Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sharing a Grave: Urban Cemetery Solutions

I don't know how many times I've heard people say that we're running out of room to bury our dead, so we should all really consider cremation. I might take this seriously from a person who never left a major metropolitan area in their lives, but living as I do in the region know on the coasts as 'Flyover', I know with great certainty that there is enough room to bury everyone in the world in Wisconsin, let alone Nevada or Montana. Anyone who has flown across the country can remember spending hours staring out at countless miles of open land.
Of course this is not what most people would want. We need a place close enough to visit regularly. It needs to be a convenient, serene and attractive place that is appropriate to the spirit and personality of our loved one. Certainly, large areas of open land are not easy to find in heavily populated areas, and in real estate for the living and for the dead, value is dependent upon location.
One of the great benefits of cemeteries is the De facto green spaces and parks that they create after the cities grow around them. If the cemetery hadn't been there, it would just be another neighborhood or strip mall. The reality is though, that when the city grows around the cemetery, there is no room to expand, and solutions must be found.

Here are some ways around the problem. They're not for everybody, but interesting nonetheless. First, via YouTube, an idea to make fuller use of London Cemeteries. It's interesting to keep in mind while you watch this clip, that prior to the introduction of cemeteries in the 1800's, and for a thousand years beforehand, in Europe, burial took place in churchyards (and even inside the churches themselves), and the same graves were used countless times.

Next, here are some photos of cemeteries in overcrowded Hong Kong. When land becomes so valuable and desirable to so many people, we end up living in high rise buildings. In Hong Kong, the dead rest in similar concentrations.

cemetery memorial funeral ideas

cemetery memorial funeral ideas

Finally, can you look at this picture of Nevada and tell me that we've got no room left?

cemetery memorial funeral ideas

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Making Cemeteries Relevant, Lees + Associates

The Woodlands Memorial Garden
 There is perhaps no more important place for the arts to have an impact than at cemeteries.  Creative designs based on a deep understanding of the needs of the grieving and the stories of the departed make an enormous difference in the lasting impact and relevance of a cemetery.  In order to be relevant to their families and communities,  cemeteries need to create spaces and memorials designed to appeal to families, not to groundskeepers. In this series, "Making Cemeteries Relevant" I highlight the work of cemetery innovators.  I am very pleased to present in this installment, the moving work of landscape architects, Lees + Associates, and to share a conversation with Erik Lees.

Pat McNally: When most people think of cemetery projects, they often envision something cold and formal.  Something you may need, but wouldn’t necessarily get excited about.  Your work is different.  In the nature of the projects your firm has been involved in, and the responsiveness of your designs to the stories behind the grounds, and the people who will visit there, I find something very compelling.
What is it about your approach to a project that results in the very personal and human quality of the end result?

Erik Lees: Our approach is collaborative. I think that is one of the reasons the cemeteries we design have a unique character and feel. Working closely with cemetery managers, sales and field workers means that we are able to capture the “site intelligence” that our firm alone could never acquire. We also strive for meaningfulness in our work, in fact it is a common refrain around our office. This means not only a direct relationship with the unique physical qualities of the cemetery, but a thorough understanding of the community, demographics and their interment and memorialization preferences and patterns.

The Royal Oak Green Burial Area

PM: Your firm has been involved in many very interesting and prestigious projects.  In our time here, I’d like to specifically discuss four:  The Royal Oak Green Burial Area, The Woodlands Memorial Garden, the Doukhobor Commemorative Site, and the Mountain View Cemetery Masonic Area Redevelopment.  Each of these projects presented unique challenges, to which creative, humane responses were made.
Let’s start with the green burial area at Royal Oak.  Often the idea of a green cemetery is one where a parcel of land is left to natural forces to determine what changes are made to the landscape.  Often the reality, at least in the UK where the green burial movement has had its biggest impact, is an unattractive and chaotic row upon row of memorial plantings.  While the deceased may have wished to have no permanent marker, survivors often feel differently.  The approach at Royal Oak is different, combining a planned layout with green values.  Please tell us about your approach and design parameters for this project. 

