Thursday, May 31, 2012

Through a Glass Brightly: A Conversation with Greg Lundgren

Memorial monuments can mark and identify the resting place of our dead.  They can bring an expression of the spirit of the deceased to a cemetery.  They can also provide a focal point for survivors to continue their connection with their dead.  From materials and artistic techniques to text and design, there are many ways to make these memorials meaningful.  Among all the creative and beautiful memorials being created today, the work Greg Lundgren of Lundgren Monuments in Seattle stands out.  He creates monuments out of cast glass.  I'm pleased to be able to share a conversation with Mr. Lundgren here.    

Patrick McNally: Personalization has been the buzzword in funeral service for many years, but often the difference between a personalized funeral or memorial and a standard one is minimal.  We see markers and program folders with photos instead of markers and folders without.  Often the difference seems akin to a blank t-shirt and a t-shirt with a motorcycle or beach scene on it.  Do you think that your product is qualitatively different?

Greg Lundgren:  I think what distinguishes Lundgren Monuments is both product and service based. As an architectural glass designer, what I brought forward into the industry, and what I fought for, was the introduction of cast glass into the cemetery landscape. It required a lot of convincing, educating the industry about the properties of cast glass, and placement of our memorials in different climates around the world, before cemeteries stopped viewing it with great suspicion, and more as an exciting, vibrant new medium. So from a product sense, Lundgren Monuments really pioneered, and delivered an expanded palate for designers to work with. From a services standpoint, we are a custom design house, and I work very closely with my clients to develop something original and one of a kind. I don't direct them to a catalog or a cookie cutter inventory, and no idea is out of reach. I think it is increasingly rare to work one-on-one with a designer that starts with a blank sheet of paper. And where 90% of memorial designers are working exclusively with stone, I design with bronze, stainless steel, granite and cast glass to push the sculptural dimension and texture of a project. Five years ago I would have said that it was large-scale cast glass, or maybe my modern aesthetic that made our company unique, but much more than that it is the service we provide, the close relationship between designer and client to craft something that really is collaborative and special.

Patrick McNally: Monument companies often rely upon a referral or a relationship with a funeral home or cemetery for much of their business.  In turn, there are too many options for funeral directors or cemeterians to be able to share with their clients in a limited amount of time.
Have you experienced successes and setbacks in getting referrals?  Is your product unique enough to draw in a lot of direct business?

Greg Lundgren:  Almost all of our business comes from working directly with the family, and almost all of these families found us out of sheer diligence and frustration with their local memorial dealer or funeral home. Our clients share one common complaint, in that the choices they were offered in more conventional settings were simply uninspired and ill-suited for their loved one. We work with funeral homes and cemeteries all around the world, but not typically through their referral. I wish it were more the case, but most funeral homes and cemeteries have very exclusive contracts and relationships with established granite dealers. And I don't believe they offer enough options. If there were too many options, the cemetery landscape would look like a sculpture park instead of a row of dominos. And I believe that these long standing, very exclusive relationships between cemeteries, funeral homes and granite dealers are bad for the cemetery and bad for the client. I want to see the cemetery return to a position of cultural significance, to see it once again harbor sculpture and diversity, and that can only happen by diversifying the artists and mediums that are available to a family.

Patrick McNally:  There is a great value to families in having a meaningful and beautiful place to visit their dead.  It seems to me that the more the family connects to the memorial and site, the more they return, and the better able they are to continue their relationship with their loved one in a meaningful way.  What has your experience been with families in the months after the monument has been installed?

Greg Lundgren:  I agree completely. In order for cemeteries to retain their cultural significance and attendance, they need to be beautiful and serene landscapes. As an artist, I design all different types of things - from cathedral windows to modern furniture, to custom memorials, and across the board, working with a family on a memorial is the most satisfying process of them all. And I imagine you would hear this from many designers working in the funerary arts, but it is so rewarding to see the joy your work brings to the grieving. I think cast glass is especially responsible for this because it glows and holds a certain internal life force in it. So when families go to visit their loved ones and see their memorial literally glow, shine bright in the sunlight, it is pretty magical. And the light that activates our work does make you smile, and does make you think that the person it memorializes must have been very special. It is incredibly satisfying to hear from family and friends after a work is installed, to hear their excitement about a memorial that often reflects a great tragedy. And I suspect that is partly the power of art in our culture - to inspire, to give hope, to shine a little light into the darkness.

