Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Undertaking Photos

These are photos from a project of mine, documenting the daily reality of death in a small Midwestern community. 
Christmas Chapel

Parking cars for a funeral procession

Open cremation Grave
At church

Friday, December 9, 2011

In Heaven, Underground

In Heaven, Underground, documents the lively continuing history of Berlin-Weissensee, the largest active Jewish Cemetery in Europe.  The engaging work of award winning director and producer, Britta Wauer, this film beautifully portrays the joys and sorrows of Weissensee through the lives of people intimately involved in the past, present and future of the cemetery.

Incredibly, the graves and monuments of Weissensee Cemetery in Eastern Berlin survived the Nazi Regime and WWII undefiled.  Superstitions left the cemetery a refuge during the early years of the Reich, and even after all of it's community was deported, the circumstances of war and priorities allowed the cemetery to remain untouched.     

Untended during the war, and shut off from the West after the partition of Berlin, the physical damage to Weisensee took the form of overgrowth and monument decay.  Already lush, the cemetery became a forest in the middle of a major metropolitan center. 

Today, cemetery staff and volunteers are gradually bringing the cemetery back to the glory that it once was.  We see the present day casket builders, groundskeepers and masons, rabbis and administrators at their work and in reflection.  We see Holocaust survivors, and descendants of the cemetery's dead returning to find graves that they thought were lost forever.  We hear of joyful times spent within the cemetery walls.  We see very personal loss, and gain an understanding of just how important a cemetery can be to survivors.      

The cemetery is a museum, an archaeological dig, and a village.  It is a place of old stories waiting to be rescued and new ones waiting to unfold. The stories that are shared here are always touched by a profound sadness and sense of loss, but shining through also are the individuals who make up the story of  Weissensee, their humanity, their contributions, and the spectacular beauty of this treasure of a cemetery.   


For more information about this documentary,visit 7th Art Releasing

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mortality: Proverbs on Death by Darryl Ng

 (from English)
  "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die"

Following his father's death, Singaporean designer and artist, Darryl Ng created a series of ten illustrations based upon 5 proverbs relating to death.  The proverbs are taken from Chinese, Latin and English language traditions.  
与其忍辱偷生,不如光荣而死 (Chinese)
 "Better die with honour than live in shame"

"Living in Asia provides me with a gamut of perspectives on death. There are interesting differences in the ways different cultures cope with death. The obvious reaction for most people is one of mourning but there are many communities that celebrate death because they believe the dichotomy between the self and the universe is false, and that our bodies are merely material." - Darryl Ng
Hodie mihi, cras tibi  (Latin) 
"Today to you, Tomorrow to thee" 
These illustrations fascinate me because of their interplay between the universal and the personal.  Mr. Ng says that while he hoped the project would be cathartic for him, he felt that his relationship with his father was too personal to share with the public.  The pieces, born of conflict, took on a life of their own.

Indeed, while the proverbs are universals, their subject touches us all.  Though Mr. Ng's illustrations depict specific characters, the rendering style he uses is reminiscent of airplane emergency evacuation pamphlets.  These characters are at once individuals and stand-ins for anyone.

Such is our relationship with our own mortality.  There is nothing so personal and still universal as out individual grief or experience of death.

 (from English)
 "Sleep... Oh! how I loathe those little slices of death" 

The proverbs themselves, whether immediately familiar to us or not, have the same quality of universality.  The repetition of these maxims seems to have worn out their impact and what remains are pat and dismissive answers to complex and compelling questions.  Combining them with Ng's illustrations brings them back into relevance and allows them to challenge us with a fresh look at their meanings in our own lives.    

除了死亡之门以外,每扇门都可以被关闭  (Chinese)
 "Every door may be shut but death's door"
Whether we look like the fleshy shirtless man with the knife poised to pierce his own abdomen, or the young woman watching the inevitable close of the elevator door, we can see ourselves in them and in their situation.  Ultimately, somewhere between abstraction and intimacy, we see ourselves and our mortal state in a new light. 

Singaporean designer and artist, Darryl Ng

For more illustrations in this series, and other works by Darryl Ng, please visit his website, www.darryl-ng.com.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Earth Friendly Coffin for Pets

French designer, Arthur Tricheliu has created a sustainable and user friendly coffin concept for pets.  Designed with the intent of helping children deal with their loss, the coffin has incorporated a planter on the lid.  After the coffin is 'planted' , a tree can grow in memory of the pet.   

While similar products have been proposed for the burial of cremated remains, this is the first I've seen designed for the intact burial of pets.  The round design will be appreciated by anyone who has experienced burying a pet on their own; a curled up position is sensible for pets and comforting for their human survivors.  

This kind of coffin would be more appropriate for burying on one's one land than at a formal pet cemetery.  Certainly not everyone wants to bury their own pet, but for those who do, Mr. Tricheliu's design would allow for real participation, and the comfort of an enclosed container, in an earth and pocketbook friendly product.

