Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In Repose: A requiem for Japanese immigrants buried in Australia

Australian cemetery Japanese ritual

‘In Repose’ is a collaborative, multi-disciplined art project inspired by Japanese graves in Australia. Essentially, it is a requiem: a work of kuyo, which is a Japanese term describing an act of ceremonial prayer or offering to respect. The kuyo is an effort to honor and calm the spirits of the departed.

Australian Cemetery Japanese Ceremony

The exhibition and performance will run from April 1 through to May 14 this year at the Japan Foundation Gallery in Sydney. The project aims to reveal insights into the thoughts of a Japanese-Australian through time, introducing viewers to a realm of sacredness and spirituality, and allowing space for reflection.

Japanese Ceremony-Australian Cemetery

In the project, photography is merged with dance, koto music, visual projection, soundscapes and installation; and together, it is an artistic homage to the deceased. It explores the migrant’s connection to their adopted land, lost memories and the relationships that have developed since. It is a tribute specifically dedicated to the Japanese immigrants who are buried away from their native homeland and the local Australian communities who are looking after their graves until this day.

Australian Cemetery ritual memorial performance

The collaborative team of artists is composed of Mayu Kanamori, a Japanese-Australian photographer with a background in journalism; Wakako Asano a Japanese born contemporary dancer and choreographer based in Sydney; Vic McEwan, a sound designer, musician, writer, and production manager; and Satsuki Odamura, a master of the koto.

art and death-australian cemetery

The In Repose initiative began in 2006 with some of the artists travelling to remote locations around Australia such as Townsville, Broome and Thursday Island, creating site specific art to Japanese graveyards. The video below is from a performance on Thursday Island.

“Everything returns to earth and it was good to share art and ceremony with local communities. I think we brought back from our journey a deeper understanding: that the ground in which we walk and build our homes upon, and the sea and rivers which connect our lands are all made up of many ancestors… we all live on a sacred site,” explains Mayu.

Mayu Kanamori

For more information, please visit http://www.mayu.com.au/folio/inrepose

For a related post from October about Foreign and Japanese Cemeteries, visit http://www.dailyundertaker.com/2009/10/foreign-cemetery-far-from-home.html

Monday, February 15, 2010

Vanitas: Memento Mori in the Digital Age

A memento mori is a work of art that reminds us of the vanity of life and the inevitability of our eventual demise. These reminders of mortality have historically taken the shape jewelry with skull motifs, watches and clocks with various reminders of our own time running out, paintings depicting the fleeting objects of life along with skulls, and sculptures of showing half a face or body in youth and the other in old age or death.

mori memento death and art

In recent times, even as our culture seems to be drifting away from the acceptance of death, youth culture abounds with images of skulls and skeletons. While once this death imagery was edgy and controversial, the domain of punk rockers and heavy metal bands, it has gone mainstream along with tattoos to the point that it is not unusual to see skull motifs on the clothing and toys of even the youngest girls and boys.

mori memento-death-corpse
Above, a half skull sculpture

mori memento death art
Memento mori are not just the gloomy reminders of death or the rebellious symbolism appropriated by youth culture however. They inspire us, as originally intended, to count our days and to make the most of the time we have. Reminders of our impermanence can give us perspective on our trials and our struggles and our accomplishments. whether we look to a reward in heaven, a disintergration of the self into oneness with the universe, or simply to apply our limited energies to our highest priorities, these works can help us lead a fuller, more satisfying life.

mori memento
Keith Richards' well known Memento Mori, his Skull Ring
is just a modern expression of the Rosary bead shown below
funeral mori memento

On Sunday, the consistently thought provoking blog on art, medicine, death and culture, Morbid Anatomy, brought to my attention the introduction of a memento mori designed as an application for the Ipod. This App, known as Vanitas, a common title for memento mori pieces of the past, was designed by Tale of Tales, and features a wonderful variety of items to remind us of our fleeting existance, along with a wonderful soundtrack from cellist Zoƫ Keating. While the technology used in this app, and the way people interact with it may be new, the value of the lesson is timeless.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Beauty of an Irish Lament: Marie Murray

February 11, 2010
Irish Death funeral
Funerals are the means through which we travel from death, back into life. They are important and meaningful to us as individuals and as a culture. In contrast to the United States, where funerals and other memorial rituals seem to be on the wane, the people of Ireland hold fast to their funeral traditions. The following article by Marie Murray, (author of 'Living Our Times') and published in the Irish Times, on February 9th, conveys the importance and meaning of funerals better than any I've read in a long time. I'm grateful to Ms. Murray and her publishers for graciously allowing me to share this article with you. Thanks also to Charles Cowling for bringing this article to my attention.

