Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Haters: Part 1

no funeral cremation
It's no secret that a lot of people hate funerals. They don't ever want to go to them and don't want one held when they die either. I understand that everyone hates a funeral because it means that someone has died, and many people tell me that they don't want one because they seem gloomy and sad, when they want to be happy and laugh. I knew there was more to it than that, though, so I started searching the Internet for posts that included the words 'I Hate Funerals'. Most of what I found were comments posted on personal blogs and online discussion forums.

Included below are some comments dealing with the emotional nature of funerals that are representative of many of the posts I came across. Some of the comments surprised me, and some I'd heard many times before, but I found all of them to be a bit troubling. People seem to think that if they avoid dealing with the difficult parts of life, those aspects of life will not effect them. Many people think that if they don't cry, they won't be sad; that if they only deal with and participate in the good times, their life and legacy will be all smiles and laughter.

Unfortunately for these folks, the opposite is true. If we don't allow ourselves to face the sadness and loss, to cry and comfort one another in grief, we don't move forward to a place where we can enjoy the happy memories without the ache of unresolved grief getting in the way. We are not sad because we have cried at a funeral, we cry at a funeral because we are sad. When we avoid the funeral to avoid the sadness, we are only preventing the healthy release of our emotions, and avoiding that emotional work keeps the sadness with us.

If we don't support others in their time of grief and allow our friends and family to do the same for us, we don't get the full measure and benefit of our relationships, and our happy times lack the depth that a fuller relationship provides.

If we ask the loved ones we will leave behind "Don't cry for me!", we are giving advice that will hinder their happiness in the long run, not help it along.

no funeral

I was surprised by how many people hated funerals because they didn't think they could handle the situation emotionally. This was actually the most common type of comment.

I hate funerals, because I am always the one that cries the most. Why do I have to cry so much, more than the relatives, the friends, the people who knew the passed person a lot more than me? Why can’t I sit there and listen to the readings and the music without needing to wipe away tears constantly, blowing my nose loudly, and biting my quivering lower lip? I hate funerals, because I can’t keep it together, and that makes me feel embarrassed. I don’t want to show more emotion than the closest relatives, but I can’t help it. I feel so sorry for everyone involved, and I feel sorry for myself too. I can’t but imagine how terrible I’d feel if I was the one
who had lost someone. And that makes me cry more than anything else.

Why does this person cry so much at funerals? Well, everyone deals with their emotions differently, but a funeral is an acceptable, safe, and supportive place to cry. My guess is that if this person really does cry excessively at any funeral, there is some unresolved grief in there that needs to come out, and that dealing with this grief more, rather than less is the best course of action. This next entry is very similar. I can almost picture a giant well of emotion that is barely contained by the avoidance strategies of these people. This is no way to go through life.

I will go to a funeral only if I have to drive my elderly mother. I hate funerals -mostly because I cry —even for those I don’t know.
I get very emotional at funerals. I usually get out of them by volunteering to stay at the house (thieves check out obits to target the homes of those who will be attending funerals) or I prepare food for the wake at someone’s home or at the church hall. I let everyone know, a long time ago, how much I hate funerals, so they don’t expect me to attend. The last funeral I attended (other than as a driver for my mother) was my only sibling’s and I will have to go when my mother dies –but that’s it for me. My husband and I don’t want funerals or memorial celebrations, so I’m off the hook if he goes first. If I go first, he has been instructed to have me cremated, then sprinkle my ashes anywhere he wants.

no funeral

Some people seem to feel 'put upon' about bringing down the light hearted and upbeat nature of their day by exposing themselves to the sadness of others, or feeling it themselves. In turn they feel guilty about this, and it just adds to their negative ideas about funerals.

