Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Meaning of Life: Rachel Mawdsley

Rachel Mawdsley is a photographer who specializes in portraiture.  Her work centers around things that make us human, with themes such as mortality and transition.   Ms. Mawdsley has graciously agreed to share a conversation about her project, The Meaning of Life.  

Here is her statement for the project:
In October 2009, I lost my beloved Grandad, and favourite photographic subject, suddenly. It changed everything, and left me feeling lower than I had ever thought possible. I found myself occupied constantly with questions about my own existence. When I needed a subject for a university project, 'The Meaning of Life' seemed perfect. Cue rolling eyes and sympathetic smiles from my peers. What I didn't want to create, was a pretentious student project that sought the 'answer' (this is what people expected of me!). All I wanted was opinions. I wondered if anyone else had thought about the big question as much as me.
 The project is ongoing, and will eventually form a book. I started, for the sake of my college project, with people who work in the life and death cycle because I was intrigued by how a job could affect beliefs.

Pat McNally: The ‘meaning of life’ as a theme for a photography project could easily degenerate into platitudes, or cynicism if sought out in an absolute way.  However, your approach, is very personal and varied.  It seems that while the concept of an absolute ‘meaning of life’ could be a bit trite, seeing what others put out as their meaning, is very fresh and interesting.  Asking the question of death and birth specialists, adds a wonderful angle to the question as well.  I know that as an undertaker, my contact with death results in a great deal of time pondering these issues.   You mention that you were curious about whether that kind of work would affect their beliefs- what is your opinion about that at this point?

Rachel Mawdsley: The people that I met for the project were very appreciative of life regardless of any religious beliefs that they held. A few explained that dealing with death daily in such a ‘matter of fact’ way had made them realize that their own time was limited and they needed to make the most of it. Many mentioned the emotion involved in dealing with sudden deaths from suicide or drugs, and of the impact on the families involved. It is clear that this could make you appreciate your own life. All of my subjects were complete strangers who I met through an internet search for local businesses, or through people that I knew. I found that they were so accommodating, and interested in what I was doing. Cremating bodies, for example, isn’t exactly what you can chat about with your friends at the pub in an evening, and it was almost like these people genuinely enjoyed being able to share what they do with me.

PM: There is something very personal about pairing a portrait with the answer to a question that most of us wouldn’t often ask a stranger, or perhaps even a friend.  Even when they answer with a clich√©, it’s interesting because they are personally putting it out and owning it.  We look at them and see a bit of their motivation, or agenda at the same time.  Did you feel uncomfortable at all in performing these interviews and portraits?

RM: Not really, but I do tend to have this ridiculous attitude of arranging situations for myself, and then panicking when reality strikes.

It is interesting because I have always considered myself to be quite a shy person. Photography changed that for me because my camera gives me an excuse to meet people that I wouldn’t normally get the chance to, whilst also giving me something to hide behind. In the case of this project, the portrait session was usually the first time I had met most of these people, and so any discomfort was mainly down to the nerves over what to expect. My usual portrait shoots are over long periods of time, and I like to get to know people, so I was out of my comfort zone in some cases. I just turned up with my camera at an arranged time and had to build a relationship that would produce something that did that person justice. I believe that each of us is important, and I like to give people a voice.
For some subjects I had ten minutes, for others I had a couple of hours. The crematorium technician was my favourite. I spent most of the morning with him ‘backstage’ at a cremation ceremony, having only expected a ten-minute shoot and quick interview session. It was terrifying initially, but also strangely therapeutic considering I had experienced the death of a close family member only five months previously. If he had asked me in advance, I think I would have declined, but being thrown in the deep-end was brilliant. I think death is scary because we try to be ignorant to what happens thinking it will help us, but if we actually face things full on, there is nothing to feed the fear.

As for as what the people were going to say, I am genuinely interested in people, so their responses were great regardless of their content- that’s the beauty of real people; sometimes you get something you absolutely expect, and other times you get something wonderful and unexpected. 
PM: There is a temporal quality to this work, in that the answer a subject gives one day, may differ a lot next week, or next year.  Along with their image, their thoughts seem trapped in that moment.  How has your idea of the meaning of life changed throughout this project?

