Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jane's Walk: An interview with Kory McGrath

new funeral home funeral

Toronto Funeral circa 1911

"My goal is to do to funeral services what midwives did to the Birth process: to bring it back home. To give it back to families, empowering them and creating the opportunity for a more profound experience. The truth is, our skills will always be required, but how we deliver them needs to be re-thought." -Kory McGrath

home funeral ritual
Kory McGrath

In her book 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs pointed out the positive influence that Funeral Homes, Cemeteries, an even Undertakers can have on the life of urban neighborhoods. Toronto Funeral Director, Kory McGrath argues that "the disappearance of funeral homes & burial grounds from urban neighborhoods further removes us from our own understanding and acceptance of death, funeral rites & ceremonies, and compassion towards bereaved members of our communities."

Now in its fourth year, 'Jane's Walk' celebrates the legacy of Jane Jacobs, inspiring citizens to get to know their city and each other by getting out and walking. This year Jane’s Walks will span 67 cities worldwide (28 in Canada, 32 in the U.S, 7 internationally) with some 410 walking tours on offer.

The Toronto walk: Funeral Parlours & Burial Grounds will be guided by Ms. McGrath. The walk will not only celebrate Jacobs, but aims to educate the public about the important role funeral parlors and undertakers play in their communities. Other themes that will be explored on the walk include the effects of visual reminders of death on a community, sacred spaces in urban environments, and dealing with secularization and multiculturalism. The walk take place this year on Sunday, May 2nd in the Queen West neighborhood of Toronto. Not surprisingly, this event is fully booked, but for those of us who will have to wait for next year, I'm pleased to share an interview with Kory McGrath.

new funeral home funerals

St. Michael's Cemetery - hidden among the towering office buildings, this cemetery (now closed) is one of Toronto's oldest Catholic cemeteries and home to mostly Irish Catholics who arrived in Torontoto escape the Potato Famine.

Pat McNally: Could you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to direct this project?

Kory McGrath: At a young age I worked in a family-owned funeral home in a mid-sized city, then interned at a more rural funeral home a year or 2 later. It led to becoming enrolled in
Toronto's Funeral Services Education program. For one of my assignments, I read & wrote a paper on the Tibetan Book of Living & Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche and I think everything changed for me from then on. I ended up turning inwards a bit, traveling, doing yoga, and reading, reading, reading. I moved to Toronto, then to Vancouver, spent some time overseas and back to Toronto again. And then I discovered Jane Jacobs. I even lived a few houses up on the same Annex street where she lived. Her writing woke me up from my introverted slumber and I started thinking about my passion for funeral services in a more complex way - from simply wanting to help individuals, to wanting to help entire communities and future generations. I came to this project in one way to pay tribute to a
woman I hold in high regard, and in another way to really start the dialogue on how death, funerals, grief, and memorialization work in a metropolitan landscape where everything else moves at such an exponential pace, and how they could provide more meaning - in a really profound way - for people directly involved and for people just passing by.

Pat McNally: Jane Jacobs noted the importance of having funeral homes and cemeteries as a part of the urban landscape. Do you think that these people and institutions contribute to a neighborhood?

Kory McGrath: Absolutely, and only when, they interact with the neighbourhood, not only in providing their services, but also by being a model for high ethics & reverence, fair business practices, engagement in compassionate outreach, and in demonstrating both social & environmental responsibility. It doesn't hurt to have a little fun too - like the cemeteries who employ an 'Artist-in-Residence' and the funeral providers who host artistic events in their facilities. Programs like this contribute to breaking down the barriers, the taboo, the ghoulish associations generally made to "The Dismal Trade" (as coined by poet & funeral director Thomas Lynch).

Pat McNally: The visibility of funeral homes in urban areas has decreased quite a bit in many North American Cities. Certainly this has affected the neighborhoods. Do you think that this move away from the neighborhoods has affected funeral directors as well? Are they less in tune with their clients because of this change?

Kory McGrath: Hmm. Good question. I don't know if I've articulated my answer here very well, but here goes: Speaking from my own personal experience, I think it is important to work close to home not only to cut down the amount of hours we spend commuting (guzzling gas and spending more time away from our families) but also as an investment into our local economy in terms of building & maintaining professional relationships with neighbouring merchants and interacting with community members. Funeral directors are affected when they solely drive to work to" do their jobs", and no longer become emotionally and socially invested in their neighbourhoods.

I also believe funeral directors are affected when the only work experience they have are with these larger corporate-style funeral firms that generally pop-up outside the city after having bought-up all the 'mom-and-pop' city parlours and where they are assigned tasks based on their best strengths - say a strong sales person only gets to engage in the funeral arrangement, and an apprentice only gets to be in the embalming room. Though seemingly more efficient, it doesn't equip a professional with the full spectrum of skills required to wholly serve families and typecasts them into one role which is detrimental if they ever wish to advance themselves. Not to mention the disconnected services provided to the family who get shuffled from person to person for each area of 'the transaction.'