The Royal Oak Green Burial Area

EL: We had three primary objectives when Stephen Olson (Royal Oak Burial Park Manager) asked us to work with him on the Green Burial Area: optimize space utilization, maximize habitat value and create a rich, meaningful experience for those that choose green burial. Our approach is that green burial should not consume more land than traditional burial, so we platted the site at a density roughly equivalent to the rest of the cemetery. In this way the yield in terms of the # of graves per acre was optimized and the financial returns for the cemetery were approximately the same as for traditional burial. Each grave is planted with native shrubs and ground covers and certain graves also accommodate a native tree. This approach will see the habitat value of the green burial area meet or exceed that of the adjacent natural west coast forest. It will also create a feeling that is unique to this part of the world – further enhancing the meaning to this space. One of the challenges with green burial is the manner and method of memorialization. At Royal Oak we created a series of 9 communal memorial stones in basalt where the names of those interred will be inscribed. Basalt is native to British Columbia, takes a beautiful inscription and fits very well with the native plantings. This combination of materials creates a sense of place that few other cemeteries enjoy.
The Royal Oak Green Burial Area

PM: I was deeply moved by your work at Woodlands Memorial Garden.  People who are developmentally disabled have historically been so marginalized, that there is a great satisfaction in seeing this kind of memoriaization, albeit long after the deaths of many of the commemorated residents of this facility.  The integration of the old markers is particularly telling and moving.  What challenges and inspirations did you find in this project?

The Woodlands Memorial Garden

EL: There were so many challenges with this project, but great projects are rarely simple!
The headstones from this 2 acre cemetery had been removed over 40 years ago, some of which were just dumped in a ravine, some were used for patio stones and a retaining wall – as sacrilegious as this may seem.  Our task was to repatriate those stones to the cemetery site, but in the absence of accurate records, we were not able to definitively say where each headstone belonged, hence our decision to incorporate them in to a series of walls. The other challenge was that we only found 900 of the 3200 headstones, so we had to devise a system to acknowledge and remember all those that were buried there, not just those whose names were on the headstones we found. As with all our projects we undertook thorough research and during that process found inspiration in the history of the institution and even more so: the stories of those who lived there. 

The Woodlands Memorial Garden

One of the most compelling stories was how many of the children were housed in dormitories with windows too high to see out of. We decided to create a “window too high” and although it is far more literal than we might otherwise choose, it proved to be a very powerful icon in the garden and one around which visitors had their picture taken. 

The Woodlands Memorial Garden

PM: The Doukhobor Commemorative Site is a site that marks a tragic period of separation, rather than the physical resting place of the families it memorializes.  In this site you were able to communicate the story of a community torn apart to those intimately familiar with it, and to those who have never heard of it in a compelling and sensitive manner.  It seems to me that you were also very responsive to the cultural touchstones of the Doukhobor community in this process.  Please give a bit of background on the story, and tell us how this project was envisioned and completed.

EL: I was drawn to this project after spending much of my early adult years in the West Kootenay area of British Columbia. This is where the Doukhobour community settled after a long period of exile and immigration from Russia and forced movement across Canada. A breakaway sect of the Doukhobours, called the Sons of Freedom, undertook varying degrees of civil disobedience in the early 1950’s. In response, the Government of BC chose to house the sons and daughters of the Sons of Freedom in New Denver – a remote mountainous community that in those days was far removed from the communities in which their parents lived. Over a 5 year period hundreds of children were housed and schooled in a facility in New Denver. 

Doukhobor Commemorative Site

Our task as designers was to create commemoration that told the story in a fair and objective manner, but also reflected the heart wrenching and long lasting effects of the event. Given their communal lifestyle and importance of sharing bread, salt and water at community tables, we created a long community table that was “broken.” The seats around the table are smaller at one end and larger at the other. The plan also included large local stones upon which the first person narratives were to be inscribed. Unfortunately, and perhaps tellingly, this part of the design was never implemented. 