A good family friend of ours passed away in his sleep last night. He was one of the most kind and giving people I've ever met, in my whole life. The funeral is tomorrow. I want to go, but there's also a part of me that doesn't want to go. Not at all. I hate funerals (understandably, I'm sure). This is my spring break. I'm tired of people dying. Every break I've been on I've gone to a funeral. I can't deal with the emotion anymore. I can't deal with the eulogies and the weeping and the...everything. It's selfish, and I hate myself for it, but even though I want to go, I don't. I hate myself for it. I'm a terrible person. I'm selfish, I'm uncaring. I hate that he's dead. I hate it. But why do I hate that he's dead? For totally selfish reasons. Because I'll never see him again. Because I'll miss him. I don't care about his family. I've never even met them. All I care about is me and the fact that I won't ever talk to Barry again. I hate myself for it. I'm a terrible person. I'm selfish, I'm uncaring. Rest in peace, Barry.

This last piece is a particularly troubling entry from a young man who seems to believe that only laughter and smiles are acceptable in life; that if people cry at his passing, they are betraying his memory. I wonder how many people actually expect to be able to live this way, and how much of life's difficult work just remains undone in these lives.

So I was in the car doing absolutely nothing with a crew when rich said listen and turned up the stereo. The words that came on hit me it said swear to god that you won't cry at my funeral. I’ve said my entire life that I don’t want anyone to cry at my funeral, but I never really told anyone. I think that it would be an insult to me. I live my life to see others happy. I get joy in seeing people laugh, so even if you are sad that I've passed on to whatever, if anything, awaits me, do your best to keep your smile up, don’t let my fading away stop you from laughing. I hate hospitals, I refuse to go to them unless I absolutely have to. It's not because there are so many people who are dying or sick that hospitals irk me it's because not a single person there has a smile on their faces. It's everything I'm not...sadness, pain, hurting, and so much more. I've never been to a funeral and will never go because I'll be the one in the crowd laughing at all the good times I've enjoyed with them. I will not cry over a death as long as I still have those memories. And I want that, not tears and sobs but tears and laughs, tears of people laughing so hard they can't help it.
Remember me as the guy who striped in the shop right parking lot, the tunnel, and the back of the GMC Jimmy that so many memories have been burned into. Remember me as the guy that would walk around very public places acting literally like a retard. Remember me as Josh and make me a legend in your mind, tell stories of me at parties, make me the butt of your jokes, Just remember when the laughter stops so do I so don't let it stop. Especially at a funeral where I don't even want to be. P.S. I don't like funerals so don't be surprised to find an empty casket. I'll run away from my own even if I'm the main guest. Promise not to cry at my funeral. Swear that you won't cry at my funeral.

It is not just grieving and health issues that suffer. Relationships and a great deal of emotional growth demand facing and dealing with difficult emotional issues. I'd like to think that this comment above is just adolescence talking, but unfortunately, many adults are saying the same thing.

(the photos above have been retouched to reflect the sentiments expressed in this story- to my knowledge, no funeral haters have yet taken to the streets in protest -Ed.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Memorial to Designer Tobias Wong

JUNE 5, 2011

Wong's Ballistic Roses 

The controversial and brilliant young designer, Tobias Wong created works that challenged and stimulated the minds of those who interacted with it.  The pieces have a beauty in their direct simplicity, in their twisting of the expected into something provocative, in the messages and  meanings he conveyed by his choice of materials and context. 
Designer Tobias Wong

A perfect example of his elegant wit and vision lies in the design below; an engagement ring with the pointed end of the diamond facing outwards.  In twisting our expectations in such a simple, yet transformative manner, Wong expressed volumes of meaning with a simple dot of punctuation. 
Killer Diamond Engagement Ring by Tobias Wong
In Bullet Poof Quilted Duvet (below) Wong's use of ballistic fabric in an otherwise normal bed covering allows us to re-evaluate our ideas of physical and emotional comfort and protection.  Similarly, the material transforms the message in Wong's Kevlar roses (shown at the top of this post.)

Tobias Wong, Bulletproof Quilted Duvet, 2004, ballistic nylon, cotton, and cotton flannel; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Josee Lepage; © Estate of Tobias Wong; photo: courtesy SFMOMA
Context was manipulated brilliantly by Wong as well.  In "Indulgences", a project he collaborated on with Ken Courtney, founder of Ju$t Another Rich Kid the iconic items below were cast in gold.  Without context, the items below are just golden replicas of mass produced items from the 1960-1980's.  Factoring in their cultural relevance reveals complex and potent messages.    
When Wong took his own life in 2010, the world lost a wonderfully creative mind and a future of clever and compelling work.  Using one die for each day of Tobias Wong's life to create a portrait of the designer, Frederick McSwain used Wong's own kind of clever manipulation of meaning, materials, and context to make a meaningful, moving and thought provoking memorial for his friend.  

