Monday, May 24, 2010

Illustrated Coffin: The Happy Journey Collective

art coffin

'It all went wobbly when they took my dummy away'
-Simon Wild

Call it personalization, the 'me' generation effect, secularization, or customization, but it is clear that creative license has been taken on funerals. Important decisions on services, disposition and merchandise are now made by the families and friends of the deceased, not just by clergy and funeral professionals.

art coffin casket

'finally found my wings' Tigz Rice

The iconic coffin, loaded with meaning and symbolism is no exception, and the exercise of designing a casket involves moving through some often unfamiliar mental terrain. Whether or not this coffin is for our own use, for someone we know, or just a design challenge, the artist, must face up to and process ideas about an after-life, a legacy, a mysterious journey, the loved ones left behind, and perhaps a host of other questions.

toe pincher art coffin

'Damn! i forgot my ipod...' -Lotte Andkilde

A group of illustrators has created a project to challenge themselves and other artists with just this task. The Happy Journey Collective is an ongoing project showcasing coffin artworks by illustrators and artists from around the world. It is the brainchild of illustrators Thereza Rowe, Lesley Barnes and Abi Daker. Artists are provided with a hexagonal coffin template to download, and the rest is basically up to them. Out of the pieces submitted to the Happy Journey Collective Flick group, several will be chosen periodically to be featured on the website. Although currently web based, ideas and possibilities for print publishing and an exhibition are being discussed and explored.

The results so far range from the sentimental to the glib, from memento mori reminders of mortality to fantasy, from explorations on individual experiences to community responses, and from open ended questions to concrete speculations. Already there is a great diversity in technique and themes to the submissions. Each takes a different approach to understanding death, just as we each have different experiences in grief and dealing with our own mortality.

Thereza, Lesley and Abi have graciously agreed to discuss their project with me. Here is our conversation:

art coffin memorial

'towers and trumpeteers' - Lesley Barnes

Patrick McNally: On your web site, you mention the origins of the project. I understand that it stems from a discussion about customizable eco-coffins. Could you share the story with us?

Abi Daker: Thereza tweeted a link to and I clicked on it, thinking it looked interesting. I was amazed at the site and replied to her message, saying wow. Lesley also responded, and mentioned something about submitting work, which I thought was a great idea. After a few more tweets, we started an email discussion and decided to create some artwork and start a website for it.


'in the growths of upper air' -Kate Slater

Thereza Rowe: Yes, as soon as I tweeted the link and Lesley said ‘it’d make a great zine’ the collective idea popped up in my head. I instantly started to visualize how other artists would take to the subject. Once we had it all figured out with the idea of the website, a sort of virtual gallery, we sent out two invites to artists we know to test their reaction to such a brief. And they both replied straight away saying ‘wow, you girls are nuts, it sounds amazing, I’m in!’ so we then knew we’d proceed with picking the artists and sending out the invitations. We got the same positive reaction from most of them.

Lesley: It's all thanks to Thereza's husband who saw a sign for 'colourful coffins' and asked Thereza to investigate...


'Where will your final journey take you?' -Abi Daker

Pat: Have any of you worked on a project like this before?

Thereza: I’ve taken part in several collaborative projects but had never started one from scratch before like we did with this one.

Abi: This is the first collaborative project I've been involved with from the start. I've submitted work to others in the past.

Lesley: Me too! It's been really special being involved in the conception of a project and so inspiring to see the fantastic work (and sheer thought and effort) that all the contributors have put into their coffin designs. In the future we hope to perhaps have an exhibition or publication of the collective's work


'Crash and burn, or number 07 flies you straight to heaven' -Carys Tait

Pat: I am continually amazed at the different ways that art intersects with ideas about death. What kind of dialogue or exploration are you looking for as this project progresses?

Abi: Death and life are interconnected and one of the ideas behind this project is reflecting a person's individuality through their choice of casket. When we were getting started with the project, we found some photos of funeral services in Ghana which featured bespoke and unique coffins Not only are these coffins colourful and cheerful, but they make a statement about the person who has passed away which is positive and a reminder that although their life may have ended, their life did take place and they have left things behind.

'Stone Cold' - Sam Szulc

Pat: What avenues have you used to get word out about the project, and how long do you expect to stay open for submissions?

Abi: Twitter has been very useful, as so has the flickr group, which enables people to see the entries as they are uploaded.


'Still Breathing' -Ubercraft

Pat: Are any of you interested in actually building or decorating your own coffins, urns, memorials, or those of you loved ones?

