Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Fitting Tribute

cemetery memorial ritual
What makes a funeral or memorial service meaningful? What makes a tribute fitting and moving? This is an issue that has been of great concern to caring funeral directors for many years now, as we strive to meet the changing needs of families. Many different products have come along from candles to casket corners to photo slideshows and dove releases, all offering an opportunity to personalize the funeral experience. These products can be meaningful for some families, but they have a tendency of becoming just one more cookie cutter.

cemetery memorial ritual

In my professional opinion, creating a meaningful and fitting tribute involves a lot of listening, responding creatively, and enlisting the participation of family and friends. A loving and meaningful expression by the survivors is facilitated, not just sold, and the value of the funeral director is his or her ability to offer experience and ideas, not just products.

cemetery memorial ritual
A wonderful example of a meaningful tribute comes to us from Shiloh, Ohio, where friends got together in bitter cold temperatures to dig by hand, the grave of retired sexton Pete Ferrell. Mr. Ferrell was a friendly giving man who dug hundreds and hundreds of graves by hand over his 50 year career. Even after the use of modern excavating equipment became common, he insisted on digging by hand because he thought it was a better method.

The tribute is appropriate to Mr. Farrell's life, work and personality. The participation of his friends makes it an act of love, and a healing and uplifting experience for them. How often do you see people digging a grave by hand in frigid temperatures with big smiles on their faces? These people will never forget their experience. They have acknowledged the reality of the situation, and fully embraced an active role in respectfully laying their friend to rest. Mr. Ferrell would surely be proud, and the survivors have worked through their grief in a positive way. That's what makes a fitting tribute.

To read the wonderful article by Dave Polcyn and for more photos, visit
For more stories about meaningful services, visit:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Life after Death: Kenneth O'Halloran

JANUARY 13, 2011

Irish photographer Kenneth O'Halloran's series "Life after Death" focuses on the artist's father, an aging undertaker.  Like many Irish undertakers, and the undertakers of Americas past, the elder O'Halloran's livelihood was  supplemented by plying another trade.  In his case it was a drapery shop.  In the case of my great grandfather, a second generation Irish American in late 19th Century Iowa, it was a hardware store.

O'Halloran's portrayal of death within the context of ordinary life, both touching and mundane, provides us with a perspective that has been lost in modern America.  These fascinating photos are made even more moving by the undeniable undercurrent of the Undertaker O'Halloran's advancing age and inevitable passing. 

My thanks to Kenneth for his kind permission in allowing me to share these images, and his words with my readers, all of which is his copyrighted property.  Enjoy, and please visit the Kenneth O'Halloran web site for more of this compelling work.  

"Though now a more secular society, Ireland still has remnants and relics of the old religious faith, even if many of its devoted followers are typically advanced in age - part of what might be termed a dying generation. The Catholic Church had been one of the country's mainstays. Falling Mass attendances, declining priest numbers and various damaging scandals have shaken the institution and weakened its grip. Despite this my father is a daily Mass-goer; his faith doesn't appear to have flinched."

"The house where I grew up in the west of Ireland is where my father now resides with his wife and their daughter Susan; all the rest of the family have flown the nest, some starting families of their own, one in New York where she has become part of the Irish Diaspora. The religious paraphernalia located throughout this house gives God a central presence and status not uncommon in Ireland at the time. We prayed as a family, like when the Angelus bells struck at noon and six in the evening. We knelt at night to say the Holy Rosary. Many of our rites of passage as children were rooted in Catholicism - our first communion, our confirmation, and so on."

"My father, who is 80, would not have seen anything remarkable in this. He was merely carrying on the tradition of his own father's generation. Having spent half his life working, he recently retired, closing his drapery store. His undertaker's business continues. For me and others in the family it meant that death was never far away or overtly mysterious. We became accustomed to the dead of our parish being prepared for the final ceremonies before burial. We would often come home from school to see who had died that day."