Patrick McNally:  There seems to be a universal need for survivors to memorialize their dead, and to have a permanent place to visit them.  Green cemeteries in the UK have found that covenants forbidding individual markers may have appealed to the deceased, but anger survivors.  Families who have scatted ashes often place a cenotaph in a place where they can visit to feel connected to their dead.
Personalization often means that we must share a sacred place with people whose aesthetic we do not share.  Whether it is artificial flowers, gang insignia, whirligigs, or gaudy markers, how do we reconcile our need to interact with a grave, and our need to visit our dead in a place that we find aesthetically pleasing?

Greg Lundgren:  I think life in general requires great tolerance and compassion. Humanity is eclectic and diverse and I think we should really celebrate the individuality of a person. And while I believe that cemeteries should rightfully have unique rules and regulations, I am a huge proponent of sculptural diversity. Not just to allow glass, not just to push my own personal aesthetics, but as recognition that we all hold different beliefs, styles and expressions of our individuality. A cemetery memorial should reflect the quirkiness of the person it marks. How absolutely boring it would be if all the memorials looked the same, used the same granite color, the same font, and made no allowance for humor or ego or self-expression. The fastest way to make a cemetery irrelevant is to standardize the one last monument of the individual. My absolute favorite cemeteries harbor this kind of sculptural diversity, and I think that it is more of a selling point to a cemetery than a detriment.

Patrick McNally: How long have you been working with glass, and what led you to get into cemetery monuments?

Greg Lundgren:   I have been working as a professional glass designer for 16 years. I started designing stained glass windows, and began doing more ambitious, larger scale projects. Before too long I was casting glass, but mainly for architectural elements in windows, doors, floors and furniture. My cast glass projects kept getting heavier and thicker, and further away from our collective ideas about glass. We live in a world surrounded by glass, but in fractions of an inch - like light bulbs, window panes and wine glasses. But in thicknesses of an inch or more, glass behaves a lot more like granite, and in many instances surpasses granite as an exterior sculptural medium (it is non-corrosive, non-stainable, non-porous, etc.) I was designing leaded glass windows for a new cemetery chapel, and was driving through the cemetery grounds. And in front of me were thousands of upright slabs of granite. As an architectural designer, granite and cast glass had become interchangeable. So it didn't take much to imagine big, glowing, colorful slabs of glass dotting that landscape. I guess you could say my entry into cemetery monuments was very accidental, but I love discovering dysfunctional systems and trying to improve them. And I find death care in general to be a very important, very dysfunctional system.

Patrick McNally: How has your experience working with families to create a memorial been different from working with other clients?

Greg Lundgren:  I've been a designer my entire adult life, and have worked with a great variety of people, in a great variety of fields. In some ways, designing memorials is no different than designing a theatre set or a dining room table. You gather information, ask a lot of questions, define a budget, propose a design, refine, and eventually go into fabrication. What makes designing memorials so unique is the task of trying to marry the spirit of a person to a sculptural form.   And how special the relationship is between designer and client. Memorials aren't something people buy and re-sell, or collect like art or antiques. It is as permanent as it gets and requires a great sense of trust.  But the great majority of my clients are so respectful and appreciative that it is much more satisfying than designing furniture or other functional art. One memorial might not do much to change the world, but it can play an incredible role in healing, honoring the ones we love and changing the way we view and employ contemporary art.

Patrick McNally:  Thank you for sharing your work and your thoughts with us.  To find out more about Lundgren Monuments, visit the website email at, call 206.910.2432, or visit the offices at

Lundgren Monuments
1011 Boren Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

To read an interview with Sigrid Herr, another outstanding monument artist, visit

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Exploring Mortality with Designer Federico Santolini

Italian designer, Federico Santolini creates beautiful and thought provoking graphic, furniture and product work both independently and with his colleagues in the Dorothy Gray Design Firm in Bologna.  Mr. Santolini brings this conceptual design perspective to fine art as well.  Among his pieces are some that address our mortality in ways that allow us to visually connect and explore some of the overwhelming and unknowable issues surrounding life and death.  My thanks to Mr. Santolini for allowing me to share his work and his thoughts here on The Daily Undertaker.   

cristal cest
Pat McNally: Your work challenges us to think and see in new ways about the world around us and our place in it.  In particular, three of your projects are of great interest to me.  In Cristal Cest (nest or basket), what appear to be ordinary marble cremation urns are enveloped in wire cages.  In Dust print / Mandala, a design with spiritual connotations becomes visible on the floor through the unintentional participation of visitors by picking up the dust from their shoes.  In La Condition Humaine, an aquarium’s restricted view becomes an analogy to the limits of our perception and potentials.  I’d like to hear about each project in detail, but first, what is your intent in challenging your audience in this way?  What do you hope for us to gain through our interaction with your work?