Thereza: Absolutely! I think it makes it more meaningful when you contrast it to the traditional and sterile existing coffin design. I’m interested in something which celebrates the life and existence of that human being as an individual.

arts-memorial-coffin-art coffin

'off to the next adventure' -Thereza Rowe

Abi: I think I would like a bio-degradable, illustrated casket for myself. For my family/friends, if they approached me, I'd happily create something, but I think it's a personal choice and they would have to initiate the conversation.

Lesley: I always used to think that I would have to design a huge statue for myself which would be placed atop a mountain.....but I have lowered my expectations since then and I think I would quite like a cardboard coffin which was painted with a special design.

eco-coffins-art coffin

'so it goes' -Lydia Nichols

Pat: Do you have any thoughts about working creatively to create new, more personalized or meaningful rituals to go along with the creative coffin designs?

Abi: I recently had to produce a painting specifically to play a part within a funeral service; the family requested a portrait of the deceased and it was amazing how much the mourners liked it. I would do something like that again; it was good to be able to use my ability to draw in a positive way for a sad occasion.

art coffins

'tempus fugit' -Natsuke Otani

Pat: There are a few guidelines in your brief, but quite a lot of room for creativity and rethinking has been left to participating artists. I think that your guidelines have allowed for a cohesive presentation. Did you struggle with which rules to stick to and which to leave open?

Thereza: Not really. The intention was exactly that, to leave it open to the imagination of the artist. Obviously we wanted the presentation of the project to look consistent so we decided that providing a simple shape as a starting point would help in the process.

Abi: Between the three of us we had entered a lot of open briefs so the discussions were fairly simple.

Pat: Have any of the submitted designs surprised you?

Thereza: All and each one of them actually, for their unique/individual approach…

Abi: I was pleased at how many were whimsical; I thought that was a great way to approach the project. I've seen people respond to death with humour on a number of occasions and if I saw a whimsical coffin at a ceremony it would be a comfort I think.

Lesley: Yes, I too was glad to see the humour and personality that came through in the coffin designs - they definitely contribute to the idea that a funeral should be a celebration of the person's life.


The Happy Journey Collective template

Pat: Are you tempted to keep making more designs?

Thereza: Yeah, definitely. There are so many subjects to explore and have fun with in this format.

Abi: Yes! All the time. I'm currently trying to choose between a few ideas for the next one actually.

Lesley: I love tea (sounds silly but it's actually a big part of my daily life!) and I am designing a coffin based on the idea of the coffin being like a table laid out with tea things....

Pat: Sounds great. I look forward to seeing it. So much of our conception of death is wrapped up in our experiences in daily life. The Japanese tea ritual also comes to mind. Thank you all for sharing your project and thoughts!

For more thought provoking designs, please visit the Happy Journey Collective website and flickr page. Click on the names of each artist to visit their websites. Thanks to all the artists!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The MEMO Project

memo project memorial

Memorial monuments can range from a statue of a forgotten leader on horseback that interests pigeons more than people, to an emotionally wrenching reminder of lost friends and relatives, like the Vietnam Memorial. Memorials like the Holocaust Memorial at Auschwitz can challenge us about the level of our own humanity and our commitments and responsibilities to stand up for others. Public memorials can take the form of libraries, concert halls, schools, endowments, and even airports and battleships. No matter what the form, however, they all share the purpose of keeping something, some event, or someone important alive in our memories. They are reminders to us to continue important work or to end destructive behavior. They can be an inspiration, a protest, a promise for the future, or an ominous warning.

memo project memorial arts

One of the most moving Memorials I have ever encountered is the MEMO Project which will serve to mark the passing of entire species from this earth, reminding us of what has been lost, and challenging us to preserve the many species that face extinction. The project is still a work in progress, which is exciting because we all still have an opportunity to be involved in it.

MEMO (Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory) organizers state that due to human impact, species are being lost at a rate comparable to the Earth’s fifth mass extinction, 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs died out. They predict that if the current rate of loss continues unabated, the fifth mass extinction will have been superseded in scale within the lifetime of our grandchildren.
The project is to build an ongoing memorial commemorating all the species to have perished in the Earth’s ongoing mass extinction, on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. The MEMO Project has aspects of a building, a church and a monument, bringing together sculptures of the species that have gone extinct. Plans are for the biggest bell in Europe to be mounted in the middle of the memorial. When any species goes extinct, the bell will sound and that will be a mark of what has happened.

memo project headstone
Design for MEMO Bell

MEMO will be a circular stone enclosure carved on the inside with images of all plant and animal species known to have gone extinct in modern times. “MEMO will be built along the UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic coastline on the island of Portland in Dorset,” said project founder Sebastian Brooke. “It is a uniquely meaningful place to build it. In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, it was the giant ammonite fossils commonly found in Portland stone which led Wren’s architectural collaborator, the scientist Robert Hooke, to put forward the concept of extinction for the first time. Unbeknownst to Hooke, this was just as the last of the dodos were dying out in Mauritius.
Portland Stone

