When Your Worst Fear Is Realised

By Bryony King

Three months ago, I was sat in a pub with my friends, a dog and the man I loved more than I ever thought possible. We had Chinese food & I drank too much whisky & proceeded to tactically throw up as soon as we got home (something he never let me feel embarrassed about but probably should have.) We spent the next day wrapped around each other, not one singular care in the world & basking in the warm glow being in love gives you.

A week later, I was sat on the floor in my living room, surrounded by moving boxes and in silent despair, reeling from the phone call I’d just had from the police, confirming they’d found his body in the canal he’d been boating on.

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I’ve always had a strange relationship with death. As a child I was terrified of it, to the point where I probably became a bit neurotic. I would plan my exits out of whatever building I was in in case anything untoward were to happen; I was inconsolable at the deaths of my pets (or any animal for that matter); I had recurring nightmares about my family dying. I would get my tiny child brain into varying degrees of anguish & preoccupation thinking about it.

I was reassured it was a phase – it was. I grew up to accept that death is a part of living. I developed what some may think of as a morbid fascination with memento mori, taxidermy, forensics, mourning rituals, spirituality. I don’t think of them as morbid. Your time on earth is finite. That’s what makes it so special. Otherwise we’d all be moping around, centuries old with no motivation to do or achieve anything.

Part of the human condition is caring for & loving others. When you ask people what their worst fear is, & ask them to really think about it, apart from all the existential shit I’m sure 90% of people would say losing or any harm coming to a loved one. The other 10% are sociopaths (you do you, just don’t kill anyone, I beg.)

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When your worst fear is realised – when the one thing you were most scared to happen, happens… you lose your mind a bit. You lose faith in a world that could be so cruel as to snatch away something so precious. Your whole belief system is challenged. The world you thought you knew crumbles in front of you. But what comes with it is this sense of fearlessness. If the worst thing imaginable has already happened, any other shitty thing in the world kind of pales in comparison.

I feel invincible now. I also feel hollow, jaded, broken, bereft, but invincible. Like I’ve eaten one of those sparkly Mario mushrooms. I feel like I’ve had two lives – the one I had before all this – the one I was living and planning with him, which seems a million light years away now; and this new life, one I never would’ve wanted, dreamed up in my wildest nightmares or asked for. But it’s just that. A life. Whenever I’m feeling like I can’t possibly go on (which I feel very frequently) I think about the fact that I have a choice. He doesn’t. He wanted to live. He had so much to live for, so much to be excited for, so much planned. So to throw my life away would just be like slapping him in his lovely perfect face.

“Your whole belief system is challenged. The world you thought you knew crumbles in front of you. But what comes with it is this sense of fearlessness.”

I’m making it my life’s goal now to do every single thing we planned, no matter how stupid or how challenging. I feel like I owe him that. It’s very helpful to have these goals & ambitions, but simultaneously if I were to die tomorrow, sure I’d be annoyed that I couldn’t do all those things. Much like I’m sure he would be kicking himself. We could’ve travelled the world, rescued a load of animals, started a family, built our own house, learnt how to make blades, bought a boat & drank quite a lot more rum, but if I were to drop down dead today, I’d be happy in the knowledge that I was a good person, with unique quirks, great hair & an appetite for beige food. Also animals really like me.

The most important thing though for me, is knowing I have loved & been loved equally. I have known a love & bond so strong with another human, so passionate, that it prevails over death. He would’ve given me everything I ever wanted in life, as I would’ve for him. While he was here, we did. That’s all I could ever ask for.

Having these beliefs doesn’t make losing your love any easier. You can be accepting of death and still not want it to happen. Untimely death is the most unfair thing of all. Accepting life means accepting death. Life is for living, and he packed more into his 31 years than most people will in 90. I’m inspired by him everyday.

“You can be accepting of death and still not want it to happen. Untimely death is the most unfair thing of all.”

Accepting love means you are putting your heart on the line to be ripped apart at any moment. You risk the pain of love dying. You risk the pain of betrayal. You risk the agony of grief. But to me, that’s part of the joy of it. To open yourself up to another human in such a raw way, to expose your soul & share a love so intense & deep, also means to feel pain just as intensely. & it’s worth it. I promise you, it’ll always be worth it.

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Bryony is a wordsmith of the weird based in the South-East of England. When she isn’t writing it down she can be found collecting bones or taxidermy, or telling it like it is here.

Making a Mourner: The Life, Love and Grief of Courtney Lane

By Courtney Lane

When conversing with strangers, it is customary to engage in something we as a society call “small talk”. During small talk, the weather must first be properly described, and then it’s time to get personal (but hopefully not too personal), and thus the question “What do you do?” was born.

Over the years, I’ve come to learn that everybody who asks me this question easily gets more than they bargained for, and I’m sure you can well imagine the wide assortment of responses I get when I tell them that I make artwork out of human hair. If I’m feeling particularly nefarious that day, I might specify that I make art and jewellery out of dead people’s hair.

I’ve experienced the full spectrum of reactions. I’ve gotten horror, excitement, curiosity, some people have literally run away, and I’ve even gotten a good spit-take or two. The fair few who dare to venture further inevitably ask me how I got into this, admittedly unusual, profession. And how did I get into this? It’s easy enough to explain the Victorian tradition of sentimental hairwork and my lifelong fascination with it. It’s just as easy to chalk it up to a series of peculiar happenstances in my life that lead me here, but neither of these explanations tells the whole story.

I suppose it all began when I was only 5 or 6 years of age when my grandmother took me on a tour of the above ground cemeteries in New Orleans. At the time, she assumed that I was too young to understand what we were looking at and thus had no idea that the tombs would absolutely dazzle my young mind and walking those grounds would spark a perpetual fascination for the way humans have memorialised our dead throughout history.


My grandmother had no idea that she was beginning to mould a child with a healthy interest in death, but she did know that she was shaping me into an artist all the while. In fact, she was one of the three influential women from my early childhood who gave me the tools and the passion needed to create.

My great grandmother was a painter who instilled in me a love of the visual arts. She and my grandmother were both musicians, and my grandmother frequently took me to musicals, operas, symphonies, and marching band shows. One of my fondest artistic loves has always been for the performing arts, and my mother, who was a single parent, always made sure that I could attend my dance lessons no matter how tight money was.

For many children, animals are often their first direct encounters with death, and I was no exception. In fact, the first funeral I ever attended was for one of my pet birds. When we buried her in my grandmother’s backyard, I absolutely insisted on making her a tombstone. It came complete with her name “Dobber”, an epitaph, and even a picture of her. Although this grave was comprised of little more than a large rock and a Sharpie, it was my first experience combining mourning and art.

“My great grandmother was a painter who instilled in me a love of the visual arts.”

At 11 years old, I experienced my first human death in the family: My great grandmother. Fortunately, my family was not shy about allowing me to be involved in the process. From visiting her in the hospital as she was dying, to attending the funeral home to help pick out a casket, I was involved the whole time. Even still, I felt a deep-seated need to express my grief through art which eventually culminated in me playing the violin at her service.

Some time after the funeral, grandma took me to see a modern dance company that was performing an interpretation of “the five stages of grief”. There, I discovered that dealing with death through dance was everything I ever wanted. Well, almost.

 The dancing itself was lovely, but I remained overly sceptical of the five stages theme. Grief seemed like such a complicated emotion that I refused to believe it could be explained in a “one size fits all” series of predictable steps (it would be a few years before I would begin researching the Kubler-Ross model only to learn that my reservations were completely warranted). My doubtfulness aside, I was nevertheless inspired to begin creating dances that would tackle difficult emotions. One could say that my morbid curiosity transformed into morbid choreography!

It was at this point in my life, and for many years to come, that I was utterly convinced that choreographing and performing about death and other taboo topics was going to be my career. Unfortunately, my body had other plans.

I have always lived with chronic pain. Even as a young child, I can’t remember a time that my body didn’t hurt. Dancing caused me a great deal of pain, but then again, so did everything, and I had no point of reference with which to understand that this wasn’t normal. In fact, when I was seventeen I got a tattoo of my black pointe with the phrase “Dance through the pain”, because this was the only way I knew how to live.


As an adult, I was finally diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which is primarily identified by having dangerously hypermobile joints. My symptoms that had always been present such as pain, fatigue, dizziness, and chronic joint dislocations continued to get worse. It was becoming increasingly evident that my body would not be able to handle the intense lifestyle of a professional dancer.

Having my primary artistic outlet so cruelly ripped away from me, I leaned even more heavily into death and mourning culture. By this point, I had already been studying Victorian-era hairwork for several years. I fell in love with the sentiment of hair long before I ever knew how to work with it.

I was an insurance agent running my own agency when I got the wild desire to actually learn how to do the traditional techniques. I searched for as many resources about how to do hairwork as I possibly could, and unfortunately there were several gaps in the information available. I hungered for more information, so I went on a journey to fill those gaps through trial and error, studying antique pieces, consulting lifelong collectors on their theories, and a whole lot of patience.

I found myself blacking out days in my calendar to practice hair art when I could have been having insurance meetings, and truth be told, the company whose insurance I offered in my agency wasn’t crazy about my black lipstick. So, I made the decision to walk away from my insurance agency and dive head first into making Victorian-style hair art and hair jewellery full time.

When I first sought to learn these techniques, it was purely to sate my own curiosity, and perhaps make a memento or two for myself, but as I began to practice, I learned that I was surprisingly good! It was a surprise, because I still to this day have no skill or patience for styling the hair on my own head, but I was delighted to find that hairwork is an entirely separate skill set.

“I went on a journey to fill those gaps through trial and error, studying antique pieces, consulting lifelong collectors on their theories, and a whole lot of patience.”

Closing my insurance agency to start a hairwork practice wasn’t what you might call a “conventional” decision. Everyone knows what insurance is, and everybody needs it, but when I first started Never Forgotten, it seemed that nobody knew what sentimental hairwork was (save for a handful of historians and collectors).

I didn’t just want to sell my products. I wanted to educate people about the history of hair art and demonstrate to them how the sentiment can still be of value in their modern lives. Never Forgotten became a business of two branches: art and education.

On the art side, I do exactly what the artistic, entrepreneurial, usually female hairworkers of the Victorian era would have done. I accept the hair of my clients by mail and use that hair to make them something truly special for them. I get commissioned for a variety of reasons, a child’s first haircut, a romantic token for a living spouse, or of course a deceased loved one. At the heart of all of my custom orders is love.

That is why mourning hairwork is so singularly important. Grief is the most raw and vulnerable form of love, and it’s complicated. It’s complicated, because we don’t always know how to express it, especially in a culture that is all too often uncomfortable around people who are bereaved. A lock of your loved one’s hair is a physical piece of them that you can keep. You are allowed to prominently display it in the form of art in your home, and you are allowed to wear it everyday in a locket close to your heart. Not only are you allowed, but you should be empowered to do so.

Continuing to make a space in your life for your lost loved ones is the best thing you can do for yourself when you are grieving. If you’re expecting to navigate through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, you will get a rude awakening, because grief is not a linear path that can be predicted. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling in whatever order it comes, and don’t be afraid to let the world see that your loved one is still apart of your life, even when they are not physically here with you.

“Grief is the most raw and vulnerable form of love, and it’s complicated. It’s complicated, because we don’t always know how to express it, especially in a culture that is all too often uncomfortable around people who are bereaved.”

On the education side of my business, I lecture about the history of human hair art at museums and colleges, and I also make public videos on my YouTube channel, Hair and Now.

Understanding the history is the key to learning how to apply these customs to our modern lives.

I also think it’s important to keep these hair art and hair jewellery techniques alive, so I teach in person workshops as well as make video tutorials that are available on Patreon. For the more casually curious, I also sell hairwork starter kits that come with written instructions for the basic hair flower technique as well as all the tools you need and hair to practice with.

Last year, I experienced the most difficult human death in my life. I lost the very grandmother who took me to the cemeteries as a child where I started my story of life, death, and hair.

Although I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to make something yet, the very act of cutting her hair the day she died was a very healing thing, and the fact that I have that part of her for when I’m ready brings me a great comfort. I want people to know that, should they feel so compelled, they can do the same.

“Although I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to make something yet, the very act of cutting her hair the day she died was a very healing thing, and the fact that I have that part of her for when I’m ready brings me a great comfort.”

Some people, who are in truth just like me, want to channel their own art and creativity into their grief. For those people, I want nothing more than to help them get the tools they need to be able to work with the hair of their own loved ones without having to go through all of the trial and error that I did to learn how.

If the ritual of making your own hair memento would be a comforting and healing thing for you, then I think it’s important that you give it a try, and I hope I can help provide that opportunity to you. The desire to keep the hair of our loved ones is inherently human, and we should foster those impulses and allow ourselves to harness the sentiment of hair to better get in touch with our life, love, and grief.

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Courtney by Evan Michelson

Courtney Lane is a Victorian Hair Artist, historian, and professional weirdo committed to educating the public and preserving the art of Victorian sentimental hairwork. Courtney makes bespoke contemporary hair art through her company, Never Forgotten and can be found delving into the weird and wonderful world of Mourning Victoriana and other hair history at her YouTube channel Hair and Now. Ms. Lane was recently named Best Local Craft Artist at The Pitch’s 2018 Best of Kansas City.

neverforgottencl.com

Follow Courtney on Social Media:

 Instagram

YouTube

Twitter

Facebook

Never Forgotten: Victorian Hair Art

28th of March 2019 | 6pm

Alexander Majors Barn, 8201 State Line Road, Kansas City, MO 64114

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“Hear from Courtney Lane, Victorian hair artist, historian and “professional weirdo” and see authentic Victorian hair art at this social and fun event.”

Book Here

Art is Not About Pretty Things

 

By Sara Lucas

Art is not about pretty things, it’s about who we are, what happened to us and how our lives are affected.

– Elizabeth Broun

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Art has always been part of my life. 

When I was a child, the idea of a great day out for me and my mum would be to go and spend the day at the contemporary art museum followed by a meal at the museum’s cafeteria. 

These are some of the best memories I have from my childhood.

Years later, I enrolled in University and actually started creating art myself – experimenting at times with macabre themes, a dark sense of humour and participating in several art shows.

Life happens.

After working as a commercial artist for a few years (I worked as a colourist for advertising storyboards and comic books as well as a stint in animation, plus editorial illustration), I found myself having to find “a real job”.

For a long time I didn’t do much creative work (except for writing and photography) as I was stuck with work to pay the bills and focusing on writing a blog at the time – my only creative outlet. This was important for a while, as it gave me a new set of skills but somehow it just wasn’t enough.

Then, 3 years ago, everything changed: I got diagnosed with breast cancer.

Luckily, it was found very early and I had my surgery without major complications and fingers crossed, I’m on my way into remission.

Why is this relevant?

Because while I was home recovering from treatments, I started to draw again. I have always had the habit of creating scrapbooks and this time, I started drawing on them – collage plus something more. So there it was, after so many years, I had found a voice and was reminded of what was truly important to me.

I started by drawing skulls over the models’ faces (I had a lot of material from fashion magazines) and to me it was a way of talking about the transience of beauty and how it doesn’t really matter in the end – we’re all going to die anyway, pretty or not!

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While this might seem like a negative message, it isn’t. It’s a reminder to live in the moment and to take joy in what you have. It was also a way of talking about the transience of life and my own anxieties over my future – am I going to be ill again? Who knows… but at least if I do, I’m not wasting time anymore. Art can be therapeutic and it has certainly been so for me, as this helped me confront my own mortality and turn it into a positive and creative outlet.  

Recently, I was watching the Santa Muerte episode of “Dark Tourist” on Netflix. David Farrier talks to Doña Queta, a lady who helped transform the cult of Santa Muerte from an occult practice into the fastest growing new religion. She says:

The most beautiful way to live is without fear, live happily because when you die there will be no more time for living. And I have cancer. I’m happy and I love my cancer because it taught me how to live life.

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These words resonated with me as it is very close to my own personal experience. After all, getting diagnosed was the kick in the butt that I needed to start creating again – and wasting no more time. I have been told that my art is dark and creepy and it does bother some people – sometimes for the skulls, other times for the sexually implicit (and sometimes explicit) themes. To this, I would like to say that it’s the complete opposite.

The work I do is extremely joyful and meant to push boundaries – of taste, of gender roles and the way that we talk about death in our culture.

The connection between sex and death is not an invention of mine – the duality Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death drive) exists in all of us and has been explored many a time by others before me – including being crystalised into psychological theory by Sigmund Freud. It sums up humanity’s existential dilemma and gives us all plenty of food for thought, and the reason why I explore it in my artwork.

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“The connection between sex and death is not an invention of mine – the duality Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death drive) exists in all of us and has been explored many a time by others before me.”

 

Soon after I started dealing with these themes, I decided to bring them to the street. I have had an interest in street art for quite a while but never dabbled in it until I realised that I could also do it myself and I didn’t have to necessarily use a spray can – paste ups are just as good a way to convey a message. This has somehow been growing and some two years after I started showing my work on the streets, I find myself being invited to participate in art shows and seeing my work shared frequently on social media. It’s very rewarding to share my art with others and that others enjoy it and benefit from this attempt to start a conversation around what is generally considered a less savoury subject. I believe that we live in an era where there isn’t enough challenging art out there, that speaks about life’s main challenges and this is something that I try to focus on.

Life hasn’t always been easy in the last few years but dealing with the death theme in my art has given it a new meaning and while I occasionally incorporate other themes into it, I believe it will always be one of the main subjects to be explored. It has helped me find my voice and finding some level of acceptance that otherwise would’ve been difficult to attain.

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Originally Sara is from Lisbon, Portugal. She is a London based illustration and art aficionado, who love roaming the streets of East London, snapping street art for Instagram and stopping for cats along the way. To be happy, Sara needs to be creative so you’ll often spot her playing around with pens.

Shop original artwork and more here.

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Nothingness, Acceptance, Resurrection: Creating a Second Life

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Mother and Me

By Mia-Jane Harris

My work delves into the curious, fascinatingly odd and morbidly beautiful. I make intriguing juxtapositions between the gorgeous and the macabre, aiming to intrigue the viewer and pull them in to my world with strange objects and morbid curios to manipulate their emotions on the subject of mortality – life, death & resurrection. I wish to challenge the inevitability of our disappearance after death by preventing decay and rescuing ‘junk’. I give a second life, an artistic resurrection, to deceased animals and second hand objects in the hope that this second chance I give them will in return help me live on through these creations when I am gone.

My creations are about helping to overcome the fear of nothingness by accepting death as a thing of beauty and using preservation and up-cycling to show myself that if I can stop decay and disappearance then I can have some sort of control over my own demise. The idea of mortality means a lot to me and has always fascinated me due to my death during birth, and my fear of when it will take me next. There were complications during my birth which resulted in me being born deceased and after resuscitation left with Erbs Palsy, the partial paralysis and stunted growth of my right arm, so I have always had a fascination with the morbid and abnormal.

“The idea of mortality means a lot to me and has always fascinated me due to my death during birth, and my fear of when it will take me next.”

The main aspect of my practice is my sculptures, which are hybrids between self made taxidermy and vintage ceramics. All animals used in my work are animals I have found naturally deceased or as accidental roadkill. I gather my other materials from charity shops, house-clearance stores, dumps, boot-sales, skips, riversides, street floors and antiques markets. I then take these thrown away materials and use deconstruction, reconstruction, re-painting and assemblage combined with taxidermy/mummification to turn discarded objects in to curious new art objects for people to admire. The main items I save and resurrect are porcelain figures and dolls, these people-like objects help me tell autobiographic tales through the work.

Each piece also has its own secondary personal meaning. The processes of dissection and sculpting themselves can be very tricky, especially with my Erbs Palsy, but this is a very important struggle for me to get through. I use it as an outlet, a sort of catharsis to let out any negative emotions or stresses in my life at that time. And what I am dealing with when going through the processes of each animal and object comes out in the final creation.

My sculptures are made from chance and fate. It is a butterfly effect that causes each deceased animal or found object to be in the same place and time as me to make it into my collection. An item or animal may be in my collection for five minutes or five years before they meet others that they harmonise with, and when collected items fit together in a surreal partnership with each other that feels right then I transform them into an art object. It is all little fragile pieces of a puzzle that could end up entirely differently if just one thing had changed. I love that aspect with the work, the way that the medium itself takes some sort of control, some kind of ‘life’.

“It is a butterfly effect that causes each deceased animal or found object to be in the same place and time as me to make it into my collection.”

Another aspect of my practice is my ‘Beautiful Corpse’ photographic series. Whilst working in a pathology museum I wanted to show people items from around museums and medical collections that I didn’t think were appreciated the way that they should be. These museums hold thousands of human cadaver specimens that are used for scientific research and study. They are looked at every day to learn from but in their dull and dirty containers surrounded by thousands of others they lose part of their charm and people are so focused on what they are that they don’t notice how amazingly beautiful they are.

I wanted to take away the scientific surroundings, the educational environment, the dust and the grime and the information text books to leave behind just these absolutely striking objects. I photographed a selection of the human pathology specimens that I fell in love with the most, focusing on the patterns and colours in the tissues instead of what each specimen really was. I showed them to people without telling them what they are or where they were from and it worked. People appreciated the beauty behind them. Those outside of the medical profession weren’t pushed away due to their normal mind set of ‘its part of a dead person so its disgusting’ and those in the medical profession finally saw the beauty that they had ignored that had been staring them in the face the whole time. People were amazed to see that death could be such a beautiful thing and were curious to find out more about the images and kept asking to see more and more of these captivating objects.

“This photography series I feel has a similar aesthetic to drapes of luxurious fabric or paintings made of watercolour.”

This photography series I feel has a similar aesthetic to drapes of luxurious fabric or paintings made of watercolour. The preservation process used for the specimens that I photograph affects the colouring of them quite a lot. This is because of both the lack of blood from these sections having been dissected away from the main cadaver and washed, plus the chemicals used to embalm the sections causing a bleaching of the human tissue. The resulting effect is that of stunning blue/purple hues and tiny visible details of veins/arteries and minute alterations in the tissue patterning. It is the addition of the preservation process that made my subjects so fascinate and beautiful to photograph.

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Hearts and Chains
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Hearts and Chains
Virgin of the Resurrection
Virgin of Resurrection
Sister of the Resurrection
First Sister of Resurrection
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Mother and Me
Your corpse is beautiful III
Your Corpse Is Beautiful III
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Your Corpse Is Beautiful V
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Your Corpse is Beautiful IV
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Are We Nothing But Machines I

Mia-Jane Harris is a multidisciplinary fine artist focusing mostly on assemblage sculptures made from taxidermy and vintage ceramics. She lives and works in London but has exhibited internationally. Harris studied art, design and illustration at both ‘City & Guilds of London Art School’ and ‘University of East London’ and is currently working on new pieces for her 65th exhibition.

You can follow Mia and her work on Instagram and on Facebook.

mia-janeharris.co.uk

Mia
Anthony Lycett ©

Mia’s next exhibition is coming this Autumn:

‘Beautiful and Damned’

1st to the 16th of November 2018

The Stash Gallery

Vout-O-Reenee’s

The Crypt (below the Church) of 30 Prescot Street, London, E1 8BB

All are welcome to the opening night!

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William Corbet ©

The Vampire’s Flight

By Claire L. Smith

With a long, limp body,

She lays on her throne with her locks flowing down her alter,

Undead but mortally sick,

The hunger keeps her a monster.

 

Wide, black wings cascade her face,

A feathered fiend landing on her hunched shoulder.

As hungry and desperate as she,

He pierces her neck for a feed.