RM: Photography is like that though anyway, isn’t it? As an artistic medium it is a constant reminder of death. You record a moment, and that photograph is a constant reminder that you are not getting that moment back.

My thoughts are still the same about why we’re here- I’m not religious at all, although I was brought up as a Christian. I believe that it is not possible to know whether there is a point for us being here until we die.

I must admit that I did leave a couple of the interviews thinking “wouldn’t it be great if what that person said was true.”

PM: It’s my experience that most people don’t have the time or interest to ask or listen with interest to deep questions of others.  Have any of these interviews led to unexpected places?

RM: Definitely. I certainly went into the portrait meetings with plenty of time spare to chat openly in case people wanted to talk to me as much as I wanted to talk to them. I knew realistically that busy people wouldn’t be able to give me much time, but I was surprised by those that did. Once you start talking about these things, you feel a genuine connection with someone, and you start to find out all sorts that you didn’t expect. Lynn, the midwife, was experiencing birth at work, and death at home, having recently nursed her father through his final days with cancer, and undergoing treatment for the disease herself. It was incredibly interesting to hear what she had to say. She was very spiritual about the whole thing.

PM: The beliefs we have about what happens to us when we die have a great effect on nearly all aspects of our living existence.  Certainly a person’s idea of the meaning of life is a result of previous experience, but how do you see it affecting their choices and perceptions going forward?

RM: Well I suppose it raises the question as to whether your influences now are going to affect your future; your future after death. It also has an influence on how you deal with situations. One of the professionals that I interviewed did say to me that God had a plan, which unnerved me slightly because that is quite an easy way to give up- if there’s a grand plan then can we turn things around ourselves? Don’t things start to get dangerous if we surrender all and believe that things are out of our control? I suppose in other ways this could be therapeutic, just not for me.

PM: The loss of your Grandfather started this project in a way.  Do you know, or can you guess about his thoughts on the meaning of life?

RM: I know because he told me. His theory was that life was just a game that had somehow gone wrong. I don’t know fully what he meant by that, but he was obsessed with sci-fi films, and new technology, and so I can imagine that had something to do with it. He was quite a character really, and not everything he said was serious. We played the Star Wars soundtrack at his funeral as a back-up plan because he had actually requested Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, but certain family members felt it was inappropriate. 

PM: Whether there is a universal meaning of life, or not, it is certainly an interesting experience to learn what others think.  Has working on this project and on your thesis led you to any new perspectives?

RM: I have mainly become more interested in art as a way of understanding human experiences that we have no control over. As someone who suffers from depressive illness, and having recently experienced a sudden death of someone very close, I really felt that lack of control at the time. I needed a reason to live, and the project gave me that; mainly by identifying the fact that we are all in the same boat.

As for my own beliefs, I don’t believe it is possible to know why we are here. I am certainly not religious, and so not influenced in that sense. I would like to think that the meaning of life wasn’t something as disappointing as just to keep the human race going, but at the same time I find it hard to believe that there could be something else after this. Reverend Stonestreet of the United Religions Initiative, UK (who is featured in the project) did reassure me somewhat in our interview when he compared dying to birth. He explained that if someone told us when we were in the womb that the world as we knew it would change, and we would become possibly a 6ft something, we would refuse to believe it too, but that did happen, so in the same way, why can’t it happen again after our death? I like it.

Photographer Rachel Mawdsley

To explore more of Rachel Mawdsley's thought provoking work, visit these pages:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fake Flowers: Unexpected Beauty from Artist, Asher

"almost gone"

If you had told me even a week ago that I would be posting pictures of artificial flowers I wouldn't have believed you.  I have long shared with the late Bobby Darin, and the boards of many cemeteries,  a disdain for these fakes.  In my experience, they never look nice, even new, and soon get much worse. 

"earthen between fakes"

 Unlike real flowers, they lack the good sense to wither and fall apart after a few days.  As a consequence, they get to stay at the cemetery all year, until finally, amid howls of despair from their planters, they are harvested off to the dumpster in the fall, or just before mother's day.

"rain and red"

What I didn't realize, and what I'm grateful to the artist, Asher, for showing me, is that artificial flowers don't really blossom into their fullest beauty until they have weathered at the grave for several years.  