Federico Santolini: The three works you've chosen are very different and they had distinct developments, because they were projected for different ends in different ways.
Cristal cest is one of my personal projects; Dust print /Mandala was realized by myself and Dorothy Gray Design Studio, the one I work with; la Condition Humaine was nearly completely developed by Giovanni del Vecchio, one of Dorothy Gray Design Studio members, I just joined this project marginally. As a designer, I come from the product design field, so in my work the physical object and its function are fundamental, and I use the object itself to express concepts. From the object importance, I work on the interaction between it and the audience. When I want to express a particularly complicated concept, I prefer using stereotyped objects, neutral ones, because through them it's easier to make the concept more comprehensive. I applied the same reasoning to the materials: I often prefer using classical ones, because it's easier for the audience to enter upon familiar terms with them. I love when the object makes you think and force you to think about what you're doing in a specific moment and what you're using to do a particular action.

cristal cest
PM: An urn is seated at an angle within a complicated wire framework that seems to have no relation to the form of the urn.  Obviously, the fact that the object within is an urn indicates to us that this piece is saying something to us about our mortality or our existence after death.
My reaction to the piece is to contemplate what there is present in and around the urn that could be described by this larger space, and I think of all that must take place in our existence that is unknown to us.  Perhaps this is the shape of some part of the person that cannot be contained within an urn.
What drew you to incorporate these elements together?  Do you have any thoughts about this piece that you’d like to share?

FS: Your personal interpretation of Cristal cest is really interesting. My intention is exactly to stimulate reactions and thoughts to those who approach my projects, enriching their value and meaning. I had your same idea of an external expansion of the internal urn contents, but what I really want to express is the urn's palpable holiness, at the same time protected and enhanced by the wire framework. I basically worked on a visible and tangible urn locked up in a nest structure that protects the urn, but, differently from a casket, allows the audience to touch and see it. Moreover the urn seems unstable, but it's fixed and supported by its protective cage.

Dust print / Mandala  working with dirt....

PM: A mandala is traced upon the floor with some adhesive material.  Right away we are reminded of incantations and the calling forth of supernatural forces.  Indeed the forces are gathered in the form of visitors bringing the dust of their shoes to inadvertently bring the mandala into being.
Dust reminds us not only of undesirable and unclean substances, but also of the dust we are said to be made of and must return to.  What I love about this piece, in addition to your clever manipulation of these ideas, is your use of the kinetic forces of bystanders, and the creation of beauty with a substance that is usually thought of as something that is anything but beautiful.  What were your thoughts in creating this piece?  What kind of reactions did you get from people as they realized their role in bringing this work to life?

FS: You've completely picked up the basic idea of this project: creating something from nothing, or better, from something usually considered as tiny and not desirable as the dust is. This work is also more provocative because realized during a contemporary art fair, where the audience expects to see and buy important works of art, not to create one through the dust! To be created, the Mandala needed many days and the passing by of many visitors. The mandala was at the art fair entrance. The first visitors didn't even understand what they were creating! The others, fully appreciated this work, participating in a stupefied and interested way, walking many times on the Mandala to bring more dust and taking pictures.

La condition humaine
PM: An aquarium is seemingly combined with a tombstone.  The legend etched on the marble tells us everything we need to know as we take in the small sliver of the aquarium that is actually open to our view.  Again, we seem to be confronted with the fact that as humans, we are aware of only a slice of what there is to know and experience in the world.  Just as we see only a slice of the spectrum of light, the greater part of the life and activity of the aquarium is hidden from our view.  Again we are confronted with our mortality because of the clock ticking on the wall, and the similarity of the inscribed marble to a tombstone.  Is our limited understanding due to the brief nature of our existence?  What is there that we cannot see just because of our other limitations?
These are questions that may not be new to us, but they are certainly brought out for us to ponder in a new and very visual way.  Ironically, you are showing us that we cannot see.
What is it about the limits of our human condition that you would  like for us to contemplate?  Would you hope that we took action because of these realizations?