"DIE" Frederick McSwain Installation Time Lapse from stephen dirkes on Vimeo.
A time lapse film by Stephen Dirkes for core77 of Frederick McSwain's, "DIE" installation at Gallery R Pure "Broken Off Broken Off" group show in memorium to Tobias Wong for NY Design Week 2011. Music by Twi the Humble Feather.

obscure object films
NYC 2011
The finished portrait
A closer look at the dice making up Wong's portrait
For more on Tobias Wong, visit:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Vanitas: The Work of Rachelle Soucy

A type of Memento Mori, Vanitas is a genre of art that is often characterized by a combination of enticing still life objects such as fruit, and flowers, along with reminders of the transient nature of life such as skulls and hourglasses.  This juxtaposition was meant to point out the ultimate shortcomings of worldly pleasures and aspirations.  In the past, Vanitas made very predictable moralistic statements about keeping one’s hand on the Lord’s plow and steering clear of the temptations of the world, but they also made a great an excuse to paint and contemplate pleasures of the world.

Rachelle Soucy is an artist who has added her creative spin and considerable talents to this genre in two series of photographic compositions, Vanitas and Vanitas (2).  Ms. Soucy has gracefully agreed to share her work and a conversation about it on The Daily Undertaker (please click on the images to enlarge them):  

Pat McNally: Rachelle, your work certainly has a wonderful sensuality to it, along with some very clear references to mortality, and although there is a playfulness to your work, I do not sense an irony or distancing yourself from the genre itself.  Instead, you seem to be honestly engaging with this theme, rather than making a statement about it.  While your work gives the viewer a lot of food for thought, absent are the simplistic moral preaching and guilty pleasure elements that were often a part of Vanitas pieces in the past.  What drew you to explore this form?

Rachelle Soucy:  The entire series originated through playfulness and discovery. It was a playful experiment that led me to explore themes of Memento Mori and Vanitas – I started by arranging still-lifes on top of my scanner. I was quickly inspired by the shallow depth of field created by the scanner – it shows incredible detail that quickly drops into beautiful shadows. This aesthetic is uncanny in its resemblance to 16th and17th Dutch paintings of Memento Mori. Coincidentally, I was arranging all these symbolic items, flowers, fruits, shells, and hourglasses, which are typically present in these types of paintings to symbolize life’s fleeting moments, futility of pleasure and ultimately reminders of one’s mortality. For my first series, I decided to place myself amongst these items. So you are correct, I am not making a statement about this theme, more so I am engaging directly as subject matter – just as the flowers are decaying, so too am I. In general, decay is an unusual subject matter that I was intrigued by. I wanted to explore this genre personally by capturing myself in a fleeting moment and to remind myself of the shortcomings of vanity.

PM:  I have seen a lot of work done with scanners, but yours really stands out.  It seems that you have avoided the clich├ęs common to this technique and really made great use of the possibilities and limits of the scanners depth of field, creating a kind of dream world.  Could you tell us about your experiences using this technique, and why you chose it for this project?  

RS: Using a scanner is really just an untraditional or atypical form of photography. In a way, my work is a polished descendant of the “face-down-on-the-photocopier” self portraits most of us have enjoyed. With this technique you can achieve unmatchable detail, because the scanner magnifies hidden details such as wrinkles and pores and even miniscule insects. Also, the colour and shadows create this ethereal-type aesthetic that works with the themes of Momento Mori and Vanitas. I didn’t directly choose this technique for the project; it was more of a happy accident. It was the aesthetics of this technical process that influenced my exploration of these themes, and not vice versa. I think this creative process is rare in art making, especially with new media.

PM: The long format and multiple frames of your work really bring us out of the scanner and add to its otherworldly feeling; chopping up single images and bringing multiple images into a single piece.  Diptychs and triptychs have certainly been a part of artistic expression, particularly in  sacred works since antiquity, but in your work, it brings me to the idea of our fragmented experience in the modern world where we have many images bombarding us from different sources at one time.  Do you think that this fragmentation and information overload has changed the way we think and behave?