Doukhobor Commemorative Site

PM: Mountain View Cemetery one of the most progressive and culturally responsive cemeteries in North America.  In the past, I have interviewed Cemetery Manager Glen Hodges and Artist in Residence, Paula Jardine.  Now I have a new connection to Mountain View in you!  Mountain View is a cemetery that had run out of burial spaces, and as a result had lost it’s source of income and connection to the community of Vancouver.  What has been accomplished there is nothing less than remarkable, and your firm has been an important part of it.  The Masonic Area Redevelopment was the first of the cemetery’s 12 sections to be redeveloped, and in addition to creating more and varied interment options there, your firm created some remarkably attractive and inviting areas for people to spend time.  The beauty and scale of a cemetery section is vitally important because when families feel comfortable and inspired when visiting, they will return again and again.  This attachment to place is a great benefit to the survivor in continuing their relationship with the deceased, for the community, in having a sense of ownership in the cemetery, and for the financial future of the cemetery itself.
What thoughts and concerns went into the creation of this project?

Mountain View Cemetery Masonic Area Redevelopment

EL: You are correct in that Glen Hodges and Paula Jardine have been two of many keystones to the success of the re-development of Mountain View. Our role was to lead a group of design, heritage and financial consultants in creating the re-development plan, in collaboration with Glen. One of our primary concerns was to develop a design that was not just sympathetic to the very historic Masonic Area, but to enhance it in a sensitive, yet modern way. 

Mountain View Cemetery Masonic Area Redevelopment

We approached this through two primary routes. First we were very careful to integrate the design of the columbaria, family vessels and commemorative elements with the proposed new customer service building and celebration hall. We worked closely with Sandra Moore, Architect, on the landscape around the building and she worked closely with us on the improvements in the Masonic Area. The second strategy we used was to choose materials that worked beautifully with the grey granite curbs and headstones in the area. We took a disciplined, deliberate approach to the selection of material types, colours and textures which resulted in an elegant palette of granite, basalt, concrete and andesite. Cast and extruded aluminum further integrated the cemetery re-development with the buildings.

Mountain View Cemetery Masonic Area Redevelopment

We also wanted to be sure the columbaria were specific to Mountain View, and so we designed a “rosette-less” system that is at once secure, convenient for field staff and beautiful. It also allowed us to optimize the number of interment options we were able to accommodate on the very narrow and limited road and pathways in this part of the cemetery. Collaboration with Glen and his team, combined with sensitivity to the site has led to a very meaningful and beautiful place.

Mountain View Cemetery Masonic Area Redevelopment
PM: Thank you for your time, Erik, and thank you for the remarkable projects your firm has created.  These memorials have inspired me and I hope that they will inspire other cemeteries and firms to be more creative and responsive in their work.  I invite my readers to visit Lees + Associates on the web to view more of their projects.

For more of the articles in this series, visit:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Has There Ever Been a More Beautiful Funeral? A Gem from 'Yorkshire Pudding'

Irish Death
Participation in funeral rites is one of the most powerful and healing things we can do and witness when we lose someone we love. Individual participation can take the form of placing a note in the casket, sprinkling ashes on the sea or selecting music for the service. Community participation can take the form of a wake or a public procession. However, as this following excerpt from the 'Yorkshire Pudding' blog shows so eloquently, there is nothing quite like engaging in the hard physical work of digging out a place in the earth and carrying a loved one to their place of rest, or the timeless gift of sharing a word or song with family and friends at the grave. My heartfelt thanks to YP, for allowing me to share the beautiful story of his brother Paul’s burial in County Clare, Ireland.
Irish death memorial