"If we truly wanted to make our father proud, we would have mastered the game he followed all his life: hurling. This ancient Irish sport, requiring great dexterity, courage and speed, can still weave a spell on him. Born in a rural community he has seen his own life change and now that of his children too. In recent years he lost a brother to whom he was close. Now I see him deriving great joy from his grandchildren. In their company he seems tranquil. At peace. His work done."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Promession: A Return to the Living Soil


Susanne Wiight-Mäsak of Promessa AB Promessa Organic AB of Sweden is developing a new method of disposition for the dead called 'promession'. Promession is described as an environmentally friendly form of burial, and could in fact be the greenest of green disposition options. In addition to its green credentials, promession is offered as a more ethical option than cremation or burial. Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, biologist and head of operations at Promessa Organic AB recently gave a very interesting and inspiring presentation at the 90th annual convention of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) and agreed to discuss promession with me for this post.
The process of promession involves a promator, freezing human remains in liquid nitrogen (a byproduct of the compressed oxygen produced already for medical purposes.) Once frozen, the casket and remains are agitated with a shaking motion from a table below them, causing them to shatter into tiny pieces. These pieces are then freeze dried to remove all the moisture from them. Metals are then separated, and after being laid in a biodegradable coffin can be buried, returning all the nutritious components to the soil.
I asked Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak how she came to develop this process. She is both a biologist, and an engineer, and has been keenly interested in gardening and science since youth. A special interest has been composting, and she is careful to point out the difference between decomposition and rotting. According to Ms.Wiigh-Mäsak, proper composting involves decomposition, which requires the same conditions that sustain life: air, proper moisture and proper temperature. These conditions allow for a substance to break down to the nutrient level that can replenish the earth's living soil, and are necessary for enzymes and microorganisms to do their work as well. The alternative to decomposition, says Wiigh-Mäsak, is rotting. Rotting occurs when the remains are too large for the air and soil to act upon their surface readily enough to break down in a positive manner. In the case of rot, the body's substances return to the earth, but not in a form that is enriching and replenishing to the living soil.
Because of her deep interest in composting, Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak was struck by the idea that kitchen scraps are treated with more reverence than the bodies of our loved ones. The nutrients of an apple core, that have been taken from the earth, can be returned to it through proper composting techniques, but the six and a half billion human bodies that have drawn life from the living soil are destined to burn off, rot away or lock away their nutrients, rather than return them in a positive way to the earth.
1. The corpse is frozen down to -18 °C.

2. The coffin with the deceased is lowered into liquid nitrogen. The body becomes very firm and brittle.
3. The coffin and the body are exposed to a light vibration, disintegrating into dust.
4. Mercury and other metals are separated using an induced magnetic field.

5. 25 - 30 kg of the powder now remains. This is put into a coffin made from maize starch or potato starch.

6. The starch coffin is buried shallowly and will turn into compost in 6 - 12 months' time. A tree can be planted on the grave. It will then absorb the nutrients given off.

Combining her interests in biology and engineering Ms.Wiigh-Mäsak developed the promession concept. She argues that this process in essential for the health of the living soil as well as an appealing and respectful disposition of the dead. According to Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak, even direct burial in a shroud is not as positive for the earth because the mass of the body, and the amount of moisture left in it prevents proper decomposition and results in rotting. What is truly different about promession is the process whereby the body is broken down to a point where the proper composting and a positive return to the living soil is accomplished.
Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak describes the actual physical process of promession to be something that is appealing to witness, a process that even a small child could watch and not be disturbed or frightened.

Susanne Wiight-Mäsak of Promessa AB
So, how far away are we from having promession as an option to choose from? Promessa is currently preparing for operations in South Korea, where laws have been passed to allow for this form of disposition, and promession has been embraced by the Christian Church there. Sweden is also getting closer to allowing promession as an option. Leaders of many religious denominations have determined that promession is consistent with the tenets of their faith. As far as the future of promession in North America, laws must be passed to allow for promession, and Promessa is currently in the process of selecting licensees and promession providers.

For more information on Promessa AB and promession visit the web site at http://promessa.se/index_en.asp