WHATEVER HAS been lost in Irish culture, the tradition of funeral going has not died. Attending funerals remains an integral part of cultural life.
Funeral going is psychologically complex. It is comforting to those who mourn; recognition of the life of those who have died; and a celebration of their existence. It allows lament for their departure and acknowledgment of the loss for those who loved them.
Funeral attendance is a statement of connection, care, compassion and support. It encircles those who grieve and enriches those who attend because it connects each person there to the profundity of living and the inevitability of death. Funeral attendees witness the raw emotions of grief and the extraordinary capacity of the human spirit to love.
Traditional Irish funerals have their own tone, history and vocabulary well documented in Irish literature, verse, story and song. They have their past and present rituals. They are comforting in their predictability.
At funerals there is consciousness of the pre-mortem vigil that will have occurred if the death was lingering or the shock for mourners if it was not. There is post-mortem display of the remains, requiring sensitivity about who should attend at that stage. There is the funeral itself drawing together people who may be disconnected from each other but connected to the event.
In the front pew the mourners are aligned, ranked by relationship to the deceased and by their shared memories of a collective past. There is the shuffling of attendees toward them, murmurs of sorrow for their troubles, of deep condolences, of handshakes and hugs, the squeezing of arms and promises of post-funeral support.
There is consciousness in that line of sympathisers of the ineptitude and ineffectiveness of words. There is tongue-tied compassion, frustrated by an inability to say something of comfort or understanding about what cannot be understood. This is because however formulaic funeral rituals may be, each grief, as each life, is unique.

Irish Death ceremony
While the three-day “wake” may be no more, there is hospitality that must be given, and offering sustenance to those who have travelled a distance continues to this day. While the lament or caoineadh may not be expressed in keening or song, the beauty of lament is still understood.
The funeral is the place where the details of the death are recounted, where memories are revived and connections made. As clusters of people gather together before or after proceedings there is an emotional edge that makes laughter louder and sorrow deeper, and the alternation of these emotions stark in the short spaces between them.
Each time we attend a funeral we confront our own mortality. If we have not yet experienced personal loss we are made aware of the emotions and rituals that surround it and the sacredness of sorrow. If the territory of death is familiar to us then resonances are evoked and we have the chance to revisit our own remembrance of others who have died.
The extent of funeral attendance in Ireland often bemuses our neighbours in England, when whole businesses close for a day as a mark of respect, when offices are abandoned to attend mortuaries and removals, and when all-day journeys are undertaken to be at the funeral of someone whom one may not have known, as a mark of respect for the bereaved.
But there is psychological reason, social solidarity and cultural cohesion in funeral attendance, and even as the ceremonies, the belief systems they operate from or the expression of grief may change, the meaning of marking death remains, and long may we travel highway and byway to do so.
Artwork on this post, Copyright 2010 Patrick McNally

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Walking with the Departed: Heather Lende

A well written obituary can be a wonderful way to memorialize a person. Whether we knew the deceased or not, it can be a moving affirmation of life as well, reminding us of what is important and precious. Often the best subjects for this kind of obituary are not the rich or famous, but the seemingly ordinary people just like us. Through a thoughtful and caring look at their lives we can appreciate better, the unique beauty of those all around us.

death and art

Heather Lende

This is the kind of obituary Heather Lende writes; sharing the life stories of departed friends and neighbors in small-town Haines, Alaska. Ms. Lende writes obituaries for The Chilkat Valley News , a column for the Alaska Dispatch, and is the Author of 'If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News From Small-Town Alaska', and 'Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friends and faith in Small-town Alaska' To contact Heather or read her new blog, "The News From Small-Town Alaska," visit www.heatherlende.com.