 

Drowsed and bitter, she allowed him a sip,

A last moment of thrill before she clasped him in her grip,

She drank until her meal grew cold,

Fuelling her addition and beating her soul.

 

With a reactive sickness she tossed him across the floor,

Watching death’s winged messenger wither,

With an empty sigh, her lips grew dry,

The begging desire for more.

 

Parting her vision,

There came a white glisten,

Another flock of feathers landing on her opposite limb,

It’s tiny, pure vessel a glowing admission.

 

She watched in a darkened awe,

As in the dove’s beady eyes she saw,

Nothing but a bloodied empty throne,

Surrounded by rusting raven bones.

 

She gasped as she was torn from its gaze,

Leaving her abandoned on her broken throne,

Fluttering up into the banisters,

It’s white cloak a vison of the sun she’s forgotten.

 

Stretching her torn, leathery wings,

Desperation lifted her from her throne.

The white dove fluttering metres in front,

She beat hard in hopes of arriving home.

 

Blind in her new form,

Exhausted from a century-long game,

She pushed and strained,

Shadowing the white flicker of light.

 

With every beating flap her hunger returned,

Draining her until she drifted down towards the windowpane.

It landed beside her, cooing in concern as she lay beaten and afraid,

Before nudging with his tiny, pearly beak to gesture forward.

 

The sunrise beamed a milky, smooth mix of pinks and yellow,

Warming them with an encouraging glow.

She felt the fresh breeze trickle the rim of her wings,

A final woo to whisk her out of the gloom.

With a long, limp body,

She lays on her throne with her locks flowing down her alter,

Undead but mortally sick,

The hunger keeps her a monster.

 

Wide, black wings cascade her face,

A feathered fiend landing on her hunched shoulder.

As hungry and desperate as she,

He pierces her neck for a feed.

 

Drowsed and bitter, she allowed him a sip,

A last moment of thrill before she clasped him in her grip,

She drank until her meal grew cold,

Fuelling her addition and beating her soul.

 

With a reactive sickness she tossed him across the floor,

Watching death’s winged messenger wither,

With an empty sigh, her lips grew dry,

The begging desire for more.

 

Parting her vision,

There came a white glisten,

Another flock of feathers landing on her opposite limb,

It’s tiny, pure vessel a glowing admission.

 

She watched in a darkened awe,

As in the dove’s beady eyes she saw,

Nothing but a bloodied empty throne,

Surrounded by rusting raven bones.

 

She gasped as she was torn from its gaze,

Leaving her abandoned on her broken throne,

Fluttering up into the banisters,

It’s white cloak a vison of the sun she’s forgotten.

 

Stretching her torn, leathery wings,

Desperation lifted her from her throne.

The white dove fluttering metres in front,

She beat hard in hopes of arriving home.

 

Blind in her new form,

Exhausted from a century-long game,

She pushed and strained,

Shadowing the white flicker of light.

 

With every beating flap her hunger returned,

Draining her until she drifted down towards the windowpane.

It landed beside her, cooing in concern as she lay beaten and afraid,

Before nudging with his tiny, pearly beak to gesture forward.

 

The sunrise beamed a milky, smooth mix of pinks and yellow,

Warming them with an encouraging glow.

She felt the fresh breeze trickle the rim of her wings,

A final woo to whisk her out of the gloom.

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The Staircase Window by Ethel Spowers

Claire L. Smith is an Australian author, poet, screenwriter and artist. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Luna Magazine, Mookychick, Anti-Heroin Chic and Moonchild Magazine. Her essays promoting gender equality has been featured in Business Woman Media, Mookychick, NerdVanaTV and A Woman’s Thing. She is also an official contributor to Outlet Magazine.

A full list of Claire’s work can be found here.

Maiden’s Bloom: The Art of Emilia Olsen

By Jennifer Simmz

“Persephone had it right. If you must go, might as well take all of spring with you—”

– Cathy Linh Che, Letters to Doc

In a flourish of color and wild beauty, Emilia Olsen’s work lures us deep into the subconscious unknown – through desert, jungle, or dark lagoon – of a country we innately recognize. Confronting our innermost vulnerabilities and soft points, we traverse deep into the caverns of our soul, the dark shadows of our exposed forms flickering across the walls. Olsen’s faceless maidens, with their pink, sun-kissed flesh, confront their mortality and heartbreak with the age-old symbol of vanitas – a grinning, bleached skull. Much like Persephone dragging the lush flora down with her descent into Hades, Olsen’s subjects embrace the darkest part of their ego within a state of botanic euphoria.

The legend of Persephone is one of many myths that illustrate the life/death/life cycle. It is from this foundation that the trope of Death and The Maiden, an allegorical motif in Renaissance art, arose. In an era of Western history that experienced a high mortality rate, to gaze at the inevitable void and ask its guardian to dance was to extract the fear of time. By yielding to the siren song, one could evaporate into existential ecstasy.

Emilia Olsen’s paintings harken to this theme. The skull and bones present throughout her work are subliminal symbols for the things we have buried, but will continue to haunt us until we exhume them: past hurts, lost loves, future reckonings. Her women, hidden behind veils of hands, hair, and vines, must eventually untwist and cut themselves free from their verdant bindings, dig down into the dirt and pull up the weeds around their heart – or face their end. The juxtaposition of flowering life and withering death creates a seductive contrast, and while fixed in that alluring state of tension, in the inherent grace of the moment, the maidens bloom.

2. Thru The Vines 2; 2018THru the vines 2 Oil, caulk, acrylic, pumice medium on canvas 40.0h x 30in
Thru The Vines (2018) Emilia Olsen ©
1. Untitled; 2017 Oil and R+F sticks on canvas 48.0h x 36.0w in
Untitled (2017) Emilia Olsen ©
3. Untitled; 2018 Oil, R+F sticks, caulk, acrylic, pumice medium on canvas 40.0h x 30.0w in
Untitled (2018) Emilia Olsen ©
4. Vines
Vines (2018) Emilia Olsen ©
5. Lovers; 2018 Oil on canvas 30.0h x 24.0w in
Lovers (2018) Emilia Olsen ©
6. Us; 2018 Oil on canvas 14.0h x 12.0w in
Us (2018) Emilia Olsen ©
7.Poppies, 2018 Oil and R+F sticks on canvas 14 x 11 in
Poppies (2018) Emilia Olsen ©
8. Skeleton Ex; 2018 Oil, R+F sticks, caulk on canvas 12.0h x 9.0w in
Skeleton Ex (2018) Emilia Olsen ©

Death and the Maiden exhibition from June 3 – July 29, 2018.

Doppelgänger | Studio
59-33 Linden Street
2nd Floor
Ridgewood, NY 11385

To find out more about Emilia Olsen visit: emiliawolsen.com.

For enquiries or to arrange a visit to the exhibition visit: doppelgangerprojects.com.

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Emilia’s work exhibited at Doppelgänger Studio, New York

From Parlor Tricks to Primetime: Fame, Gender, and the History of Ghost Hunting

elenor sidgwick

By Sam Wall

When you read the words ghost hunter, what kind of person springs to mind? I’ll wager many of you picture what I do: someone between the ages of 21 and 35, probably white, lit by the eerie glow of a night vision camera asking, “Did you guys hear that?”

Oh yeah, the ghost hunter is always a guy.  Why is that?

I initially doubted that impression, figuring I had to be exaggerating, so I researched modern ghost hunting groups (groups operating within recent years and using gadgets like Electromagnetic Frequency Meters to conduct their word). My search of the ghost hunting teams receiving media attention (particularly television shows) brought back one all-woman team, a few teams with a token woman, and a lot of all-male groups.  Reassured that I wasn’t imagining that mainly men got to be high-profile ghost hunters, I set out to see if I could figure out why.

There’s no obvious reason for this gender gap, no requirements or goals of the profession that favor a specific gender. Ghost hunting is at its heart, a search for answers to questions as varied as “Is there life after death” to “What the hell is making that noise in the attic.” It’s also a way that we share and spread ghost stories. Those stories, according to Colin Dickey’s excellent Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, are as much a way for us to make sense of our culture and history as they are a way to scare ourselves at sleepovers. Like any stories, they can reinforce or challenge accepted ideas about gender, race, or class. Famous ghost hunters develop a sizable platform to tell the stories of the places they investigate. The risk is that when one group dominates that platform, those stories lose their detail and context and get parred down to flat, palatable versions.  The woman killed by an abusive husband becomes the ghostly remnant of a lovers’ quarrel, the murdered slave becomes a “trusted servant” whose ghost haunts the house where she was forced to serve.  The way we talk about the dead influences how we treat the living. That’s why it’s crucial to examine who tells the stories and how they choose to frame them. If the only stories we have reinforce the status quo, we end up erasing the experiences of marginalized people in the past and the present.

Ghost Hunting Gals of the Past

Part of my perplexity about the lack of famous modern women ghost hunters stems from the fact that women were central to Spiritualist movement of the early 20th century. Spiritualism, with its belief that the dead could speak to the living, sparked a national interest in ghosts and the beyond that can still be seen in our fascination with ghost hunting shows.

Spiritualism owed a large part of its success to the Fox Sisters, who convinced droves of people that they were spirit mediums, people who could communicate with ghosts through techniques like rapping and automatic writing. The cultural beliefs of the time helped the Foxes and women who came after them dominate the profession of spirit mediumship, even though the sisters confessed to using trickery to achieve the ghostly sights and sounds of their presentations.  Women, especially young white women, were thought to possess spiritual purity that made them excellent intermediaries for the dead. There was also an assumption that women were more sensitive or emotional than men and thus more receptive to spirits from the beyond.

“Ghost hunting is at its heart, a search for answers to questions as varied as “Is there life after death” to “What the hell is making that noise in the attic.””

Since early ghost encounters revolved around spirit mediums and other paranormal professionals like spirit photographers (who claimed to capture images of ghosts in their cameras) early ghost hunting focused on examining those claims and sorting the genuine evidence of spirits from the parlor tricks. Just as women were at the core of supposedly communicating with spirits, so to were they at the heart of early ghost hunting. Three of the most influential female ghost hunters were a writer, an academic, and the right-hand woman to one of world’s greatest magicians.

Night Side of Nature

The writer was Catherine Crowe whose book, The Night Side of Nature, was a foundational text in the history of ghost hunting. According to Shane McCorristine’s Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 Crowe believed that science needed to pay attention to ghosts and other paranormal matters, insisting that some ghost stories were credible enough to warrant sincere investigation and compiling dozens of what she saw as reliable eyewitness accounts of ghosts into the book. She took pains to research these accounts, looking for historical evidence that supported the idea that a ghost may inhabit a location. She analyzed the accounts she collected, attempting to separate gossip and embellishment from earnest testimony. Her insistence that science and the paranormal could merge into one field of study remains at the core of modern ghost hunting.

Forty years after Crowe’s book, feminist and mathematician Elenor Sidgwick helped form The Society for Psychical Research. The society embodied Catherine Crowe’s dream: a group of dedicated scientists investigating ghosts. While technically invited in as an “administrator” by her husband, Elenor was not simply there to serve tea. She was an integral part of the society: Investigating hauntings, developing experiments to test paranormal claims, and documenting the investigations and findings. She combined first-person observation and thorough analysis of eyewitness testimony into a formidable approach to ghost hunting. She focused considerable energy on refuting spirit photographs, drawing on contemporary research about how human memory and perception fails or plays tricks that lead to people seeing familiar faces in the unclear images produced by spirit photographers. She was also adept at figuring out the tricks used by spirit mediums and taught herself many of the codes mediums used during their presentations. Elenor began and ended her career as a skeptic, although she maintained that she was very open to the idea that ghosts existed. She’d just never found evidence of them that held up to her scientific rigor.

“Her insistence that science and the paranormal could merge into one field of study remains at the core of modern ghost hunting.”

Rose Mackenberg, who often went by Mac, was the spiritual successor to Sidgwick.  Mac began her career as a private investigator, and when one of her cases involved “spirit fraud” she soon crossed paths with Harry Houdini. Houdini, impressed with her investigative skills, invited her to join his team of undercover agents. When Houdini planned to debunk a particular spirit medium or other person who claimed contact with the dead, he sent his agents into the town ahead of time to pose as true believers. They gathered information and observed the medium in action, then reported their findings to Houdini. When Houdini visited that same town, he used the intel from his agents to demonstrate exactly how the medium was a fraud.

Mac proved so skilled that Houdini made her his lead investigator. Not only could Mac unravel the trickery used by her targets, she went to great lengths to avoid detection, observing local women and matching their style in a series of elaborate disguises. While this was all done in the name of blending in, it demonstrates Mac’s flair for drama (later in her life she would go to psychic sessions in order to confront and chastise the politicians in attendance). Indeed, Mac’s methods share similarities with modern ghost hunting shows. She went on location, she actively participated in situations where encountering a ghost was a possibility, and there was an element of danger that nowadays would make for ratings gold; fights often broke out between spiritualists and skeptics, and there was always a risk that Mac would find herself in the midst of one. Too, enough people were angered by Houdini’s exposing of mediums that the great magician carried a gun in the event that “angry” became “murderous.” He urged Mac to do the same. She never did.

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Mac also shared the ability of modern ghost hunters to work the media to her advantage. After Houdini’s death, she took his place in the public eye as ghost and psychic buster. She wrote for major publications about the “ghost racket,” her name for business using spiritualism to con others out of their money, and gave a touring presentation demonstrating the tricks used by mediums and other ghost racketeers. In her later years she appeared on television to give similar presentations and carry her crusade against the ghost racket into the modern era.

Modern-Day Ghost Hunting

In order to see how ghost hunting looks today, I reached out to the Northern Nevada Ghost Hunters. Their team consists mainly of women, and I wanted to get their thoughts on gender in the profession and why more men seem to “make it” as ghost hunters.

A recurring theme in their answers is that the greatest divide within the ghost hunting community is not gender, but motive. There are those who want to, “help people understand the paranormal and what goes on in their home. Studying and preserving our history is crucial in understanding the paranormal and helping the haunted” or believe that it’s “a job well done if one assisted others, helped save and promote historical locations, and advanced knowledge within the field.” Then there are those who are ghost hunting in the hopes of becoming famous or making money, who get territorial about locations and prevent other investigators from learning about them.  Or worse, who generate false experiences or otherwise play on people’s fear to make a profit. This mirrors the early days of the profession, with fellow investigators taking the place of predatory spirit mediums. Accounts from both Sidgwick and Mac show they saw their work as a means of stamping out those who exploited people’s grief for fame and profit. Mac in particular saw rooting out spirit fraud as a calling. Throughout her career, she insisted that she had no problem with people who practiced spiritualism as a genuine faith or sought out the ideology because of grief. Rather, she could not stand people who used claims of ghosts and other paranormal phenomenon to profit off of the loss, hope, and belief of others.  Even though the women I spoke to are far more convinced of the existence of ghosts than Mac ever was, they share the belief that ghost hunting is meant to ease people’s pain or fear, rather than use it for personal gain.

“Too, enough people were angered by Houdini’s exposing of mediums that the great magician carried a gun in the event that “angry” became “murderous.” He urged Mac to do the same. She never did.”

What struck me most during my research and my back-and-forth with the NNGH was all the ways in which ghost hunting is another way in which women work with death. For some, the investigation of ghostly claims was and is one way to engage with the mystery of what happens after death. For others, ghost hunting is a way to ensure that death, or rather loss, does not make someone into a target for fortune-hunters who know that many of us would pay almost anything for one last chance to talk to a deceased loved one. Finally, there are those who recognize that telling the death-shrouded stories of a place is as much a part of preserving its history as telling the more light-hearted stories.

The Gender Question

Given the history and context of the profession, how do men end up as more successful or visible ghost hunters? One initial theory of mine was that men are more prone to risk-taking or, if you’re being unkind, worse at self-preservation than women. After all, even if you’re not afraid of a vengeful spirit coming after you, ghost hunting poses very real, physical risks. It often happens at night in buildings that are old or decaying. There are multiple reported cases of amateur ghost hunters getting hurt or killed during investigations from things like floors giving out beneath them. But this theory is contradicted by Rose Mackenberg’s experiences and the many women who participate in some form of ghost hunting in spite of the risks.

If it’s not their willingness to go into dark and spooky places that’s impeding women’s ghost-hunting fame, what is? A few members of the NNGH suggested that men may be more ego-driven in their ghost hunting, pursuing paths likely to bring them fame, while women may be more altruistic when selecting cases. One member speculated that technique may play a role as well: in her experience, women tend to be more patient and less apt to try confrontational investigation techniques (like loudly demanding a presence “show itself”). She believes that while there are women that have no problem with confrontation, “doing things for “ratings” and creating phony situations is easier to swallow for men.” But ego and confrontation style are not the whole story. In the words of one member, “I have encountered many women who want to be famous and doing everything to get noticed so it’s not lack of women trying to get famous that’s keeping them from making it big.” If that’s the case, it suggests the answer lies less with the culture or motives of ghost hunters and more with the people deciding whose ghost hunting stories get to be on T.V

“If it’s not their willingness to go into dark and spooky places that’s impeding women’s ghost-hunting fame, what is?”

If we’re talking about who gets a job and who gets to tell their story, then we’re talking about good old-fashioned sexism. Men are treated as the default in most forms of media. Presenting an all-male group of ghost hunters is an unmarked choice, while a group of women reads as appealing to a niche audience or trying to be politically correct.  There’s also the fact that men and women are often socialized to show emotions like fear in very different ways, one’s that lead an audience to view a man and a woman freaking out over the same strange noise very differently. Ironically, the same emotionality and sensitivity that supposedly makes women adept at connecting to the dead may work against them in the context of a T.V show. Said one investigator, “I think in general, men are more believable behind a camera frame, where women seem to carry their emotions which could be over the top for some viewers and not that believable.” Another investigator pointed out that the fact that many people view men as braver than women may cause them to view incidents involving male ghost hunters as move believable. She continued, “If you have a female investigator on TV and she jumps or screams she will be labeled a scaredy cat who shouldn’t be doing this line of work. A male doing it who jumps because he gets scared it’ll be the whole ‘oh no way!!! That must be real, he just got scared.’” This explanation gels with what we know about the way people perceive women and men’s emotions  leads to the assumption that women are “too emotional” to be objective in certain situations. It’s not ridiculous to assume that sexist stereotypes about believability and bravery influence who’s offered the chance to be a high-profile ghost hunter.

Barring getting funds for a mini-series or a book deal, I doubt I’ll dig up an all-encompassing explanation for the overrepresentation of men in ghost hunting. What I took away from my quest, and what I hope others remember, is that ghost hunting is another way that women have worked, and still do work, with death. Even if ghost hunting seems contrived or silly to some, people use its’ process and findings to make sense of everything from history to the afterlife. When the answers offered by ghost hunting influence our understanding of the world, it’s worth examining who’s asking the questions.

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Sam Wall is a queer writer and sex educator living in Nevada. She is the Assistant to the Director of Scarleteen.com, where she helps provide high-quality sex ed to young people around the world. She is interested in all the ways that gender, sexuality, and death intersect throughout history and in current cultures. She also enjoys exploring the ways in which marginalized communities use elements of horror and the macabre as forms of self-care and resistance.

Follow her on Twitter

 

“You must be very sensitive”

Nov 28 _EndoGraves.jpg
Sarah Gay-O’Neill ©

By Sarah Gay-O’Neill

This temporary flesh housing….

Used to feel like home.

Or maybe it never did.

It’s very easy to normalize pain when people in authoritative positions, like doctors, tell you everything is fine and ‘normal’…but is it normal to feel the drag of a rusty pitchfork clawing at your insides?

So many people told me that it was normal.

That it was normal for a body that menstruates…to be painful.

“You must be very sensitive”, they would say.

So I normalized it.

I normalized it for 21 years…until the pain became so loud…that it would throw me to the ground…and I would nearly lose consciousness…

Apparently this isn’t “normal”.

This is endometriosis…and it has destroyed my reproductive system…

I was diagnosed with stage 4 disease after having undergone a 5 hour surgery…losing my right ovary and fallopian tube as well as disease that had spread throughout my uterus, entire pelvis, and abdominal wall…

Post surgery I learned that endometriosis is a chronic disease for which there is no cure. I also learned that while there is so little information about it…1 in 10 people with a uterus have it.

It is more common than diabetes…

But if it is this common…why is it that the average person has never heard about it….?

Why are the treatments for it still a mystery?

Drug treatments like Lupron injections, a chemotherapy drug more commonly used for prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers; are the common practice. However, since the disease has no cure, these injections only stun the disease temporarily- and often have their own cocktail of miserable side-effects. Excision surgery is the only known effective treatment for endometriosis…and despite the disease being so common….there are less than 100 doctors who specialize in endometriosis excision surgery…

2 months after my surgery… an ultrasound has revealed that the disease has already returned… and is currently chewing away at my one remaining ovary…like a weed overtaking a garden…slowly choking the plants…

I have another surgery scheduled for August of this year…it’s the soonest my doctor can get me in…

I am so fearful that I will lose my one remaining ovary…

My family is pretty small…

I had always had this romanticised idea that one day if I had children…I would somehow be able to connect their lives with the lives of my family who has come before me. See faces of grandmothers from generations ago…mannerisms and quirks that weren’t mine….but someone’s from deeper in the family tree. To be able to meet my past by way of meeting this fresh new human that I had some part in creating.

But that won’t happen.

Once upon a time I thought it was student loan debt that would prevent me from having children…

Then it was finding employment during the recession….

Then it was finding affordable housing….

Finally…my life has settled down in some kind of way where if I wanted to have children…I could…

But endometriosis has stolen that from me…

And it fucking sucks.

I am 34.

It took 21 years to finally be diagnosed with endo…despite having seen no less than 20 doctors for agonizing pelvic pain, having 2 D&Cs (to check for cancer), 100’s of ultrasounds/ CT/ MRI scans, countless hormone therapies fail to make the pain bearable…etc…etc..etc…..

Unfortunately female pain is normalized too often…and situations like mine aren’t unique.

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Sarah Gay-O’Neill is an illustrator and multimedia artist living in Somerville, MA. She is curious and observant, revealing tiny truths that others may miss in the world around them. Sarah has a particular fondness for the daily quiet of everyday life, with a passion for activism and community engagement all while riding her bike around the city. Sarah draws inspiration from her love of nature, and her varied travels. She counts Vermont, Wyoming, and Connecticut as former homes. She has, however, spent the majority of her life living in the Boston area.

Sarah is regularly showing work in local galleries and recently finished two large scale murals in downtown Boston. She frequently live illustrates for Saks Fifth Ave, Jo Malone London, and various other fashion and perfume companies. Sarah is a professor of illustration at Lesley University College of Art and Design, works in media technology at Harvard University, and teaches youth programs at both the Museum of Fine Arts and MassArt, where she received both her BFA and Masters degrees.

heysgay.com

 

This Party’s Dead

--Z8dUIw

By Erica Buist

Whenever I talk about The Worst Tuesday, people recoil like I’m a coworker oversharing about a rectal exam. I get the sense I’m being violent. I watch their faces as I speak, notice them flinch and their shoulders tense, even though I only mention words like ‘bloated’ to one or two of the most genuinely curious friends. I think it’s the words ‘dead’, ‘died’, ‘body’ and ‘corpse’ that are doing it. While no one is about to say, “LANGUAGE, Erica!”, I wonder if I should soften the way I talk about it. Dull down the frankness. Or shut up about it altogether.

This is the start of the grief disconnect, the drowning loneliness that smothers the bereaved. Having to use euphemisms to look after the people who are trying to be there for you is like watching someone put on a surgical glove before taking your hand.