We buried him in an isolated rural cemetery that is known locally as "The Island" - probably because that little hummock of a hill was once surrounded by swampy ground. As is the tradition, only male family members carried the coffin. Feeling his weight on my right shoulder was a wonderful discomfort.
He had known each of the gravediggers. They had prepared a hole some five feet deep, snug against the limestone boundary wall with a huge pile of Clare soil beside it in what has been one of western Ireland's driest years.
Ned Crosby, the priest, who also knew Paul personally, said the customary religious words by the grave. And then everybody applauded my dead brother. By the stunted hawthorn bush where an ancient chapel once stood, musicians played familiar tunes on fiddles, concertinas and pipes with Paul's daughter, Katie, accompanying on her wooden flute.
All was quiet and then an old friend called Michael stood on a rock with his chin raised slightly to the sky and with great passion recited in Irish Gaelic a famous poem called "Pearse's Lament". Roughly translated, it begins:-
Grief on the death, it has blackened my heart:
lt has snatched my love and left me desolate,
Without friend or companion under the roof of my house
But this sorrow in the midst of me, and I keening.
As I walked the mountain in the evening
The birds spoke to me sorrowfully,
The sweet snipe spoke and the voiceful curlew
Relating to me that my darling was dead.
Irish Death
At the end Michael wove in some few Spanish words which connected Ireland's freedom struggle with the battles of Spanish republicans before the second world war - "Viva la quinta brigada! No passaran! Adelante!"
People began to drift away. Some stood amongst the graves exchanging thoughts about Paul. I took a handful of earth from the pile and threw it on top of his coffin. Soon the gravediggers removed the flowers and began their timeless task, quietly filling in the hole where Paul will rest forever - well not really Paul but his human remains - that same wax model I reflected on in "Hands".
It was the best of days and the worst of days. Has there ever been a more beautiful funeral? I doubt it. I was filled with pride for my lost brother who was so loved by the people of Clare - the old and the young, rich and poor, intellectual and moronic, pub landlords and priests. Although he was only sixty two, he lived his life to the full with such goodness in his soul. By far, I am not the only one who will never forget him.
Irish death

All photos and text used by permission. For more wonderful Yorkshire Pudding, visit the blog at

Monday, November 11, 2013

The End

Many of us compare our lives to the movies. We would like to have the meaning, the excitement, a clear story line, and an ending that, if not glowingly happy, at least is satisfying in resolving all of life's loose ends. As a funeral director, I work with families to make the ending of a life to be more than an abrupt stop. Funeral and memorials services, if done with thought and care, can remind us of why we have watched and enjoyed the show of this life for this long. Hopefully, after a good funeral we can go away with a bit of the glow and feeling resolution that we leave the cinema with.
Artist Dill Pixels has photographed a series of end frames from many movies. The complete set can be seen on his flickr page . I would highly recommend paging through his extensive collection. You may be surprised by the warm feeling that comes over you

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Art and Death intersect in Ghana

February 2009

Melting theme caskets commissioned by Olaf Breuning

Believe it or not, the three sculptures above are functional caskets. Artist Olaf Breuning commissioned this set of three caskets from Ghanaian artisans in 2004.  The idea for these caskets, in the shapes of a snowman, an ice cream bar, and a chocolate bar,  didn't just come from the artist himself, though he designed them and oversaw their construction.  The tradition of fanciful and fantastic caskets has been growing in Ghana for some 50 years. 

Journalist Nicky Barranger explains the phenomenon of these fantastic caskets in this excerpt from an article on BBC:

"Isaac Adjetey Sowah is the manager of the family business his grandfather started.  And at only 22 he has seen it all and he has made it all.  Coffins crafted as hammers, fish, cars, mobile phones, hens, roosters, leopards, lions, canoes, cocoa beans and several elephants.  It seems there is nothing Isaac's company would not consider.  Mercedes and Cadillacs are very popular he tells me.  'Dignity and status'

But if the designs are fanciful, the business of death is taken very seriously indeed.  And the final journey on this earth has to be marked with as much dignity and status as can be mustered.  Isaac and his team of carpenters work with many different types of wood in the open-air workshop.  One employee is crafting a cocoa bean, another is chiseling the fine details of a complicated pineapple design.  Many of their clients want to bury loved ones in something that reflects their trade.  Even if that means being buried in a Coca-Cola bottle....

Here we see Breuning's snowman in its early stages

...Perhaps surprisingly, this is a new tradition. It has only been around for about 50 years.

