, a beer, or photos. They put some money in their loved one's pocket or write them a letter.

Whatever a person's faith, their picture of existence after death is always based on their experiences in life. We have no other point of reference to draw from. So, maybe grandma's ghost will walk around her tomb, look in the mirror and pour herself a drink. Maybe dad will open up our letter in the hereafter and be reminded of how much we love him, or finally learn the secret we held back from him in life. Maybe our infant son will be comforted by the teddy bear we sent along with him to his grave. Maybe the fact that we put fuzzy slippers on mom will keep her feet from getting too cold. Maybe it will, and maybe it won't. In any case, it makes us feel better. It allows us to perform one more act of love, to work through our grief, and in our mind, at least, they are happier because we tried.

memorial death ritual

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Icons of Speed and Style: Ray Fahrner's Boot Hill Express

During the early golden years of Big Daddy Roth and custom show cars, Kansas City customizer, Ray Fahrner, created the ‘Boot Hill Express’. Based on the 1850s funeral coach that reportedly carried James Gang member Bob Younger to his grave, it has been the subject of numerous scale models and is certainly one of the wildest and most iconic custom creations to come from the show rod era of the 1960s. Mr. Fahrner passed away in 2005, but Ray and his creations are fondly remembered to this day.
Ray Fahrner's Boot Hill Express death

Here are two entries from the guest book that accompanies his obituary on the Kansas City Star website:

June 05, 2009

RIP Ray. Your work made a lot of people happy. I still remember being a kid and building a boot hill express model for my dad's 40th b'day cake. You're a permanent & welcome part of Americana.

~T S

October 26, 2005

I grew up near his shop in Raytown and we would ride our bikes up there to look at his cool projects. He never chased us off but instead invited us in to ask questions. I remember sitting in the seat of the Boot Hill Express!! Stuff like that you never forget!! I've been a Hot Rod junkie ever since. Many years later my son played football with his grandkids and we got to talk about the old days and I really enjoyed that! RIP Ray.

~T M

Hot rods are probably not the first thing we picture when we think of funerals, but last year I had the privilege of leading a number of these incredible cars to the cemetery for the service of a very well loved man with a passion for custom cars. I only wish I had been able to include a fitting hearse for the procession.

Now I might have my chance, though I doubt I can afford it. Along with other period hot rods and custom show cars, the ‘Boothill Express’ is going up for auction this September. This one-day auction event, billed as Icons of Speed & Style is set for September 26, 2009, at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Approximately 80 vehicles and several lots of period hot rod and ‘kustom kulture’ memorabilia will be offered. “Each of these cars on offer are cultural icons of the roads and race tracks of America because they encompass every aspect of American engineering, racing ingenuity and cutting edge customization”, said Ian Kelleher, President and COO of RM Auctions.

Ray Fahrner's Boot Hill Express funral
Box cover art from the original 1967 model kit from Monogram

Ray Fahrner's Boot Hill Express memorial

Boot Hill Express Model built by Tommy Kortman using Revell/Monogram’s 1994 Re-release of the original 1967 Monogram kit. (above and below)

Ray Fahrner's Boot Hill Express memorial

The idea of a custom hot rod hearse may not appeal to a wide audience, but I think it is emblematic of the way Baby Boomers are changing the funeral traditions in our culture. Custom cars are an expression of individuality. A large part of their value comes from being unique, from not appealing to everyone. The Boot Hill Express is a perfect example of selectively drawing inspiration from the old as well as the new. While I am very skeptical of the claim that the actual prairie hearse used to carry Bob Younger is incorporated in this vehicle, I have to admire the way that all the disparate parts come together as a whole.

Ray Fahrner's Boot Hill Express memorial

The idea of customization has taken a long time to travel from the Hot Rodder’s garage to the funeral parlor, but it is the same idea. A vehicle and a funeral should be as unique as the person they are crafted for.

In the Baby Boomer funeral service, old traditions and new ones are combined with expressions of the personality, interests and values of the deceased. Just like a hot rod, though, a skilled crafts person is needed to bring all these aspects together into a unified whole. This is the challenge for funeral directors today, and we can all learn from the vision, craftsmanship, and attention to detail displayed in Ray Fahrner’s work.

Auction Catalogue and information

Thanks to the blog Boing Boing , for their post on the auction!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Gem of an Obituary, Nancy Lee Hixson writes her own

In obituaries, most often, less is more. However, in the case of this obituary, I wish it went on forever. This obituary is one of a kind, just like the incredible woman who wrote it. Enjoy!

