Death (and Life) in rural pre-war Switzerland

Recently, I discovered the work of Roberto Donetta, an amateur traveling photographer who lived and captured images in alpine Switzerland villages in the early 20th century.  As  an artist photographer, he documented street and village life scenes for pleasure, but he also was a working photographer, documenting family  milestones and life on request.

His photographs are fascinating in their detail of village life and customs of the time

 

 

Of special interest from the archives is the vast body of funeral and deathbed photography Donetta did.  Just like today, with trends in senior portraits, prom pictures, and wedding photography, much of Donetta’s likely-paid work centered around special family moments, funerals included.

This was the era before funeral homes–the bodies are photographed at home, often in the bed they likely died in.  Some bodies are elaborately set, with greenery, netting, candles, and personalized ribbons everywhere.  Other pictures are simple, just the deceased laid out in his finest on the family bed, hands folded over the waist, perhaps with family around.

 

 

The funerals themselves were clearly elaborate community affairs.  Dozens of pictures showed long snaking columns of mourners on foot, led by white-robed priests, the casket on a caisson, or perhaps being carried on shoulders.

In this era of ubiquitous cameras (everyone’s phone has one!), which begets selfies and the accompanying outrage over photography (selfie or otherwise) at funerals, this archive really reminds me that there is indeed value in documenting death and funerals.  Clearly, if it is done well, documentary photography at a death can be a very powerful and timeless gift.

Tibetan Sky Burial, revisited

Previously on this blog, I shared the historical practice of sky burial via Towers of Silence   It’s an ancient practice of body disposal that is not practiced much any longer, but certainly has its own claim to being environmentally conscious and harmonious in a circle-of-life kind of way.

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Recently, blogger and funeral director Caleb Wilde, of Confessions of a Funeral Director, posted a simpler, more modern take on sky burial.

In this sky burial, vultures are still intentionally involved as the disposal method of choice in this series of documentary photographs, but without all the ceremony and planning of the Tower of Silence structure–this burial takes place in an open field, with the vultures doing their work in open sight, much as they would with a dead animal.

The series is fascinating, but also rather graphic, and could be disturbing, so please consider carefully before you click!

Modern Sky Burial

 

So what did you think?!

Recomposition Ahoy!

Y’all know I’m a big believer in The Urban Death Project.  I squee like a fangirl inside when I get to spend time with its founder, Katrina.   Her vision of reclaiming our nutrients is so clear, so full of amazing good energy, so profoundly harmonious with what I want for my body–if you ever get the chance to hear her speak in person, take it.

I backed the Urban Death Project Kickstarter last year, because I believe so strongly in recycling us;   I’m desperately hoping we can get a recomposition center here in Austin once she perfects the design and puts the concept into the wild.

I’m super excited to report that Katrina is now on to phase II of the project, where she and her team have built an actual recomposition silo prototype.

 

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But all this construction and the research opportunities it will create isn’t cheap.

The Urban Death Project has now launched their second crowdfunding appeal, aimed at funding the work being done with the recomposition prototype.

 

 

If you want to see this project succeed, if you want to have real, good options for natural deathcare in cities (not just in areas with lots of open, rural land), NOW IS THE TIME TO BACK YOUR WISHES WITH YOUR WALLETS.

I’m in–I already have.  I love this idea too much.  I want it for you, and for me, and for those I love, to know that the minerals and nutrients that created and sustained them will go on doing that work for another living thing.

Join me!  Donate here.

Mama’s Shiny, Pretty Memento Mori

So, you know about memento mori, right?

 

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Picture Credits:
Skeleton clock: Contra Spem Spero… Et Rideo
Ring collection: Antique Jewelry University
Memento Mori ring: Jamestown Rediscovery
 Skeleton in Coffin: I’m not a Person In this Dream

 

Historically, especially in the past 500 years, memento mori have been used in design, jewelry, and art to remind the viewer that they too shall die (hence, the skeleton, most always lurking).  In ancient Rome, and in a religious usage, it can be a sobering reminder to keep the person grounded to their imperfection and mortality.   In a more positive light, it dovetails nicely with the Carpe Diem philosophy as well–do it now, because tomorrow is not guaranteed.  In the alternative death circles, memento mori (the items and the general motif) are very popular as jewelry, art, clothing, and even tattoos.

 

I’m very very in favor of the purpose behind memento mori, but skeletons really aren’t my thing–I totally wouldn’t decorate with them or wear them, no matter how profound the statement that they bear.  Th reminder, though, is wholly necessary and good, and something I try to find in my daily skeleton-free world–but how to remind myself of it?

 

Recently, as I was stopping for milk at Costco, I realized that I do have my own version of memento mori/carpe diem going on, seasonally:

 

 

Little girls’ fancy dresses.