The story goes that in the first half of last century one Ata Owoo was well-known for making magnificent chairs to transport the village chief on poles or the shoulders of minions.  When Owoo had finished one particularly elaborate creation, an eagle, a neighbouring chief wanted one too, this time in the shape of a cocoa pod. A major crop in Ghana.  However, the chief next door died before the bean was finished and so it became his coffin.  Then in 1951, the grandmother of one of Owoo's apprentices died.  She had never been in an aeroplane, so he built her one for her funeral.  And a tradition was born."
for the full article and pictures of many traditional designs, visit

Here, the lid of Breuning's ice cream bar casket is constructed

The cover of Thierry Seretan's book on Ghanaian caskets shows a procession with a more traditional Ghanaian casket in the shape of a lion

The Ghanaian caskets have been the subject of many articles, museum exhibitions, and a book by Thierry Secretan. Mr. Breuning and Ghanaian locals haven't been the only ones to order caskets from these craftsman.  As the Fair Trade E Shop Africa site notes, custom caskets have been commissioned by private individuals, an British automobile magazine, and museums around the world.  
In funeral service these days, we hear a lot of buzz about personalized services and products. Certainly these caskets go a step or two beyond a hobby themed corner on a standard casket.  We'll have to wait and see just how many of these caskets end up in the ground, and how many end up in art galleries.  More important, perhaps, is understanding the statements artists are making with these caskets.  They are exploring changes in how we as individuals approach and control the context, trappings and meanings of our own deaths.  This exploration can take frivolous or more earnest paths.   Nevertheless, the process of examining our concepts of death, and having a hand in the rituals that follow it can help to make not only our deaths, but our lives more meaningful. Recently, in conjunction with the Ik R.I.P. exhibition, which can be visited through April 12, 2009, Amsterdam arts organization Mediamatic ordered a custom-crafted casket for graphic designer Anuschka Linse in the shape of a teddy bear.  Ms. Linse's design may or may not be what you would like to be buried in, but it challenges us all to rethink our relationship with our own deaths. 

 Ms. Linse's original design

Here is an excerpt from Mediamatic about the IK R.I.P. Show: 
Mediamatic encourages you to think about death. It may not be a happy topic, but it is important nonetheless. Besides arranging your funeral, obtaining a life insurance and drafting your will it can be useful to think about what you leave behind in the online world. You may have a profile on and other networks, perhaps you write a blog or chat with people who live on the other side of the world. What happens to all those affairs if you suddenly pass away?
The exhibition focuses on the relation between death, identity and self-expression. We will display coffins from Ghana, designed by the Ga tribe. These coffins take on the shape of a fish, football or pineapple, depending on the job, hobby or favorite food of the dead person! Mediamatic also ordered a coffin that will be specially designed for us.

The Casket in the early stages of construction

Here is Ms. Linse modeling her casket

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Grace Before Dying: Interview with Photographer Lori Waselchuk

The cover of Ms. Waselchuck's upcoming book, Grace Before Dying

A life sentence in Louisiana means life. More than 85% of the 5,100 inmates imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are expected to die there. Until the hospice program was created in 1998, prisoners died mostly alone in the prison hospital. Their bodies were buried in shoddy boxes in numbered graves at the prison cemetery. But the nationally recognized program, run by one staff nurse and a team of inmate volunteers, has changed that. 
Now, when a terminally ill inmate is too sick to live among the general prison population, he is transferred to the hospice ward. Here, inmate volunteers work closely with hospital and security staff to care for the patient. The volunteers, most of whom are serving life sentences themselves, try to keep him as comfortable as possible. Then, during the last days of the patient's life, the hospice staff begins a 24-hour vigil. The volunteers go to great lengths to ensure that their fellow inmate does not die alone.
 The hospice volunteers' efforts to create a tone of reverence for the dying and the dead have touched the entire prison population. Prison officials say that the program has helped to transform one of the most violent prisons in the South into one of the least violent maximum-security institutions in the United States. The hospice volunteers must go through a difficult process to bury their own regrets and fears, and unearth their capacity to love. Grace Before Dying looks at how, through hospice, inmates assert and affirm their humanity in an environment designed to isolate and punish. Lori Waselchuk is a documentary photographer whose photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide including Newsweek, LIFE, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. She has produced photographs for several international aid organizations including CARE, the UN World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières, and The Vaccine Fund. -Grace Before Dying

Patrick McNally:  Ms. Waselchuk, thank you so much for sharing your moving work and your thoughts on The Daily Undertaker.  Your photos tell the story of the transformative effect that the hospice program at Angola Prison has had on dying prisoners and those involved in caring for them.  It’s difficult for me to think of a situation that on its face is more depressing, or one that is ultimately more uplifting, inspiring and life affirming.  Certainly we all have much to learn from this story about humanity and what we stand to gain by serving others.  What parts of this story were you most inspired and compelled to share with your photographs?