On the other hand, many funeral homes migrate from the city to follow the ethnic or religious communities they have been serving for generations, so to the business, perhaps it is a matter of survival to pick up and leave town, rather than remain and adapt to the change. So in a way, these funeral directors are loyal to the families they serve, but not to the neighbourhoods they operate from. And I think that is a bit unfortunate - because they avoid ever having to change the way they conduct business, they just keep doing "what they've always done," which isn't always best for the consumer.

home funeral green

Pat McNally: What is your goal in this project?

Kory McGrath: Mostly to start a dialogue. To get people thinking about

funeral homes, funeral directors, death, grief, memorials and

listening to people talk about their personal experiences and any of

their own interactions in these areas and their ideas on what they

think is required in order for funeral professionals, funeral

storefronts, and memorial businesses to remain relevant to our

changing society. The thing is, 9 out of 10 people I've encountered in

my lifetime of being a funeral director still have this idea that it

is a grisly trade, that they hate funerals, that they think the

funeral industry is out to rob people, and so on.

I just believe there is so much potential that is not being explored - and it's generally

our fault - funeral directors get stuck in this script or hold onto

the traits of their forefathers - and all of those business practices,

especially in the urban setting, have for the most part expired. Why

aren't we encouraging families to have more input, to be more

participatory? Why aren't we walking alongside them in their journey,

not 'directing' it. Why are we resilient to the greening of our

industry? We should be leading it.

So I suppose, in a nutshell, my goal is to do to funeral services what

midwives did to the Birth process: to bring it back home. To give it

back to families, empowering them and creating the opportunity for a

more profound experience. The truth is, our skills will always be

required, but how we deliver them needs to be re-thought.

Pat McNally: I couldn't agree more! As funeral directors, we need to

encourage and facilitate more participation from the families we

serve. The movements toward green funerals and home funerals could

gain a lot if funeral directors engaged in the dialog and helped to

facilitate the changing desires and values of families interested in

these experiences. As an industry, we really do need to rethink how we

deliver our services and share our expertise. Mostly, I think, we need

to listen to what families and communities are saying, and respond in

a creative and compassionate manner. Funeral service is all about

relationships, and if we've lost touch with our communities, those

relationships need to be repaired.

new funeral

Funeral Procession

Pat McNally: How can others get involved?

Kory McGrath: Most obviously, I'd encourage people to "Get Out and Walk" and discover the history and personalities that abound in their own neighbourhoods, talk to fellow civilians, ask questions and share stories and insights. Funeral professionals around the World could get more involved by emulating a similar walk where they live or holding a 'Doors Open' type of event at their workplace, inviting people to interact with the business at a time that is neutral in their lives - not just when they are in need of funeral services. I would also say that every funeral and non-funeral person needs to watch the film

Jane's Walk is in its 4th year in
Toronto and it is being held annually around the World. I will likely be involved in a similar walk in the years to come and am interested in taking the funeral walk into rural communities as well, to compare & contrast how funeral providers work in cities, towns, and perhaps one day, territories in the North.

Pat McNally: Is there a way to remedy the situation, bringing these influences back into neighborhoods? How can we adapt to the new landscape in a positive and creative way as individuals, neighborhoods, funeral service providers?

Kory McGrath: We are always having to reinvent ourselves - An editor for a gardening magazine becomes a gardening consultant or designer when they are laid off because no one buys magazines anymore. Furniture makers became undertakers when communities needed someone to make coffins for them, and later became morticians that offered embalming services. But now, I believe we have to think outside of bricks-and-mortar. There are many meaningful and creative ways to influence neighbourhoods without a storefront, or, by using "New ideas in old Buildings" (Jane Jacobs). I'll leave that to your imagination.

home funeral

Archival Funeral Home Receipt

Pat McNally: Any parting thoughts or observations?

Kory McGrath: I love the diversity of your website. If only there were more funeral professionals engaging in this kind of dialogue & exploration. I commend you on the creative and thoughtful approach you have taken to your profession. Can I interview you next time?!!

Pat McNally: Absolutely! Thank you so much for sharing your project and your thoughts with The Daily Undertaker.

for more information on the walk, please visit Jane's Walk

and the website of Ms. McGrath's firm, The Remember Network

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The McLaren Minute: Remarkable in its Orthodoxy

Lennon may be everywhere, but he is also nowhere;
McLaren is at Highgate.
no funeral service
Master publicist and Punk Rock Impresario, Malcolm McLaren's funeral and its attendant 'minute of mayhem' was a milestone in the history of funeral rites. The coverage of this ritual event and the commentary that surrounded and followed it was extensive, so I won't repeat the details here, but to remind my gentle readers that Mr. McLaren's spray-painted casket was paraded through London, following services at a deconsecrated church, that mourners were transported in a festooned double decker bus to Highgate Cemetery for burial, and that Mr. McLarens' wish for a minute of mayhem in his honor was communicated by his son, and celebrated creatively by his fans.