"in the fall, they try to blend"
 To find such beauty in something I once despised brings me a great joy, and I hope that you will share my enjoyment of these compelling graveyard photos.

"in the porcelain valley, only lilies grow"
  Instead of describing his work, Asher preferred for the images to speak for themselves, and I think that they do so eloquently.  He has however, allowed me to share with you an excerpt from his artist statement:

"like spring, in late fall"
 "You're here for the images. Not for the bio. To that end, enjoy them for how they make you react; for how they make you feel. The moment you see them, they become as much your reaction as they were mine. It is in that moment of passing, that transgression from my world to yours, that singularity of event that the art lives. Before and after that moment it was just an image. In that moment it sputtered and spewed, it came to life in a spasmodic fit. In that moment you saw with my eyes and we were human together." 

"long since forgot"

"we love you"



The beautiful textures and unexpected graphic qualities that can be found in the things man has built and then left behind, are not limited to the graveyard.  Here are a few more of Asher's photos from a set called 'Kingman'.  For more of his work, visit his website, 13ft fall.

"drive by"



"we were young"
All photos have been copyrighted by Asher, and are used with his permission

For more on cemeteries and flowers, visit:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ushering Out the Dust

Ritual takes many forms in death, and in life as well.  Quite simply, in ritual, a symbolic meaning enriches a physical task, which in turn, enriches our life. 

A wonderful example of this is the centuries old cleaning ritual at Higashi-Honganji temple in Japan.  Here is a video from TodaysTHV.  Cleaning a temple is an important and necessary task, just as the burial of the dead is.  Incorporating a meaningful ritual into the task of cleaning changes drudgery into a life affirming, life enhancing and memorable experience.  Similarly,  'disposing' of the bodies of our family and friends without ritual changes an important and meaningful recognition of the most important of milestones into an act of drudgery.

Is the dust in this Japanese Temple ushered off with more care than our dead?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Plastic Bag Monster Menaces Slovenian City

In a terrifying example of the horrors that can result from rampant consumerism and a disregard for its consequences, a giant monster formed from the debris of untold thousands of plastic bags and cups in the Slovenian city of Ljubljana

With tentacles reaching deep into the heart of the city, authorities fear for the worst.  Scientists are working around the clock to understand how this creature is able to assimilate debris into it's body.  As the supply of post consumer rubbish is nearly endless, there is no way of knowing how large the monster may become, or how quickly it will grow.

Here is an excerpt from the website of  The Miha Artnak, rumored to have played a role in the monster's creation:

"Together with Ekologi Brez Meja (, Lukatarina and Eco Vitae we collected 40.000 used plastic bags and 7.500 used plastic cups from 12 kindergartens, 21 primary schools, 4 high schools and 3 faculties from the city of Ljubljana (Slovenia) and from more than 500 people from Ljubljana.
Plastic Bag Monster from Kongresni trg spreads its plastic tentacles through the streets of Ljubljana. It symbolizes the spreading of the consumerism and waste segregation. The monster itself has adjusted to the environment and therefore survived. It is supplanting us from the food chain. It just might succeed and it’s all up to us. It is reproducing with inconceivable speed and knows no mercy. It feeds on individuals’ sloth and irresponsibility.
The Miha Artnak
Lovka na lovce (The Tackle of the Tentacle)
November, 2010"

Photos and quoted text from The Miha Artnak site.  Thanks to The Wooster Collective for sharing this story

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Martin Miller: The Face of Death

Armored Nuclear Weapon Transport Rail Car and Locomotive, "The White Train" 1951

Martin Miller is an artist who puts a face on death.  It is not the anthropomorphic face of the death head, or grim reaper, or Kali that he presents, not the horsemen of the apocalypse, the danse macabre or a gory landscape of corpses. 


The face of death that Mr. Miller shows to us is much more realistic, commonplace and ultimately more disturbing.  The true face of death, in the form of potential and actual causes, lies in the thoughtless mindless progression of an unchecked virus multiplying exponentially and thoughtlessly passed within an organism and throughout a population. 