RS: In these works, there is intentional use of diptychs and triptychs as religious reference. Also, the fragmentation on these portraits reminds me of stained glass. This only references antiquities though. As a modern artist, I find that fragmentation and information overload has led me to create by sampling. This process allows me to combine old world aesthetics and themes with new media and technology – resulting in my Vanitas series. It may not be considered purist, but it brings about unusual combinations, novel insights and discoveries. It has allowed me to be more playful and experimental in my artwork

PM: The skull has become such a common image in our society, that either everything has become a memento mori, or perhaps through overexposure, it has lost its power to bring our thoughts to our own mortality.  Your work makes use of the human skull, but in a very subtle way.  This is certainly a departure from the genre tradition.  Could you share your thoughts on the ever-presence of the skull in our culture, and how you chose to use it? 

RS: I chose not to use a single skull in my work, which perhaps has a negative connotation or has been over popularized in our culture. Instead, I strung these carved skull beads into prayer beads, showing the skull in repetition - symbolizing prayer and meditation. I choose to use the skull as a quiet reminder of mortality and not as a logo of death.
PM: Your sensual use of hair in these pieces ties them together, and creates a kind of oceanic depth and surreal texture to the work.  I don’t think I’ll see hair in the same way again, which is something that art at its best, really can do; help us to see things in a new way.  Has your work and thought in this project changed the way you see death?

RS: This is such a compliment, thank you! It is the hair that ties both series together. Piecing different scans together was easiest by matching the hair in different scans … and it is this which connects all of the works. By piecing multiple scans together, I could create the illusion of long flowing hair, a type of hyper-portrait. So these portraits aren’t completely representational, there are still illusions at work in these portraits connected to vanity.
Rachelle Soucy

RS: To answer your question: It has made me view not only death, but vanity differently, and bizarrely how both are so interconnected. It took a personal unarming to show these self-portraits, especially in large format. There is no hiding or concealing in these portraits, they are hyper-realistic, so signs of aging and blemishes are on full display. As a culture, we are obsessed with youthfulness and vanity, which is perhaps a manifestation of fears associated with aging and death. These portraits show impurities as reminder of mortality, but done in a graceful and whimsical manner. Ultimately, this project simultaneously allowed me to address my own aging and grapple with my own vanity. 

PM: And that is a wonderful testament to the power of creative expression.  Through this process, pieces of the overwhelming and unknowable can be addressed and worked through, both for the creator and the viewer.  Thank you so much for sharing your work and your thoughts with us.
For more of Rachelle Soucy's work, please visit her flickr page.
For more posts on the intersection of art and death, visit Art and Death

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dr. Charles: White Silken Ribbons

donatingbody memorial

In January, I posted a piece by physician and blogger, 'Dr. Charles' about attending a patient's funeral. Now, I'm pleased to be able to share more of his work. In this post, 'White Silken Ribbons', the doctor shares his memories, remembrances and gratitude for anatomical gift of a courageous woman. Quite a few people talk about donating their bodies to science, but few have a clear idea of what actually happens when a person donates their body as a cadaver for medical students. I think that it's important for all of us to understand the depth of this gift, and the reverence and gratitude felt by those who spend countless hours of learning, and awesome wonder at the marvel of our physical construction. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I did. Thank you Dr. Charles!

donated body memorial cremation
“And your mother, how is her health?” I asked the cheerful young woman who had come in for a physical examination. She was draped in a blue paper gown under which her naked alabaster skin seemed translucent. Her branching veins coursed like roots close to the surface as they returned indigo blood to the warmth of her core.
She smiled, albeit woefully. “My mother actually died several years ago. She had a brain tumor… glioblastoma multiforme it was called.”
I stopped writing and looked up from the notes I had been scribbling in her chart. “I’m so sorry.”
The young woman nodded her head silently, blinked a few times, and looked purposefully at her chart as it lay on the table before me. Her body language implored me to skip along to the next subject, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t help suspending the moment as the weight of her loss attained its proper gravity in my mind. Again I noticed the cerulean web of veins stretching throughout her skin, and it summoned in my conscience a long forgotten specter.
donated body memorial
She was lying beneath the blue canvas bag, zipped and sealed in preservative juices. On a cold metal slab among sixty other lifeless bodies she rested. There was no smell of death in the fluorescent-lit room; rather it was ripe with never-living formalin.

