RT If You’re About Someone Dying
Katy Waldman, Slate (November 1, 2013)
A Passionate Defense of Selfies at Funerals
Caitlin Doughty, Jezebel (October 30, 2013)
When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts
Megan Garberoct, The Atlantic (October 30, 2013)
When photography was new, people used it to suggest the endurance of the departed.
Dark tourism: Why Murder Sites and Disaster Zones are Proving Popular
Will Coldwell, The Guardian (October 31, 2013)
Selfies at Serious Places
Jason Feifer, @HeyFeifer
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror
Series 2, Episode 1 Be Right Back (February 2013)
The kids today. They can’t catch a break.
I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.
And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.
The kids in the Selfies were damned left and right. It got a little thick at times.
But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.
My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.
We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.
Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’
Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.
Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.
But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.
Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.
The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.
Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.
What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.
Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:
Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…
Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.
So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.
But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:
The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.
Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:
I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.
Death Salon LA 2013
Los Angeles, CA (October 18 and 19, 2013)
Our good friends at the Order of the Good Death are putting on an enormous Death Fest next week in Los Angeles.
You should check it out if you can. All the information is below.
We’ve thrown in some Death Race 2000 just for fun.
Writers, academics & morticians converge on LA to confront taboos surrounding death
Los Angeles October 18-19, 2013 Death Salon is a gathering of intellectuals, artists and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality, coming together for the first time in
Los Angeles in October. Cultural death practices – from Dia de los Muertos to Tibetan sky burial to the veneration of remains and reliquaries –show a long-standing fascination with (and attempts to understand) the end of life. In our modern age, where death and disease are hidden away or sanitized, discussion of mortality and mourning have become strangely taboo.
Death Salon aims for open dialogue about death and its anthropological, historical, and artistic contributions to culture. In the spirit of informal 18th-century salon gatherings of intellectuals, Death Salon performers and organizers include academic historians, funeral industry professionals, musicians, filmmakers, and widely-published authors coming from a variety of perspectives. Many of the performers are local to the Los Angeles area.
Part conference and part public spectacle, Death Salon LA is Death Salon’s inaugural annual event; future Death Salons are already in the works for the UK (2014) and Cleveland (2015).
Full descriptions of
Death Salon LA’s public events can be found here.
“There are conferences for the funeral industry, conferences for the hospice and palliative care industry, conferences on specific academic topics relating to mortality,” says mortician Caitlin Doughty, Death Salon co-founder and host of the popular Youtube series Ask A Mortician, “But Death Salon is attempting, for the first time, to bring together experts in a wide range of fields to approach the problem of death denial in an interdisciplinary way.”
Death Salon LA’s public events take place at various locations in Los Angeles October 18 & 19.
Piercing the Mystery of Potter’s Field
Francis X. Clines, New York Times (September 11, 2013)
New York City has introduced a searchable database for the impoverished dead who have been buried on Hart Island.
Note: The following post on Hart Island in New York ran in November 2010. The New York Times Editorial Board recently ran the above short piece on a new partial database covering the unclaimed dead buried at Hart Island. — DRD
Artist’s Study of Island Brings the Dead to Life
Adam Geller, Associated Press (October 30, 2010)
Hart Island Project
This is a really compelling article about a New York burial ground for unclaimed bodies. Adam Geller, from the Associated Press, wrote a lengthy piece about both Hart Island (the cemetery) and the woman who turned Hart Island into a fascinating artistic project. That artist, Melinda Hunt, features prominently in this tale. Here is the lead:
When the dead are delivered, four mornings a week, the ferry Michael Cosgrove is waiting.
A refrigerated truck from the city morgue follows Fordham Street to its stump, between a used boat dealership and a lot thick with weeds, and a high chain-link fence warning “Prison-Keep Off.” For New Yorkers who die without the money, family or identity required to get a proper funeral, the dock just beyond is the boarding point for a seven-minute journey to oblivion.
The destination is Hart Island, 101 acres of wind-swept sand and trees crooked in the waters a half-mile off the Bronx, like a beckoning finger.