Lori Waselchuk: I am inspired by the journey these men have made. Most of the incarcerated hospice volunteers have lived very painful lives and have inflicted great pain on others. Their story shows me that we need not define ourselves by our worst acts. Their work in hospice isn’t about fixing the past, it is about the recognition that they can help others, even in an environment constructed to isolate and punish. I continue to be inspired by their ability to wrestle with their regrets as well as their fears in order to show great love and compassion for others.

PM: What kinds of challenges did you face in gaining access and building the trust necessary to create this project?   

LW: I was initially given access because I was commissioned to do a story about the hospice for Imagine Louisiana, a small magazine dedicated to covering philanthropy in Louisiana. Once published, I knew I wanted more time to tell a deeper story about the program. I asked for permission to continue photographing the hospice program.

The challenge was access, not trust. Access to work as a photographer in a prison depends on cooperation from security personnel and leadership. It also requires extra resources and time from those departments, so I am very grateful for each visit that the prison staff organized for me.

Trust is the most essential tool a journalist or documentary photographer can have. I am also grateful for the openness and generosity shown me from the volunteers and prison staff.

PM: We all die.  This can be something that unites us and offers us an opportunity to show compassion, providing an act of love that cannot be returned by the recipient, but that hopefully can be ‘paid forward’ so that we in turn are shown compassion in our last hours.  If involvement in this kind of care provides the prisoners with an opportunity to renew or regain a part of their humanity, can it also be said that those of us on the ‘outside’ for whom the care of the dead has been delegated to medical and quasi medical professionals, that for us there has been a loss of a part of our humanity?

LW:  In watching the Angola prison hospice volunteers sit with and care for their patients, I learned that their compassion not only benefits the patients, but also resonates throughout the prison. The Angola prison hospice volunteers work four-hour shifts to stay with a patient. I spent a lot of time just sitting with the dedicated volunteers. I became conscious of the beauty of simply sitting with another person, whether in conversation or silence. I felt awakened by that simple act – how it demonstrates love; and how that love comforts not just the dying man and his family, but the prison community at large. It was enormously powerful to witness. We truly need each other. Death connects all of us. And sometimes it can help us recognize our shared humanity.

PM: I imagine that the loss of ‘humanity’ that is experienced by prisoners has as much to do with the humiliations and degradations that are part of their punishment, and a mechanism to survive in a hostile and dangerous environment as it has to do with the antisocial nature of their crimes.  While I don’t propose that violent criminals should be allowed to roam free, not compelled to face the consequences of their actions, how can anyone benefit from the dehumanization of convicts? 

LW: I am not sure I can answer that question for anyone else but myself because we (as in mankind) are capable of wretched inhumanity towards others. I assume that people who are cruel towards others do so thinking there is some kind of benefit for themselves.

I don’t believe it is possible to benefit from the inhumane treatment of others, prisoners or otherwise. When I use the word ‘benefit’ I guess I mean a spiritual and/or communal benefit.

PM: As an artist who deals with issues of death and dying, what are your thoughts on the contribution that arts and ritual can make to the dying and to those of us left behind?

LW: I think the role of the artist is to observe, respond and communicate. We are storytellers and interpreters and can add critical feedback in social conversations. But most art seems  more difficult to access than advertising or religion. Artists will, nevertheless, always create. I will continue to look towards art to challenge my thinking and enrich my life. 
Travelling Exhibition with Quilts

For more information about Grace Before Dying, and Photographer, Lori Waselchuck, please visit

To Purchase Ms. Waselchuck's forhtcoming book, please visit

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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.


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