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ghost Bikes


A cousin to the Roadside Memorial is the Ghost Bike, or Ghostcycle. Ghost Bikes are memorials to those killed while riding their bicycles, and are placed at the scene of the accident. Ghost Bikes began is St. Louis and have spread as both memorial and protest, all over the world.
In June 2005, Kevin Caplicki was biking down Fifth Avenue in Park Slope when he came upon the body of cyclist Elizabeth Padilla, who, minutes before, had been killed by a delivery truck. Caplicki belonged to the street-art collective Visual Resistance, and at its next meeting, they decided to construct a memorial for Padilla. The group took a spare bike, painted it white, and chained it to a sign post near the accident. The installation no longer looked like a bicycle as much as the negative space where one should have been, as if it had been cut out of a photograph by an X-Acto knife. It became New York’s first Ghost Bike.
The idea can be traced to Patrick Van Der Tuin, a St. Louis bike mechanic who in 2003 installed a Ghost Bike at the site of an accident he witnessed in the neighborhood of Holly Hills. (The victim ultimately survived and befriended him.) After Van Der Tuin and his friends created fifteen more Ghost Bikes in the St. Louis area, the project was featured in Dirt Rag, a national cycling magazine. He was inundated with e-mails. “Some people were adamant that this was a bad idea,” Van Der Tuin says. “They thought that we were discouraging people from cycling.” But others were moved by the spectral sight of bicycles repurposed as tombstones. Ghost Bikes started to appear in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh and have since spread to 35 cities around the world. “I had no idea it was going to be a viral thing,” says Van Der Tuin. -from New York Magazinehttp://nymag.com/news/features/47819/

Eric Ng Memorial Bike Ride This Saturday
by Aaron Naparstek on December 5, 2006
There will be a memorial bike ride for Eric Ng, the cyclist killed by a drunk driver on the Hudson River Greenway last week. Details below. Also, here is a note from the Visual Resistance blog. VR are the guys who make the "ghost bikes:"
I've been making ghost bikes for strangers for a year and a half. Eric's is not the first that made me cry, but it's the first that made me hurt. A big group of Eric's friends spent the weekend mourning, talking, and, finally, making. We made a ghost bike for him on Saturday and sunflowers on Sunday. Eric's memorial plaque reads "Love & Rage” no resting in peace for this rock star.
We are planning for a memorial ride this Saturday, December 9th, meeting at 1pm in Washington Square Park and then proceeding to the site of Eric's death. Non-bikers can head straight to the site, on the West Side bike path near Clarkson St. Please bring flowers (especially sunflowers), sidewalk chalk, paint, whatever you want. There will be a memorial service after the ride with music and a slideshow, and a party later that night.

Kelly Wallace, 1983-2007
Kelly Wallace was killed on May 6, after her bike was hit by a car in a crosswalk at the intersection of Cambridge Street and Harvard Avenue, in Allston. Near that spot, a stark white “ghost bike” stands in her memory, adorned with handwritten notes and a profusion of blooming flowers.http://thephoenix.com/Boston/News/40414-Kelly-Wallace-1983-2007/?rel=inf

Here is an explanatory excerpt from the Ghost Bike site:
Ghost Bikes are small and somber memorials for bicyclists who are killed or hit on the street. A bicycle is painted all white and locked to a street sign near the crash site, accompanied by a small plaque. They serve as reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of cyclists' right to safe travel.

The first ghost bikes were created in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003, and they have since appeared in nearly 75 cities throughout the world. For those who create and install the memorials, the death of a fellow bicyclist hits home. We all travel the same unsafe streets and face the same risks; it could just as easily be any one of us. Each time we say we hope to never have to do it again -- but we remain committed to making these memorials as long as they are needed.http://www.ghostbikes.org/

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Columbarium Galleries and Cemetery Sculpture Gardens: Making Cemeteries Relevant. Part 4