Beta Calutrons, 2nd-Stage Source of Hiroshima Bomb Uranium, Oak Ridge, TN 1943 
It is the sterile political or theoretical ideal of a community that step by natural, mundane, and tedious step brings forth annihilation.  The face of death is a pale turquoise control room with an uncomfortable office chair manned by a technician with thoughts of football games and family vacations, not evil destruction.

B Reactor Control Console, Source of Nagasaki Bomb Plutonium, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944

  The face of death is an ordered utilitarian industrial park with a terrible purpose, or the fruit of a thousand ordinary factories.

Canadian-Made Sherman M4A1 "Grizzly Bear" Tank 1943

Each piece, moving forward, unchecked, is what threatens to, and often does, lay us all low.

Spartan Missile Silos and Missile Site Radar, Safeguard ABM System, Nekoma, ND  1975

Certainly there is ill will in the world, of course there is hate, rage and struggle.  These topics are well documented and illustrated in every museum in the world, and most television programs and films flickering in front of our faces.  The role of artist is not always to focus on these emotional themes, but can also be to direct our gaze at what lies silently in the background.  Tawdry and pedestrian, but moving inexorably toward us, following instructions from a gene or a poorly written manual, the big threats to our lives are given a face in Mr. Miller's work.

Here, to accompany these images, are some of Mr. Miller's own words:

    "... Pestilence has menaced humankind from the beginning.  Moderns assume that medical science can deal with any such threat but, even today, there is no cure for yellow fever, Ebola, Marburg, smallpox, West Nile, polio, equine encephalitis, herpes, or SARS.  Though supportive medical treatment can improve the odds of survival in some cases, there is very little surge capacity in our medical establishment to handle a major outbreak.  In the absence of any treatment, mortality rates soar as high as 90-95% for Ebola, inhalation anthrax, and pneumonic bubonic plague; 70% for SARS and yellow fever.  New and deadly diseases may evolve anywhere in the world.  Today's globe-trotting culture guarantees that, if loosed into the population in one location, it will be spread in a matter of hours to the rest of the world."

Inertial Guidance Module, Peacekeeper (MX) ICBM 1986

"In its broadest sense, culture is the sum total of our beliefs, our fears, our behavior patterns, our institutions, our common values, as well as our art, music, and literature.  But the arts often neglect or omit reference to the Cold War.  In fact, most of us who lived through those times have scant visual knowledge of what may be fairly called the dark side of our culture.  We were immersed in the myopic soup of getting an education, finding a job, marrying, and having children.  Meanwhile, far from our thoughts, bright and earnest young men were spending 24-hour duties behind 7-ft thick steel doors.  There they drilled constantly the procedures to launch missiles with a 30-minute trip to the Soviet Union.  The nuclear warhead on the Titan II missile ... packed nearly three times the explosive power of all the bombs dropped by the Allies in WWII.  And there were 54 of these missiles on alert for 25 years."
Gable Mountain Plutonium Vaults, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944

Martin Miller's work does not offer answers to our human condition, but the passion and wisdom behind it allows us to see death in a new way.  It is not the only way, or the only face.  It is not the whole truth, but it is a very valuable piece of it, and by providing us with this vision he gives us the opportunity to understand our condition in a deeper way.  What we choose to do with this knowledge is our responsibility.

For more of Martin Miller's work, please visit his website

All Photos and quoted text are copywrited by Martin Miller and are used with his permission. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Anna Marinenko's Ghost Urn


  It's seldom that I get excited about urns, but this concept, by Ukrainian designer Anna Marinenko, has me seriously considering cremation.  Still just a prototype, these urns are not available yet, but hopefully, they will be soon.  Combining an elegant, modern modular design, and a timeless spooky / cute aesthetic, the urns pack a symbolic punch.  

They are universal like a pall, and personal like an programed iPhone, providing a tent for our remains after the earthly one has become dust.

Part Tupperware, part spaceship, part tchochke, part reliquary, this urn arrives with an instant familiarity that makes it seem like it's always been with us.  It a design that seems so  obvious in hindsight, that it makes me wish it was my own idea!

I'm not sure what the planned dimensions are, but from the look of the capsule, the urns would need to be at least a foot tall or more to hold the standard volume of an adult's cremated remains.  

If smaller (and I would suggest that these urns be made available in both sizes) it would hold only a keepsake portion.

