Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cross Bones Graveyard: Remembering the Outcast Dead

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

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

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.

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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.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obituaries of Note: The Pink Lady, Donna Mae Mims

Donna Mae Mims, a memorable and groundbreaking woman who loved pink and racing corvettes, died on October 6 at age 82. In accordance with her wishes, her body sat in state behind the wheel of her pink Corvette. A procession of Corvettes lead from the service to a luncheon following the funeral service at Beinhauer Funeral home in Peters, PA.

Memorial art feminism death

Following is an excerpt from the obituary by Jessica Turnbull in the Pittsburg Tribune:

Donna Mae Mims wanted to be behind the steering wheel when friends said goodbye to the woman who made history when she became the first female to win the Sports Car Club of America championship in 1963. Mims, 82, of Bridgeville died Tuesday of a stroke. She was known as the "Pink Lady" of sports car racing for her signature color — blonde hair dyed pink and "Think Pink" emblazoned across her cars. Mims was introduced to racing after she and her former husband bought a Corvette. He wouldn't let her paint it pink, so she put what would become her motto — "Think Pink" — on the side. When the two split, she kept his name, the car and a love of racing.

car burial obituary memorial

After she retired from racing in the 1970s, she helped start the Steeltown Corvette Club and the Three Rivers Corvette Club, while volunteering with the Sports Car Club of America and the Corvette Club of Western Pennsylvania.

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In 1972, Mims organized a three-woman team to participate in the original Brook Yates' Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The Cannonball Run was an illegal cross-country race from New York to Los Angeles, which took about 36 hours to complete. Mims' team, in a Cadillac limousine, didn't make it to the finish line. A team member fell asleep at the wheel in Texas and flipped the car. Mims, asleep in the back seat, recalled waking up and thinking she was in a washing machine. Mims walked away from the crash with a broken collarbone, but she feared the worst. That's because a Spanish-speaking doctor backed away while examining her. He told a translator that Mims' hands and face were both green. The porta-potty in the car, which had been emptied at the previous pit stop, had spilled chemicals all over Mims, turning her green.

funeral ritual memorial ceremony

Friday, October 9, 2009

Recycling the Heat of Cremation: Taipei


In January, I posted a story about a town in Sweden that decided to recycle the heat from it’s crematory. This concept seemed creepy to some of the residents, but it’s important to remember that natural gas, and not the human remains, is the fuel creating the heat and energy. It is the enormous amount of heat required to accomplish the combustion of the remains that is tapped to generate the energy. By recycling this heat, the energy is not just lost to the atmosphere, and cremation becomes a greener process in the bargain.

Now recycling crematory heat is in the news again. As reported in the Taipei Times on October 7th, Taipei City Government has plans to recycle the heat of cremation at one of the City’s public funeral parlors. Heat transfer machines will transform the heat of cremations into electricity that could, in turn be used to power air conditioning in the waiting room of the facility.

Again the emotional responses to recycling are mired in the misconception that the bodied are providing the fuel to produce the electricity.

Here is an excerpt from the Taipei Times article:

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Taipei City Councilor Chuang Ruei-hsiung (莊瑞雄) yesterday challenged the office’s plan and urged it to take public perceptions into consideration. “I admire the city government for having such a creative idea, but for family members, it is just creepy to have air conditioning generated from burning bodies,” he said. Chuang said the energy could be put to other purposes out of respect for the feelings of the mourners.

Clearly if this kind of recycling is to move forward, the hurdle of this misconception will need to be overcome.

On the Streets: Graffiti Memorials

At a recent industry conference, I heard several stories of children carving their initials into trees used as evidence of our natural need for being remembered. This wasn't an official discussion topic, just casual conversations among funeral professionals, but it got me thinking.

What can we learn from graffiti memorials?

art death ritual
Rest in peace - until we meet again

I don't endorse or condone the alteration of another's property without their permission, and I'd be the first person to complain if our funeral home was vandalized. Right or wrong though, graffiti sometimes speaks for those who lack the means, but not the creativity to communicate something important. What these pieces tell me, is that there is a basic human need to memorialize our dead. It is important enough that some people risk jail time to paint a piece that says, "this person mattered to me, this life was important and I want everyone to know about it, I remember a unique person who changed my life, my loss is painful and it matters".

art death ritual

The young man who memorialized his friend on this wall is facing criminal charges. He apologized to the business owners, but also said of his friend "he was one of the most beautiful people I've ever known"

art death ritual
When New Zealand Green Activist Rod Donald died, a supporter put up this message, but not everyone in the party was pleased about it.

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The writing on the wall

The families in our society choose more and more to deal with grieving on their own. Funeral processions and services are described as gaudy, or just for show. People say they want to remember on their own, to celebrate rather than mourn. I think that the graffiti shown here should remind us that there is a strong need for us to have a public facet to our grief experience. We need people to acknowledge what has been lost and understand that our lives have been touched and changed.

art death ritual
A familiar face is no longer in all the places we once saw it.