La condition humaine Acquario
FS: As I told you before, I brought my contribution to La condition Humaine just during the concept phase. The idea of working on an Aquarium was a Giovanni Delvecchio's one; he's one of my colleagues at Dorothy Gray Design Studio, and I consulted him before answering your interview. The basic idea was working on an old aquarium using unusual materials and technologies for glass, like marble and carving. This beginning idea has started all the processes that you've well described: we wanted the audience to think about what an aquarium represents, a little world/ecosystem that, as owners, we can control, populate or upset. It's up to the audience evaluating if identifying with the aquarium owners or with the unaware fishes. The idea of hiding the aquarium view with the marble tombstone it's a provocation connected with the human capacity to see/understand the world around us, symbolized by the aquarium, and the possibility to show it to the others.

La condition humaine Acquario
PM: Thank you Mr. Santolini, for sharing your thoughts and your compelling work with us!    

La condition humaine Acquario

Please visit the Dorothy Gray website for more of this wonderful work.

Designer Federico Santolini

Originally posted on THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 2011

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

That'll do, Pig

Out to the cemetery yesterday, and I came across this pig.  Not sure which grave it belongs to, as the marker behind it faces the other direction. 

 Is it  guarding a grave, or waiting for someone to return?  Is it there for good, or just stopping by?

In any case, it seems to be doing a fine job!  Nice work, Pig.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mob Stones: Speech and Cemetery

Mongrel Mob Headstone
The contentious dialogue regarding what activities and which forms of memorialization are appropriate for cemeteries, is not confined to the United States or the antics of the gay and military bashing Westboro Baptist Church.  In previous posts, I have highlighted the controversies over bicycles, political speech and even the establishment of living quarters within cemetery walls.  Today, we look at new cemetery policies in New Zealand that are putting a bee in the pickelhaube of local gang members.    

Mongrel Mob Headstone at Whenua Tapu cemetery
According to news sources (Kapi-Mana, Stuff NZ, and 3News NZ,) Porirua City Council is moving to expand the scope of their oversight regarding proposed monuments at the city cemeteries.  Currently, the council can only reject monuments based on size.  The new language would allow it to consider issues of individual monuments causing offence.

Dennis Makalio sits the grave of a Mongrel Mob member at Whenua Tapu cemetery,
This move follows a 2008 instance of a widow exhuming and moving her husband's remains after a Mongrel Mob gang member was buried next to him, memorialized by a headstone that featured gang insignia.

Meanwhile in Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery, a group of  fallen Hells Angels seem to be capturing little attention. 
Gang member and historian, Dennis Makalio is challenging the new regulations, claiming that  his gang identity is similar to a religious membership, and likens the removal of gang insignia from headstones to removing symbols of faith such as crosses, or to military insignia.

Deciding just what expression is offensive, is a task that seems simple at first blush, but in actual practice proves slippery and prickley.  We may 'know offensive when we see it" but what is the absolute ethically justifiable criteria?  What community do we base our "community standards" on?  If it's the Westoboro Baptist community, we'd be talking about military insignia and burying same sex partners together.  If were were in Germany under the Nazis, Hebrew graves would be the target.  Add to this the less than perfect reputation of gangsters respecting the rights of others - should this be considered?.

If Mr. Makalio is a world historian as well as his gang's historian, he should know that the victors write the history books.  In the end they will determine whether his protest is seen as a frivolous waste of council time, or an important defense of speech and religious freedom. 

I'd love to see my readers thoughts and comments on this issue!   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In Case it Rains in Heaven: An interview with Photographer, Kurt Tong

A traditional Chinese belief maintains that the dead need sustenance, shelter and money in their next existence, and it becomes the responsibility of the living to care for their needs.  Paper effigies of bank notes, food, clothing and personal items are burned with the belief that these items become real and can be used by our dead relatives.

The idea that the existence of the dead is very similar to that of the living, that they need food, clothing and shelter, must have a profound effect on how life and death are envisioned and lived out.  They effect the way we live just as a belief that the quality of our after life is determined by our adherence to certain beliefs ,the performance of certain actions in life, or the idea that in death we have no need for food or clothing does.