In addition to the porcelain model, there are designs for metal urns in a silver tone and a gold/ bronze tone.

There seems to be a bit of a resemblance between the ghost and the gentleman in the photo below (the frame is also the work of Ms. Marinenko). 

For more information about this exciting design, and other intriguing product design, interior design and visualization work, visit Ms. Marinenko's site or her livejournal page
Designer Anna Marinenko

(All images are used by permission, and are the creation and property of Anna Marinenko)

for other innovative urn designs, visit:

Nadine Jarvis: Challenging Post Mortem Traditions

Fireman's Urn is a work of love: The Final Honor

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fashion and Funerals

Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris (via )
From time to time, the world of fashion casts its eye on the funeral.  The photo above shows cheeky photographer, Terry Richardson's take on a Spaghetti Western funeral procession in the December 2010 issue of Vogue Italia.  Perhaps funerals are in the minds of fashion designers and photographers in the wake of the tragic suicides of Alexander McQueen this year, and his muse and patron, fashion icon, Isabella Blow in 2007.  Following the death of another legendary designer, Yves St. Laurent in 2008, an issue of Vogue Paris was dedicated in his memory, along with many funeral themed editorial photographs.  Certainly, there is enough death in this world to provide inspiration for a thousand editorials and couture collections.  What is of interest to me is what we can learn from fashion's take on the funeral and its rituals.  

The August 2008 issue of Vogue Paris dedicated to the late Yves St. Laurent
(via fashionologie)
Fashion, in its design, styling and presentation, is an art focused on the human being.  Whether we admit to it or not, our clothing communicates a strong message, to ourselves and to those around us, of who we are as individuals, and which communities we feel a part of.  To understand just how important our clothes are to maintaining our sense of self, we have only to look at how useful taking an individual's own clothes away is, in breaking down a sense of individuality, as it is practiced in prisons, military training, and religious cults. 

Chanel fall 2009 Couture

The positive side of clothing as a manifestation of self, is that fashion presents us with an opportunity to re-examine ourselves and our relationship with the world and events in our lives.  Not only can our clothing express for us how we are feeling to ourselves and others, it gives those ideas a physical reality.  Is the wedding really happening  if we are in a track suit?  Is the child christened, or just taking a bath if she is not in a baptismal gown?  Is the priest on duty without his clerical collar?
When we dress for a funeral, we acknowledge the reality of the death and its importance.  When we dress for a funeral like Daphne Guinness did in the photo below, we are telling our self and the world that the life and death of Alexander McQueen were life changing experiences for us.

Real-life fashion funeral attendees Daphne Guinness and Naomi Campbell
arrive at the services for Designer, Alexander McQueen (via
As important as acknowledgement and expression are to us as grieving humans, the creative side of dressing can play an even more important part for us as we move forward.  Even the simplest and most commonly worn article of clothing carries with it a world of meanings and connotations, and so, selecting our habillement  for a special ceremony in our life  is an occasion of creative importance.  Who are we?  What kind of person are we in our grief?   What is our new role in life going to be without this person?  What communities are we representing and in turn, relying on for emotional and spiritual support?  Are we angry at God, at society, at war, at the undertaker?  Do we run from our traditions or fall back into the fold?  Do we wear proudly a token of our relationship with the deceased, or find comfort being lost in the crowd of others?

In all these things, our choice of clothing tells others and reminds us, of how we feel.   By trying on our options ( at least in our minds) we find what feels right and what doesn't.      

A shot from the August 2008 editorial
 There is a very theatrical aspect to these photos, and to clothing in general.  That is not to say that it is false or trivial, though.  Theater is a basic and elemental form of human communication.  The models in this cemetery scene may not be up for any Academy awards for their roles, but perhaps they are typecast in our minds, having been called on to emote only icy indifference or smoldering lust in previous photo shoots.  Over-the-top expressions of grief, however, are as old as time, and more often a form of expression than falsehood.  

A priest I once knew told me of overcoming excessive drama at the grave.  Sometimes an overwrought widow would cast herself into the grave and refuse to budge from the top of the lowered casket.  The priest said that just a sprinkle of dirt into the grave would send her out like a rocket.

