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


Charles Cowling said...

What delight! And what a marvellous image that monument is!

Thank you for introducing me to yarn bombing, Pat. How else would I have heard?

jafabrit said...

I would like to share this with you as it wasn't something I had thought about. A local man who is blind told me he loved touching our yarnbombed bench in town and asked if the others on the poles were reachable. Some knit graffiti is just so beautiful to look at (I love the red gravestone cover) but I hadn't thought about how much joy it can give to a visually imparied person.

Sister Shirley said...

I have been looking for someone who could knit urn cozies, it's been difficult to find! I would love to feature them on my upcoming website, If you do come across anyone willing to do this, please let me know!

Patrick McNally said...

And what a wonderful site Modern Mourner is!
Memorialization and craftyness! Check it out! Thanks Sister Shirley!

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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.