This practice of removing the listener from the reality of what’s happened is perhaps what’s turned us into a society where Death Cafes – people meeting to talk frankly about death – made the news. People openly discussing death makes HEADLINES in our culture. Because unless we’re in a death cafe, my father-in-law didn’t die. He passed away, on, or over. He went to heaven. He lost the fight. He bit the dust, gave up the ghost, faded away, went to be with Jesus. He snuffed it, carked it, croaked, pegged out. He popped his clogs, fell of his perch, cashed in his chips. This Chris is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. This is a late Chris. He’s a stiff, bereft of life, he rests in peace, if you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he would be pushing up the daisies. He’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-Chris.

“Having to use euphemisms to look after the people who are trying to be there for you is like watching someone put on a surgical glove before taking your hand.”

Chris didn’t die. He entered eternal rest, and took God’s hand. He joined his wife, he left us, departed this world, reached his expiration. He took a dirt nap, took a last bow, took the last train to glory. He went the way of all flesh. He kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, shuffled off this mortal coil.

He didn’t die, ok? He was taken, lifted or called home. He was promoted to glory, reunited with home, raised to eternal life . He departed this earth, finished his pilgrimage, made his divine journey. He has been completely healed of his heart disease. He lost the battle, surrendered, answered his master’s call.

Chris didn’t die. Rather, the book of his life unfurled its final chapter. He fell asleep, joined his forbearers, took flight on the wings of a dove. He took his last ride to the gates of heaven. God sent his heavenly angels for Chris, reached his hand down and took one of his children, dispatched his celestial chariot to bring him home. God’s finger touched him, and he slept; a procession of angels ushered him to glory, and he awakened to heaven’s morning light. He said goodnight here and good morning up there, he left his earthly body, went to his permanent home, transferred his membership to heaven, he finished the race and received his reward, he completed the mortal portion of the gift of eternal life. He received his angel wings, entered the celestial lodge, stepped onto heaven’s shore, walked into the throne room of God, passed on to the great physician. He completed his work here, and transitioned into kingdom light.

Chris didn’t die; I think you’ll find the angel of death swooped down from heaven and picked a precious jewel. Death visited, his demise came, he met death head on. Chris went home, left this earth, lifted off, walked through the valley of the shadow of death, left his worries behind.

“Chris didn’t die; I think you’ll find the angel of death swooped down from heaven and picked a precious jewel.”

He didn’t die, he took his last breath, took flight, transitioned to a new dimension. He finished life’s chores, crossed the finish line, went west, went away to his new home, passed onto smoother seas, went to a better place.

Chris didn’t die, he was ripped away, cruelly taken from his loved ones. He retired for good and left our world too early. He crossed the river, embarked on his last voyage, returned to God’s grasp.

Chris isn’t dead, he’s six feet under, wearing a pine overcoat. He’s at peace, he’s at rest, he’s history, he’s no longer with us. He’s dead as a dodo, dead as a doornail, food for worms. He’s belly-up, brown bread, counting worms. He slipped away, slipped into heaven, slipped out of his body, slipped into the deepest sleep, slipped over the rainbow, slipped quietly from this world, fuck me I had no idea the dead were so fucking slippery.

He died.

He’s dead.

I just want to talk about it without gloves on.

*

In my memory Dion is carrying a briefcase as he bends down to kiss me goodbye, but of course that’s ludicrous. That’s just my brain making the difference between us even starker; he’s freshly-showered and smartly-stressed. I’m groggy, pyjama-clad and already lost in the internet.

It wouldn’t be easy to convince anyone that stalking everyone I know to make sure they’re alive is a worthy use of my time, so I don’t tell anyone. Luckily, no one knows: my newspaper, coinciding beautifully with my increasing reluctance to leave the house, gave me a writing contract. In short, it’s all the fun of being a freelancer – interesting stories, wearing pyjamas and belting out Eye of the Tiger whenever I damn well please – and none of the financial insecurity. But in the wake of finding Chris dead in his bed, ravaged by over a week of decay, the interesting stories are passing me by, I’m in pyjamas because I can’t concentrate long enough to get dressed, and I keep belting out Eye of the Tiger to offset panic swells.

“I’m in pyjamas because I can’t concentrate long enough to get dressed, and I keep belting out Eye of the Tiger to offset panic swells.”

Having realized something no one else seems to know, that anyone outside my field of vision might be dead, I’ve developed a skill. I’m not accredited or anything, but I’m definitely right: I know how to ascertain the continued existence of anyone I’m not looking at. Please feel free to use the following seven-step process should you ever realize (in your gut rather than in your stupid, lazy, faith-infested brain) the unassailable truth than literally anyone can die without letting you know.

Step one

Call the Potentially Deceased Person (PDP) in question. Try to make up a valid excuse, or pretend it’s a butt dial if necessary. DO NOT say, “I was just calling to check you’re alive”, because that sounds mad. It might even come across as sarcastic and passive-aggressive; no one is inclined to believe your faith overdraft is this far in the red. Do they answer?

Yes: alive!

No: possibly dead, proceed to step two

Step two

Text the PDP. Do they answer?

Yes: alive!

No: Don’t panic just yet – is the ‘messaged delivered’ icon showing?

Yes: Phone was not destroyed along with them in a terrorist attack, drowning, car accident or natural disaster. They could still be dead of course, so text again tomorrow by which time their battery would have gone flat. In the meantime, if you’re too worried to wait that long, you can proceed to step three.

No: Possibly dead in a terrorist attack, drowning, car accident or natural disaster and phone destroyed in the process, proceed to step three.

Step three

Check Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network you know the PDP frequents with some regularity. Have they posted in the last [enter appropriate time here: some friends post hourly, others daily, anyone who updates more seldom than this renders the social media check useless, as they could be half rotted by the time their absence raises the alarm]?

Yes: alive!

No: Possibly dead, proceed to step four.

Step four

Send an instant message (IM). Does the “seen message” icon appear?

Yes: likely alive!

No: Possibly dead, proceed to step five.

Step five

Message someone close – partner, friends, family. Try to make the message non-mad. “HAVE YOU SEEN STEPH IS SHE ALIVE PLS ANSWER” is an example of a mad message. Try, “Have you seen [PDP] lately?” – and for god’s sake switch off caps lock. Caps lock is the first digital sign of madness. Have they seen them?

Yes: likely alive, depending on the time frame they give.

No: Possibly dead, proceed to step six.

Step six

Go to PDP’s house and knock/ ring the doorbell. Do they answer?

Yes: alive! – and, at this point, rude.

No: repeat steps one to five. If unresponsive, break down the door/ call the police to do it for you.

Step seven

Is your friend alive?

Yes: Congratulations! Wait a few days and repeat process.

No: Sorry for your loss, but at least you were prepared.

Repeat process for ALL other friends and family.

This is an extract from Erica’s book, THIS PARTY’S DEAD, in which she travels to seven death festivals.

The publisher is currently taking pre-orders on Unbound.com

You, our lovely reader get 10% off all available levels with the code:

MAIDEN10

Happy shopping!

Living in My Post-Recovery Body: Everyday Confrontations with Death

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By Caroline Morris

Every day in my post-recovery body is a confrontation with death.

Some see anorexia as a necessary confrontation with death that, if outlived, can lead to a fuller acceptance of life. This is probably true, but I don’t think the confrontation really begins until recovery begins. Awareness of mortality—fear of death—is the conception of recovery.

Most emotions, including fear, are dormant during anorexia, but my recovery from anorexia was drenched in death: for years, death was all I thought about, wrote about, dreamt about.

In the midst of this terror, I found something that I must have lost since, some acceptance of death that went beyond mere resignation.

I am in the process of rediscovering it.

*

The only thing more exhausting than recovery from anorexia is what lies beyond it.

I don’t ever want to downgrade the struggle of recovery—it was the hardest I have ever fought, the most excruciating thing I have ever done.

Every night, I saw that my promises from the night before had disintegrated as I slept, that I hadn’t kept a single one. Every night, I fell asleep wondering whether I would wake the next morning.

There is a sense of urgency in recovery—or there was for me. There was a feeling that I was racing against time, a persistent panic that my labor might all be in vain. Now that things have slowed down, I am depleted. Most days, I have just enough energy to do what I must. Some days, I don’t have even that.

“Most emotions, including fear, are dormant during anorexia, but my recovery from anorexia was drenched in death: for years, death was all I thought about, wrote about, dreamt about.”

For a few years, I thought maybe my body needed time to recover too, that these debilitating symptoms were simply part of the process—temporary, in other words—but I am starting to see that this might just be how my body functions now.

I know there are stages to recovery—long, slow stages broken up by small but momentous victories. I thought I had experienced every stage already, but I am seeing that in some real sense, I might still be recovering.

My mind is my own and reconnection has shown its fruit in nearly every aspect of my life, but there is one area that I find wanting: there are days when I want to reject my post-recovery body, days that its frailty and brokenness are too much for me.

I have found myself wondering if the last step in recovery is the acceptance—the full acceptance—of the post-recovery body. I have learned to accept its softness and the marks it has garnered over the years, but accepting its functional imperfections is far more difficult.

Every dysfunction, every sudden pain, every sign that I am not the healthy twenty-eight year old I likely could have been is a reminder that I am this body, that I am mortal, that I will die. Those days and nights of paralyzing fear have passed, but I am still confronting death all the time, though in much more subtle ways.

I think somehow, somewhere along the way, I forgot: recovery does not usher you into some bright, new future or world but into the real one, the uncertain one I was previously unable to feel at home in.

If anorexia is an ascetic disorder that is to some extent connected to the problem of mortality, and that is the way I see it, the way I experienced it, then recovery involves an acceptance of death or a reacceptance of life under these conditions.

“Every dysfunction, every sudden pain, every sign that I am not the healthy twenty-eight year old I likely could have been is a reminder that I am this body, that I am mortal, that I will die.”

This acceptance of life and death necessitates an acceptance of the body “with all its messiness and unpredictability.”[1] Bodies age and are injured. Bodies fall ill. Bodies are precarious.

I posit that the final task of recovery is to accept that recovery may not lead to perfect or even good health and that the body will always be fleshy and fragile, part of the natural world, not built to last.

*

I have found that others also understand their anorexia as being somehow linked to uncertainty about death and a rejection of the mortal body.

Sheila MacLeod, whose own recovery involved “flowers and fruit, fruition and decay,” writes that the anorexic “can find no other way of being-in-the-world than through a process of self-starvation.”[2] She observes that what the anorexic is seeking is confirmation “that she is a part of nature, and therefore at one with her own body.”[3] Though her process of self-starvation is essentially a refusal of life, the anorexic does not want to die. What she wants is freedom from death—what she wants is to know how to live in a world that is constantly dying.

Similarly, many of Catherine Garrett’s participants saw their anorexia as sort of spiritual distortion and believed that true or undistorted spirituality entails “acceptance and nurture of the body rather than its transcendence.”[4] While many of her participants spoke of their anorexia in spiritual terms, the anorexic is not necessarily religious. What makes her asceticism spiritual is “the relation which both [her] beliefs and actions bear to cultural ways of dealing with death.”[5] Western societies do not have the rituals necessary “to acknowledge death and make it serve socially positive and transcendent purposes,”[6] and Garrett proposes that anorexia can do just that.

“Though her process of self-starvation is essentially a refusal of life, the anorexic does not want to die. What she wants is freedom from death—what she wants is to know how to live in a world that is constantly dying.”

Ascetic withdrawal in the Christian tradition is often followed by a return. Anorexia, too, can be understood as a flight followed by a return. Garrett suggests that anorexia is but one half of two “ritualistic attempts to construct the self,” not something in and of itself but “a means to an end; a condition of access to the positive cult.”[7] In order to return, to recover, to access the so-called “positive cult,” what morality has stifled—desire for food, flesh, intimacy, and knowledge—must be reawakened.

By inciting questions about “the demand for ‘purity’ through over-control of the body itself”[8] and reminding us that “virtuous living” “can turn pathological,”[9] anorexia challenges us. Giordano writes that the way to resolve eating disorders most effectively is to “change, or at least rearticulate, the way we—all of us—think about concepts such as right and wrong.”[10] We need to follow Giordano’s lead and challenge the way that eating—the way that everything—is moralized. But we especially need better rituals to help people deal with the fragility of life, since obsessions with controlling the body, manifested in prohibitions against it, are attempts to control the inevitable, decay and death.

In the meantime, Garrett believes that anorexia can serve a social purpose, just as asceticism has in the past, by reminding us that we are all like the fasting saint and the anorexic, “as we engage in practices which transform our being in the encounter with our own mortality.”[11]

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Caroline has a Bachelor’s in English and is pursuing a Master of Divinity with a concentration in Writing. Her key interests include: the relationship between anorexia and virtue, eating disorders, asceticism, evangelical dieting culture, and libidinal education. She is, as her post suggests, both recovered and recovering, and she is new to sharing both her writing and her self.

References

[1] Catherine J. Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia: A Durkheimian Interpretation,” Social Science & Medicine 43, no. 10 (1996): 1500.

[2] Sheila MacLeod, The Art of Starvation (London: Virago Limited, 1981), 138.

[3] Ibid., 139.

[4] Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia,” 1498.

[5] Ibid., 1495.

[6] Catherine J. Garrett, Beyond Anorexia: Narrative, Spirituality, and Recovery (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 124.

[7] Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia: 1490.

[8] Garrett, Beyond Anorexia, 124.

[9] Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik, From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), 25.

[10] Simona Giordano, Understanding Eating Disorders: Conceptual and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 264.

[11] Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia,” 1496, 1501.

Playing with death – how the ‘Goodbye-box’ helps children grieve

By Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

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Funeral – Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©

A couple of weeks ago, I met Bonnie Jansen, a primary school teacher and trained play therapist. She has developed the DAG-box (Goodbye-box), a beautiful box filled with 44 wooden miniature figures. She created this box after the death of her mother to help her daughter grieve.

This is her story:

“After the death of my mother my seven-year-old daughter was very upset about her grandmother’s death. The funeral was a very overwhelming experience for her and she did not understand everything that happened. I wanted to help her. We read children’s books about death and tried to talk about her feelings and fears, but nothing really helped. It felt like these books, despite their beautiful stories and illustrations, were not about us. They were someone else’s story.

I decided to make something myself. I hand painted a set of wooden human figures and miniature objects for my daughter to play out her grandmother’s funeral. I wanted to create something in soft, friendly colours. Not the usual black that is often associated with funerals. I deliberately chose neutral human figures, with no face and skin colour so my daughter could project her own ideas onto them.

The box helped my daughter to play out her grandmother’s funeral, and to add her own story to the experience. It helped her share her feelings thoughts and questions. After having played a few times with the box, her fears reduced and she became much calmer.”

I was very impressed by Bonnie’s story, and after having seen the Goodbye-box and touched the figures, stunned by its beauty and potential.

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DAG Box – Bonnie Jansen ©

I bought one of the Goodbye-boxes and since then, a few children have played with it. It has been fascinating to see how each child immediately started exploring the box, taking out the figures and started playing.

A few examples of the stories they shared:

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“People are carrying grandad to the flames”  – Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©
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“I have decorated the coffin and people are standing around it. They are sad. There is music” – Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©
Carrying coffin_Copyright (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven
“People are carrying grandad to the flames” Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©

How play helps children grieve

It was an eye-opening experience for me to observe the children play with the box and to listen to the conversations that followed by asking them open questions based on what they were doing. It confirmed to me that play is a very powerful tool to communicate with children.

I was keen to learn more about play therapy, the method of which the Goodbye-box is based upon. I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Nancy Boyd Webb, scholar in the areas of child therapy, trauma, and bereavement, wrote several books and articles about play therapy.

Unlike adults, young children don’t have the emotional or cognitive ability to fully understand and process their responses to death or other upsetting experiences. Most of them have a hard time in expressing their feelings in words. The premise on which play therapy rests is that when the child trusts the person who is helping them and the this person successfully engages the child, either verbally or symbolically through play, the child will ‘play out’ his or her anxieties and confusions (Webb, 135). Play therapy will ultimately help the child towards a calmer adjustment, improved understanding and emotional healing (Webb, 145).

The Goodbye-box is inspired by a non-directive approach to play therapy, in which children take the lead. They select any wooden figure, they choose their own activities and they decide when the play is finished. This is different to the direct approach to play therapy where the supervising adult will ask the children to play with specific materials and will show how a story around the death or funeral of a person (Webb, 136).

Play as healing ritual

Playing with the Goodbye-box can be seen as a form of ritual. I prefer to approach ritual as an activity that helps people give meaning to their lives’ experiences. A ritual creates a temporary world: it provides a time, a place and a structure for people to express and share thoughts and feelings, often through the use of symbolic objects. If done well, a transformation can take place.

All of this applies to the Goodbye-box. The start and the end of playing with the Goodbye-box can be marked by using the candle and the emotion dice. At the start of the play, the child and observing adult light the candle and the child shares how they feel by choosing the face on the dice that best reflect their feelings at that point in time. When the child choses to end the play, it choses again the face that reflect their feelings at that point in time and blows out the candle.

More information

More information about the Goodbye-box can be found on the (Dutch) website of the box.

Rosalie lends her Goodbye-box to London-based families who would like to work with the box.

For more information please contact her at: rosalie@ritualstoday.co.uk

Quoted sources

Webb, Nancy B. (2011). Play therapy for bereaved children: Adapting strategies to community, school, and home settings. School Psychology International, 32(2):132-143.

Kuyvenhoven, Rosalie (2018). The Goodbye-box. A playful way to help children grieve. Published 22/03/2018 at www.ritualstoday.co.uk. Last accessed 28/03/2018.


Bonnie Jansen
is a primary school teacher and trained play therapist based in the Netherlands. She is the creator and developer of de DAG-box (‘Goodbye-box’), a set of wooden miniature figures that help children express their feelings and stories after an upsetting experience.

Rosalie Kuyvenhoven is an independent celebrant, She creates and conducts inclusive ceremonies and rituals for people of all beliefs, ages, gender identities and sexualities. She holds an MA in theology, was trained as a minister and worked for two years as a researcher and teacher with a special interest in Christian liturgy and rituals. She also has had careers in change management and learning & development, supporting individuals, teams and organisations in transition programmes for more than 12 years. She is an experienced facilitator, coach and Death Cafes host. In 2016 she was runner up Celebrant of the Year for the Good Funeral Awards and in 2017 she was a Finalist in the same category. Rosalie blogs about meaningful and relevant ceremonies at ritualstoday.co.uk and is active on Twitter and Instagram.

The Music of Mourning

By Valentine Wolfe

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“Sorrow for Eternity (For S.A.M)” artwork by Aristotle Pramagioulis

Full disclosure: we’re a heavy metal band, and a Gothic heavy metal band at that. To write music about death, in this case, might be as cliché as it gets, but as a wise woman (Jillian Venters) once said “embrace your clichés”. And in the summer of 2016, that was our intent, more or less: we were wrapping up a project that was inspired by 19th century cabinets of curiosity and taxidermy, and we were planning our next project, which we’d decided would be 19th century mourning, spiritualism, and ghosts.

At this point, we were also in mourning; one of our mentors and best friends had passed away, quite unexpectedly. We had no idea this would be the first loss of many; over the course of 2016—2017, we lost 9 people we loved, people who had changed our lives forever.

While music has always been therapeutic for both of us, this was new and terrifying territory.

Further disclosure: we’re a heavy metal band that has no guitars or drums. We’re a metal band with a female vocalist, which is increasingly not as crazy as it would have seemed in the 80s or 90s. We’re a heavy metal band that’s primary instrument is one usually associated with classical and jazz music: the double bass. We think it’s safe to say we’re comfortable pursuing our own path, even into terrifying territory.

Pursuing our own path is how we found Death and the Maiden, The Order of the Good Death, and the Death Positive movement. This happened as a result of an artistic aim, as Schubert fans we were thinking about using his song, Death and the Maiden, as a source of inspiration to tell our own story of grief. That’s how we found Death and the Maiden and when the second death of 2016 happened (our bassist’s sister died, young and quite unexpectedly from a rare and undiagnosed genetic disorder), we were feeling quite on our own as baby death-positives.

The collection of songs we produced, The Elegiac Repose, became our music with a purpose. We wanted to heal, to grieve, to find an honest foundation about loss, and we thought that if we needed those things, perhaps the people listening to our music needed it too.

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“Taphophilia” artwork by Aristotle Pramagioulis

The first song Sarah, our lead singer, composed for The Elegiac Repose was Sorrow for Eternity. This song is an angry, primal cry when confronted with the death of a loved one, also equally angry at the perceived need to bear this news with dignity. There’s a plan and all that. Not dead, only sleeping. In other words, a cry of rage against the hollow platitudes of the death-denial culture we share.

In therapy, you learn it’s OK to not be OK: Sorrow For Eternity is a song that functions as the first part of that process: acknowledging that this is not OK.

Sorrow For Eternity wound up being the keystone to the rest of the album. Each new song was reflected back into its mirror, from the overall sound of each song to the emotional impact of the lyrics and performances. We were determined to explore our states of being through music, with this song acting as our psycho-pomp, reminding us that yes, this is a hard burden to bear, and some days will be better than others.

“We were determined to explore our states of being through music.”

The next songs were composed in a flurry of activity as we sought solace in music. The Sin Eater became a kind of symbol of death for us: we avoid death at all costs, we shun, we deny, we pretend, and in the Sin Eater’s case, we despise…and we found that quite ironic considering the Sin Eater’s function was to ease the transition into the afterlife (we’ve talked about the Death Positive movement after shows, and we usually frame THAT discussion as such: regardless of what you believe will happen after, your death is certain. So let’s talk…)

Taphophilia is one of Sarah’s strongest death positive sentiments. It further expounds on the afterlife thought we just shared, that is, no matter what you believe might happen, here’s what we know will happen. As such, Sarah’s lyrics work as commentary on the barriers we have faced, and maybe some of you have faced, when discussing death positive concepts:

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Porcelain Creature was a song created later in the process: we both imagined a shattered doll, held together with golden glue, as in wabi-sabi. For both of us, this became a powerful image of grief and its effects. Good as new is an illusion; there’s your life before and your life afterwards. And we also used the lyrics to comment on what we started calling the “acceptable mourning time period” in which after the usual seize the day exhortations, you find yourself slowly, treacherously being expected to be…better. We both firmly believe this to be a symptom of death denialism.

Melancholy Is The Devil’s Bath, conceptually, is the biggest remnant of our original time capsule plan. What it became was our take on things gothic as a gateway; we’ve always felt that music or literature that encourages curiosity is a good thing. Sometimes, when we share our death positivity and interests, there’s that knowing smirk and banal observation of “well, you’re goths, so duh…” We find this somewhat infuriating.

Within that context, Sarah sings:

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Death and the Maiden began as our love letter to Franz Schubert and turned into our love letter to deadmaidens.com. There’s a whole poem by John Clare inserted into the middle section, and on the surface, the plot of our danse macabre concerns a personification of death taking an interest in a young woman at a funeral. Only at the end do we reveal that the Maiden and Death are the same entity. The transformation that occurs, lyrically, also mirrors our own transformation: from mourning and shattered to death accepting and…well, less shattered. In subsequent live performances, we’ve felt that the transformation also echos our experience with death positivity: from initial explorations, to affirmations, to finally, the need to share this concept, far and wide.

“Death and the Maiden began as our love letter to Franz Schubert and turned into our love letter to deadmaidens.com”

Softly Shall You Sleep is the last phrase spoken to the Maiden by Death in Schubert’s song. In many ways, it’s a coda to the previous song, Sarah’s brooding piano and wordless vocals expressing the essence of the famous quote “Where words fail, music speaks”.