The coffins are still just a concept, but I can easily see the addition of a smaller model for use with cremated remains, and opportunities to market to both pet stores, veterinarians and pet funeral providers. 

If you'd like to see more of Mr. Trichelieu's work, or are interested in helping to bring this product into production, visit his site.

Designer Arthur Tricheliu

Friday, November 11, 2011

Silent Souls

Films that deal with the realities of death are few and far between. Those that also explore grief and funeral rituals are very rare indeed.  The 2011 release, Silent Souls does all of this in an elegant, gentle and thought provoking manner.   This compelling story about the Merja of Russia, allows us to understand some of their traditions and funerary rituals. In doing so, we are also allowed a new understanding of the human condition and of our own needs in life, grief and death.

Directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko, and based on a novel "The Buntings" by Aist Sergeyev, Silent Souls chronicles the thousand mile road trip of two friends.
When Miron’s beloved wife Tanya passes away, he asks his best friend Aist to help him say goodbye to her according to the rituals of the Merja culture, an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from Lake Nero in West Central Russia. Although the Merja people assimilated into Russians in the17th century, their myths and traditions live on in their descendants’ modern life.

The two men set out on a road trip thousands of miles across the boundless land along with two small birds in a cage. Along the way, the funerary customs and traditional beliefs of the Merjans, are slowly revealed. In their conversations and memories, their defining relationships; Miron's with his wife Tanya, and Aist's with his deceased mother and poet father, bring life and meaning to the world view that is their ethnic heritage.

This film is remarkable in its gentle unhurried pace, and breathtaking cinematography, and in the volumes of information conveyed by the subtle actions and limited speech of its characters. Most compelling though, is the degree to which this film brings into focus the vital importance of  our participation in rituals and traditions.  Ultimately, those actions provide us with essential sustenance; giving us of our sense of self and our place in the world.

For more information about this remarkable film, visit 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to Create a Meaningful Service: Rubber Boots

There is no formula for creating a meaningful funeral, but the recent service held at Cheltenham Crematorium for 39 year old Gloucestershire nurse, Lorna Grant offers some very instructive guidelines.

A powerful and healing message is communicated through these 'mourning garments'

Ms. Grant was a great fan of music festivals, and especially the famous Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, where people of an independent and alternative bent enjoy tromping about in the mud and listening to music in great numbers each year. In Ms. Grant's service, her fun loving and independent spirit and interests were acknowledged in ways that created a meaningful and loving tribute to her life, along with a healing and affirming experience for her friends and family. Here are some elements of her funeral that we can all bring to our own services...

Undertaker in wellies leads procession to crematorium

The Procession:
If any feature of a funeral sums up our feelings and actions in a symbolic way, it is the procession. The procession lends itself easily to personalized ritual. In Ms. Grant's case, the procession to the crematorium was given added meaning by the vehicle used to transport her remains. A special vehicle and a special pace, marked out in this case by the undertaker, tells us visually and emotionally that this is a special journey, not like any other. It reminds us that we are accompanying a special person on the last leg our their journey.

In the procession we say "Your life and your passing is important enough for me to go with you as far as I can". The special vehicle used for this journey can be a hearse, a horse drawn carriage, or a cart. I have seen processions with motorcycles, hot rods, and milk trucks. In this case the vehicle is special to the memory of the deceased because it is a camper van fitted out to be used as a hearse. We see it and know instantly that it is special and personally meaningful.

Ceremony and innovation

Mixing the old and the new:
There is great value to both traditional ritual and personalization, and when the two are combined, we get fireworks. Ritual provides us with the comforting rhythms and reassurances that allow us to deal with the overwhelming and unknowable. On some level we need to be reminded that this individual and that we ourselves belong to a culture and a tradition and a community. Traditional rituals like the use of pallbearers and processions also communicate emotional messages that are beyond words.

Tradition is cold comfort however, if it is not relevant to the deceased. This is where personalization enhances traditional ritual. In this case, a pink casket that appears to be made of renewable resources is carried by pallbearers wearing the wellington boots that remind us of the muddy music festivals, guests and pallbearers were all invited to wear their 'wellies' to the service. Rather than a traditional floral casket spray, sunflowers are used. I have seen an all female group of bearers carry their former basketball coach into church, clowns carrying a fellow clown, and bearers with a variety of other special attributes. The floral spray for fashion icon, Isabella Blow, was reminiscent of the fabulously edgy millinery she wore. For veterans, a flag often drapes the casket instead of flowers. For race fans, checkered flags can be used. Most importantly, the combination of familiar and novel, makes the messages of both more apparent and meaningful. The pallbearer's work is highlighted by the pink casket and the boots they all wear. The meaning of the sunflowers is emphasized by their placement on the casket.
This is Participation