Photographer, Kurt Tong created a series of images depicting the various paper items currently  available to those who aim to provide for their dead.  This series has been on display in galleries across the world, and is documented in the book 'In Case it Rains in Heaven'.  Mr Tong has graciously agreed to share a conversation about his work on The Daily Undertaker.

Patrick McNally: Today, as you document in your photographs, paper effigies of cellphones, airplanes, designer athletic shoes, and fast food can be found along with more traditional items like joss money servants and houses.   You suggest that the practice of burning paper items may be a form of compensation for a life of hardship and depravation.  What do these high status effigies mean to those who burn them?

Kurt Tong: I can only speak for people of Hong Kong, even though it has been one of the richest city in the world, there is a huge amount of poverty in the city.   The government estimates that nearly 20% of the population live in poverty. People spend their lives living hand to mouth and in tiny apartments. The idea that they can have a mansion, and no more money worries was the driving force behind the traditional effigies; the houses, the money. However, as materialism takes hold of the younger generations and especially in mainland China, often the effigies might be things that they already have had when they were alive, and it’s becomes an extension of enjoying the high life after death. A couple of years ago, there was a businessman who bought a Bugatti veyron at 1.5 million dollars to be burned at his funeral. They had the engine taken out for safety reasons.

PM: Beyond the idea that the dead need sustenance shelter and amusement in the afterlife, items such as umbrellas and rifles,  along with your suggestion that items of value could be used to bribe the authorities, suggest an existence that can be perilous and unfair.  If this is what awaits us after death, what expectation do we have of fairness or safety in life?

KT: I only found out about the bribery aspect of the paper money when I was doing the project, I found that fascinating. It really reflects how bribery is part and parcel of the Chinese society. Let’s face it though, I don’t think life is fair in this life either, and people are rightly voicing their frustrations at the moment. I think bribery happens all over the world in one form or another. Maybe it’s not a wad of cash anymore but it’s still around.

PM: A common translation of the Christian Bible quotes the son of God saying “In my Father’s house there are many mansions (sometimes described as ‘rooms’), I go to prepare a place for you…”  In this light there is a very real similarity to the idea of the dead needing a place of comfort and shelter after death, even if it is provided for them by God.  Additionally, there is the practice in Christianity and especially in Catholicism of praying, petitioning and begging for the favorable treatment of the dead which mirrors in some ways the idea that the living are responsible for the care of their dead in the afterlife, and that authorities in the Christian version of the after life may be susceptible to the influence of the living.  How do you think beliefs such as these and in the Chinese tradition effect the relationship we have with our dead?

KT: From a personal point of view (being a non-religions person) the idea of being able to provide for your loved ones in the afterlife is the perfect extension of the grieving process. It’s comforting for the living to know/think that they can still do something after they died. During my research, I met people who talked of their late husbands coming to their dreams years after they have passed and asking for specific items. It empowers them in some way.

PM: Out of all of the many items available for purchase, what led you to select the items you wanted to photograph?

KT: I initially picked a ranged of items for my grandmother, people are quite sensitive and superstition about the Joss items, so I timed it so that all the items were burned and offered on the anniversary of her death. But then I figured the project should paint a cross section picture of what’s available and how that might represent the society of China, so I went back to get items such as the machine gun and the ipod.

PM: The photographs in this series have been exhibited in galleries across the UK and the States, and are featured in a book, In Case it Rains in Heaven from Kehrer Verlang Publishers.  What kind of reactions have you received from the public and from other artists?

KT: The response to the work has been amazing. On the surface, the project shows a traditional practice that is relatively unknown outside of China. People can take the light-hearted side and funny elements with them. I have also had people crying at the exhibitions, given the space and time, people tend to start thinking about their departed loved ones and what they might need in their afterlife.

PM: Have your thoughts about this practice changed through being involved in this project?

KT: I initially considered it just a superstitious practice but I now believe it’s a great tradition which makes the grieving process just that little bit easier.

PM: What role do you think the arts have to play in helping us come to terms with our inevitable deaths and the overwhelming  unknowns of what lies beyond?

KT: I think making work about death, in whatever form, enables people to talk about it more openly and ease some of the fears and uncertainty around it. 

PM: Thank you for sharing your work and your thoughts with us, Mr. Tong.  For more of Mr Tong's work, visit his website the book is available through Amazon and other retailers.   All images used in this post are the copyrighted property of Kurt Tong.

originally posted Tuesday, November 29, 2011
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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.