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“Porcelain Creature” artwork by Aristotle Pramagioulis

Prospero’s Farewell is, taken from the famous epilogue to The Tempest. Following the death of Braxton’s sister, he found himself listening to this speech several times in the evening before bed. Taking a hint from his subconscious, he asked to Sarah to set the words to music. Prospero’s Farewell is rife with musical symbols as a remembrance to Braxton’s sister: it shares meter, motive, and a variation of a chord progression with two songs from his sister’s favorite band. Lyrically, these words were of great comfort as he imagined them spoken by ones who died before.

Making that connection would not have been possible without the work of the death positive movement.

Last Kiss, the finale, acts a summation of our view on what it means to be death positive: we all have to say goodbye one day. Our lives are precious because they must end. And we don’t find this morbid or creepy, we find this beautiful. For us, and for most of you reading I suspect, to be death positive is to be life positive.

“Our lives are precious because they must end.”

For us, finding this community inspired us to imbue our music with purpose; music became our therapy again. And we wanted to work that way for others, too.

The Elegiac Repose was released on September 1. Since then, we’ve invited people to ask us about the Death Positive movement and to share their feelings with us after our shows: there has been laughter, tears, and the all-too-common “but I thought it was illegal not to be embalmed!”.

The 19th Century historical aspects didn’t completely fall away, however. We worked with an amazing visual artist, Aristotle Pramagioulis, and we decided to display the lyrics as Mourning Cards/Announcements. We still believe this presentation encourages curiosity, and as we keep performing these songs, we hope this curiosity encourages engagement with your own mortality.

After all, now that we found all of you, we DO know where these thoughts come from!

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“Death and the Maiden” artwork by Aristotle Pramagioulis

Formed in 2006, Valentine Wolfe is the combined effort of Sarah Black and Braxton Ballew. Imagine Sarah Brightman being backed by Francois Rabbath shredding through a Marshall stack at midnight. Having dubbed their music “Victorian Chamber metal”, the duo have synthesized a love of metal, classical, and industrial, infusing them with a Victorian sensibility that evokes the likes of Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe.

Ethereal soprano vocals of Sarah Black are buttressed by the thunderous growl of Braxton’s electric upright bass, the two coalescing over pounding rock and electronic grooves punctuated by a maelstrom of synthesizers, keyboards, and sound design. Their work has attracted the attention of rock audiences, goth enthusiasts, theatre composers, and con attendees all up and down the east coast.

Their previous releases include The Nightingale: A Gothic Fairytale, is an dramatic adaptation and reinterpretation of both The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen and Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats, set in a sinister Poison Garden, based on the Alnwick Botanical Gardens in England, where every single plant can kill. 2016 saw the release of A Child’s Bestiary, nine tracks of macabre oddities from the imagination, an exploration of a grotesque menagerie, lurking under the guise of a child’s innocent rhymes.

Their most current release is The Elegiac Repose, nine death positive songs of grief, mourning, and loss.

Visit them online at valentinewolfe.com

Follow their musical journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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Prince Deserved a Good Death

By Caroline Reilly

The day Prince died, I was in pain.

I had just been diagnosed with endometriosis, and I was home sick from school when I started to see tweets come in about emergency personnel being called to Paisley Park. That afternoon I sat in my mother’s car trying to figure out if I had forgotten to take my naproxen – or if I was simply in so much pain it wasn’t working, and we talked about Prince – about what he meant to us, about his beauty, and about his pain. I spent the next 24 hours reading about Prince’s death – listening to pundits on the news and on Twitter speculate about addiction, pondering whether Prince overdosed. In their uncertainty, their hypotheses seemed accusatory; nefarious – like they were blaming Prince for his death before the world had even come to grips with losing him.

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Sitting in car with hand on the window, 2004 by Afshin Shahidi.

At the time, it was hard for me to understand how someone could be so medicated and still be in so much pain. But as I look back over the last two years of my life since Prince’s death, some of which involved taking opiates at the direction of my doctors to manage pain as part of my recovery –  and as I think about the community of chronic pain patients I have come to know – I feel like I have a clearer picture of this ephemeral man who I had always loved, and my heart aches for the way he left us. I am enraged at how badly we failed him both when he was living and after he died.

We know now that Prince died taking what he thought were Vicodin, a legal prescription medication doctors often prescribe for pain, when he was actually, and unknowingly, taking Vicodin laced with fentanyl. Forensic reports show that the Vicodin he took was counterfeit, and evidence shows that Prince did not knowingly take fentanyl. Of his death, a Minnesota prosecutor said, “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him.” He also said that Prince had been experiencing “significant pain,” that he had been taking pain medication for years, and that he had no known prescription for Vicodin.

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2004 by Afshin Shahidi.

We don’t know why Prince was using counterfeit fentanyl or why he was taking a medication for which he did not have a prescription. But we know he was suffering. The opioid epidemic is ravaging our country. On the other side of that story though, exist chronic pain patients who need, who deserve, pain management that works, and for many living in this country today, that means the use of opioids, both because they are needed and because there exists an inexcusable deficit of alternatives for patients. So, when I think about Prince’s death, I think about how the paperwork at my internist specifies that the entire practice does not prescribe opioids and about how, in October, a major insurance company announced they would no longer cover OxyContin. I think about women I know with endometriosis who struggle to get the pain management they need, and who are looked at with suspicion in emergency rooms and in doctors’ offices where they are supposed to be made well. I think about people of color, for whom pain management is often even harder to get as some sick manifestation of the long held and deeply racist myth that black people have higher pain tolerances. I think about the number of states without legalized medical marijuana, and then the states where only a certain set of ailments qualify for a medical card needed to legally obtain it.

I think about the isolation Prince must have felt in his pain; to have such a beautiful world around him, and to have created so much of that beauty, and to have died simply trying to not be in pain.

And Prince’s death is not only a reflection on the flaws in our solutions for pain management and in the ways we fail chronic pain patients; his death is a reflection of our society’s discomfort with the reality of mortality – that death comes for all of us, if we lead private small lives, or if we’re Prince.

When Prince died, it was as if the whole world was looking for a way to explain why. They wanted to find fault, both to implicate a target of blame, and to insulate themselves from the possibility that it could happen to them — that somehow Prince must have been making bad choices, acting irresponsibly, and that by avoiding such assumed decisions, we safeguard ourselves from his fate. Pain is like death in that way; we don’t want to face its existence; it’s indiscriminate nature. We like to think that if we ever had to live with it, we would do it better than the next person, and that our lack of empathy is not out of cruelty, but out of our assuredness that we would be able to handle it; to beat it. We don’t want to think untimely death or pain can come for someone like Prince – we want to think that if you’ve earned a certain station in life, financially or otherwise, that you are exempt from facing that unbearable unpleasantness, and that if you are not, there must be some disreputable explanation for your suffering.

But Prince was as human as he was supernatural, and he was in pain. Prince, like all of us, deserved a good death, and a good death is preceded by a good life. A life in pain, chasing relief that for many is only fleeting, or a dull damper on the agony, is not a good life, it is not a fair life. And a death shrouded in speculation and judgement and exploitation, and hastened by the simple desire to not be in pain, is not a good death.

Prince Rogers Nelson

07/06/1958 – 21/04/2016

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Prince is discussing everything from love to the constellations, 2004 by Afshin Shahidi.

Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She recently presented at the Death and the Maiden conference on how anti-abortion movement co-opts death-phobia to advance their agenda, and is interested in the ways in which death positivity and the reproductive justice movement intersect. She is also an avid true crime fan, and wants to further explore the ways in which women connect to the genre as a source of strength and healing. You can find her writing on abortion rights, women and pain, and more at Bitch MediaBustFrontline (PBS), Scarleteen, and Rewire. You access her nationally recognized writing on teen access to abortion here.

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Caroline is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.

Follow on Twitter and Instagram.

The Girl and the Graveyard

By Claire L. Smith

The dead lay smuggled amongst their bones,

Relishing the peace and deceased silence.

The sky was dark and the ground a deep plum,

Tinted by the blood and tears of ones once loved.

A dangerous laughter pierced the silence,

Breaking the peace, summoning the dead.

A girl giggling in a white nightie,

A pure dove caught in a black curtain.

At first, they loved her, her smile like tiny diamonds in the black veil.

But she took her first leap, her white robe lifting to reveal her wickedness.

She landed with a crunch, the skull collapsing beneath her feet.

With another giggle, she soared once again,

Breaking bones whilst their owners screamed.

The dead swarmed around her, cradling each other in mutual grief,

Their weak remains turned to dust between her toes,

Her laughter a toxic song, entrapped with the sound of broken bones.

From behind the curtain, immerged a man,

Dressed in white with a blank, darkened face.

He watched the girl dance, shaking his shaved head.

With a leisurely pace, he crossed the field,

Kicking the surviving bones out of his way.

With slam of his foot, he earned her attention,

Another broken skull wedged between the dirt and his shoe.

“That’s enough,” he said, “you shouldn’t do that”

Confusion buttered her brain as he reached for her,

Hauling her away by the joint of her wrist.

With one last giggle, she turned back to look,

Smiling at the dead whilst proud of her devilish art.

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Claire L. Smith is an Australian author, poet, screenwriter and artist. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Luna Magazine, Mookychick, Anti-Heroin Chic and Moonchild Magazine. Her essays promoting gender equality has been featured in Business Woman Media, Mookychick, NerdVanaTV and A Woman’s Thing. She is also an official contributor to Outlet Magazine.

A full list of Claire’s work can be found here.

My Mother

By Matthew Rossi

I’ve wanted to write about my mom for a while, but I also haven’t wanted to write about her at all.

I could try and justify this, but the fact is, I’m an adult and my mother has been dead for more of my life than she was alive for and I hate it. I hate that she is dead. The word hate is so small, so insufficient for what I am trying to say. It’s like saying the universe is big. It’s true, but it fails to capture what I’m trying to convey. So instead, try and imagine this:

Imagine that someone wanted a child so much that she kept trying, despite miscarriages and stillbirths, and finally managed. That she raised that child, the only one she would ever get, and despite every setback and blow dealt her in an unfair life she made do. That she was his advocate when he did wrong, his defender, and even the harsh hand of reality when he was off the rails. That despite her husband’s affairs and eventual desertion, despite her family and their complete lack of care or help, she persevered and kept that child going. Despite everything, the dwindling finances, the house she couldn’t afford alone, the utter lack of child support from her ex.

Now imagine that woman, near the end of her rope, develops a cough that won’t go away. She’s working two jobs – she’s teaching second grade at a Catholic school that specializes in kids with special needs, and she’s also working a shift at a department store. She goes to doctors, repeatedly, and they tell her it’s nothing. Each doctor visit costs a couple of hundred bucks at a time when she’s barely holding on to the house that got mortgaged by her ex to pay for the airplane and boat he’s using with his new wife. The cough gets worse. Her son insists she go to the doctor again but she puts her foot down. There’s no money. She gets by on cold medicine. Gets worse, but keeps working because what else can she do? Eventually the cough is so bad that she goes back in, but the doctor tells her that she’ll need tests to determine what it is. The tests will cost her monthly salary from both jobs.

She doesn’t get the tests.

She’s dead a week later.

I want you to imagine this because I don’t have to. This is the reality of the end of my teen years. This is how my mother died. I found her sitting on a love seat in the den of our house, the television on, her teeth locked tight together. I tried to do CPR, but I didn’t really know how, and I couldn’t get her mouth open. She was already in rigor. She’d died alone on the love seat while I slept. She didn’t even wake me up.

She died terrified of bills.

She died because working two jobs wasn’t enough to pay for doctors to save her.

She died of a lung infection that was entirely treatable if they’d just run the tests and found out what it was instead of throwing random antibiotics at her. The tests she couldn’t afford. She spent nearly 18 hours a day working between her two jobs, barely got enough sleep to function, had to spend the entirety of every weekend resting to recover… but that wasn’t good enough, and she died.

And there are people who right now think that’s the way it should be. Many of them in the US Senate, House of Representatives, the White House.

So no, the word hate isn’t sufficient for the emotion that comes over me when I think of my mother’s death. There is no word sufficient for it. She’s been dead since 1990 and I haven’t been able to think clearly about her in twenty -eight years. I can’t look at the few pictures I have left of her without remembering what she looked like dead. I can’t remember how she liked her coffee without remembering having to make coffee for the people who came to tell me she was dead.

She didn’t have to die like that.

The tests existed. The treatments existed. She could have been saved.

We just didn’t have enough money.

My mother was funny, sarcastic, brilliant. She loved like fire and hated just as intensely. She wasn’t always right, but she believed it enough that I often did too. We didn’t always agree. I was a young man who had no idea who I wanted to become and a whole head full of self-loathing, a trait we shared. No matter how I gave up on myself, she never gave me up. In the end, when she was dying, she chose to let me sleep. She knew I’d call an ambulance.

She knew we couldn’t afford it.

I come back to that over and over again. My mother is dead because we couldn’t afford to save her. In 1990, in the United States of America, a 42 year old woman working two jobs, one of them a teacher… that woman couldn’t afford to be saved. It would have broken us. We might have lost the house. That financial terror drove her to take pills that couldn’t fix her and work even harder, with less sleep, and not to get the tests needed to find out what was wrong.

Every time I think about this I feel that same thing, that emotion which is forced to fit into the word hate because there is no word for it. No word great enough for the feeling of seeing us 28 years later making the same arguments, trying to get someone to care that people are dying and will continue to die who don’t have to. Who could live for years, decades longer, if we’d just help them.

My mother could have seen me graduate.

She could have seen me get married.

She could have seen me write my books.

She never got to see any of it. At 46, I’m four years older than she was when she died. I was eighteen when it happened, a few weeks shy of her birthday. Much of it has faded away, eroded by time, the sharp edges around the fracture smoothed out. I can look back and remember her before that happened. I can even smile, sometimes. Remember her taking me and my cousin to the store and pretending to be Alfred from the Batman TV show, letting us bicker over who got to be Batman and who had to be Robin. Remember her embarrassing me by calling me a communist in the supermarket. Remember her putting her car in park and refusing to move it until they got a cheeseburger without ketchup or pickles or mustard made for me. Or the time she threatened to beat a man seven inches taller than her to death if he didn’t let go of my arm when I was twelve.

I can remember her. But I can’t remember her without remembering how she died.

How she didn’t have to.

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Matthew Rossi is the only surviving child of Joan Rossi nee Morgan. He lives in Edmonton with his wife, 3 cats, dog and a vast and unruly collection of books. He is a freelance writer.

Rossi’s series Nameless is inspired by the death of his mother, you can purchase them by clicking here.

Ultimate Fantasy: Magic, Murder & Performing Femininity in The Love Witch

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Samantha Robinson as Elaine in The Love Witch

“Got hair as black as night

Got a skirt that’s ooh, so tight

Tellin’ you, I’ve got an itch…

She’s my witch.”

– Kip Tyler, ‘She’s My Witch’

For thousands of years there has been no symbol of feminine power more polarizing than the witch. Societal perceptions of witchcraft have swung wildly from reverence to scorn and back again, as female healers and magicians are viewed as either benevolent sages or as cunning manipulators seeking only to castrate men, both figuratively and (quite) literally. The witch shows us all we love – and all we fear – about the feminine.

Witches are also no strangers to cinema, but few films or TV shows can boast a protagonist as glamorous and enigmatic as Elaine, the titular sorceress of writer-director-producer-editor Anna Biller’s 2016 feminist horror-comedy The Love Witch.

The film opens with Elaine (Samantha Robinson) driving on a picturesque northern California highway. Everything about Elaine looks perfect, from her red dress to her vintage cherry-colored Mustang convertible to her iconic makeup: Blue eye-shadow, winged black eyeliner, false lashes, heavy rouge, and glossy coral lips. But it’s soon clear that something is off about our heroine, that her perception of reality is skewed. Even as she contemplates all she’s learned about men and love since the death of her husband, Jerry, she doesn’t acknowledge what the audience clearly sees: Jerry was murdered – by Elaine. Finally, she arrives at her new home, where she meets Trish (Laura Waddell), a more grounded woman who regards Elaine’s over-the-top beauty with equal parts wistful envy and healthy skepticism.

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Elaine at the Victorian Tea Room

Trish invites Elaine to the “ladies only” Victorian tea room, where the two discuss Elaine’s approach to relationships: Namely, give men what they want – inhabit the feminine archetype to a T – and they’ll love you. As Trish cocks an eyebrow, Elaine posits that sex, nurturing, and flattery are necessary to properly bewitch a man – a lesson she learned the hard way when Jerry left her. “The day he left me was the day that I died,” she declares. “But then I was reborn as a witch!”

While she spends her days painting, casting spells, and eating cakes in a variety of stunning outfits (Biller also meticulously oversaw costumes, makeup, music, and set design – right down to personally knitting the film’s pentagram rug and painting some of the portraits that fill Elaine’s apartment), Elaine never loses sight of her goal: Find a man, make him love her, and make damn sure he never leaves her. Her first victim is Wayne, a professor and self-proclaimed lothario who she kills by dosing him with psychedelics, followed by Trish’s husband, Richard, who is driven to despair and eventual suicide by his obsession with Elaine. Finally, Elaine meets her “dream man” – Griff, the staunchly masculine, no-nonsense police detective investigating her involvement in Wayne’s death. Along the way, we learn about Elaine’s backstory – her abusive father, her loveless marriage, her exploitation at the hands of her paternalistic coven’s leader, a man who preaches that “a woman’s greatest power lies in her sexuality” even as he rapes Elaine on the altar – and how creating the persona of “the Love Witch” was a direct response to that abuse, manipulation, and assault.

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Elaine with Trish at her apartment

One of the most striking aspects of the film is its bold stylistic choices, which have led some critics to declare The Love Witch a parody or pastiche. In fact, Biller has said that the film is neither and is not intended to be a period piece, beyond the basic aesthetic inspiration she drew from the occult films that proliferated in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Shot in widescreen 35mm and utilizing lighting techniques gleaned from classic cinema, the film does appear decidedly retro to modern eyes, but part of its cleverness is the way it challenges viewers to see beyond its surface, just as men would be well advised to look beyond Elaine’s beautiful exterior.

As a director, Biller is unafraid to bring deeply feminine imagery to the screen. Two of the most notable examples are the aforementioned tea room scene and Elaine and Griff’s Ren Faire inspired mock wedding. Of these scenes, she told Filmmaker Magazine: “People can’t believe the tearoom and the renaissance fair scenes — people think these are weird feminine-leaning things I threw in the movie just to be insane. But those are the thematic backbone of the film…[Those] scenes are expressions of [Elaine’s] inner fantasy life coming on the screen.” The tendency of some viewers to dismiss these crucial thematic scenes as mere “fluff” illustrates how seldom we see an unmistakably feminine aesthetic on screen, and how jarring – and exciting – it can feel when we do.

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Griff and Elaine at their mock wedding with her coven at a Renaissance faire

My own interest in what I would call the performance of femininity as an act of empowerment dates back to the ‘90s, when many of my favorite musicians did just that. Third wave feminism met punk rock in riot grrrl, a short-lived but extremely potent movement in which bands delivered radical gender politics with a schoolgirl’s playground sneer. Don’t reject or transcend your girlhood, they argued. Change the connotations of girlhood instead.

Other bands, like Hole and Babes in Toyland, featured frontwomen who performed while wearing bright red lipstick, tattered baby doll dresses, and bleached blonde hair to play up their gender almost to the point of the grotesque, a la What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Even solo artists like Polly Jean Harvey and Tori Amos made their mark in part by giving voice to vilified female archetypal figures like Eve and Mary Magdalene. These women seemed less interested in infiltrating rock music’s boys’ club and more interested in burning down the clubhouse with all of the boys inside.

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Elaine performs a love spell

But there is nothing punk or edgy about the way Elaine performs femininity. She is not commenting on or subverting anything – she is simply trying to play the game, to do what she believes she must in order to win the adoration of a man, in order to be loved. A more apt parallel can be drawn between Elaine and the music and persona of Lana del Rey, a frequently misunderstood and oft-derided artist who has become loosely associated with The Love Witch among fans due to her pretty-when-you-cry brand of languid beauty and her almost nihilistically romantic lyrics. “If I get a little prettier, can I be your baby?” she coos in 2012’s “Gods and Monsters,” only moments after branding herself as “an angel looking to get fucked hard.” It’s not hard to imagine the song playing in Elaine’s boudoir as she undergoes her own daily ritual transformation from lonely young woman to glamorous witch.

Indeed, The Love Witch reminds us of the very etymology of the word “glamour,” a term that connotes not just beauty or sex appeal but enchantment, illusion, and witchcraft. Elaine’s magic is not limited to her spells, potions, and witch bottles – her entire persona is a form of love magic; even her wardrobe is a weapon, as when she uses the interior of her rainbow-lined coat to enchant a heavily tripping Wayne before their sexual encounter.

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Elaine enchants Wayne at his cabin

While Elaine looks invariably gorgeous, we are also offered glimpses “behind the curtain” at the rigorous effort that her character puts in to present herself the way she does, such as when Trish discovers some of her “tools of the trade,” including a full wig displayed on her vanity. In another scene, Elaine buries a witch bottle that she’s made incorporating her own urine and a used tampon as ingredients; both bodily fluids are shown on screen. Amusingly, these scenes elicited an audibly shocked response from some men in the audience when I first saw the film. For them, it seems that simply being reminded that Elaine is a real person and not just a fantasy made flesh is so offensive to their cinematic expectation of Beautiful Woman as Passive Object that it appears to be the true horror of the film. In fact, exposing and questioning those very expectations – and how damaging they can be to men and women alike – lie at the heart of The Love Witch.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Biller discusses how the dehumanizing demands of a patriarchal society manifest in Elaine: “This is what men demand of women. It’s kind of a social irony. They want this woman who’s beautiful, she’s perfect, she looks gorgeous all the time, she’s subservient, she doesn’t talk too much, she cooks for them, she’s loving. What if you took that literally? What if you really became that thing that men want you to be? You’d be a Frankenstein monster. That’s where the comedy comes from — the comedy comes from her literal interpretation of what is demanded of her.” And, I would argue, the horror comes from the emotional fragmentation, insanity, and violence that result when acting on that literal interpretation fails to help her achieve her intended result.

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Star and Moon perform at the Cabaret

Every man who falls for Elaine praises her for the way she looks, for the way she makes them feel. Even though all she wants is to be seen and to experience romantic connection, she remains an enigma to her lovers, failing again and again to achieve true intimacy with them. They don’t want to love her; they only want to possess her. When Richard asks, “Who are you?” Elaine replies ecstatically, “I’m the love witch! I’m your ultimate fantasy!” In that moment, she wills herself to believe that she is no more than that, that she needs no more than that. But it is a victory that is unsustainable, unrewarding, and profoundly hollow. No matter how much she gives them, it’s never enough, and she quickly grows to resent men for the very attention she herself lavishes upon them. “Poor baby. Poor, poor baby,” she repeatedly coos to lover after lover, and the more she says it the less she means it, until the phrase is practically dripping with disdain.

“She is nearly sexually assaulted by an angry mob at a burlesque club after her crimes are uncovered, and – most devastating of all – she fails to bewitch Griff after he sees her for who she really is: A murderer.”