cemetery memorial art
Is a cemetery any place for a gallery or a sculpture garden? As the Forest Hill Cemetery Historical Trust notes on their website, Cemeteries predate public museums in the United States. This makes Forest Hill, established in Boston in 1848, one of the first places the public could view art.
Cemeteries have long been de facto museums as well as green spaces and islands of calm inside busy cities. While in the past, the art on view at cemeteries has been mostly limited to memorials, gardens and architectural works, today cemeteries are also becoming the permanent and temporary homes of fine art exhibitions.
Art and cemeteries are a good combination because art has the power to help us see the world in new ways. After interacting with art, we have a new perspective on the familiar sights and situations in our life. This quality of art makes it very appropriate in this setting, where we come to contemplate some of our most challenging issues. I hope that the work shown in this post will help you to find new perspectives and convince you of the importance of incorporating art in these settings. Art brings new interest to these spaces and makes our experience there richer.
cemetery memorial art
Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park in Seattle is one of the most forward thinking and community minded Cemetery and Funeral organizations in North America. In addition to historical projects and tours, Washelli hosts at least six artists per year for solo shows in their Columbarium. Currently, the photography of Winston Rockwell is on view through July 1, 2010. Rockwell has been an avid environmental photographer for three decades and has had his work published in National Geographic Magazine.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with Heather Mitchell, from the Evergreen Washelli Organization. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Pat McNally: What do you think the inclusion of art adds to the experience of families visiting the columbarium?
Heather Mitchell: We believe that featuring new artwork in the Columbarium adds a level of comfort for visitors, be they visiting a loved one or coming to appreciate the artist’s work. By presenting these beautifying pieces, we can promote peaceful reflection and a refreshing look at the space. We are eagerly anticipating the artwork of July’s artist Amy Pruzan, who works in a medium inspired by the concept of memory and nostalgia. Her works are mixed media: hand-blown glass pieces containing photographs, and are very complementary to the space. Her works can be shown here: http://blownawayglass.net/
cemetery memorial art
Seascape, by Amy Pruzan
What has been the response to Art in the Columbarium been like?
We have been very lucky to have received a great response to the call for submissions, and the artists we are showing are a great fit for the Columbarium. The response has been positive, and we look forward to building a rapport with local artists through the gallery. As this is only the second year the Art in the Columbarium gallery has been instated, we plan on really reaching out to the community in the future and hope for growth for the concept.
memorial art cemetery
Ecola Vista, photo by Winston Rockwell

Creating a cemetery that is full of life as well as peacefulness can really help families feel comfortable visiting. This in turn allows them to continue their relationships with their loved ones.
Can art, and the increased traffic it brings, play a valuable role in creating this environment?
We believe that those who come to the columbarium to visit loved ones in our care will become exposed to new artworks, so they have something to look forward to in the monthly featured solo artists, and that those who are coming to view the art are exposed to an eloquent, possibly new-to-them, and dignified manner of memorialization. The space is definitely softened by having art on the wall, as it lends a new dimension to the Columbarium setting. It is an interesting hybrid of traditional uses for the space and connecting with local, active artists.
Have you found any down sides to these exhibits?
Due to the generous response to the call, we were only able to accommodate six artists this year, as a bi-monthly queue of solo exhibits. We hope to someday expand this into a larger rotation exhibit.

For additional information, contact Heather Mitchell or Brenda Spicer at Evergreen WashelliMemorial Park, 206.362.5200

Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Photo of Cinespia Wizard of Oz Screening by Aaron Magnani
Cinespia hosts classic movie screenings at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Film is of course a very relevant and vital art form to showcase in this venue. This is a very popular yearly festival, and one that helps us to appreciate and commemorate the life work of many of this cemetery's residents. Here is a description of the very popular classic movie screenings held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, from Robby Cress, creator of the Dear Old Hollywood Blog:
This past Saturday, Cinespia kicked off their summertime movie screenings with the classic Hollywood musical, The Wizard of Oz. The screenings which occur on Saturdays (and some Sundays) during the summer, are held outdoors on the lawn of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The cost is $10 and guests are encouraged to bring their own food and drinks.
Thousands show up early each night to picnic on the cemetery grounds and listen to the DJs playing music before the film. Then, once the sun goes down, a classic movie is projected on to the wall of Rudolph Valentino's mausoleum. This is one of my favorite things to do in LA and one of my favorite ways to catch classic movies: outside, with an audience of movie lovers, with some drinks and snacks, on a mausoleum wall that makes for a HUGE screen. http://dearoldhollywood.blogspot.com/2010/05/cinespia-kicks-of-2010-season.html
For more information about Cinespia, you may visit their website or call 323-469-1181
Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston
Forest Hills is one of Americas great historic cemeteries, as well as a leading innovator (In August, I wrote about their beautiful yearly lantern festival.) Long known for its important collection of Victorian Sculpture, the Trustees have created a Sculpture path for contemporary works.
“The Trust works to preserve the historic character of this grand Victorian landscape, so innovative in its day. However, we also recognize that this environment – which is also an active cemetery – is not frozen in time. It continues to evolve in ways that reflect the spirit of contemporary society. Our Victorian sculpture collection was modern in its day, and the Trustees of Forest Hills have launched The Sculpture Path to welcome the work of contemporary artists into this unique setting. The Path leads from the oldest parts of the Cemetery to newer areas where burials still take place.” http://www.foresthillstrust.org/path_intro.html