What happens when we do not allow ourselves a public expression of our loss at a funeral or memorial service? We have an un-met need. We don't get the support and empathy of our friends and neighbors. We have something burning in the back of our throat, but we haven't let it out, so we find ourselves unable to really move beyond it.

I'm not crazy about graffiti, but it does allow those without a voice to be heard, and maybe there would be less of it on the walls and trains of our world if families took the time and effort to have meaningful funerals.

death ritual art graffiti
Graffiti can be used for protest as well as memorialization. In January, I posted a story on Ghost Bikes, bicycles that are painted white and chained to the places where bicyclists have been killed by automobiles. Here are two more ways that victims are memorialized on the streets of the world. The photos above are from a public awareness campaign in Portugal, reminding pedestrians and motorists alike that 1/4 of the victims of traffic fatalities are pedestrians. The names of pedestrians who have died make up the bars in these crosswalks. Strictly speaking, this is not graffiti because permission was given for the installations. In fact, an insurance company sponsored the campaign.

graffiti memorial death art
This photo is from Guatemala, where white crosses were painted on the streets on July 11, 2009 to protest and to remember.
"Today, the principle roads of the city appeared painted with white crosses, an action of the Civic National Movement to remember the victims of violence and impunity." Prensa Libre http://bit.ly/BKrM6

So what can we learn from graffiti memorials?
Each life matters and each loss needs to be acknowleged.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Obituaries of Note: Mimi Weddell

Mimi Weddell, an icon of style and personality, died at her home at age 94 on September 24th. Starting a career as a model and actress in her 60's, following the death of her second husband, Mimi reached her stride in her 90's. Through the force of her personality and style, Mimi broke barriers and changed our ideas about age and beauty. She is an inspiration to those of us who start over later in life. It is often said that people like Mimi are one of a kind, or that the mold was broken after they were made. I hope that the opposite is true, and that our world will find more and more Mimis coming forward to wake us and inspire us, lest we rest peacefully a little too soon.

Mimi Weddell death art

From the NY Times Obituary:

She built an idiosyncratic career, appearing in advertisements for Louis Vuitton and Nike; in numerous films, including “The Purple Rose of Cairo”; and in television series, including, almost inevitably, “Sex and the City.”

Mrs. Weddell excelled, above all, at striking glamorous attitudes, waving her cigarette holder and sporting one of the 150 or so hats she regarded less as a style statement than as a physical necessity, like oxygen.

art death memorial funeral

Mrs. Weddell’s film roles could perhaps be described as small, some even minute, but only by the literal-minded. For the few moments that the camera lingered on her, she radiated Norma Desmond-like star power. She did print ads for Burberry and Juicy Couture, appeared in photo spreads in Vogue and Vanity Fair and at 90, still going strong, was named one of the 50 Most Beautiful New Yorkers by New York magazine. Then came the documentary, directed by Jyll Johnstone, which gave audiences the full flavor of her personality. The attention was gratifying. The income helped support the hats.

meaningful funeral obituary

“Hats give you a frame,” she told The Times in 2008. “However dreary you feel, if you put on a hat, by golly, you’ve changed everything. I keep telling my daughter, my granddaughter, everybody, ‘If you don’t wear a hat, you’re missing it.’ ”
for the full obit by William Grimes, visit NYTimes.com

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from Vogue Casa October 5 via

What is it that can make someone in their 90's so cool? The same things that make a 20 year old cool -attitude, a personal style and a belief in oneself. The hats and cheekbones don't hurt either. Here is a message from Jyll Johnstone, the producer of 'Hats Off', posted on the film's web site .

September 28, 2009

Dear Friend of Our Site,

I am so sad to let you know that our Mimi passed on Thursday, September 24th. She had been in the hospital for an infection in her throat, and she just got gradually weaker. So, Sarah, her daughter brought her home.

death ceremonyAt home, she was in good spirits, and met with some old friends. She sang songs, handed out advice and was witty as ever. I was fortunate enough to be there, and watch this amazing woman go through a deep transformation.

At one point she wasn’t speaking very much, and I was asking her if she was comfortable, if she was hungry, thirsty, and then I said, “Are you scared?” I heard a strong, ”NO”, and then silence.

Even at the end I learned so much from Mimi. She continued to care about others, and to ask what they were working on, what were they reading, and how they were doing. She just did not want to talk about herself, unless she was asked.

It was an honor to be there with Mimi’s family, and I want to thank them for allowing me to be at their home during such a precious time.


PS Sarah said when Mimi passed that her spirit did not even linger for a second. She was set free, and rose above it!

and finally, a clip from the film via youtube. God Speed, Mimi!

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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. dailyundertaker@gmail.com