Unfortunately, Elaine’s witchcraft is no match for the insidiously damaging effects of the patriarchy. She is nearly sexually assaulted by an angry mob at a burlesque club after her crimes are uncovered, and – most devastating of all – she fails to bewitch Griff after he sees her for who she really is: A murderer. The force of his gaze, bereft of all affection, is too much for her to withstand; Elaine withers under his stare to the extent that she tries to physically shield herself from it. In the end, our heroine is left alone with blood on her hands and a sad smile on her lips as she descends fully into madness, her reality too painful and ugly for even a self-proclaimed powerful “love witch” to bear. Despite her best efforts, Elaine has found no magic strong enough to overcome the crushing burden of being female in a society that leaves little room for women to be seen as fully human – and that, finally, is the film’s true horror.

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Elaine in the final scenes of The Love Witch

Melissa Pleckham is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles with her husband and their adopted son, a tuxedo cat named Sandya. She wrote and starred in the comedy short film Group, as well as the micro-short Nothing Happens, which was an Official Selection of both the Midsummer Scream Halloween Festival in Long Beach, CA and the inaugural Salem Horror Fest in Salem, MA. Her fiction and poetry have been featured on HelloHorror and in the collection Entombed in Verse from FunDead Publications, and her screenplay Blackstone was a semi-finalist in the 2017 Screamfest Horror Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

Her thoughts on Halloween and horror films can be found on her blog, Spooky Little Girl; follow her on Instagram and Twitter for adorable cat pics and general California creepiness.

Saving Face: Death, Necropolitics and the Hiroshima Maidens

By Becky Alexis-Martin

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“November 1945. Hiroshima, Japan.” Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum/US Army/Reuters.

On the 6th August 1945, the USA deployed the first atomic bomb in warfare against Hiroshima in Japan and the city was irrevocably changed forever. The power of the blast shattered windows to smithereens. Concrete crumbled and turned salmon pink from exposure to ionising radiation. The searing heat of wildfires reduced wooden buildings to cinders. The exact number of fatalities is unknown, due to wartime population transience and the destruction of records during the blast. Estimates suggest that 135,000 people died, many of whom were women and children. Those who did survive were condemned by their communities and described as Hibakusha, the exposed people.

The Hibakusha became close to death from the moment that the bomb was detonated. Hiroshima city was littered with charred bodies in the aftermath. Most depictions of the wreckage were taken too late to reflect this harsh truth. For many victims death and cremation occurred concurrently, as their bodies were reduced to ash by the heat of the blast. Traces of human shadows were scorched onto steps and walls. For the remaining dead, temporary crematoriums were rapidly established across the city. The most notable of these was a makeshift altar of a Buddhist temple that stood half a mile from the blast epicentre. This site became the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. In Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, it remains an inconspicuous repository for a collection of neatly stacked white porcelain urns and pinewood caskets that contain the ashes of some 70,000 deceased. Ashes were retrieved from across the city, and the collection grew as the remains of more victims were gradually discovered[1]. Many urns remain unclaimed but will remain in the mound for perpetuity to provide some sense of dignity, an identity and a remembrance of life before death for the deceased. For the thousands interred in shared caskets, there is only anonymity and the inseparable solidarity of fate. Killed by the American atomic bomb.

“For many victims death and cremation occurred concurrently, as their bodies were reduced to ash by the heat of the blast. Traces of human shadows were scorched onto steps and walls.”

The atomic bombing erased gender by universal dehumanisation, stripping survivors of everything except their lives. However, gender has played an important role in shaping the experiences communities and individuals after the bombing[2]. Japanese society was characterised by a complex system of beliefs pertaining to purity and pollution and this had implications for environment, death and the bodies of women after the bomb. Arguably, female Hibakusha have suffered the greatest cultural and social burdens of all atomic bomb survivors. Many women and their families believed that their disfigurations were subjective reflections of family status, instead of representing the objective effects of nuclear war. The identities, self-worth and sexuality of female Hibakusha were all stilted by the bomb. Cultural fears surrounding the hereditary consequences of ionising radiation exposure meant they were stigmatised, due to a perception that they could further radiate their own personal misfortunes through bodily contact and their future children. Female Hibakusha were therefore subject to othering – they existed as liminal beings, their bodies viewed as abject, unliveable and uninhabitable [1]. For those who were children at the time of the bombing, there was a sense of pity and hopelessness for their solitary future non-lives, perceived as dead maidens walking. The Hiroshima Maidens were the first Hibakusha to be encountered by the American public, and made visible the hidden humanitarian consequences of Hiroshima through their scars. Existing in the liminal space between life and death, they shed their death masks through intervention by the same nation that created their disfigurements. Their story is one of death, necropolitics and aesthetic rebirth, and its corporeal, cultural and political consequences.

Saving Face


Necropolitics is used to describe how the state may determine who can live and who must die[3]. It is a component of the melting-pot of bio politics of control and abandonment, a process of designation of the bodies, races, genders, nations and communities that are saved, left to death or made to die. America exhibited a callous cognitive dissonance towards their role in Hiroshima’s fate. During USA post-war occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, the State Department forbade US newspapers, magazines and books from publishing images of death or disfigurement due to the atomic bombings. However it was not possible to censor all reports. John Hersey was reporting compassionately on the lives of Hiroshima victims for The New Yorker by 1946, and his work helped to catalyse the emergence of a new anti-nuclear pacifist movement[4]. By 1955 the USA had plunged into the depths of Cold War with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and other prominent intellectuals clubbed together internationally to create the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, to raise public awareness of the lethal outcomes of nuclear weapons. As negative public sentiments towards nuclear weapons grew, the State Department needed a way to, at least publicly, ameliorate this adverse publicity.

Norman Cousins was the socially liberal editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and used his magazine to deepen public understanding of issues relating to pacifism and the consequences of Hiroshima[5]. In 1955, he began a programme with Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto to bring a group of twenty five young female Hibakusha to the USA for reconstructive plastic surgery, who became known as the Hiroshima Maidens[6]. Despite concerns from the State Department, it was recognised that the high-profile resolution of the Hiroshima Maidens disfigurements could offer America a strategy to regain political control of the escalating pacifist sentiment. It was also a chance for the USA to re-establish itself as a superior imperialist force for medical technology and humanitarian aid. The State Department monitored the media depictions of the Hiroshima Maidens closely, hoping for an inconspicuous rehabilitation, before their experiences could be used for anti-nuclear propaganda[7]. USA media coverage of the Hiroshima Maidens became a fetishized celebration of American benevolence. These women were depicted as the passively grateful recipients of American goodwill. The media neglected to mention that they would have been unscathed without prior American military intervention, and that they represented a tiny proportion of the thousands of women who had been scarred for life. However, to the vexation of the State Department, the high-profile visual evidence of the Hiroshima Maidens bodies enabled the American public to create links between their disfigurements and the outcomes of nuclear war. Therefore, their relationship to the bomb did little to support the compassionate war trope elicited by the State Department.

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The Hiroshima maidens, National Academy of Sciences 1955.

Maiden Aesthetics


The self-proclaimed “Unmarried Ladies of Hiroshima” belonged to Methodist minister Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s weekly support group for the severely disfigured[8]. Tanimoto had reached out to Norman Cousins to coordinate the women’s travel for reconstructive surgery in the USA. Dubbed the “Hiroshima Maidens”, twenty five of these women were to be aesthetically reconfigured in ways which paralleled the reconstruction of the city from which they came[9]. Cousins and Tanimoto emphasised the distinction between this necessary emergency plastic surgery that would be used to ameliorate suffering and elective cosmetic surgery used to facilitate beauty, to ensure that the project would receive support from the public. Surgical work was extensive, including reconstructive surgery for hands and arms as well as facial scar treatments. An aesthetic transformation was imminent. They were given an opportunity to reclaim their bodies after being scarred by the atomic bomb – however, this surgery was akin to a medicalisation of the Marshall Plan, designed to erase cultural memory as well as repairing trauma[10]. Notably, this offer was not unique, or even their first transnational option for reconstructive surgery. A group of Soviet surgeons had offered to repair their injuries in 1952, conditional on their speaking out against Western Imperialism and nuclear weapons testing. This overtly politicised offer was declined. Not all the Hiroshima Maidens left Japan for surgery. Despite the USA typecasting itself as the ultimate pioneering source of medical and philanthropic heroism, a further sixteen of the women elected to go to Osaka and Tokyo for their surgery instead. They did not feel comfortable travelling to the home of the atomic bomb for treatment.

The Hiroshima Maidens were to receive a face fit for marriage in the USA, for when they returned to Japan, their moniker laden with meaning. They had to contend with depictions of themselves as pure and love-starved virgins, unfit for any husband. Journalists consistently referred to the women as “girls” despite all having reached adulthood. The scarred aesthetic of the Hiroshima Maidens was fetishized by the US media – the women were variously described as “bomb-scarred,” “A-scarred,” “Hiroshima-scarred”, or “Atomic-bomb-scarred”. Ten years after the bomb, these women had spent most of their lives as Hibakusha. On the cusp of adulthood when Hiroshima occurred, they were concerned that their entire physiology had been interrupted by the bomb[11]. Their facial disfigurements, including keloid scars, were perceived as signs of bodily contamination by their home community. They subsequently became known as the “Keloid Girls”, in an awkward attempt to sentimentalise their liminal death masks. As they became older they felt isolated from their unscarred counterparts who were able to undertake normal activities without stigma, such as going on dates.

“The scarred aesthetic of the Hiroshima Maidens was fetishized by the US media – the women were variously described as “bomb-scarred,” “A-scarred,” “Hiroshima-scarred”, or “Atomic-bomb-scarred”.”

In the documentary The Day They Dropped the Bomb[12], a Hiroshima Maiden explicitly expressed her shame at her appearance “I looked like a monster. Big eye, and stick nose, no eyebrows and pinky face, and my lips were also up and down, open. Can you imagine?”. Surgery was an opportunity for these women to reclaim their faces, while the USA “saved face” by repairing their scars and making the visual evidence of their experiences of nuclear warfare vanish. In total, 138 surgeries were performed on the women over 18 months during their stay in the USA. Hiroko Tasaka, who received 13 more surgeries than the others, was described as “Champion Surgery Girl”. Another, Tomoko Nakabayashi, died of cardiac arrest whilst undergoing minor reconstructive surgery – a diagnosis that was attributed to surgical complications rather than radiation effects. Her death was reframed yet again by the media as a moral rather than a human story, with one headline proclaiming: ‘Beauty Hunt Fatal—Hiroshima Maiden Dies in Surgery’, implying that her death was due to her own vanity rather than medical error[13].

The Hiroshima Maidens were portrayed as empty canisters for benevolent American goodwill, smiling earnestly despite enduring agonising surgery. They were manipulated signifiers, consistently and visibly contested through pictures and discourse[14]. Their happiness was fundamental to state in diverting attention from the harm caused by the American attack upon Hiroshima. They were given a Western “rebirth” in the USA, their otherness neutralised by reconstructing them socially, culturally, and to some extent even physically in the image of the American woman. Colonialist discourse positioned Western fashion as liberating or superior to Asian styles[15]. Thus, American aesthetic was thrust upon them by their middle-class Quaker host families, as the women were reimagined as stylish and upwardly mobile medical pioneers. Their hair was restyled and they were given gifts of expensive tweed suits, elegant shirts and cashmere sweaters. They were encouraged to engage in hobbies and pursuits, including painting, nursing and secretarial skills. The reconstructive surgical techniques that were used to treat the Hiroshima Maidens were later adapted and exported in the form of Westernising plastic surgery, making the women unwitting participants of future medicalised aesthetic cultural imperialism[16].

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“A Hiroshima Maiden receives medical treatment”. Bettman/CORBIS 1955

The Reckoning


Two of the Hiroshima Maidens were invited alongside Reverend Tanimoto and his family to appear on the American TV programme “This is Your Life”. The supposed purpose of this appearance was to raise funds to help to pay for the Hiroshima Maiden’s surgeries, but it also provided an opportunity for the American media to create a sense of alterity toward these women. The Hiroshima Maidens were presented as ethnically and physically distinct from their audience, notable by their (in)visibility behind a screen to “protect” their aesthetic from the audience. Edwards told the audience, “To avoid causing them any embarrassment, we will not show you their faces.” So instead, they appeared as ghost puppets, rather than frightful apparitions of the consequences of state necropolitics, deemed too hideous for American audiences, in one final attempt to obscure the ugly consequences of Hiroshima from the public domain[17]. By creating shadowy figures of these women, they lost their personal subjectivity, becoming anonymous and docile shapes.

“The Hiroshima Maidens were presented as ethnically and physically distinct from their audience, notable by their (in)visibility behind a screen to “protect” their aesthetic from the audience.”

This episode had a surprise in store, in the form of the nervous figure of Lieutenant Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay who had joint responsibility for destroying Hiroshima. Suddenly, Lewis had to face the consequences of his actions. Operating under orders, he was still purposely violent in deploying the atomic bomb, but unaware of the humanity of his faceless victims. He had drunk himself into oblivion before the show, and precariously recited the words that he had prepared for this moment of public reckoning, before offering a cheque towards the surgical treatments that he had made necessary.

“…At 8:15 promptly, the bomb was dropped. We turned fast to get out of the way of the deadly radiation and bomb effects. First was the big flash that we got, and then the two concussion waves hit the ship. Shortly after, we turned back to see what had happened. And there, in front of our eyes, the city of Hiroshima disappeared. I wrote down later, “My God, what have we done?”

He was contracted by the State Department after his appearance, and reprimanded from showing signs of reservation about Hiroshima. A combination of guilt and depression proved too much for him, leading to a temporary institutionalisation by the late 1950s. Later in life he trained as a sculptor of stone and alabaster, painstakingly building an enormous sculpture of a mushroom cloud cascading with tears called “God’s Wind at Hiroshima”. Notably, American scholars have reported him “committing suicide” soon after institutionalisation, but this was not the case. Perhaps this death myth reflects a growing post-colonial attitude and the shame associated with his act.

Hiroshima Forever?


The lives of the Hiroshima Maidens demonstrate the dark relationship between necropolitics and aesthetics. By enabling facial reconstructive surgery for these select group of Hibakusha, the USA revealed its desire to conceal and control the outcomes of its necropolitical decisions towards Japan through a small gesture of goodwill, designed to symbolically and literally obscure and “repair” the trauma, desolation and death created by the atomic bomb. Media coverage of the women’s experiences in the USA banalised the consequences of the atomic bomb, recasting America as saviours and medical pioneers. The USA State Department used the women as an opportunity to justify their collective violence, whilst reinforcing white, middle-class family values[18]. For America, this was not a confession or a show of remorse, but an opportunity to address the needs of those less fortunate through a Western lens.

“The Hiroshima Maidens were able to reclaim their physical features, but their return home was split between those welcoming them and those seeing them as puppets of the West.”

The Hiroshima Maidens were able to reclaim their physical features, but their return home was split between those welcoming them and those seeing them as puppets of the West[19]. Some went back to America and decided to embrace Western culture, becoming housewives, designers and nurses. To this extent, there was a Hiroshima Maiden who, post-surgery, told a journalist that she was glad that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima because it had ended the war, meshing perfectly into the established Western narrative of this outrageously violent necropolitical act. Others stayed in Japan after their return and ended up in low paying positions, such as Hiroshima Maiden Yamaoka Michiko who survived by sewing work at home, transforming military uniforms and old kimono into western clothes[20]. Once the stigma of being Hibakusha eventually passed, Yamaoka Michiko eventually became a notable pacifist and one of the many keepers of the Kataribe testimonials of Hiroshima. Their story is one of survival, trauma and the duplicitous concealment of their psychological and cultural scars. The Hiroshima Maidens scars and dignity were pared away by the American media and surgeons, rendering their deformities and the atrocities committed by the USA (in)visible, leaving them locked in a Faustian death-grip with ionising radiation and Western culture.

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‘Hiroshima A-Bomb Survivors Face Brighter Future’. Source: AP Wire 9 May 1955.

Dr Becky Alexis-Martin is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton and the Principal Investigator of the Nuclear Families Project. This project explores the intergenerational challenges and injustices experienced by the British nuclear test veterans and associated communities worldwide. Becky graduated from her PhD in 2017, which was entitled RADPOP: A New Modelling Framework for Radiation Protection. She uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches in social and human sciences to understand the wider implications of social justice, gender and nuclear defence. Her work has been featured in The Guardian and The Conversation, and she is currently completing her first monograph. Prior to joining academia, Becky worked in emergency planning and radiation protection.

Follow her on twitter and learn more at dreadful.earth.

References


“ATOM BOMB VICTIMS TO GET MORE CARE” New York Times (Nov 13, 1956).

Cousins, N. Hiroshima Maidens

De Benedetti, C. 1978. The American Peace Movement and the National Security State, 1941-1971. World Affairs, 141(2), pp.118-129.

Gemi-Iordanou, E., Gordon, S., Matthew, R. and McInnes, E. eds., 2014. Medicine, Healing and Performance. Oxbow Books.

Hein, L., 2015. Ran Zwigenberg. Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture.

Hersey, J., 1946. Hiroshima. The New Yorker.

Jacobs, R., 2010. Reconstructing the perpetrator’s soul by reconstructing the victim’s body: the portrayal of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ by the mainstream media in the United States. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 24.

Mbembé, J.A. and Meintjes, L., 2003. Necropolitics. Public culture, 15(1), pp.11-40.

Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

Miyamoto, Y., 2015. Unbearable light/ness of the bombing: normalizing violence and banalizing the horror of the atomic bomb experiences. Critical Military Studies, 1(2), pp.116-130.

Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

Slavick, E.O.H., 2009. Hiroshima: After Aftermath. Critical Asian Studies, 41(2), pp.307-328.

Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

Footnotes


[1] Slavick, E.O.H., 2009. Hiroshima: After Aftermath. Critical Asian Studies, 41(2), pp.307-328.

[2] Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

[3] Mbembé, J.A. and Meintjes, L., 2003. Necropolitics. Public culture, 15(1), pp.11-40.

[4] Hersey, J., 1946. Hiroshima. The New Yorker.

[5] De Benedetti, C. 1978. The American Peace Movement and the National Security State, 1941-1971. World Affairs, 141(2), pp.118-129.

[6] Cousins, N. Hiroshima Maidens.

[7] Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

[8] Gemi-Iordanou, E., Gordon, S., Matthew, R. and McInnes, E. eds., 2014. Medicine, Healing and Performance. Oxbow Books.

[9] Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

[10] Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

[11] Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

[12] “The Day They Dropped the Bomb”. 2015. ITV. UK

[13] Jacobs, R., 2010. Reconstructing the perpetrator’s soul by reconstructing the victim’s body: the portrayal of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ by the mainstream media in the United States. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 24.

[14] Gemi-Iordanou, E., Gordon, S., Matthew, R. and McInnes, E. eds., 2014. Medicine, Healing and Performance. Oxbow Books.

[15] Jacobs, R., 2010. Reconstructing the perpetrator’s soul by reconstructing the victim’s body: the portrayal of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ by the mainstream media in the United States. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 24.

[16] Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

[17] Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

[18] Miyamoto, Y., 2015. Unbearable light/ness of the bombing: normalizing violence and banalizing the horror of the atomic bomb experiences. Critical Military Studies, 1(2), pp.116-130.

[19] Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

[20] Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

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Hiroshima Maidens in shadows during This is Your Life.

Collector, Protector & Keeper

By Rebecca Reeves

When I was a child, wishing away my grandfather seemed effortless. A couple of, “I hate you” and “wish you wouldn’t show up for piano practice” was all it seemed to take.

He was a Methodist minister, educator, artist, musician, poet and my personal piano teacher. Every Thursday I had piano lessons. When getting off the school bus I would cringe at seeing his 1970s mustard-colored Olds Cutlass parked outside my house. I hated piano lessons. I hated practicing. I hated when he was frustrated with my lack of practice and permanently marked the oak piano in a rage of scribble. I hated him as my teacher.

I can’t even remember how many times I wished he wouldn’t show up for my lesson – I wished him away for good. And one day it happened. He died suddenly just a month before my tenth birthday. When you’re nine years old, you believe you have the power to make wishes come true. Life after the death of my grandfather was forever altered. My fascination with loss and death defined who I am today.

As my years of guilt lessened, my higher education days began. I produced my first body of artwork and I didn’t have to dig very deep for inspiration. My work naturally centered on my grandfather, religion, death and loss. The series consisted of religious vestments, embellished coffin covers and body bags, bibles made from hand-dyed silks and screen-printed symbols, funeral pill box hats and artist books made from his image and his poetry.

It seemed as one body of work ended, another loss in my personal life was on its way. My grandmother, his widow, was slowly deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease. Again, this new body of work took a natural progression. Even though my grandmother was present, I was already struggling with her loss. I desperately tried to understand what she was experiencing with this disease.

“It seemed as one body of work ended, another loss in my personal life was on its way.”

The series consisted of a crocheted afghan screen-printed with her image. Over time, the afghan unraveled and re-wound into an imageless ball of yarn. One of her old purses cut into two, revealed an empty space of a crumpled tissue, a few coins and a wallet covered in handwritten reminders. A collection of her hankies, preserved in clear Plexiglas boxes with the anniversary date of her husband’s passing engraved on the front, one for each year of mourning until the year the disease took away her last memory of him.

As an only child, you are the one to keep things in order, take control and be responsible for your own actions. There were no siblings to blame or to lean on for support. I found comfort in cleaning and organizing. In that way, I could find a better, more efficient solution to keep order; essentially gaining the control I desire.

This, my system of “ordered living,” became the foundation for my work. I focused on making the viewer consider his/her own fixations, as well as the importance of my own behavioral observations. The controlling aspect of the series was not only reflected in the work, but also in the size. Working in miniature allowed me to have complete control over the space and to safeguard the piece. My obsession to control created dust protectors to cover dust protectors, hair protectors for my long hair to guard against contact with subway dirt, and miniature dioramas exposing dirt crimes that occurred in my personal space.

As my formal education came to an end and my life as an artist began, I embarked on the largest creation of my life. With my admiration for my grandfather’s theological studies, my fascination with all things macabre and the love for historical buildings, I designed our home after two churches in Bucks County. I am the keeper of my family’s heirlooms and my home encapsulates them in a perfect cocoon. Many who visit say that I am essentially living within one of my miniatures.

“I am the keeper of my family’s heirlooms and my home encapsulates them in a perfect cocoon.”

I often joke that I shop at the best antique store in the world, my parent’s house. I would scan the room and my dad would say, “What would you like to take home with you today?” We would laugh and he would tell me the story of how he had come to own the object. My parents are the kind of people that would rather give you the heirloom now and watch you enjoy it rather than after they passed away. I’m grateful for every thing that has been handed down to me. Nearly every piece in my home has its own story to tell.

“I often joke that I shop at the best antique store in the world, my parent’s house.”

My artwork has always been about my family and about loss – either the loss of memory from dementia or loss through death. Creating art is not only an expression of my grief, but also a way to preserve my family’s memory. Nothing would prepare me for the greatest loss in my life.

Two years ago, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. Our slogan was, “we started this together and we would end this together.” I wished with all my heart that he would be the one that beat cancer. Radiation, chemotherapy and surgery – our small family found our strengths and stayed strong together. My wish had seemed to come true when his report came back, disease free.

A few months later, he was diagnosed with metastasized brain cancer. My heart was torn from my soul. After months of steroids and CyberKnife radiation treatments that took a toll on his body, I begged for his life. At first, I wished that he would beat this cancer too. Then, as the disease took hold, I wished for his peace. Making a wish as an adult is truly complicated.

My current work draws upon the Victorian era with a focus on mourning symbolism, spiritualism and superstitions. Through my “cocooning” technique, I encapsulate grief, struggle and suffocation of loss. My work portrays miniature mirrors symbolizing portals in order to connect with the spirit world, black thread to represent hair and the color of traditional Victorian mourning and the superstition of cloaking mirrors in black cloth to avoid the recently deceased spirit from being caught inside.