I'll close with a photo very similar to the opening shot because the wellie boots convey the most powerful message for the mourners and for us as more detached observers. Participation was the key to this service and the most important lesson we can take from it. Just attending a funeral service is a form of participation, and sends a wonderful message of comfort and acknowledgement it its own right. Enhancing and increasing the level of participation brings those messages out more clearly and makes the experience of the participant so much more healing.
Participation can take many forms, from eulogies to carrying the casket, to riding in procession, to bringing a hot-dish to the reception. Whether we realize it or not, what we wear to a funeral involves participation too. I am often asked what appropriate clothing should be for funerals and my response would now be to look at the photo above for the answer. A funeral is a special day set aside from other days to remember a special person. When we wear something special to that event we are participating in the funeral. No one expects you to go out and buy a black suit or dress for a funeral, but do take the time and effort to participate in acknowledging the importance of that life and that death by making a special effort. In the case of Ms. Grant, that effort did not even involve suits for anyone other than the pallbearers, it involved wearing rubber boots. By wearing the boots, guests made a visual expression of love and loss in the fun - loving spirit of their friend, and realized on a more profound level why they were there.

We cannot expect to create a meaningful service just by wearing wellies or picking out a pink casket any more that by releasing doves or having an 'open mic' session. A meaningful service is the result of a series of participatory decisions and creative actions. Hopefully what we take away from Lorna Grant's service is a lesson in the importance of ritual, personalization and the creative expression of love.

The photos and information regarding Lorna Grant's service were found on The Daily Mail, This is Somerset, and This is Gloucestershire sites

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fire Festival of Remembrance

Bolas de Fuego 
Rituals and festivals take many forms.  The Bolas de Fuego Festival of Remembrance in Nejapa, El Salvador commemorates the eruption of a volcano.  Young men act out this horrifying calamity through a ritual firefight waged with gasoline soaked rags.  How does this make anyone in the town sleep easier?

Ritual can act as a form of vaccination.  We deal with a small piece of what terrifies us.  This small dose can be beaten by our defenses.  Throwing the balls ourselves gives us a sense of control over the unpredictable.  Getting hit by a flaming ball, we survive and relish the excitement.   
Does the festival prevent us from being decimated by another volcanic eruption?  Do I want this festival to take place in my neighborhood?  No and No.  However, it does provide the residents of Nejapa with a way to approach and deal with the overwhelming, and that is the powerful quality that ritual brings to our approach to the difficult and insurmountable issues that confront us in life and death.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Twitter Tuesday - More Funeral related Tweets

My Favorite tweets about death since April this year - enjoy

 Zip Zap Zoom Jetta 

Wil never attend a funeral of the people who are not going to attend mine 

you're so not invited to my funeral.
 Paul S 

Funerals suck.
 Paul S 

In no particular order, today I: made a priest doubt my Catholicism, laughed during a cremation, and confused a nun.
 Stephanie Kenez 

Useless fact I learnt at uni today: pacemakers have to be removed before cremation, otherwise they explode & cause damage to the furnace
 carla isabel 

quite informative. The Daily Undertaker, The Variety and Importance of Ritual 

Oh god they just showed a clip on the news of a dog lying next to the coffin of his soldier owner at his funeral and I am BAWLING.
 Jack Burditt 

Based on the movies and TV I watched as I kid, I used to believe that the number one cause of death was quicksand
 Charles Cowling 

Can you help with this enquiry: Is there a nice river in Scotland a family can scatter ashes in? No water treatment effluent permissible.
 Sam Benson. 

Oh and, I'm seeing my aunt's body on Monday evening. Her cremation is the day after. I'm pretty sure I'll cry a lot...

Gonna miss my granddad's cremation. :(
 kyara holmes 

Stuck behind a funeral line !
 Amber V 

 Agreed. Which is why I hope the Swedish Promession technology is available in the US when I die.
 Ciara Paine 

A blooming good idea for organic burials: To date, promession has been tested on naturally deceased animal carca...
 Elyce Gabriella ^_.^ 

 : I want to die in Hawaii and have a natural cremation. then let my ashes float out to see as my friends look on to me flying away

I'm at a funeral,& my dad goes up to the pianist in the church & asks if she has any hip hop,she replies:"ooh no!, we don't play that here!"
 Michael Sennhauser 

Most words have long been sentenced to death.
 M U F A S A . 

I had a dream that my step dad had a second funeral and he's been gone going on 3 years o_O
 Jordan Henry 

Maybe I should go church this weekend! The only time I've ever been is when there's been a funeral lol 
Will I ever forgive myself for not being there for his cremation? No. But it's the price I pay for choosing where I stand. He'll understand.

 I'm a realist. My retirement plan: cremation.
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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