It must certainly be said that this was a creative, expressive and remarkable funeral, but what is most striking is how closely to established tradition it clings. This is not for a lack of imagination, nor is it an accident.

no funeral service
When John Lennon, a revolutionary of a different stripe, died 30 years before McLaren shuffled off his mortal coil, a much more radical departure from tradition occurred. The public was encouraged to celebrate and mourn him wherever they happened to be, in whatever manner they chose, using whatever focal point they thought to be appropriate. Mr. Lennon's mortal remains were nowhere to be seen, and although an enormous gathering assembled in Central Park, as well as individual shrines in front of the Dakota building, none of this was endorsed, authorized or led by Mr. Lennon's family. The service was everywhere and nowhere; everything and nothing. It was a break from the constraining as well as the comforting and defining traditions of the past.

Not so with McLaren. Certainly his minute of mayhem was a departure from the traditional minute of silence, but it had much more in common that an amorphous 'do your own thing, man'. The community of the bereaved were unified and comforted in a collective act of remembrance as meaningful and powerful as any solemn or religious rite. The coffin, spray-painted with the McLaren slogan "Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die" shouted "I'll do it MY way". McLaren's way, though, was the way of his fathers and grandfathers. Carried by an honored group of relatives and associates, he was placed in a special ceremonial vehicle, and transported in a very public manner to his permanent place of rest. In contrast, Lennon was slipped away silently and secretly in an ordinary transport vehicle by who-knows-who, privately cremated, and then off to who-knows-where, for who-knows-how long. Lennon may be everywhere, but he is also nowhere; McLaren is at Highgate.

no funeral service
A service held at a deconsecrated church has a lot more in common with a service at church, than an open invitation to do whatever you want wherever you want. Remembrances and eulogies, and a recording of Sid Vicious singing 'My Way' bring a community and a family together to remember and share the burden of loss. They do this just as effectively if they are using four letter words and a few repeated notes on an electric bass, as would communion, a homily and 'How Great Thou Art' played on the organ. In fact, all of the important elements of a meaningful funeral were present at McLaren' s service.

Just as Punk Rock needs something to be angry about, something to rebel against, something to contrast with, McLarens' funeral needed those traditional elements to riff off of, to bring what is important into focus. Let's not forget that Sid Vicious sang Frank Sinatra and Eddie Cochran. It may not have been your grandfather's music, but it wasn't the sound of one hand clapping either.

In thirty more years, McLaren's service will seem more like Queen Victoria's than John Lennon's, but I hope it doesn't seem foreign or revolutionary to us then. If our funeral traditions in thirty years don't have the timeless elements of participation, ritual, community and public acknowledgement of the loss, we will have, as the Sex Pistols lyric goes, "No Feeling".

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy

memorial art

The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy, is an exhibit of 39 alabaster figures from the 1443 tomb of the Second Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless. These sculptures are a part of the tomb itself, placed into a cloister area above the crypt, but will be travelling without the tomb to seven museums in the United States from March 2010 through April 2012.

memorial arts

Mourner with hood folded back, his cloak folded beneath his crossed arms
16 1/8 x 5 15/16 x 3 15/16 inches

"The Mourners from the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy are deeply affecting works of art. Beyond their evident visual and narrative qualities, we cannot help but be struck by the emotion they convey as they follow the funeral procession, weeping, praying, singing, lost in thought, giving vent to their grief, or consoling their neighbor. Mourning, they remind us, is a collective experience, common to all people and all moments in history."

Sophie Jugie, Director, Musée des Beaux-Arts. Dijon

memorial art

Mourner with hood folded back, both hands at his belt, a dagger at his left side

memorial art

Mourner with uncovered head, drying his tears with a fold of his cloak held in his right hand

Exhibition Schedule

March 2, 2010 - May 23, 2010: Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

June 20, 2010 - September 6, 2010: Saint Louis Art Museum

October 3, 2010 - January 2, 2011: Dallas Art Museum

January 23, 2011 - April 17, 2011: Minneapolis Institute of Art

May 8, 2011 - July 31, 2011: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

August 21, 2011 - January 1, 2012: Legion of Honor in San Francisco

January 20, 2012 - April 15, 2012: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond

memorial arts
Mourner with an uncovered head, holding back his tears with his left hand

For those unable to visit these museums, please take a look at the incredible website for this exhibition, featuring 360 degree, 3d and high definition views and downloads of these masterworks at All images and information posted here are from the Mourners website. Thanks to Julia Barber for finding this!