Each tick of the zipper was an audible point of reference from which there was no going back. The tuition had been paid, the commitments to medical school sealed, and before my eyes was appearing the first surreal crucible of physician training. There were a few gasps around the other tables. One student stepped out for fresh air, but for the most part a quiet determination cemented most of us to the trembling floor beneath our old sneakers.
My particular cadaver had been a portly woman in her lifetime. Her skin was a cold ivory. It stretched across her muscle and fat like the skin of any other animal with meat. I could see spider veins in her neck and belly. My partners and I took fearful turns with the scalpel that first day, neither knowing the depth of human flesh, nor intuitively able to accept that we couldn’t hurt her.
Days passed. The intensity of our respectful decorum gave way to the occasional lighthearted moment as we gained comfort being in a room full of dead people. Their supreme posthumous gifts to us as students opened worlds of splendid inner intricacy, magical design, and humbling fragility. Lobulated mammary fat gave way to glistening red pectoralis muscle. Palmaris longus tendons ran like white silken ribbons through forearms, fanning out after wrists to join seamlessly with the fascia of hands. Hearts nestled safely on beds of diaphragm between pillows of lung, resting obliquely at the final terminus of 60,000 miles of well-traveled blood vessels. Serpentine loops of bowel and intestine were like ruffles on collars, concealing hidden gullies and gutters behind which survived livers, pancreases, and spleens.
donating body cremation memorial
In the midst of all this revolting beauty I couldn’t help but search for what had killed her.
That moment of wicked discovery came while gently lifting off the top of her skull and revealing the adherent growth from her brain that stuck like rotten candy to the bone. Here lay the seat of her humanity, her transient brilliance marred by an invading glioblastoma multiforme as purplish and ugly as medieval battlefields. It had ended her.
When our dissection was done her remains were cremated, along with the others, but not before we each gave our own goodbye. Some wrote poetry, some spoke aloud, some reached out in prayer. It was a reverence for another being unlike any I’ll ever feel again. I wondered what she had envisioned in her final days, whether she knew four anonymous medical students would spend the better part of six months traveling along the roads of her preserved universe, with studied anatomy books serving as our poor guides to the back alleys and sudden turns of her necropolis. Did she wonder when we would discover her terrible secret, her unstoppable murderer? Did she know it would make me feel a kind of sadness stirred from the disparate emotions of sorrow, exultation, and wonder?
Did she hope, correctly, that each time I palpated a liver, delivered a child, interpreted an EKG, peered into an eye, injected a joint, reviewed an MRI, or tapped a spinal canal that I was unwittingly polishing my vision through a lens first ground in her anatomy? And as I shook off my moment’s delayed reflection, in a small family practice, during a routine physical examination all those years later, I still wondered at what kind of woman she must have been, and recoiled from hearing an echo of the horrific tumor that inspired her final offering – a body for our cold slab of an altar.
“I’m sorry to hear that your mother died of a brain tumor,” I said. My patient nodded once more, and then it was time for me to move on.

For more of Dr. Charles' moving and thought provoking work, please visit his blog, The Examining Room of Dr. Charles
Illustrations for this post, Copyright 2010, Patrick McNally