“Through my “cocooning” technique, I encapsulate grief, struggle and suffocation of loss.”

The miniature “lover’s eye” painted brooches, worn as a token of love, have inspired my densely cocooned, miniature porcelain doll heads. In keeping with tradition, I also place my emphasis on having only one eye exposed. The use of black beads resembles the Victorian mourning jewelry and embellished garments. The heaviness of the black thread and black mourning beads in this series translates the weight of grief that has overcome me.

One year has passed since I held my dad’s hand. As he took his last breath, I told him that, “we started this together and we are ending this together”. Some say that time heals, but what I see is distance widening from the last time I saw him alive. That distance is one of my biggest struggles and it’s growing more painful each day.

“we started this together and we are ending this together.”

Attempting to express into words the overwhelming emotions I have endured during the past couple of years has been more debilitating than I ever imagined. I have learned to live with the grief of my grandfather’s passing for more than 30 years – analyzing my actions over and over, translating my emotions into words and speaking about that body of work as it has become second nature. His loss filled me with guilt that I have grown to understand.

My dad’s sudden illness and death is completely heartbreaking. His loss is beyond measure. As the first year passes, the memories of treatments, caring for his needs and challenges and his last moments still echo in my head. Trying to understand what has happened and how I am supposed to live with this deep grief is an uphill battle. As our family continues to mourn his passing, another family member has been taken from us. One year and two days after my dad’s passing, my maternal grandmother crossed over. I am learning that grief is not something you overcome – you just learn how to live around it.

I’m not any less afraid of loss and death, nor am I even slightly in control despite all my obsessive systems. I’ll always consider myself the “Collector, Protector and Keeper” of my family heirlooms. Even more so now, I have to keep their memories and stories alive in order to control the decay of my family.

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My Dearest Father and Mother
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Taken Too Soon
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Between You and Here
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Calling
rreeves_dontstandonmygrave
Don’t Stand On My Grave
rreeves_gatheringmyghosts
Gathering My Ghosts
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Gone
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Lonely Tears
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Our Darkest Hour

Born and raised in Bucks County, Rebecca Reeves continues to live and work in Upper Black Eddy, PA.  Reeves work has been exhibited at the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Art, PA; Paradigm Gallery, PA; Arch Enemy Arts, PA; Rockford University Art Gallery/Clark Arts Center, IL, Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, IL; Fuller Craft Museum, MA; Grounds For Sculpture, NJ; Trestle Gallery, NY and various other venues. Reeves received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from Tyler School of Art/Temple University, both, with a focus in Fiber.  She also studied at Glasgow School of Art, Scotland while earning her BFA from Tyler.

Web: rebeccareeves.com

Shop: rebeccareeves.bigcartel.com

IG: timberchouse

FB: Rebecca Reeves Artist

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Rebecca will be speaking about her attempt to control the decay of family through Victorian inspired artwork on the 24th of March, 2018 at 6pm.

Click below to learn more about this event and book your tickets:

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In The Future, We are Dead

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Eva Müller ©

By Eva Müller

A little girl with a strict catholic upbringing confronts her fear of death in the most disturbing of ways.

An elderly woman dies lonely.

After years apart, a brother and sister meet again at their father’s funeral.

A punk girl learns that she is not immortal.

For my Graphic Novel “In the future we are dead” I tell very personal stories that reflect my own fear of death.

Yes, you read that right, I fear death and still made a whole book about it.

My personal relationship with death is drenched with ambivalence.

Death is my biggest fear.

I don’t want death near me.

Death is not beautiful or romantic to me.

Yet, a lot of my energy comes from death.

I have a real obsession with death.

As an artist nearly everything I create is somehow connected to it. So it felt right to dedicate my final art school project to it. The outcome is this graphic novel.

This comic is me attempting to confront my fear.

My relationship with mortality changed as I worked on this comic. I have laid to rest many of my fears because of it.

“In the future we are dead” also deals with: childhood, sexuality, religion, fears, queers, politics, punk, psychoanalysis and family drama.

The stories I tell autobiographical traits, I grew up in the catholic hinterland of deep southwest Germany. Catholic life meant that death was a constant topic. As a result, I became scared to die as a kid. I attempt to explore how younger people deal with their mortality and the anxiety of knowing everybody they love will die. I don’t set out to ‘cure’ the fear of dying but through my own experiences and emotions hope to offer different ways of facing death.

Read an excerpt on “In the future we are dead”

You can support this venture by pre-ordering my book via this Kickstarter – there are just 7 days left to go! Some great rewards are available to you, including customised dance macabre style portraits and original artwork.

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If my words have not yet inspired you to pledge, perhaps my artwork will…

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Eva Müller ©
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Eva Müller ©
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Eva Müller ©
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Eva Müller studied illustration in Hamburg, Germany. In her opinion punk is dead, but the attitude is still very much alive. She is afraid of death, but can’t stop drawing it all the time. Driven by contradictions like that, she created the graphic novel “In the future we are dead”, which is already published in Germany. With your help the graphic novel is gonna be released in April 2018 in the U.S. version by Birdcage Bottom Books.

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Feminist Death Work: A History

By Dr. Kami Fletcher

Sarah Chavez, feminist death practitioner, wrote an account of the Fox Sisters – the 1848 phenomenon that occurred in Hydesville, NY where sisters Kate and Margaretta, aka Maggie spoke to dead spirits through “rappings” made by the spirit – taps and bangs heard on the walls, floor and furniture.  Kate and Maggie would first ask questions and the spirit would respond with a number of raps as the answer.  Initially reported as speaking to a peddler who died in their cellar years before, the sisters at the young ages of 11 and 14 went on to serve as mediums to spirits across the country for many years (ie. Cleveland, Philadelphia, D.C., and St. Louis).  Kate practiced until her death in 1892 but Maggie only until around 1857 when she married a non-believer and harsh critic of the craft who was the driving force behind her not just quitting the craft but publicly denouncing it in 1888.  Although Kate recanted the story near the turn of the century, none the less, her and her sister had already helped start Modern Spiritualism.  A movement that at its height in 1900 had 2 million followers.  And it is still alive today as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.  More still, if one just looks to popular culture and current portrayals, spiritualism has continued to embed itself into our society and social norms.

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Artistic image of a group of women, many with their arms raised, ritually mourning at a tomb. Lamenting Women, from the tomb (TT55) of Ramose, c. 1411-1375 BCE.

In Chavez’s account, she rehashes the tale of the Fox Sisters (for more click here and here) in order to discuss how death work was used as a vehicle for women’s social and economic equality.  “Women became influential, powerful and financially independent” starts Chavez, “all because they could supposedly speak to the dead.”  The 19th century was an oppressive time for women – the vast majority of black women were held captive in chattel slavery (freed women of color were comprehensively marginalized and discriminated), while white women were oppressed legally, socially, politically.  On the whole, women could not make any decisions in the political and legal process in which they were governed.  Women were viewed as mentally and physically inferior to men.  And under the gendered role of first daughter and second wife, women were viewed as property – made to marry and had no sexual reproductive rights or even legal rights to their children (ie. marital rape was legal and not socially condemned).

Nineteenth century women lived in a rigid patriarchal society where males ruled and masculinity was privileged.  Religion was seen as the source for this male dominance and female repression.  By 19th century, religion justified slavery with certain Biblical passages and the story of Ham while ascribing submissive and domestic roles for white women.  According to leading 19th century feminist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Staton, Christianity was the root and main reason for their oppression leading her to write The Woman’s Bible and convene (along with Lucretia Mott) what has been described as the catalyst for the Women’s Movement, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.

“The vast majority of black women were held captive in chattel slavery (freed women of color were comprehensively marginalized and discriminated), while white women were oppressed legally, socially, politically.”

Unlike Christianity, Spiritualism, as demonstrated with the story of the Fox sisters, offered women a voice.  As mediums, women were able to break out of the private sphere charging right into a space of independent wealth building, leadership and even fame.  The Fox sisters performed seances for well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and was said to bring in an estimated $90 a night, which roughly translates to $1600 by today’s standards!

In March 1848 when Maggie and Kate used death to find their public voice, they could not have known that only four months later a full-scale women’s movement would occur just roughly 30 miles southeast of them.  The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention launched a country-wide protest for women’s religious, social, civic and political equality for which would last the ages in varying but persistent waves.  This public protest where women challenged patriarchy, protested oppressive gender roles, and demanded equality have led scholars to see death, which was already in the home, as a facet of life that women not only controlled and served in leadership roles but also as a vehicle for apprenticed knowledge.

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Black and white photograph of the Fox Sisters, the two women are seated, side-by-side, facing the camera. Portrait of the Fox Sisters, mid-late 19th century.

Long before hospitals, hospice, and health care professionals, you had midwives, shrouding women and layers-out-of the dead.  Death and dying was in the home and deemed the responsibility of women.  When someone was dying it was the women who cared for them.  When there was a confirmed death in the community, it was the women who were first called to conduct the mourning, handle the body, and organize obsequies.  Habenstein and Lamers in their foundational work The History of American Funeral Directing, called the home “the central point of mourning” and described early death work as emotional work.  For many cultures, women were the wailers and mourners.  In Irish culture, you have the Keening Woman and in Polish culture, death is personified as Marzanna, female figure draped in white. (For more on this see James Pula’s work).  Describing death work as emotional work filled with anxiety, expressed by deep wails and sorrowful lamentations of women aligned death work with the characteristics, norms, and behaviors of 19th century feminine gender ideology.  European ascribed gender ideology (that was transplanted to America) saw women as delicate, weak and incapable of rational thought.  In this way, death work was as a natural fit to women as child rearing.  But these ideas are as short-sighted as they are insulting.  They keep women in the home and denied them equality.

“Death work performed by 19th century women consisted of specialized knowledge of body preparation inclusive to decomposition and post-mortem hygiene.”

Death work performed by 19th century women consisted of specialized knowledge of body preparation inclusive to decomposition and post-mortem hygiene.  This knowledge was apprenticed and passed down.  “Shrouding women,” as named by sociologist Georgeann Rundbland, were women who performed “premarket death duties” that included laying the body out on the cooling board to fix and prepare for wake and funeral, washing and dressing the body, and properly posing for coffin and burial.  Rundbland said that once funeral and death work began to professionalize, this specialized knowledge women possessed was downplayed by men as “local knowledge”.[1]

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Women at a Sisters Workshop on Washing and Shrouding hosted by the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in 2015. From the ICCI website

The history of shrouding women was erased and replaced with a history of death work that begins with male carpenters and sextons.  Even though Habenstein and Lamers discussed the family nurses, nurse-governesses, layers-out-of-the dead, and midwives who performed death work, it is in the context of personal service – the exception to the rule that men are at the foundation of death work.  They write “adult females would develop a rough skill in laying out the dead or…would have given assistance often enough to feel an informal responsibility to offer their services in cases of community or neighborhood deaths.”[2]  With their use of “rough skill” and “assistance,” this is to imply that women offered unskilled labor that was only to help.  Women were not positioned as leaders in charge of the death work.  Furthermore, this wording insinuates that fully and completely preparing the body from beginning to end is not death work in and of itself – it was only an assist, preparation for the real work of coffining bodies and digging graves.  This work was excluded from the record historicizing the undertaking trade that turned into the funeral professional.  The implication that nursing, midwifery, and shrouding women were so far from what became undertaking is to suggest that their presence was primitive to the more scientific mortuary science that was to come.  And more still that it was so primitive and personal that it was indeed not the precursor to the funeral profession at all, but ordinary kin-keeping work necessary during a time of bereavement.

It is important to uncover the death work of 19th century women and move it from the margin to the center.  In Lisa Shaver’s work, she discussed how women used their deathbeds as their pulpits.  Just as the Fox sisters spoke through the dead to break out the private sphere to the public realm, Shaver says these women became “iconic ministers” transforming the public with their testimonials on their deathbed.[3]  Shaver’s use of “iconic minister” is to suggest that these women possessed transformative power that reached outside their homes into the public.  They were instruments of God at a time where Christianity forbade female ministers.

“These women became “iconic ministers” transforming the public with their testimonials on their deathbed.”

Central to mourning rituals, skilled in death work and carriers of specialized mortuary knowledge of deathways, women performed feminist death work.  Feminist death work showed women using logic because they performed in high-pressure situations and had to adapt to for what the bereaved and the body called.  Case in point, midwives and nurses had to switch from bringing life and healing-to-live to preparing for end of life.  This is because in most instances, the tasks were not mutually exclusive in that mother and/or child could perish under a high-risk pregnancy or any onset or spur of the moment complications brought on my high blood pressure, breech birth, birth asphyxia, narrow pelvis, multiple births, etc.  The multitasking of sustaining life and preparing for death serves as the clearest example of 19th century women using logic, rationale, and complex thought patterns.

Toward the end of the 19th century, men, through the trade of undertaking, and headstone making, usurped the power away from women in death work.  The history of American undertakers and undertaking starts with the coffin and those who made it.  Death work was viewed a) as those sextons who dug the grave and buried the body and b) those carpenters and cabinet-makers who made the coffins.

In a very smart and engaging discussion of “female mourning figures,” Annette Stott argues how cemetery monuments carved in the beautifully delicate image of the feminine reinforced sexist ideas about women and death.[4]  In her work, Annette Stott discussed that although 19th century sculptures were predominately female and feminine inspired, the stone cutters are male and pushed an image of a fragile, grief-stricken woman made weak by death.  This, says Stott, is a false reality and that these monuments were pushed at a time when, by the 1880s and 1890s, women had begun to publicly challenge prescribed gender norms, including mourning dress that confined their bodies with heavy cloth and confined them to the home.  As Stott says of the “pioneer states” she studied, women were enfranchised as early as 1890 and 1893 in Wyoming and Utah, respectively.

“Annette Stott argues how cemetery monuments carved in the beautifully delicate image of the feminine reinforced sexist ideas about women and death.”

Like Stott suggests, these marbled feminine images of death stand as past artifacts highly influenced by gender norms and not real-to-life representations and varied forms of women and death/death work.  Shrouding women, layers-out-of-the-dead, midwives and nurses were in complete opposition to the image of a woman supposedly too overwhelmed to perform death work.  The years of apprenticed, hands-on training, frankly, would steady the nerves and keep the composure to do the work – strengthening the resolve and discouraging despair.  But more to the point, was that the work was not done in isolation.  This network of women fostered strength!

Today, there is still a network of women surrounding death work. Through the 100 Black Women of Funeral Service, Funeral Divas, women are enrolling in mortuary school more and more and taking up the tradition of their foremothers who were instrumental in the ways and work of death.

Just as Kate and Maggie did with Spiritualism, women today are using death work – in the form of mortuary school – as feminism, activism that resists oppressive gender norms and subjugated gender ideology.

Dr. Kami Fletcher is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Delaware State University.  Her research centers on African American burial grounds, late 19th/early 20th century Black male and female undertakers, and African American death ideology.  She is the author of “Real Business: Maryland’s First Black Cemetery Journey’s into the Enterprise of Death, 1807-1920”.  Look out for her forthcoming volumes: 1) the co-edited Till Death Do Us Part: American Ethnic Cemeteries as Borders Uncrossed which examines the internal and/or external drives among ethnic, religious, and racial groups to separate their dead, under contract with University of Mississippi Press; and 2) the co-edited Southern Cemeteries, Imprints of Southern Culture which demonstrates the interactions between southern culture and the dead – especially examining the fluid, ever changing demands the living placed on the dead with careful attention to the growing debate over whether Confederate monuments should remain in public cemeteries.

Footnotes:

[1] Georganne Rundblad, “Exhuming Women’s Premarket Duties in the Care of the Dead,” Gender & Society 9, 2 (1995): 173-192.

[2] Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers, The History of American Funeral Directing (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1962), 146.

[3] Lisa Shaver, “Women’s Deathbed Pulpits: From Quiet Congregants to Iconic Ministers,” Rhetoric Review 27, 1 (1995): 20-37.

[4] Annette Stott, Pioneer Cemeteries: Sculpture Gardens of the Old West (Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008).

 

Drop My Body On The Steps Of The FDA: Death, Queer Activism & Advocacy During the HIV/AIDS Crisis

By Sam Wall

For queer people my age and younger, HIV/AIDS feels like a boogeyman from before our time. It turns up in health class and sometimes in history books, but the scope of the epidemic is far off and fuzzy. Unless you read accounts by survivors or queer scholars, the full impact of the crisis is lost. The reason for this is that the textbook accounts share the total number of dead, but they fail to capture how and why the virus was able to decimate the queer community in the way it did. They don’t illustrate the ways in which stigma and bigotry allowed the AIDS crisis to become a tidal wave of bad deaths, deaths where the dying received little compassion or autonomy from those with the official power to care for them. Any account of AIDS that doesn’t make clear how those with individual and institutional power and privilege contributed to the spread of the bad death is an account that fails to uphold the true experiences of the dead and the advocates and activists who fought to save their communities from greater loss. This article is my attempt to help younger people, and anyone else who may not have the information, understand why AIDS became the fearful epidemic that it was and the role death played in the fight to change how AIDS victims were treated.

Before continuing, we need a basic understanding of why in the early days of the epidemic AIDS/HIV epitomized a “bad death.” While definitions vary, we can conceive of the bad death as one that is frightening, either because you know what will happen and know it will be bad or because you don’t understand why you’re dying. When AIDS first began spreading, those who contracted it didn’t fully understand what was killing them or how it was doing so. As the disease gained prevalence, those diagnosed with it had likely watched loved ones succumb to the disease, and knew it did not seem a pleasant way to go. The bad death also carries an element of stigma, or arises in circumstances where no one will care for you. AIDS patients were infected with something so mysterious and feared that nurses drew straws to decide who would check on them. To make the bad death all the worse, many victims were left unsure as to whether their body would be treated as they wished it to be after they died.

“When AIDS first began spreading, those who contracted it didn’t fully understand what was killing them or how it was doing so.”

In many, many cases, the queer community stepped up to care for their own when those with the official power to do so either refused or did so with disdain. But even if you knew your loved ones would care for you and, eventually, your body, as you wanted them to, there was no guarantee that the people whose job it was to lay you to rest would actually do so. Funeral homes were reluctant to take the bodies of AIDS victims, and many flat-out refused to do so. The fear and stigma surrounding AIDS did not end with death: many in the death industry felt that bodies killed by the virus still posed a risk. Others agreed to handle the funeral and burial services, but only if the family of the deceased paid for expensive “safety precautions” that were ultimately unnecessary. This placed yet another barrier onto poor queer communities or communities of color. These discriminatory practices ran rampant because, more often than not, those running the funeral homes had more power than those looking for services, leaving the grieving with few avenues to seek recourse. Queer community advocates argued that the shame attached to AIDS, combined with grief, kept many loved ones from lodging complaints against funeral homes who mistreated them or refused to help them. This created a climate in which denial and mistreatment were the rule, acceptance and care the exception. In 1987 a volunteer at one agency by the name of Ms. Gidden conducted a survey of the 500 hundred funeral providers in New York City. She found only 76 that she could recommend to those needing care for a body killed by AIDS.

“The queer community stepped up to care for their own when those with the official power to do so either refused or did so with disdain.”

One of the most beloved funeral homes in the city was preferred, in part, because it made no differentiation between AIDS funerals and any other type of funeral. In a time when any association with the disease felt like a too-bright spotlight, funeral directors who dealt with the deceased without a fuss were viewed as a godsend. The fact that these parlors seemed to be, in the words of Ms. Gidden, “working on sainthood” for simply not discriminating or stigmatizing the AIDS victims in their care speaks to how badly many families and loved ones of AIDS victims were treated. These funeral providers are also a perfect example of how so many of the elements that made AIDS a bad death were avoidable. For instance, the funeral directors who did care for the bodies of AIDS victims understood that the standard precautions for handling bodies were enough to prevent them and their staff from contracting the virus. Which means that at a certain point we can’t dismiss this particular element of the bad death with, “well, they just didn’t know any better.” Because some in the death industry did know better. Working with a funeral home didn’t need to be a painful process for survivors, but a combination of misinformation, stigma, and homophobia meant that it all too often was.

“Working with a funeral home didn’t need to be a painful process for survivors, but a combination of misinformation, stigma, and homophobia meant that it all too often was.”

Even if you did happen to be in an area with an accepting funeral home, dying from AIDS still posed a risk of your remains not being cared for as you wished. In some cases, the family of the deceased only learned about a person being queer when their infection with or death from HIV/AIDS was announced. This lead to everything from awkward funerals where parents and partners met each other for the first time to families refusing to let loved ones (be they partners or friends) care for the deceased according to the deceased’s own wishes. Because same-sex relationships had no legal recognition at the time, partners had no recourse if parents chose to bar them from caring for the dead.

There were also those AIDS victims who were without anyone to tend to them as they died or bury them afterwards. Sometimes their families did not want their remains, either because they were gay or because they had died from AIDS. In many cases members of the queer community cared for each other if families failed to do so. But sometimes people passed without a community to care for them. We’ll likely never know where all of those in this category ended up, although I found evidence that 16 victims were buried, unnamed, on Hart Island in New York.

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David Wojnarowicz IN 1988

It was in preventing this iteration of the bad death that a woman named Ruth Coker Burkes became known as “the angel.” From 1984 to the mid-1990s, Burkes cared for hundreds of AIDS victims, including gay men rejected by their families. By Burke’s own account, homophobia and stigma were everywhere, and her own role as a caretaker and advocate grew the more she encountered those phenomena. She buried over three dozen of the people she cared for after their families refused to do so, performing the physical burial of the ashes and the funeral rites, as she could not convince any religious figure to preside over the ceremony. She stockpiled medications like AZT for those who came to her after she learned that some pharmacies refused to carry it because of its association with AIDS. She would help patients fill out their own death certificates, knowing that she’d never be able to get ahold of the families to do so after they died. Her story also highlights how integral the queer community was in taking care of its own during the crisis, as her work would not have been sustainable without financial support from the gay bars in her state. She also tells of the myriad partners and parents who did appear to care for each other while at her hospice, a practice she encouraged. She worked with loved ones and with patients to make sure they had autonomy in their finals months, an attempt to help those who had felt powerless in the face of the disease and discrimination take back some of that power. Indeed, it appears that Burkes humanizing, non-stigmatizing, community focused approach was more effective at keeping the bad death at bay than the hands-off, fear and judgement-filled variety used in most hospitals. People in her care generally lived two years longer than the national average. If her mode of care has been widely adopted sooner than it was, there’s no telling what the impact might have been. But such swift, compassionate institutional action was a long time coming.

Why was that?

Because the stigma that made AIDS the bad death was not restricted to families, hospitals, and funeral homes. This bad death was allowed to spread in part because the epidemic was not met with concerted governmental efforts to prevent further transmissions and deaths. Because so many of the victims were queer or intravenous drug users, the Regan administration saw no urgency in addressing the matter. In fact, recordings from White House press meetings show the president and his cabinet expressing complete disinterest and even cracking jokes when asked about the epidemic. (You can hear the recordings of these comments in the short film When AIDS was Funny, although you may feel like rage-flipping a table afterwards). The people with the resources to slow the spread of the virus and expedite the search for treatments for the disease chose to use their power and privilege to ignore the situation, even when publicly confronted about it. Regan gave way to Bill Clinton and Bush the First, both of whom continued to ignore the epidemic and sometimes actively blocked efforts to mitigate it. For example, they prevented the creation of clean needle exchanges. As the days and months ticked by, the national situation for communities dealing with AIDS did not improve.

Until the queer community made their bodies, including their dead ones, impossible to ignore.