If the more than 800,000 people laid to rest on the island over the last 141 years were alive, it would be the state’s second largest city. Dead and buried, they populate what is almost certainly the country’s largest public cemetery. But there are no headstones, no eulogies and no regular visiting hours.
In fact, most New Yorkers have never heard of Hart Island. In a city of 8.5 million lives, such a place may be a necessity. But it is one long deemed off-limits, home to stories better left untold.
At least that was the case until Melinda Hunt discovered it.
“This guy was a heroin addict and his girlfriend went looking for him … this is a Vietnam veteran who developed schizophrenia and he committed suicide,” Hunt says, flipping through sketches of Hart Island dead. “These people sort of speak to me.”
Hunt is an artist, but the portrait of Hart Island she has created over the past 19 years blurs the boundaries of that job description. The divorced mother of two college-age daughters has turned herself into Hart Island’s detective and de facto archivist, its lead witness and chief scribe.
Add it all up and it might not fit some people’s definition of art. But in this last refuge of the forgotten, Hunt says her Yale degree in sculpture and deftness with a charcoal pencil are only the starting point.
The end, as she sees it, is to unearth lost souls.
The article goes on from there and is a really good read. You will find similar kinds of articles in the Death + The Economy section of Death Ref. There is no shortage of unclaimed dead bodies these days.
Here, too, is a short section from a documentary entitled Hart Island: An American Cemetery.
On The Death and Burial of Cock Robin
Guest Post by John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society, Bath University (August 23, 2013)
Death Ref’s good friend Joanna Ebenstein, who runs the Morbid Anatomy blog and benevolent empire in Brooklyn, NY, asked me if I would write a guest blog post for her new book on the 19th century British taxidermist Walter Potter. If you don’t know Walter Potter’s work, but like taxidermy, then you really must look him up. Joanna and Walter Potter expert Pat Morris have put together a new book called Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy.
Walter Potter is known (and a little infamous, in a late-Victorian kind of way) for his anthropomorphic taxidermy in which dead kittens (for example) have a tea party. There is significantly more to say about all of Potter’s taxidermy work, but I focussed on a personal favourite The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.
Here are those thoughts:
All animal life eventually dies. This much we know. At a certain point in time, the organic structures supporting a living organism break down and ultimately cause death. How we humans then represent that organic death and decide what should be done with our dead bodies is significantly less concrete. Indeed, the human handling of dead human bodies remains one of Homo sapiens greatest inventions. But for the human inventions of burial, cremation, tissue digestion, freeze drying, etc., the dead body would remain where it died, decomposing for all to see. Such unsightliness after dying has become largely controlled in the modern West, and a dignified death can often mean a deceased person’s body was removed from public view before it looked too dead.
Walter Potter’s The Death and Burial of Cock Robin brilliantly illustrates this postmortem human inventiveness. I don’t think that Potter intended the Cock Robin taxidermy display as a critique of human funereal customs given his enthusiastic commitment to anthropomorphizing dead animals. Rather, by using an entirely dead menagerie to illustrate the humanly invented funeral, Potter provokes an always-important question: Why do we humans do these things to our dead bodies? Every time I see The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, I am reminded of John Berger’s essay Why Look at Animals from his 1980 book About Seeing. In Why Look at Animals, Berger explores the human relationship with both representations of non-human animals and the physical practice of looking at animals. From Buffon’s early taxonomies to humans staring into animal eyes at zoos. In my mind, Potter’s taxidermy work melds with Berger’s essay to ask: Why look at Dead Animals? Living animals, especially the ones burying Cock Robin, would never behave the way Walter Potter’s tableaux presents, and that’s the key point. In death, we humans can take our non-human animal cousins and civilize them in ways a zoo or circus or freak show can never accomplish. Dead animals are fully compliant and perfectly docile animals.
We want Cock Robin’s dead animal friends to bury him so that we humans know that we’re somehow not also animals. We like knowing that Cock Robin’s friends want to be just like us. But we are animals, and what Potter’s taxidermied animals remind us is how removed we’ve become from not only death’s animality but also the organic animal-ness of our own dead bodies.
For more information on the forthcoming book Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy click here.