A shot from the August 2008 editorial

Of course these ladies did not desire to be buried alive with their husbands, but what they were communicating by wailing and climbing onto the casket was real.  They allowed themselves a theatrical moment to respond to a dramatic and devastating change in their lives, and that is a reaction that may have more honesty than carrying on quietly.  We all act out our roles- acting strong when we feel weak, acting mad when we're scared, even behaving in a manner that is consistent with how we feel is acting. 

A shot from the August 2008 editorial

The richness of human experience is not limited, however by the poles of emotional expression.  We are different in so many other ways, and we revel in it.  In a world of straight black hair, we are recognized by other traits.  In a room full of black suits, the cut, fit and fabric of each stands out.  Fashion design is a world of possibilities.  When we accept that our clothing choices are not just defaults but meaningful expressions, the importance of consciously making those choices becomes clear.    

Christian Lacroix fall 2009 couture from Vogue Italia
A funeral is a symbolic occasion.  People choose environmentally friendly funerals after spending a lifetime driving a car and adding to landfills.  People are buried from church who have spent their Sundays drinking and watching football.  Those with faults are eulogized, and this is not hypocracy.  It is a special time for special gestures and rituals that transcend our ordinary experience.  When we are dressed in a special way, we see ourselves in a special way and the day is different from all other days.  My old high school principal told me that he would be happy to allow students to dress casually for the school prom, but having tried this in the past, he knew that when students were dressed up, they behaved differently.  The same is true for adults.

A shot from the August 2008 editorial

With all this focus on funeral fashions, you might be surprised to know that some find the fashion houses lacking in choices for the bereaved.  Well, think about it, there are multiple glossy magazines for brides on the news stands, but have you ever seen a copy of 'Modern Widow'?  Leonor Scherrer, Givenchy model and daughter of couturier, Jean-Louis Scherrer is looking to fill the gap.

Leonor Scherrer in Vogue Paris November 2009
Ms. Scherrer reportedly found slim pickings in Europe's fashion houses for weeds to wear to Yves St. Laurent's funeral, and decided to open her own house specifically to provide high end mourning wear.  Here is an excerpt from the New York Times magazine article on her by Stephen Heyman:

“Death has become banal,” proclaims Leonor Scherrer, the daughter of the French couturier Jean-Louis Scherrer and the mind behind : Leonor Funeral Couture. Scherrer is building a fashion line to outfit the bereaved that harks back to a time when “a widow’s mourning dress was closely observed,” as in Goya’s painting of the Duchess of Alba.  Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci digs the six-feet-under-obsessed Scherrer, featuring her in a recent ad campaign. “I’m completely in love with her,” he told Women’s Wear Daily. “For me, she represents France in all senses: the elegance, the aristocracy” — and, √©videmment — “the darkness.” 

A shot from the August 2008 editorial
Certainly those in mourning don't find death to be banal.  They find it earth shattering and painful both emotionally and physically.  They struggle to make sense out of a world where their guideposts and routines and sense of self are shattered.  I don't make light of their situation, and I don't think that Ms. Scherrer meant to do so either.  Perhaps it is not death, but our cookie cutter reactions and 'solutions' to it that have become banal.
A shot from the August 2008 editorial
There is another lesson for us to learn from fashion.  Just like funeral rituals, it is not necessarily the newest designs that resonate the most, but not everyone wants to buy the same thing they sold 20 years ago.  Some looks are timeless and just need a fresh approach.  I'm thinking veils, black crepe, and lace here.  Similarly, the participation of pallbearers, a symbolic procession, and an opportunity to share and express one's feelings of loss are timeless essentials in a funeral service.
Not everyone will want to wear jumpsuits or primary colors, and not everyone will want to have a pass-the-microphone service or a video tribute.  Some trends go in and out of fashion, just as some names sound fresh and everyone gets named 'Alex' before you know it.  We all live in the same culture, so a great many of us grow interested and weary of certain ideas at around the same time.
What is most important, and the fashion houses know this better than most, is that we must continue to stay relevant to a culture, and to individuals, whose desires and perspectives change and evolve constantly, but always need the same basic things.  

What's Next?
(Just kidding - I photoshopped a casket into this ad!)
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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.