“It was in preventing this iteration of the bad death that a woman named Ruth Coker Burkes became known as “the angel”. From 1984 to the mid-1990s, Burkes cared for hundreds of AIDS victims, including gay men rejected by their families.”

ashes action flier from ACT UP
Ashes Action flier from ACT UP

Because the mainstream approach to death in the U.S was and is to sanitize and obfuscate the realities of decay and grief, dead bodies gain a particular kind of power. If the belief is that remains of the dead should be kept out of sight whenever possible, seeing them (or even something that contains them, like a coffin or hearse) provokes a reaction: shock, revulsion, grief, curiosity. The important part is that the intensity of that reaction can make that moment stick in our brains. If the remains are drawing attention to a larger issue, we may find that issue harder to ignore [cut, repetitive (though not impossible)]. This power may partially explain why death imagery had long been a tool of AIDS activists, with wooden coffins and headstones a common sight during protests. Using symbols of the death and loss hitting the queer community garnered media attention, and made clear to at least some members of an apathetic public how dire the situation was. Yet the most privileged and powerful people still refused to do anything substantive. So, in 1992, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) organized the Ashes Action in front of the White House. During this action, the cremated remains of loved ones killed by AIDS were dumped onto the White House Lawn. The ceremony was repeated in 1996, with the cremated remains including people like ACT UP member Connie Norman. The reasons for the ceremony are summed up by ACT UP founder Eric Sawyer in an interview by Vice for the 20th anniversary of the second Ashes Action:

“Carrying a wooden coffin in the streets doesn’t seem to be getting your attention. How about we dump ashes and bone fragments from our friends who died of AIDS on your lawn? How about we literally carry our dead bodies that you condemned to death to your door? Will that get your attention? Part of it was a warning: We will literally start dumping our dead on your doorsteps unless you get your fucking act together.“”

The Ashes Action can be seen as a way of taking a bad death and making it into something good. Not beautiful, not painless, but good. It acknowledged that the dead and their bodies hold immense cultural power, and that power could be harnessed to change things for the better. Too, the Ashes Actions honored the wishes of the dead whose remains were deposited on the lawn; many of them shared Connie Norman’s desire to have their death somehow, in some way, help save others. By using their remains during the ashes action, the living were able to harness the cultural power of their dead and use it to push for social changes that would make the bad death from AIDS disappear.

“We will literally start dumping our dead on your doorsteps unless you get your fucking act together.”

ACT UP photo of protesters throwing creamted remains over the White House fence
ACT UP protesters throwing cremated remains over the White House fence

In many ways, the work of activists and advocates tremendously decreased the ways in which AIDS was a bad death. AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was and an increased understanding of how the virus works lead to better treatment methods and medications such as PrEP. Those changes mean that people who contract the illness have more years and options at their disposal than they would have thirty years ago. But it is remiss to say that the specter of the bad death is gone. Treatments are not always accessible to those with limited income or limited health insurance and communities of color are still disproportionately affected by the virus. And all it takes is one or two indifferent or bigoted government officials and suddenly the money for prevention efforts, testing, and treatment evaporates and the number of new cases increases. In countries besides the U.S, there are still reports of funeral directors refusing to care for the bodies of AIDS victims due to misconceptions about the disease. Make no mistake, the institutional homophobia that cost so many lives is not gone. In spite of us knowing that AIDS can infect anyone it has not shaken its identity as “the gay disease,” as a punishment for what some see as the sin of being queer.

I don’t write that intending to frighten anyone. Rather, I hope to offer a reminder that the plague was only stemmed when those most affected by it refused to be silenced and demanded that the government bear witness to the deaths it had a hand in. After all, there is privilege in knowing that those in power will not decide to strip resources from your community, introduce targeted legislation, or otherwise invite the bad death back into your community. That is a privilege that the queer community still lacks. But the deathly history of AIDS shows us is that a community, even one united by incalculable grief, can push back against that bad death wrought by the privileged and demonstrate that they are not as powerless as those who are bigoted wish them to be.

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Sam Wall is a queer writer and sex educator living in Nevada. She is the Assistant to the Director of Scarleteen.com, where she helps provide high-quality sex ed to young people around the world. She is interested in all the ways that gender, sexuality, and death intersect throughout history and in current cultures. She also enjoys exploring the ways in which marginalized communities use elements of horror and the macabre as forms of self-care and resistance.

Follow her on Twitter

Breakfast, Then Death

Please note that although the following does not contain graphic descriptions of violence, it does contain graphic descriptions of injury.

If you, or someone you know is suffering domestic abuse, we have links to information and support and on our resource page.

By Claire L. Smith

Mary felt as if the hammer had struck her once again as she awoke, her dented skull dipping into her pulsing brain. She lay where she fell, horizontal across the bed with her feet and hands dangling over each end. With a throaty groan, Mary pushed herself up into a sitting position, blood slipping from her hair and slapping the bedsheets like a broken water balloon. She stumbled about the bedroom like a morning drunk, travelling via the wall until she found her dresser. She found her most modest of dresses, knowing that her husband was already mad at yesterday’s choice of a summer dress. The dress hung loosely on her nimble body, the back tag sticking out from her cleavage. Still innocently oblivious of her injury, Mary pushed open the bedroom door and began to descend the stairs, her blood falling like light rain on each step. Her body grew heavy on her wobbling legs, the wooden floor at the bottom of the stairs swaying like a ship deck. She neglected to notice the front door wide open with a night’s worth of snow clogging the entrance way and the handle of the hammer sticking out of the field of snow. Like every morning, she was desperate to have a warm breakfast on the table by seven thirty. Shuffling over to the kitchen stove, Mary reached up towards the dangling saucepans on the rack above. The heaviness of the pan and the numbness of her fingers caused the pot to fall from her weak grip, denting the kitchen tiles like the hammer had her skull. Mary froze as a sharp clang echoed through the house, under the impression that her husband would awake and ‘complain’ about the wake-up call. She waited, greeted by only the whistling silence of the snow fall outside. Her sigh of relief was followed by a dizziness as the last of her drained clean of vital red fuel. Mary fell to the floor like a flower bending in the wind, her pupils sinking back into her battered skull as her body finally shut down, finally free of her duties and abuse. Yet all she could think of is what he would do.

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The Nachtwandlerin by Maximilian Pirner

Claire L. Smith is an Australian author, poet, screenwriter and artist. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Luna Magazine, Mookychick, Anti-Heroin Chic and Moonchild Magazine. Her essays promoting gender equality has been featured in Business Woman Media, Mookychick, NerdVanaTV and A Woman’s Thing. She is also an official contributor to Outlet Magazine.

A full list of Claire’s work can be found here.

Le Bizarreum

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Le Bizarreum Artwork

By Juliette

For me, it all started with Egyptian mummies, Irish bog bodies and shrunken heads. As a child, my parents would take me to museums, never hiding the inevitability of death from me when I stood fascinated by macabre artifacts. Because of this, death became less scary during my childhood, of course this didn’t change my sorrow when family and friends died. It did however, cultivate a deep desire to explore death through history. This passion followed me to university, where I studied archaeology and particularly enjoyed funerary studies. During excavations, I learned about how different cultures buried their dead. The experience of digging up bones myself was an incredible experience, one I treasure.

I’ve been observing the growth of the Death Positive movement for a while. I love seeing people engage with the subject of death, it is happening in all kinds of ways across the world. I’ve lost countless hours trawling the internet for French content. Hoping to find blogs and videos that educate and engage audiences with death discussion. Although it was surprising that I couldn’t anything, this discovery felt less like a disappointment and more of a challenge.

Le Bizarreum was born in the Spring of 2017. I wanted to create a platform for a French audiences, a place to introduce death topics and encourage discussion. In each video I choose a different death related subject. I always present different theories and perspectives, using my archaeological background to examine evidence from human remains and artifacts. France is not a country comfortable with talking about death, so I have been humbled by the response to Le Bizarreum. There is a desire to learn more about death through historical and archaeological cases. I am pleased to have curated a space where people can learn, share ideas and build a network. I still have not come across other death themed YouTube channels from France. There are some great ones exploring archaeology but never specifically death.

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The relics of Mary Magdalene encased in a golden reliquary via Cult of Weird

I like to create content that engages with my own local history and French heritage. I make a point of visiting places that others might not know of or be able to reach. When I was in the South of France I visited the Maria Magdalena relics and took pictures to show to my followers.

As my french audience grows, I can’t forget my first followers, who were English and American. Knowing people from other countries supported my work gave me the drive to keep going. I have met so many cool people through the virtual world who share my interests. I hope to connect with more as my project continues. My goal is to bring death positivity to France! When I’m not making YouTube videos, I’m creating miniature graveyard scenes. These little decorations act as the perfect memento mori, I am always looking for new ways to express and inspire.

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Grave Detail created by Le Bizarreum
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Cemetery Scene created by Le Bizarreum

To finish then, a fun fact for you:

Writing this in English meant every time I wrote “more” I found myself writing “mort” which is French for death.

Some things are inevitable.

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Juliette was born in France, living for many years in Brittany, before moving to the South East where she still resides now. Her research interests include archaeology, history, art history and anthropology. Juliette has worked in tourism and currently works arranging scientific expeditions for customers all over the world to active volcanoes and polar areas. When she isn’t working, Juliette likes to explore too. She loves to talk death, archaeology and visit curiosities across the globe.

Follow Juliette on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Subscribe to Le Bizarreum.

The Grief Geek

By Caroline Lloyd

Firstly, I’d like to mention that I was delighted to be invited by the glamorous death squad, Death and the Maiden, to write a blog for them. As the geeky person, it’s always a welcome surprise to be invited to join the cool gang!

Once the excitement had subsided, I started wondering what would an audience used to death brain fodder find interesting about grief? So, I asked, and the answer was to post about why I wrote ‘The Book’. Initially I thought that would be easy, but then I realised everything I ordinarily write is research based; factual, painstakingly disseminated from the experts. Writing from a personal perspective is a different prospect altogether. So here goes…

Many years ago, when I was 22 years of age, my friend died from cancer at the age of 26. If this occurred today, my response would be something like; “Wait. WTF.  I can’t deal”, followed by a string of sad emojis and possibly a gif of a sad, wailing waif. It would be posted on social media with the expectation of lots of supportive, empathic messages in recognition of my loss. Instead, it was pre-internet so there was no support because he was ‘just’ a friend.

“Everything I ordinarily write is research based; factual, painstakingly disseminated from the experts. Writing from a personal perspective is a different prospect altogether”

At that time, all my grandparents were alive, so this death completely shattered my assumptive world; I had assumed that I would die when I was old, and like my great grandmother, have sprouted a beard any hipster would be proud of to keep me warm during the winter months when I ran out of coal for the fire. This mindset can be perfectly normal for someone who has not yet experienced a significant death. As this was pre- internet, there was very little bereavement or grief information. I found cliched poems in the cancer hospital chapel and someone mentioned ‘stages’ and ‘getting over it’ after ‘time heals your wounds’. I never did subscribe to the ‘do not stand at my grave and weep’ mantra, my attitude was and still is, “It’s my grief and I’ll cry if I want to, so f*ck off with your patronising, prescriptive crap”. What I did know, is that my emotions were all consuming and it affected me in other ways too. I quickly learnt that grief is not just emotional, for me it was cognitive and spiritually challenging too. In order to “#deal” became a befriender volunteer in a cancer hospital, in order to try to normalise and make sense of my experience.

“I quickly learnt that grief is not just emotional, for me it was cognitive and spiritually challenging too”

After many more deaths and following another significant bereavement twenty years later, the post internet world is full of bereavement research papers, and textbooks are widely available online thanks to people like Colin Murray Parkes, Therese Rando, Robert Neimeyer, Ken Doka, George Bannano, Stroebe & Schutt etc. I despaired that, despite all this published information, people were still saying the same old shite such as “you’ll be fine when you get over it.”

The only way I can describe this bereavement is to compare it to a nuclear bomb going off in my world. I really couldn’t imagine any shoots of life appearing ever again, so all the platitudes and outdated ‘advice’ just made me angry and determined to contribute in any way possible to changing this outdated narrative. Whilst I was able to access some academic information on grief and bereavement online that was open source, I still had to understand the technical jargon. Once I did, I soon realised that I identified with the research findings and that it was a lot more helpful than anything anyone had ever said to me. It was therefore particularly frustrating that this information had been gathered over the past twenty to thirty years, but had not filtered down into everyday language or to non-academic people. This information is instrumental in helping us understand not only what we are experiencing personally, but also gives an insight into what may be happening with others. For example, the way you grieve may not be how someone else grieves, but that doesn’t mean either of you are doing it ‘wrong’ or ‘right’.

When new thinking or innovations are produced in most fields, the popular press and social media are quick to promote them. But grief is different; journalists are still largely regurgitating what someone else (non-experts) has said before them, so there is no new knowledge or understanding, and can be inaccurate or out-dated. No ‘ah-ha!’ moments for the bereaved or most professionals who support them.

“The way you grieve may not be how someone else grieves, but that doesn’t mean either of you are doing it ‘wrong’ or ‘right’”

Unwittingly, after many years of being a volunteer befriender and various other roles with cancer patients, their friends and family, both pre-and post death, I then inadvertently added ‘bereavement researcher’ to my alternative resume. Although if I’m honest, most people thought I was a bit weird for pursuing this thirst for knowledge, so I didn’t really drop it into casual conversation. The question “what do you do when you’re not working?” at dinner parties is usually answered with “travelling, socialising, playing sport” or whatever, not “researching grief theory”.

My frustration with the information not reaching the bereaved only grew, particularly with increasing academic knowledge, so the next step was to become a Cruse bereavement volunteer to share this knowledge and help support others. I trained to support clients, facilitated bereavement support groups, joined the management committee for my branch, attended every grief and death conference I could find, and helped train new volunteers. I also volunteered on the national helpline at Christmas and undertook further training in traumatic grief, child death, and trained to support grieving children and young people.

Following this training, most clients, and most bereaved people I have met feel woefully uninformed about what is ‘normal’ when grieving, which echoes my personal experiences. In response to this lack of informed knowledge, a friend suggested I start blogging grief theory in an accessible way for everyone. The blogs had a fairly significant reach across many countries (over 60 to date) and I have received many messages from the bereaved, and people supporting the bereaved, which shows the impact and need for research based information that’s easy to understand. I then moved into formally researching for a PhD in bereavement to undertake research that will be impactful and to further disseminate findings. For the uninitiated: a PhD is otherwise known as ‘give up your life for the foreseeable and see how much criticism, and caffeine induced states you can endure’, as someone who clearly has no other hobbies, I am loving it.

“Most clients, and most bereaved people I have met feel woefully uninformed about what is ‘normal’ when grieving, which echoes my personal experiences”

All of the aforementioned activities led to an email from Jessica Kingsley Publishers asking me if I would be willing to write a book on grief. Initially I thought “no way!”, I’m not a writer, I’m ‘just’ a bereaved person trying to help other bereaved people. But then I realised that after many deaths over the past thirty years including three suicides, one infant death, two perinatal deaths and several family and friend deaths, I knew I had sufficient life experience to understand certain aspects of grief from both my perspective and those around me. I also knew that my informal, and formal PhD research, and conference attendances had supplied me with significant amounts of theoretical knowledge, and that my many client and support group hours, and blog feedback, had richly added to my personal and theoretical information.

After many tears and cries of “I can’t!”, I agreed to write the book and started the painful procedure of sweating metaphorical blood, and real tears, over deciding what research to include and how to do it justice in an accessible way for everyone.

I wrote it in memory of those that have died and left scars on my heart that will never ‘heal with time’, those loved ones that I will never ‘get over’.

I wrote it to debunk those bullshite myths that I still hear even today.

I wrote it to help contribute to the normalisation of grief; it isn’t just emotional, and you can do it any way you like. I wrote the book that I so desperately wanted when I had disenfranchised grief and had no idea that that was even a thing.

I wrote it because I had experienced volumes of personal and professional experiences; the good, the bad and the ugly. I wrote it because it was the book I searched for when I had to write a book review during my Cruse Bereavement Care training, but it didn’t exist.

I wrote it to help those of us who support the bereaved. I created diagrams to explain concepts that appear repeatedly and demonstrate visually how these work. I included photos of my family and friends because we are all impacted in one way or another.

I wrote it to provide professionals with a secure knowledge base, that encompasses the very best of what we know from the experts. Their years of researching, writing, and commitment to understanding and helping the bereaved should not be unacknowledged by those that would find comfort in it.

I wrote it because I care, and I am one of them.

I wrote it because before my time is up, I would love to live in a world where it is common knowledge that you do not ‘get over it’, that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, that there are different types of grief, that grief is not just an emotion, and that it’s OK to tell people how you are feeling and what you need from them. I hope for the day when no-one has expectations of moving through stages as if they are linear, that social media and other news outlets will incorporate genuine empathy, understanding and contemporary research information.

When that day comes, I can use the excess books for firewood.

#KeepingItReal

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Caroline originally trained in supporting terminally ill cancer patients and their families in Texas in 1988. Since then she has volunteered in various pre-bereavement and bereavement roles for organisations in the UK including Cancer Research UK and Macmillan. 

For the past twelve years her focus has been on researching and supporting those affected by anticipatory grief and the bereaved. As a result, she has been volunteering for Cruse in bereavement support, support group facilitation, as a committee member and helpline volunteer. 

Having also undertaken specialised training to work with children and young people, and traumatic grief. Caroline is currently a Board Trustee and Lead Facilitator for the Resilience Building Programme with Roadpeace.

Her current focus is on completing a PhD in bereavement, delivering training on grief to professionals, and running workshops. 

Follow Caroline on Twitter here and visit carolinelloyd.co.uk.

Order your copy of Grief Demystified: An Introduction today. Available in the UK, AmericaCanada, and Australia.

 

Lest We Forget

By Sarah Perkins

Initially Lest We Forget was sparked by a brainstorming session with my agent. We were looking for a project that would generate new interest from prospective clients but at the same time I wanted to get involved in work I would enjoy, that I had a personal interest in and therefore said a little about me. So, Lest We Forget began its days as My Secret London, a subject close to my heart and one I knew I could get stuck into… but where to begin?

I’m lucky enough to live in the heart of this wonderful town. A stone’s throw from where I decided to start is the Cross Bones Graveyard. I had always been intrigued by this place and even more so once I glimpsed at the growing, makeshift garden and shrine through the gates. My original plan for this artwork was very different from where I finished up; at the beginning it was more about the secret garden, that, up until recently, had been hidden behind a wall. As I got more involved in the history I found I had a bigger story to tell. At the heart of this story are The Winchester Geese and I wanted to commemorate these women, having been forgotten for so long. I decided to give them their own stained-glass window. In the window stands the ‘single female’ her white apron the uniform of the Winchester Geese. Surrounding her are her flock, plants/life, ribbons/symbols of femininity that adorn the gates, buildings past and present. It is as much about living with the dead as it is commemorating them. This bigger story of how we remember our dead and keep them alive is how I stepped into Lest We Forget.

After Cross Bones I discovered The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park. Started by the painter George Frederic Watt, it was a memorial to ordinary people who died saving the lives of others.

Lastly the Pet Cemetery started in 1881 by the gatekeeper at Victoria Lodge, Hyde Park. The first dog was Cherry, a Maltese Terrier who used to visit the park regularly. We are all souls of this glorious continuum that is London.

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Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark
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The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, Postman’s Park, Little Britain
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Pet Cemetery, Hyde Park

Since studying at Chelsea School of Art and Central St Martins, Sarah has been working successfully and internationally as a freelance illustrator for twenty-five years. Her commissions cover literary fiction, classics, popular fiction and gift books as well as editorial and design.

All Sarah’s images are a mixture of collage/found imagery and her own painting. Her influences are eclectic: found objects, textures and pictures; a piece of narrative writing; a period/event in history; places she has been.

Clients include: Penguin, Harper Collins, Random House, Little Brown, Orion, Cico, Oxford University Press, Farrar Straus and Giroux, McArthur and co, Juritzen Forlag,Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Time, Radio Times, Vauxhall Motors, The Times, BBC, National Trust, The Telegraph, The Royal Opera House, The Guardian, New Statesman, Royal Shakespeare Company, The Independent, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Weekly, Reader’s Digest, Elle, Marie Claire.

Awards: Thames Television Travel Bursary, Winner Elle Talent, Reader’s Digest Silver Award, Hamlyn/AOI Book Cover Award, D&AD Award for Design, Waterstones Bookseller’s Award, Images’ Awards, Winsor and Newton runner up, TFL The Prize for Illustration 2017 – Sounds of the City.

Follow Sarah on Instagram and visit sarahperkinsillustration.co.uk.

Dead Good Gifts For 2017

… gifts with a purpose.

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Lozzy Bones Art

Our brilliant and beloved logo artist, Lozzy Bones has something for (almost) everyone on your list! Stunning jewelry, prints, pins, tote bags and more!

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Divine Excesss

“I paint flowers, so they will not die” – Frida Kahlo

We love the work of Nicholas Johnson, he produces the most gorgeous candles, available as single items or sets. Specializing in beautiful bespoke art, he finds inspiration in religious iconography, Santa Muerte and Mexican Folk Art. At Christmas, Nick offers an incredible Christmas line of handmade goods too. Click here to dress your dark home for the holidays.

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Laurel Witting

“Different, Dark, Unique and Peculiar”

Laurel’s work is a delicate mix of traditional mourning and modern design. Each piece bespoke and undeniably beautiful. Taking inspiration from a variety of sources we don’t doubt you will find something perfect for someone special in Laurel’s shop. You can read more about her work here.

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Radical Dreams Pins

Radical Dreams is a Black woman owned business that features lapel pins with a message. There are so many wonderful choices, including this Underground Railroad pin that actually blinks (epilepsy warning)! “This lantern was our way of creating a pin that paid homage to our Ancestors and the Underground Railroad…We just hope it reminds you to keep going, even when the future is unclear.” Pair it with their Harriet Tubman and Black Lives Matter pins.

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The Creeping Museum

The Creeping Museum features some of the most beautiful enamel pins we’ve seen, designed by incredible, independent artists and benefiting various non-profit organizations. This year, they’ve added postcards and tees to their line. Your order arrives packaged in a thoughtful and creative way that makes receiving a package an absolute pleasure.

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The Little Witches

Future corpses always need a little extra TLC! Pamper someone on our gift list, or yourself, with this body care line created by an actual mortician, Amber Carvaly. Pictured is our favorite, sweet peanut butter with marshmallow fluff. It’s a limited run of 10 so don’t miss out!

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Grief Support From Loss & Found

The holidays can be a particularly challenging time, especially for the newly bereaved; and let’s face it, this has been a rough year for all of us. We could use some support and clarity as we head into 2018. Grief coach Rachel Ricketts is a “loss sur-thriver” who has been through some shit and can help others get through theirs. Rachel offers a wide range of grief support options including FREE ones.

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Border Angels

Border Angels prevents unnecessary deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border through desert water drops, border rescue stations and day laborer outreach. You can support their work by shopping in their store which includes angel bracelets – a great gift for the angels in your life.

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AJ Hawkins Art

Artist AJ Hawkins uses art and science to highlight how life is facilitated by death. Her stunning artwork examines the beauty that can be found in decomposition and encourages the viewer to face their complex feelings and fear surrounding death. In addition to her art, AJ has created a line of clothing and accessories that are inspired by life and our relationship to death. You can learn more about her here.

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Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights

Declare your support of this important human right with a tee, hoodie, or tote! Proceeds benefit the Center for Reproductive Rights and organizations like Black Mamas Matter.