(NANCY) LEE HIXSON of Danville, Ohio died at sunrise on June 30, 2009. She was born Nancy Lee Wood in Cleveland on April 17, 1944, baptised at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Valley City Ohio, and confirmed at St. John's Lutheran Church, Independence Ohio. In addition to being a teetotaling mother and an indifferent housekeeper, she was a board certified naturopath specializing in poisonous and medicinal plants; but she would like to point out, posthumously, that although it did occur to her, she never spiked anyone's tea. She often volunteered as an ombudsman to help disadvantaged teens find college funding and early opened her home to many children of poverty, raising several of them to successful, if unwilling, adulthood.
She also enjoyed a long life of unmentionable adventures and confessed she had been a rebellious teen-aged library clerk, an untalented college student on scholarship, a run-away Hippie, a stoic Sunday School teacher, a Brownie leader, a Grange lecturer, an expert rifleman, a waitress, a wife once or twice, a welder, an artist, and a writer. She was in earlier years the president of Rainbow Systems Trucking Company, Peninsula Ohio, and she drove tractor-trailers over-the-road hauling freight commodities to startled customers from Minnesota to Florida.

She was the CEO of the Cuyahoga Valley Center of Outdoor Leadership Training (COLT), where she lived in a remote and tiny one-room cabin in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Despite the lack of cabin space and dining table, she often served holiday dinners to friends and relatives and could seat twenty at the bed. She lived the last twenty-three years at Winter Spring Farm near Danville where she built a private Stonehenge, and planted and helped save from extinction nearly 50 varieties of antique apple trees, many listed in A.J. Downing's famous orchard guide of 1859 - among them such delicacies as Summer Sweet Pearmain, Sops of Wine, Westfield Seek No Further, and Duchess of Oldenburg. Her homemade cider and wine were reputed to cause sudden stupor.

She befriended countless stray dogs, cats, horses, and the occasional goat. She was a nemesis to hunters, and an activist of unpopular, but just, causes. In short, she did all things enthusiastically, but nothing well.

After moving to Danville, she bravely suffered with a severe and disabling disorder and a ten-year battle with lymphoma that ultimately took her life. She was often confined to the home where she continued to tirelessly volunteer and donate her limited resources to needy teens in the area, always cheered by their small and large achievements. Sympathy and big donations may be extended at this time. She was predeceased by her father Dwight Edward Wood of the Ohio pioneer Wood family of Byhalia, who died in the Columbus Jail having been accused of a dreadful crime, and by her second father Ted A. Cznadel of Danville who adopted her, loved her and raised her despite it all. She is survived by her dearly beloved son, her heart and soul and every breath, Christopher Daniel Hixson of Akron, (a sterling citizen who rose above his murky childhood with a scandalous mother), and by his loving partner Mitchell Kahan. She is also survived by her mother, the opinionated and stubborn Ann Gall Cznadel; by her brother the Rev. Dr. Thomas R. Sluberski, a Lutheran minister and professor, most recently of Rio de Janeiro; by her gentle, ecological brother Gregory T. Cznadel, a quality manager of Cleveland; by her talented sister Linda R. Cznadel Hauck, a librarian from sea to shining sea, of San Luis Obispo; by her genius nephew and godson Matthew Hauck of Minneapolis;

and the other half of her heart, her patient friend and backstairs lover of thirty years, David Paul Bleifus who resides at the farm.

Ms. Hixson traced her lineage directly through eleven generations to Governor William Bradford of the ship Mayflower and the Plimouth Colony, and was in the process of membership to The Mayflower Society. She was a long-time card carrying member of the ACLU, the Democratic Party, and of MENSA. The family wishes to thank Dr. Gene Morris for his care, understanding and sense of humor through it all; Dr. Paul Masci of Cleveland Clinic Wooster; and Dr. Skip Radwany and the nursing staff of the Palliative Care Center at Summa for their compassion as Lee shuffled off this mortal coil. Cremation has taken place. Immediate family and friends will gather at Stonehenge on a sunny summer day to celebrate her life.

Interment is in the family plot at Brinkhaven Hilltop Cemetery in Brinkhaven, Ohio, where she will await an eventual and probable slide down the cliff to the Mohican River below.

In lieu of flowers, please pray for the Constitution of the United States. "Now Voyager depart, (much, much for thee is yet in store)…" - Walt Whitman

Virtual Tour of Cimetière du Père Lachaise

funeral cemetery

The Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise is one of the most beautiful, historic, and well known cemeteries in the world. It has been called the 'grandest address in Paris', and it's famous residents run the gamut from Oscar Wilde to Max Ernst to Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison (Frommer's Guide.)

funeral cemetery

Thanks to Artifica Solutions Multimedia, you can tour this beautiful cemetery online. The site has an elegant and easy to use interface combining a photo tour that is reminiscent of, but much nicer than, google earth, along with a map, and gallery shots of notable monuments and landmarks. The photos are crisp and beautiful. They all seem to be shot in the springtime with sunlight streaming through the trees, and there are many breathtaking 360 degree panoramas.

funeral memorial cemetery

Visit the virtual tour at it's a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Don't forget your picnic lunch.

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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.