She has graciously allowed me to share with you a recent article published in the Alaska Dispatch, "Walking with the Departed". In addition to being a very nice memorial to those she mentions, this article reminds us that we maintain a relationship with our loved ones even after they die. Though our conversations become more one-sided, it is still important for us to share our highs and lows with them, to carry on with the gifts they gave us, and to keep them alive in our memories and stories. Enjoy...

The other day I went snowshoeing with three dead people. I do it more often than you'd think. It is one of the most common side effects of writing obituaries on a deadline (no pun intended) and racing off for the fresh outdoors while there is still daylight. It is almost impossible to leave the spirits of people you have known well (or wished you had) buried under a pile of notes on a messy desk while you tromp up a snowy trail all by yourself.

And often, while you have the recently dead for spiritual company, the longer, and sometimes dearer, dead come along too. But this day there was already a crowd, so I left my mother and a good friend home for another day.

I don't mean to say that I see ghosts. I only think about them, and sometimes tell them things, which I hope they can hear, and ask them for guidance, which I hope I can hear.

(This is where my husband will look over his glasses and say, "Maybe we should take a winter vacation after all." Maybe I am getting a little wiggy from all the snow and darkness.)

In December a friend of mine wanted to meet with a clairvoyant from Florida who was visiting town, and asked me to go with her. She wanted to know how her late husband was doing. The clairvoyant said he was very happy, and that most people in what she called "the spirit world" are. (Or is it were?) She said that when you hear yourself saying something that a long-gone spouse, friend, or parent would say, that it actually is them speaking through you. She said the spirits of the dead are close, but most of us can't see them because we don't pay attention.

Do I believe it? I'd like to, wouldn't you? The clairvoyant would probably say that my doubt is why I've never seen my dead partners.

But they do snowshoe with me. That much I'm sure of.

I had just written three obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News. The first was for my neighbor, a sweet and capable man. He was a mechanic, pilot, fisherman, and tenor in the church choir. Tom Jackson was 86 when he died sort of suddenly -- he had been well at Christmastime, but there was some cancer and surgery in Seattle, and his lungs were worn out. The same weeks that I waited for a granddaughter to come into this world, his grandchildren (and the rest of the family, 15 relatives singing and praying at his deathbed) watched Tom leaving it. Tom's oldest friend Bob said -- with the kind of understatement men not used to being tender use -- "He had a most effective smile. When Tom smiled you knew he really meant it."

I wrote the second obituary for a feisty Italian-American from New York City whom I never met, but whose daughter is a local contemporary of mine. Gloria Morey arrived in Haines on a November day in 1952 and it was not love at first sight. Her daughter said that if there had been any way to get back to New York that day, Gloria would have turned right around. Instead, she married a transplanted Iowa farmer and together they ran the Bamboo Room restaurant for about 25 years. One friend said Gloria and her husband were all "sugar and spice" -- and Gloria was the spice. Another friend said she was a smart bridge player who rattled her opponents with her speed. When Gloria was on the city council, one old neighbor said, "She kept things riled up pretty good." I wished she hadn't headed for Florida the minute she retired nearly 35 years ago.

The third obituary was for a woman I'm sure I would have remembered if we had met, but she moved to Oregon shortly after I arrived. Suzi Butz's daughter told me over the phone from their home in Grants Pass, that Suzi loved to babysit her grandchildren, and that she was a "Bible-thumping holy roller" of the best sort. A friend in Haines said it was not uncommon to see Suzi praying for residents in the grocery store. I also learned that she was a large, exceptionally strong woman, thanks to the steroid treatments she had received for childhood polio. A former neighbor said Suzi was so muscular that "you couldn't dent her," and that she had to careful around water because "she'd sink like a stone." She was also a good cook and helped deliver many babies, including three of my friend Patty's five daughters. Patty said Suzi introduced her to two of her now-favorite things: "moose stew and Jafra cosmetics."