“There is a certain poetry to using Portland stone, which is made up of the fossils of millions of extinct creatures and which was used to build many of London’s most famous landmarks, to build a monument that will commemorate all the species that no longer exist. The MEMO project seeks to follow in the footsteps of Wren and Hooke and bring together the sciences and the arts in the sober but magnificent purpose of commemorating the species lost in modern times.
The outside of the MEMO monument will be decorated with patterned friezes based on the forms of micro-organisms, which will be carved by several thousand school children and the public. The Inside surface will bear the carved images of the 850 species of plants and animals assessed to have become extinct since the Dodo. They will all be carved by professional sculptors.

Frieze of extinct Gastric Frog
“The building will be roofless,” said Sebastian. “It will be perpetually unfinished: as species perish more carvings will be added. Increasing size will mean increasing loss. Obviously, we hope that the more awareness we raise with the project, the slower the rate of additions will become. The success of MEMO will be measured by how small it can be kept.

The memorial is scheduled to open in 2012 to correspond with Olympic sailing events off Portland, and the 350th Anniversary of the last sighting of live dodo birds on Mauritius. The project is expected to cost £5 million to build. For more information about MEMO, and to learn how to assist with the project, visit MEMO’s website and Facebook page.

memo project memorial
Extinct White Rhino

All images and information come from the MEMO Project

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Motorcycles and Mamas: Together Forever, Part 2

This week, the web was abuzz with photos of a man embalmed on his motorcycle in Puerto Rico. Debate about the tastefulness, respect and even the legality of this type of embalming have been a subject of conversation among funeral service providers all over the world. Is it ethical to display a dead man frozen into a posture of riding a motorcycle? If so, what would be the limit to this type of display? Even if a family asks, and demonstrates that it was the wish of the deceased, should a funeral home agree to embalm a person holding a cigarette? a TV remote? a gun? an obscene gesture?
At a certain point, you're sure to upset some of the public and face serious questions about respect for the dead. It may be well and good for the family, if they believe it was truly appropriate, but a funeral home has a role to play in setting the appropriate level of respect paid to the deceased.

ritual death

In November, 2008, I posted a story about a similar situation. A family having lost a mother and a sister asked that they be buried together in the same casket. The mother had cared for her profoundly disabled daughter through adulthood when both died within a day or two of one another. The first funeral home they asked refused to do it. They assumed it was illegal, and thought it was inappropriate.
The family, however, knew what they wanted, and went to another funeral home. After researching, the directors found that it was indeed legal. Not only that, it was the right thing to do for the family. It was a great comfort to them to know that mother and daughter were together as they had been in life.

In September of 2009, a friend of mine, Skip Johnson passed away after a long battle with cancer. Skip's daughter gave me two photos to accompany the obituary, and asked me to pick one to use. Both were nice, but I knew right away that Skip would want me to use the one showing him sticking his tongue out. I knew that his many friends would also appreciate seeing Skip stick his tongue out at death on the obit page. One of the local papers refused to run the picture. They said it was sacrilegious and disrespectful. Another ran it without question. I knew I might take some heat for this- and I got a little, but I knew it was the right thing to do. In fact, in looking back at all the ways, small and large, that I have found to make services meaningful, I would put my choice of photo up there among the most important.

ritual death
Last week, the directors I work with and I were faced with a heart breaking situation. A young mother and her baby son had died tragically. Like the first family, they wanted them to be together. It took a group of us to do the embalming work. Not because we needed that many hands all the time, but to support one another emotionally in this very difficult situation. No one should have to be alone to do this kind of emotionally taxing work. With a group of us working together, it was possible to keep every one's spirits up to concentrate on the work instead of falling into a cycle of sad and disturbing thoughts. I was able to keep my composure throughout the work, but at the end, when we placed the baby into his mother's arms, adjusted into a natural and loving embrace, I finally lost it.
The sadness and tragedy were palpable, but what became emotionally overwhelming, was the beauty and peace we saw with mother and child together. This image didn't fix anything. It didn't change the circumstances. Some might say that it was stagecraft, a falsehood, a gruesome manipulation of two dead bodies. But for the family, and for those of us who were involved, it was beautiful, and appropriate, and the right thing to do.

ritual death
So, what should we do or think about a man embalmed into a position riding his motorcycle? Is it tacky? Is it a publicity stunt? Is it a legal liability?
Should funeral directors refuse to perform manipulations like this? Well, I'm not a lawyer, I'm an Undertaker. I say follow your heart. If it's the right thing to do, you'll know it.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Contact Me

My photo
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.