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's Complicated


Life can be messy, and death can strike when our relationships are in flux.  Many families have to deal with unresolved relationship issues on top of the grief they are feeling.  How we feel about a person's right to make decisions, or even be present at funeral services often depends on which party we are closest to, and not necessarily what might be legal or fair for everyone.  In addition, the complicated and volatile feelings of grief and loss can further polarize and dramatize  the situation.
When someone we love dies, we can react by becoming very possessive.  In our loss, we grasp on to our memories, even complicated ones, and feel that we own all the grief.  Sometimes we get to the point where we resent the grief of those those we see as competitors.  Though the situation demands generosity and understanding, we have a very difficult time giving up more because we've already lost so much.
Most often, the situation is something like this:
A couple has split up, but the deceased has not married their current companion.  Therefore, the adult children and/or the former spouse hold the cards.  The current companion of the deceased feels that they should have the right to make decisions, but legally they have no rights.  Their presence would make the legal spouse and children very uncomfortable, but they have a need to grieve and participate as well.
A couple is divorced, and the deceased has remarried.  In this case, the new spouse holds the power and the children and former spouse of the deceased may be denied their opportunity to grieve and participate. 
It's easy to see how many of us could end up on either side of this situation, depending on just when death strikes.  I advise families in this situation to be as generous as they can be to those who have no decision making power, because the shoe could easily be on the other foot. 
As an undertaker, I am bound to follow the wishes of my client.  Most often this is the legal next of kin, or if there is more than one at the same level of kinship, the person who has engaged my services and has agreed to pay for them.   I am also bound to obey the law, which means that at a public funeral, I can request that people stay away in respect for the family, but I cannot keep them from attending.  In any case, it is a heart wrenching task to even ask a grieving person to leave a funeral.  I have seen too many partners without the title of 'widow', or other 'left-out' relatives come up to the grave to weep after the 'real' family has left, and I know that many relatives and loved ones have had to deal with their grief privately when services have not included them.
Japanese  Noh mask of a grieving woman
When I was a child, my parents separated for a couple of years and then reunited.  Soon afterward, my father died.  I distinctly remember that at his memorial service, there was a woman that no one seemed to know, who sat in the back of the funeral parlor.  She may have just been a former student of his, but if she had been closer to my father, I'm glad she was at least able to attend.  Certainly, she didn't call attention to herself or do any 'showboating'.  Sometimes, as my mother has often said, discretion is the better part of valor.  Many families are mature enough to call temporary truce, and allow everyone at least a limited role in the funeral.  
In the past, I have posted advice given by Award-winning Vanity Fair writer and hospice volunteer, Judy Bachrach.  Judy's advice can also be seen on her web site,, and on Wednesdays on Obit magazine  .  Here is her advice on a difficult situation.
Dear Judy,
Please don’t use my real name or anything similar to my name. I live in a medium-sized town in the South and everyone here gossips. My problem is the man I’ve been quietly seeing for 2 years died suddenly (thrombosis). It was a big shock, not just to me, but to everyone here.  His funeral is in a few days, and it will be a big event because he was so prominent and he comes from a prominent family too.

He was married and he has 3 kids, all in high school or middle school, and I don’t want to cause a fuss at the funeral. But I do want to go. My best friend says I shouldn’t because the wife might know all about us (gossipy town, as I mentioned) and she might throw a fit. She’s that kind of person.
But I think after a 2-year relationship with a man I loved,  I’ve got as much a right to mourn him as she does. Don’t you?

Dear Theresa,
You of course have a right to mourn a close friend. What you don’t have the right to do — given the nature of the town you live in — is come to his funeral and provoke even more gossip.  I’m guessing you’re probably right: the widow knows all about you and your relationship with her late husband – or at least as much as she cares to know. Your feelings toward her are your own business.  But they are not her kids’ business. Whatever these bereaved teenagers  may or may not suspect about their father, a funeral is not the time or occasion to clarify details.
Stay at home. Since your relationship was private, you’re grieving has to be done exactly the same way.
 Thank you for writing

Participation is powerful: Part 1

Participation is powerful. Often, children lack an opportunity to truly participate in the funeral services for their loved ones. When I was 8 and my brother 9, our father died after a few months of illness. Our mother was insightful enough to arrange for us to participate with readings during the service, and used our artwork for the cover of the memorial folders handed out at the services. At a time when we all feel helpless, children feel this even more. I encourage families with children to find a way for them to participate. Placing pictures in the casket, reading a poem, carrying a flower- there are many age appropriate ways for kids to be an active part of memorial and funeral services. Children feel the same things we do, they just have a harder time communicating them. Their drawings and actions can speak for them and help them along the path of healing.

for more on this topic, visit Participation is Powerful: Part 2, The Journey

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.