Specifically the gorgeous and super-reasonable Christmas and Easter dresses that show up at Costco in the months before those holidays.

 

When my now nearly-adult daughter was that age, I was a bit too frugal, too quick to dismiss frivolity and wants with a brusque “but we don’t need it”.  So much–pretty dresses, travel, events, fun–was put off for another day, admired and desired but not fulfilled, not worth the money it took to achieve, just a waste.

But now:  now I see that I only had so many years to indulge both of us with these tokens, to appreciate texture and sparkle, and to enjoy an unnecessary, impractical treat every so often.   Death has not come, for me and my girl and my love of pretty girls’ dresses, but time has.  And with time, growth that takes away the opportunity to need these dresses.   My child is still here, but that child who could wear the dress? Gone for good, just as if she had died.

The dresses still come around, like clockwork, every October and February.  And I draw breath in the first time I see them, take the time to examine them all, touch the flowers and lace and net, pick my favorites.   Somewhat sadly now, though, because I’m smarter.  I know enough to know I should have been more indulging, less harsh, more willing to live in the moment and enjoy the day.

I know which ones my grandbabies would be wearing, if I were buying now–and you’d better believe I will, if there are ever grandgirls!

My time for dresses is over.  All I can do is wish I had chosen differently, wish I’d understood that time will take things from you, just as death does.  And be that middle-aged woman who gives unsolicited advice about “enjoy it while you can” to random mamas in Costco (specifically, “Buy the dress.  Enjoy every year you get to do so!”)

 

 

Memento mori:  Remember, you must die.

Make each day count.  Drink the good wine.

Be the difference where you are, today. Say the important things.

Spend the money, make the memories, buy the dress.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed.

Remember, you must die.

 

 

 

Austin Death Positive Everywhere!

So, I’m late posting today–but I have good reason:

Last night (and late!), a few local Austin Death Positive folks were so lucky to get to have dinner with Katrina Spade, the death innovator behind the Urban Death Project

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L to R:  Lindsay, ME, Melissa with Kermit, Katrina, Kimberley

Our night was spent on the Torchy’s Tacos patio, introducing Katrina to queso (yum!) and talking about all things death.  I’m 100% sure it was a crazy conversation to eavedrop on.

As part of that gathering, we Austin folks are planning a screening of Zen and the Art of Dying, to open up to the larger Austin Death Positive community.  Leave a comment here, or email me if you’d like to be included on the guest list!

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In other Austin Death Positive news:

This is one of my favorite yoga teachers from Pure Bikram Austin below.  She’s always good with the encouraging dialogue and attitude (which is why I love her class so much!), but this past week, she was really repping the Death Positive.

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Of course, she always has the tattoos, but the leotard was a nice bonus memento mori in the middle of 90 minutes of mindfulness!

The TITANIC Dead

So, we’re probably going to New York City this spring on girlchild’s senior trip, and as part of that, I plan on stopping in to see this plaque.

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Even though I’m 100% not into traditional burial and/or leaving stuff behind, this plaque honoring two tycoons who perished on the Titanic fascinates me (as do many aspects of the Titanic, for not just me).   My family will think I’m crazy, but I can’t wait to see it!

 

We all know hundreds and hundreds of folks perished on the Titanic, but did you ever wonder what happened to all the bodies from the Titanic?    Maybe I never did before, but thankfully our favorite Moviestar Mortician did:

 

 

And some fascinating pictures I found on my afternoon journey down the Titanic rabbit hole:

Suiting Dennis: The Infinity Burial Suit

As I mentioned in my post about the Death Salon Film Festival, one of the highlights was a Q&A session with Jae Rhim Lee, the creator of the Infinity Burial suit–the technology that turns mycelium loose on your corpse after you die to more efficiently and safely return your nutrients to the earth.

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The suit pictured above is now commercially available, so if you’re thinking of a green burial and want to include mushrooms in the process:  Buy it here!

 

Worth knowing:  these suits have a 5 yr viable lifespan, and can be renewed if not used in the 5 years, so you totally can buy it NOW without needing it.   They do recommend cool storage for it, however.

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As part of the Infinity Burial suit presentation, we screened Suiting Dennis, a mini documentary about the first man to be fitted for an Infinity Burial suit.   I hope you’ll have the time to watch this–it gives such a great sense of both Dennis and his family,  and the passion of the Coeio team for their product.

 

 

 

As a final note:  just before Jae Rhim did her talk for us, she received word that Dennis, who had been on hospice, was no longer eating or drinking.   And a few days later, his family put his suit on him for the last time, and carried his pioneering corpse up to a plot in Maine.  

Rest in Peace, Dennis.