Here are some highlights of work from a few of the many artists who have exhibited their work at Forest Hill:
memorial artist
Neighbors, by Christopher Frost
Cast Concrete Buildings 2006
Artist Statement: An examination of how the places people dwell-both before and after death-reflect their lives and personalities. Cast concrete replicas of homes previously occupied by some of those interred at the cemetery are arrayed on a rock outcropping within the cemetery. The styles of the homes range from Queen Anne mansion to a modern split level. Each building has the occupation of the owner etched into it.
for more of Mr. Frost’s compelling work, please visit: http://www.christopherfrost.org/a1.html
memorial art cemetery
Nightshirts, by Leslie Wilcox
Painted stainless steel screen, Spruce, 2002
Artist's Statement: To me this is a place full of people. I want to celebrate the generations of extended families and friends that have shared these hallowed grounds for over 150 years. These "figures" are a bit humorous as they hover above the ground, as if in another dimension, almost otherworldly. Moving about in tandem with the wind, their benign nature compels the viewer to render them harmless, a gentle reminder of many communities represented in this special place. I chose these particular trees for their slender, life-size girth and random placement near an extended family plot, where several paths cross. It seems as if this group of figures almost flies above the fray, looking down at us as we look up at them. http://www.foresthillstrust.org/path/wilcox.html

memorial art sculpture
Sky Boats, by Caroline Bagenal
Fiberglas White Pine Grove, 2001-2002
Artist Statement: An outdoor exhibition space offers an opportunity to develop a dialogue between artwork and the environment that I find rewarding and challenging. I chose to create boats for Forest Hills Cemetery because of their actual use in burial rites, such as those of the Egyptians and Vikings, and their presence in myth and folklore as vessels for the soul's journey after death. Boats also have rich associations with other container- coffins, cradles, seedpods, and husks.

Suspended in the trees, moving slightly with the wind, these translucent boats become animated and authoritative. They share our space. Their location near a bridge gives us two vantage points. From below, the changing light shimmers through Fiberglas. From the bridge, we see them at eye level, floating through the air intent on their mysterious journey. http://www.foresthillstrust.org/spirits/bagenal.html

Memorial art museum
Ancestral Memory, by Gabrielle Rossmer
Acrylic resin, gypsum, Fiberglas, cloth 1999

Artist Statement: This piece is a meditation on those we've lost, as experienced in the remnants of our memories. The garment-like form that is the basis of the piece could be a portrait of an individual. But outer layers of cloth obscure all recognizable detail. The figure loses specificity and becomes universal, as personal memory blurs into collective history. The earth-toned color connects the apparition to the ground; the effects of time and weather make it ethereal. It is sequestered in the woods, suspended between heaven and earth.

For the past decade I have been developing multi-media work about my family's history in Germany during the Holocaust. I emigrated with my parents when I was one year old, leaving behind grandparents and other relatives. Trying to come to grips with a loss that knows no generational bounds, I have been deeply concerned with memory and history.

memorial art
Winner Jumalon 'A Part' show
Recently in Antipolo City, The Philippines, the work of artist, Winner Jumalon was featured in a cemetery-like venue. Here is an excerpt from the blog, Snippets from the Manila Art Scene
“Winner took inspiration from the grave markers of non-Christians, like the ones found in Mindanao for instance, that define burial sites with carved likenesses of the dead beneath them. Some eastern religions also pay tribute to the deceased by keeping cherished objects close to them. Winner fabricated each piece as both a portrait and a still life, one on reverse sides of each other. He painted using automotive paint on a resin base. This allows the pieces to stand outdoors. With the help of artist Ruel Caasi, he set up the exhibit to fill the grassy knoll by the gallery’s pool, all portraits facing one side, all the still lifes the opposite”.

What is Mr. Jumalon telling us with this work? The exhibit is not in an actual cemetery, and the portraits on the front of the pieces are of living people, but the show is obviously set up to remind us of a cemetery. The visual of all these faces, individuals, with issues and concerns, and the reverse image, of all the physical objects belonging to these people, testament to their involvement in this world; these images will change the way I see a cemetery. When we look at a cemetery mostly we see the stone monuments. We are aware of what they represent, but we do not see the people. One important gift that art can bring to a cemetery or columbarium, is the reminder of the individuals; not just the people we remember, not just a number, but a sea of our forebears. Each an individual, each with his or her own unique contribution to the world we now inhabit. We accept this in our minds, but sometimes it takes art to help us to acknowledge it in our hearts.

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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