memorial art
Mourner with hood folded back, pointing with his right hand to a wrapped book held in his left hand
memorial art
Tomb of John the Fearless with Mourner Sculptures

memorial art

Mourner with a toque, his eyes lowered

memorial art sculpture

Mourner with drawn hood drying his eyes with a fold of his cloak held in his right hand, his left hand on his chest

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Yarn Bombed Headstone, Pebbles, and Seed Corn

art and death
Yarn Bomb Project by Jen Cantwell

Placing pebbles on a cemetery monument is an ancient Jewish custom originating in the desert. Yarn bombing, or Guerrilla Knitting, is a postmodern urban art form. What on earth can the two have in common? They both say "I was here" in a gentle and moving way.

art and death

Last week I met with the family of a wonderful man who died doing what he loved to do- sell feed corn. His funeral plans were to have a wake in the evening so that his many many friends could have a chance to visit and say good bye to him. Again, the next day, he lay in state at church before his service. Even though he wanted to be cremated, it was important to him that his grandsons have a chance to carry him out- to participate; to honor and be honored.

art and death memorial
As we spoke about the cremation to come, the topic of urns came up, and as the man had always been frugal, his family joked that he might be comfortable in an old tin can. I joined in by suggesting that the family could knit a cozy for the tin can urn. As it turned out, the family was more comfortable purchasing an urn that was designed for burial. One that would not break down in the earth.
art and death
Even the monument's letters have cosies
Just two days later, I was sent a picture of Jen Cantwell's incredible knitted cemetery monument project by craft blogger Sarah Brazier (please check out her consistently entertaining blog The After Craft and her Etsy Shop, Flail of the Flair for many more creative ideas.) I knew I had to share this wonderful intersection of art and death with my readers.

art and death
Yarn bombing is a fascinating movement that challenges our ideas about people, art, and expression. Participants seem to revel in the perceived contradiction between knitting and graffiti. While the work may be technically illegal, or at least might require some sort of permit, it is, as the writer of the 'Deputy Dog' Blog puts it "the world's most inoffensive graffiti." Like graffiti, artists leave their 'tags' in a public place, and the art is seen in the context of the public sphere, rather than the gallery or museum. Seeing a knitted up light post or phone booth challenges our expectations of the world and our expectations of art's boundaries. Then, the fact that this unauthorized and unexpected intervention was done in such a warm, fuzzy and non damaging or intrusive way challenges us further still. We must ask ourselves not only if this is beauty, art, or meaningful; we must ask ourselves about our own preconceptions about people and the rules of public discourse.

art and death
We see here three monument cosies. Does this effect the way we see these and the rest of the monuments?
It is indeed the gentle nature of yarn bombing that makes it so subversive and challenging. If these artists had actually damaged the public and private property they act upon, they could be dismissed as vandals, but because their art has such comforting and protecting properties, we are charmed, beguiled and challenged into thinking about its message.

ritual art and death
There are many messages that can be taken from guerrilla knitting projects, and each project has its own unique qualities. One that resonates through them all, however, is the message that someone was here. A caring thoughtful person was here, and left this art for the public to freely contemplate and enjoy. One day this project will fall apart, or be lifted off, and no harm will have befallen the adorned object. Like all of us, it will pass away, perhaps without a trace. But, for now, here it is to charm and challenge us.

art and death

This brings me back to the pebble. We leave a pebble to continue building upon a monument of a friend or loved one. We leave it to bring attention to the grave, to let others know we were here, and that the person mattered. They have gone on, and perhaps in the years to come, they will be forgotten by all of the living, but for now, and until the pebble is taken away, we all see that the grave was visited and the memory cherished.

art and death
Knitted roses left on the crypt. Graffiti?

Like a knitted cozy, a pebble is a gentle gesture, but like the cozy it is powerful too. When people come to understand the power and transcendence of gentle unexpected acts, we will rejoice in a better world.

The man who sold feed corn had served his country in the Army. Following his service at church, Military rites were performed outside, and it was a powerful and moving ceremony. I then called the pallbearers forward once more and helped them place their grandfather in the hearse. I was about to close the door, when I heard music. At each of the children's weddings, this man had sang a sweet and humorous song about love, and now the family was singing the same song back to him. I stood at the hearse holding the door open while they sang. This man's faithful service and willingness to fight for his country had left a wonderful legacy for his family and our country, and so did his gentle gestures of love.

art and death memorial
Yarn bomb in front of the Tate, image from Perl Interrupted © Lauren O'Farrell, 2009.

art and death
Pink M.24 Chaffee by Marianne Jorgensen, image from the Craftzine blog

For my article on Graffiti Memorials, visit

For more about yarn bombing, visit

For more on the Jewish custom of leaving pebbles on gravestones, visit

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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.