Like I said, it is impossible to leave the good company I keep when I'm finished writing obituaries. As we walked up the hill to Lily Lake in twilight with snow gently falling, Tom smiled, Gloria said I should crush, not chop, the garlic in my marinara sauce, and Suzi prayed for me. When I closed my eyes I could almost see them, almost.

memorial art book
Ms. Lende's new book is due out in May

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Closure for a Soldier's Family

"Vietnam Soldier's Burial Brings Closure" was the heartwarming headline in Sunday's Amarillo.com. Usually in funeral service we avoid the term 'closure'. Closure can imply that everything has been resolved and grieving is over, but we know that it never really ends.

Certainly in this case though, a very difficult chapter has closed for a grieving family, and they can begin to move forward in life again. When families are denied the opportunity to say goodbye to their dead, to accept the reality of the situation, to have a meaningful ceremony and a place to visit their loved one, we realize just how important these things are.

Unfortunately all over this country, families are choosing not to say meaningful goodbyes and are choosing not to inter their loved ones in permanent places, and they suffer because of it. Here is an excerpt from the article.

Spc. Lawrence Lee Aldrich is one of the 58,000 men listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, killed in his 20th year when a 750-pound bomb landed on his position in the middle of a firefight May 6, 1968. Until last year, he also was one of the 1,700 men whose remains weren't recovered during or after the 10-year war in Southeast Asia.

But one day last autumn, a day almost no one in the family thought would come, a day Larry's dad died waiting for, the government called Aldrich's oldest surviving sibling and told him his brother no longer was missing. "It took me several weeks to recover," said Darwin Aldrich, who was two years younger and graduated from high school just days after Larry's death. "It opens up your head to a lot of memories and your heart to a lot of emotions that haven't been experienced in a long time."

The family had a memorial service in 1968 and another one in 1996, the second one an attempt to bring closure for Aldrich's aging father. But no gravestone marker existed for Aldrich, no place to visit on his birthday, no place to put a flag on Memorial Day. On Saturday, though, Larry Aldrich was buried in a family plot at Greenwood Cemetery outside downtown Fort Worth. His siblings had his casket placed on top of his father's.

"Part of my dad's heart believed that Larry had been killed," said Janine Peck, Aldrich's younger sister, who lives in North Richland Hills. "But it's very hard to come to grips with something when you don't have anything to grip. There's always a little part of yourself that believes there's still a chance that they were wrong. Dad held on to that chance until his dying day."

for the full article, visit Amarillo.com

Monday, February 1, 2010

Kept Alive: New work by Nira Pereg

Kept Alive is a three-channel video and photo installation focused on Jerusalem's Mountain of Rest Cemetery. The installation's documentary approach is employed to address the enormous cemetery's three primary activities: construction, burial, and visitation.

art ritual death

Kept Alive Video Installation

Filming on location for a full year, artist Nira Pereg investigates intersections between the living and the dead. The cemetery is one of Israel's largest, however, burial grounds are precious and expensive, due to geographic location and general lack of space. Despite the site's intense density, with just over 10 inches between graves, it is still possible to purchase and reserve plots.

Photographs of reserved graves

A selection of photographs documents numerous markers placed on the empty, reserved graves, presented as portraits of their purchaser. Each stands for a living individual offering the means to occupy territory in the land of the dead.

The multi-channel video installation reconstructs the mountain, in which all the cemetery's conflicting processes occur simultaneously. The work's sound is also artificially constructed, sampled from various sources and pieced together in a studio. Through the almost-real, Pereg re-choreographs the Mount of Rest, isolating gestures and movements, giving them new roles, and providing a range of perspectives on how the living cohabitate with the dead.

Jewish art ritual death

The buzz of activity at Mountain of Rest

Kept Alive (a literal translation from Hebrew) refers to the text engraved upon headstones to reserve pre-purchased burial spots. The custom arose from bureaucratic necessity, but grew to function as a popular charm to ensure a healthy and long life for the purchaser.

Jewish cemetery ritual death art

Artist Nira Pereg

Kept Alive is being shown at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica through February 27, 2010. For More information, contact:

Shoshana Wayne, 2525 Michigan Ave. B1, Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535 http://www.shoshanawayne.com/

To read the LA Times article on the show, visit http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/01/art-review-nira-pereg-at-shoshana-wayne.

Or visit the Artist's website at: http://www.nirapereg.net/Home_page.html

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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