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Choose Love

Choose Love is an online store that allows you to buy real items for refugees—from emergency blankets to school bags and supplies to medical equipment. If you are in London, there’s a brick and mortar location you can shop at, too! Read more about how Choose Love works here.

 

199 Cemeteries To See Before You Die

By Lucy Coleman Talbot

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Loren Rhoads by Mason Jones

199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, has been a long time in the works. Editing her first book of cemetery essays, Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries back in 1995. Loren Rhoads started writing her monthly column for Gothic.Net on cemeteries as travel destinations in 1998. With this proving such a popular topic, Loren decided to collect them for a book. Blogging for CemeteryTravel.com led to Dinah Dunn of Black Dog & Leventhal, asking if she had ever considered writing a cemetery travel guide. Loren told Dinah she had been thinking about 99 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, and the pair clicked.

Of course, 99 cemeteries didn’t prove to be enough.

In fact, 199 weren’t either…

Lucy: What is your earliest cemetery memory?

Loren: When I was small, my parents visited relatives in Richmond, Virginia. We went from there to see Arlington, the national cemetery just outside Washington, DC. This was only a few years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My parents wanted to pay their respects at his grave.

A shuttle bus took visitors around to the highlights of the cemetery. My parents were young, with two small children. My brother was only a toddler. At some point, my parents got off the tour bus, but I didn’t. Each of them thought the other had hold of me. I rode the bus to the end of the line, when everyone got off but me. I started crying.

A nice lady took charge of me. She fed me hard candies from her purse until my parents arrived at the Visitor Center to reclaim me. I was so young that I didn’t realize my mom had any other name, but I was fine. It was my first evidence that people in cemeteries could be so kind. I must have been 3 or 4.

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Poblenou Cemetery, Barcelona via guideathand.com

Lucy: An act of kindness, but sounds like a rather scary experience. In your book you say to ‘stay alert’ when visiting cemeteries. I read this advice within a week of reading Romany Reagan’s The Gendered Garden: Sexual Transgression of Women Walking Alone in Cemeteries. Interesting timing as I had never really given it much thought, and often visit cemeteries alone. You shared some of your experiences on her post and I wonder if her piece resonated with you at all? Did you ever feel unsafe while researching this book?

Loren: I’ve walked alone in cemeteries in Detroit, Kansas City, Madison, Cleveland, and other US cities, and to some pretty lonely places in Northern California. Last year, I wandered alone through Poblenou Cemetery in Barcelona and Highgate Cemetery  in London. Roaming around Highgate did make me a little nervous. I didn’t want to get far off the path into the wilderness because I couldn’t see very far in there.

The only time I’ve felt truly unsafe was when the birds stopped singing while I was in the Two Rock Valley cemetery in Northern California. I headed back toward my car without turning my back on the tree line. I assumed at first a mountain lion was creeping up on me, but instead it was only a hawk passing by. Still, mountain lions have killed women alone in Northern California, so I have to keep that in mind.

I’ve actually never been afraid of people in a graveyard, which is strange, when I think of it. When I was 20, I was attacked in a dorm hallway by a man the university had on suicide watch. I was in public, with a female friend, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I learned that it didn’t matter where you were, whom you were with, what you were wearing, or how sober you are: you can be attacked by a man anywhere. Since then, I’ve always felt much less safe in populated public spaces than I’ve ever felt in a cemetery.

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Highgate Cemetery, London via gophotolondon.com

I think about my safety a fair amount—it just seems sensible—but I’ve stopped limiting where I allow myself to go because I am alone.

My sense of security now may be a feature of being in my 50s: I’ve hit the age where I am often invisible. Also, when I go alone to a cemetery, I always go in the middle of the day, usually a weekday, so I am likely to be just about the only person there—and anyone looking for trouble wouldn’t waste their time lurking around a mostly deserted graveyard. Most of the cemeteries I explore are fields of gravestones. Trees are far between, so visibility is always good and no one could really pounce on me. That said, I generally feel safe in cemeteries, but because of my history, I’m always aware of who’s around and what they’re up to.

All that said, my daughter had a close encounter with a scorpion in the Old Christian Cemetery in Singapore. So you really can’t ever be too aware.

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Okunoin Temple, Mount Koya via thejounreyatmyfeet.wordpress.com

Lucy: This awareness forms part of the rules and advice you offer for visiting cemeteries, could share these now? They’re great.

Loren: “Rule number one about visiting cemeteries is to be respectful. Don’t interrupt or impede mourners. Even cemeteries that are closed to new burials deserve to be treated like something precious and irreplaceable, because they are. Just as you would when visiting a pristine wilderness, take nothing but photographs. If you find a grave marker that’s broken—or in danger of breaking—let the grounds crew or office staff know. Leave everything where you find it so the next visitor can enjoy it as much as you have.”

“Whether you take a tour or follow a guidebook or simply wander on your own, be aware of your surroundings. Most graveyards are safer than city streets, but if you feel unsafe, listen to your intuition. I’ve never had any problems on my cemetery travels, but I have seen rattlesnake skins shed in the grass and roamed alone to some pretty isolated spots. Stay alert.”

“Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came—and stayed—before us.”

Lucy: Ah yes, the perils of exploring the natural world. In your beautiful opening, ‘Stopping to Smell the Roses’ I love that you acknowledge the different functions and appeal of cemeteries.

Loren: I’m glad you like it! I’m very pleased with how this paragraph turned out: “Why would anyone go out of the way to visit a graveyard intentionally? In addition to the fascinating stories they contain, cemeteries can be open-air sculpture parks full of one-of-a-kind artwork. They provide habitats for birds and wildlife, as well as arboretums and gardens of surprising beauty. Cemeteries appeal to art lovers, amateur sociologists, birdwatchers, master gardeners, historians, hikers, genealogists, picnickers, and anyone who just wants to stop and smell the roses. Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came—and stayed—before us.”

Lucy: With this in mind, are their cemeteries you regularly visit? What do you do there?

Loren: I live in San Francisco, California, which has no active cemeteries. They were all removed in the early decades of the 20th century. South of San Francisco lies the little town of Colma, which has 17 graveyards. My favorite is Cypress Lawn, a lovely garden cemetery with spectacular statuary. All sorts of local historical figures are entombed there. Cypress Lawn hosts lectures, tours (including a night tour), a book club, photo explorations, antiques appraisals, estate planning workshops: all kinds of fascinating offerings designed to bring people into the cemetery. It’s also very restful just to walk around in.

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Cypress Lawn, Colma by Lee Sandstead

Lucy: You highlight that visiting a cemeteries can be enlightening and grant perspective. I’ve always experienced a sense of life affirmation when wandering in cemeteries, so connected with this.

Loren: It’s all too easy to submerge in work and family and making ends meet. It can blind you to the beauty in the world. I hate to let a sunny day go by, because I understand that it’s one that I will never see again. There are more sunny days behind me now, than ahead.

Cemeteries are perfect for crystalizing the benefits of being alive. Blue sky makes my heart sing. I love to listen to birds and watch squirrels and rabbits and deer. I love to smell the flowers and hear the bees hum. Every day aboveground is a precious gift. Visiting graveyards has made me life-obsessed.

“Cemeteries are perfect for crystalizing the benefits of being alive”

Lucy: Something you really capture is how often we interact with memorial and cemetery space without realising when we visit places or in day to day life.

Loren: Memory, especially public memory, fascinates me. We move through it all the time without examining it.

Lucy: I loved your inclusion of important sites such as National AIDS Memorial Grove, the New York African Burial Ground National Monument and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Can you talk about how visiting these places felt?

Loren: My husband Mason is a musician who has traveled a lot in Japan. When I went with him the first time, I insisted we see the Hiroshima Peace Park. The modern city of Hiroshima is huge—almost two million people live there—but at its heart stands the Atomic Dome, the ruins of the building at Ground Zero when the atomic bomb dropped in World War II.

I thought I was prepared for the museum. I expected it to be anti-American, but it was very careful to put nuclear weapons in a global context. Even so, when I saw the broken eye glasses and dented water bottles—the only things some families ever found of their loved ones—I was reduced to tears. As I was looking for a quiet corner, a group of Japanese schoolboys surrounded Mason. He spoke to them in Japanese. One of the boys held out a hand and Mason shook it. Then they all wanted to shake his hand. It gave me such hope for the future of the world!

There’s a tumulus in the Memorial Park built over the ashes of all the victims of the bombing that could be recovered. It stands 12 feet high.

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Hiroshima Peace Park, Hiroshima via thetruejapan.com

The first time I visited the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, it was a sad patch of grass inside a chain-link fence. This was the spring after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, so history was not a priority in New York City at the time. When I visited again in 2012, the African Burial Ground National Monument had opened. It does an excellent job of respecting the traditions of the people buried—and forgotten—during the colonial era. These were people whose labor built Manhattan—first for the Dutch, then for the British. It made me proud to see them finally appreciated and honored.

The AIDS Grove has particular resonance for me. I helped nurse a friend through his final illness during the AIDS epidemic. Blair chose to be cremated. His husband ate some of his ashes, had some incorporated into a memorial tattoo, and we scattered more in several places around San Francisco. Because of all that, Blair never had a grave, a place where I could go and talk to him, a center for my mourning. The AIDS Grove provided that focus for a lot of people. Back during the epidemic, people didn’t want to be buried alongside the families that had rejected them. In some places, funeral homes wouldn’t handle the remains of people who had died of AIDS. Senator Jesse Helms called for people with AIDS to be put into camps… In the face of all the bigotry, it feels doubly important to have a beautiful place that welcomes all grieving people.

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AIDS Memorial Grove, San Francisco by Julian Sullivan (Getty Images)

Lucy: The book is broken down geographically, were there any notable differences culturally continent to continent? Is there a particular country that stood out as a favourite or different from others?

Loren: I hadn’t realised how widely All Saints/Dia de los Muertos is celebrated. I was in Prague one year and saw the graveyards decorated for the holiday—and I’ve been to Dia de los Muertos celebrations in California—but until I began my research for the book, I didn’t know how extensively the holiday is practiced. That was really cool.

“Back during the epidemic, people didn’t want to be buried alongside the families that had rejected them”

One cemetery I discovered through the Atlas Obscura especially captivated me. The San Pedro Cemetery of Ninacaca, Peru is full of miniature architectural monuments like St. Peter’s in Rome and the Taj Mahal. They aren’t places that the deceased people ever visited in life, necessarily, but places they wanted to see or places that resonated with them. All of the buildings are brightly colored. The cemetery looks so lovely and cheerful in the photos. I would really love to see it in person.

Lucy: Were there any universal cemetery ‘truths’?

Loren: I love the understanding that we are all going to die, but more than that, I love the understanding that to be human is to need to mourn. All of us will experience loss, if we live long enough. All over the world—throughout human history—humans have grappled with that.

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Lakewood Cemetery Chapel, Minneapolis via Pinterest

Lucy: What was the best part of writing this book?

Loren: I’ve met so many great people. When I started touring cemeteries, I was nervous about telling anyone lest they think I was weird. But now so many people visit graveyards for so many reasons that I forget that it’s sometimes still considered unusual.

The best part of the whole book experience was quite honestly working with Dinah Dunn, my American editor, the one who contacted me initially. Dinah let me choose the cemeteries for the book, then helped me hone my list. She even suggested a couple—the Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, which has an amazing mosaic chapel based on the Hagia Sophia, and the Tophet of Carthage in modern-day Tunis, among others. Her team chose the illustrations for the book—and I could not be happier with how it all turned out. I hope we can all work together again.

“So many reasons that I forget that it’s sometimes still considered unusual”

Lucy: To finish then, I have to ask, does the author have a favourite cemetery?

Loren: Oh, that’s like choosing my favourite child! My favourite cemetery is always the one I’m standing in at the moment. However, there are some in the book that I am really eager to visit: Poulnabrone, Okonoin in Japan, Mirogoj in Sarajevo, Waverley in Sydney.

This list goes on and on……

 

 

Over the Garden Wall: Children, Death and the Mystery of the Unknown

By Krista Amira Calvo

When humans are young, they are not of the most responsible nature. As children we often find ourselves roaming the hills of some distant land, searching for dragons, treasure or an admirable hero. The real world falls into the background, a flurry of colors and muffled sounds in our whimsical periphery. When I was just about six, the summer heat found me lost on a fanciful journey in my backyard, one that took me from the swimming pool where my three year old cousin played into the house to rescue a helpless woodland animal, or something of the like. As I traversed the haunted kitchen to rescue the wounded creature, I heard frantic shouts that broke the barrier between reality and my apparitional adventure. I suddenly remembered where I was, or rather, where I was supposed to be, and bolted through the house and back out into the yard. I saw my cousin, so slight in size, floating face down in the water, her hair swimming like snakes around her limp body. In a flurry, an adult I cannot recall, pulled her from the water. Everything in between seeing my lifeless cousin sprawled on the concrete to her eventual gasps for air, her life-bringing watery gurgles and sputters, is incomprehensible. Whether I was so swept up in the panic or if my mind has forcibly forgotten it I cannot tell, but this memory was brought back to me the first time I watched Over the Garden Wall, the Cartoon Network miniseries whose death positive themes made my heart swell with exultation. Frankly, it changed my life.

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In 2013, Patrick McHale wrote and released an animated short called Tome of the Unknown: Harvest Melody. In the very short film, Wirt, and his little brother Greg and Beatrice the talking bluebird set out for the big city in search of a cabalistic book of all known things. Along the way they meet a lonely vegetable man (yes, a man made from various vegetables) and this meeting is the catalyst for their subsequent shenanigans. The short slipped under the mainstream radar, but it was a cult hit nonetheless that received several accolades. In 2014, Cartoon Network asked McHale to turn the short into a full length feature. This never came to fruition, but after some push and pull, Tome of the Unknown was turned into a ten episode miniseries renamed Over the Garden Wall.

“Over the Garden Wall, the Cartoon Network miniseries whose death positive themes made my heart swell with exultation. Frankly, it changed my life”

The show opens with Wirt, a brooding and poetic teenager, his little brother Greg, the portrait of silliness and whimsy, and Greg’s croaking frog, temporarily named Kitty (his name changes quite often throughout the series, among these names is a one “Dr. Cucumber”). They are quite obviously lost in the woods, a place that is christened the Unknown. Wirt and Greg’s attire, Wirt in a red conical hat and Greg with a teapot on his head, create a sense of ambiguity, making it very difficult for the viewer to discern the time period in which Wirt and Greg exist. Desperate to return home, they put their faith in Beatrice the talking bluebird, who promises to get the two boys to safety. To be released from the clutches of the Unknown, they must first find Adelaide of the Pasture; she is the key to their survival, or so Beatrice says. Wirt’s uncertainty and blatant pessimism are a stark juxtaposition to Greg’s overtly positive “ain’t that just the way” outlook. This abutment plays a major role in Wirt and Greg’s journey, during which they encounter a plethora of diverse characters: anthropomorphic animals and vegetables, a young and beautiful maiden haunted by an evil cannibalistic spirit and a ferry full of frogs in dapper attire who happen to be extremely talented musicians. But the most paramount creature the boys encounter is what many of the show’s fans and critics alike have interpreted as none other than death, a being they call the Beast. This is when I fell in love with the show.

Before I address the full significance of the Beast, I think it imperative to discuss the little death positive plugs in the show that happen along the way to Wirt and Greg’s confrontation with him, their encounter with death himself.

On Wirt and Greg’s first leg of the journey, they come across a town called Pottsfield inhabited by, yet again, vegetable people, or so it seems. The boys and Beatrice discover the town upon overhearing an eerie song. I must admit that much of the lyrics to the hymn are slightly unintelligible, but the intelligible lyrics are as follows:

From flesh removed, our chalk footfall tempers this holy ground
Where timeless spirits meet round the heart of Pottsfield town.
O, hie thee forth o’er golden mead, yon is the maypole set
A ribbon to wind thy soul, and to bind love to thy breast

My initial reaction to these lyrics was that they were quite dark for the youthful demographic of Cartoon Network, and I can only assume the unintelligibility of the lyrics may have been intentional. If you are a thanatologist of sorts, or you just love the macabre, it is easy to pick up on the allusion made by the name of the town. If you haven’t yet, the episode lays it out for the viewer quite nicely. Beatrice and the boys, drawn by the song, wander into the town of Pottsfield where pumpkin people dance around a maypole, bob for apples (an ostensibly cannibalistic action) and celebrate what seems to be some sort of autumn solstice. A perplexed Wirt encounters a lady pumpkin who asks him if he thinks he is “. . . a little too early.” When Beatrice expresses that she has a bad feeling about Pottsfield, they attempt to leave; Enoch, the herald of Pottsfield, is displeased to say the least. He sentences the boys to a few hours of hard labor during which they are made to dig holes in a field. To Wirt’s shock and surprise, he unearths a skeleton. Afraid they are digging their own graves, Wirt attempts to delay the completion of his task which in turn gives the excavated skeleton the opportunity to come to life. The citizens of Pottsfield adorn the jubilant, fleshless being with a pumpkin head and vegetable arms and it is then that Wirt realizes that everyone in the town is, in fact, dead. If it hasn’t clicked yet, Pottsfield is a direct reference to the potter’s field, a pauper’s’ grave; it is the place of burial of unknown or indigent people. This very obvious yet gentle allusion to something so dark once again illustrates just how death positive Over the Garden Wall is, as well as expresses Patrick McHale’s viable intent to open conversations with children about death, something I am very passionate about. As the boys finally depart Pottsfield, Enoch asks them if they are sure they wouldn’t like to stay. Wirt declines, to which Enoch responds, “Oh well, you’ll join us someday.”

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“Oh well, you’ll join us someday”

As the boys continue their expedition, the reason behind their presence in the Unknown continues to remain unexplained, thus the viewer is along for the same rollercoaster ride that the boys are on. The hardships encountered on their journey reveal so much about Wirt. His reactions to adversities are often in the form of deep and dark poetry in which he expresses his feelings on their incessant failures and the possibility that death awaits them. Wirt’s lament in the episode Babes in the Woods is an indicator that, despite his youth, Wirt has accepted that humans are not immortal, and that he too someday will perish:

“The beast / it must be out there / it’s sitting cricket / of our inevitable / twilight singing / of our requiem / we are but wayward leaves / scattered to the air bind / by different wind”

This is not the only one of Wirts’s laments in which he explores mortality. In the very first episode of the series, The Old Grist Mill, Wirt reflects upon everything he has left behind:

“No, I am lost / my wounded heart resides back home in / pieces strewn about / the graveyard of my lost love / sometimes I feel like a boat / on a winding river / twisting toward an endless black sea / further and further from where I want to be / Who! I want to be.

Wirt’s lamentations are critical; they are the backbone in defining his personality and are revealing of the past that has led him here to the Unknown. This is the same past that will lead he and Greg into the arms of the Beast.

Although the Pottsfield episode is the most conspicuously death positive of them all, every single chapter of Over the Garden Wall touches on the subject of death in one way or another. The Woodsman, who Greg and Wirt encounter throughout the entirety of their time in the Unknown, is grieving the loss of his daughter whose soul lives in a lantern he must feed with the black oil from edelwood, a mysterious, creeping plant. Greg’s habit of sharing “rock facts”, falsehoods he makes up to cheer up Wirt, are also oddly death positive. In a favorite rock fact of mine, Greg reminisces about the death of the dinosaurs, explaining that in their extinction, they have been forgotten: “Did you know that dinosaurs had big ears, but everyone forgot because ears don’t have bones?” And then there is Auntie Whispers, a character easily interpretable as evil, who is merely trying to protect her niece, Lorna. Possessed by a cannibalistic spirit, Lorna’s demon can only be controlled by the ringing of a glowing, magical bell that Dr. Cucumber has somehow managed to swallow. There is also the tale of Percy Endicott, a wealthy elite who has fallen in love with a ghost, only to find that she is in fact alive. She too was enamored with a ghost, the ghost of the very much alive Percy Endicott. Toward the end of the series, Greg encounters a gravestone with Percy Endicott’s name on it, although this easter egg is never addressed.

In chapter eight, Babes in the Woods, the mini series takes a turn to a place darker than it had previously explored. Wirt has given up on making it home, leaving a still hopeful Greg in charge of finding the way back. Upon falling asleep in the frozen forest, Greg’s dreams transport him to a magical land in the sky called Cloud City, where he is offered the opportunity to stay by its whimsical citizens. This episode is incontestably an allusion to the afterlife, and suggests that heaven is what you make of it when you arrive. To his dismay, Greg is informed by the goddess of this heavenly place that he must leave Wirt behind if he is to stay. “See how the edelwood grows around him?” she says, “The Beast has claimed him already.” Refusing to abandon his brother, Greg returns to him and decides to embark on a journey to bargain with the Beast for Wirt’s life. But before this encounter, the mystery of the Unknown begins to unravel and the boys’ origin story is revealed. It is this lead up that reminded me so much of the near death experience of my cousin twenty-four years ago.

In the second to last episode of the series entitled Into the Unknown, every single death positive metaphor is brought to light, for this is when we find out exactly what Greg and Wirt are doing in the Unknown; it begs the question if this place ever existed at all. In a series of unfortunate events catalyzed by Wirt’s secret love for his classmate Sarah, the boys are sent on a Halloween goose chase through their hometown to retrieve a mixtape of clarinet playing and poetry that Wirt has made for Sarah, but is not ready for her to hear. This explains the strange attire they don as they are adrift in the unknown; Greg’s teapot hat is amusingly an elephant costume. The boys follow Sarah to a graveyard party (during which we see Percy Endicott’s headstone), and chaos ensues when the police arrive to break it up. Wirt and Greg, to avoid a whirlwind of trouble, jump the cemetery wall. In this capricious motion, they are catapulted down a hill and into a river where the boys are, professedly, drowning. It is in this moment that the audience has the realization that the Unknown is no mystical land. Rather, it is the ethereal, near death experience of two boys trying to stay alive in a realm beyond reality. Their fear of the Beast, their determination to escape him, is Greg and Wirt’s will to live battling with the impending approach of the reaper. As Wirt and Greg drown, we are taken back to the Unknown, where Wirt must rescue Greg and finally meet the Beast face to face.

When this happens, the metaphor of Wirt and the Beast’s encounter becomes painfully clear. A weak, cadaverous Greg is wrapped in edelwood, the plant we now know consumes all those who die in the Unknown, and it is this plant that nourishes the soul that inhabits the lantern. The insinuation that death feeds off of the dead is quite terrifying, and I must admit I was taken aback at Patrick McHale’s bold statement, albeit its conscientious truth. Throughout the entirety of the show, I felt as if though the conversations of death were light enough to be digested by children, if they even understood these impressions at all. But the fear evoked by the Beast in his encounter with Wirt struck me as a little shocking, until Wirt’s rebuttal to the Beast’s demand that he and Greg remain in the Unknown. Wirt, summoning all of his courage, tells the beast quite modestly, that this idea is “dumb.” In a blur, Wirt grabs a pale-faced Greg, says goodbye to Beatrice, and the Beast is finished off by the Woodsman, who destroys the lantern that had the Beast’s soul in it all along. As all of this transpires, the audience is propelled into the present, where Wirt opens his eyes under water and rescues a small, lifeless Greg and a listless Dr. Cucumber.

The happy ending to this dark tale unfolds in a brightly lit hospital room. Wirt and Greg are surrounded by their friends, and the Unknown seems far far away. It was nothing but a dream, if you will. But the metaphor remains transparent; Greg’s propinquity to the Beast in the Unknown illustrated how much closer to death he was in the real world, having sacrificed himself for his older brother. Had Wirt not escaped the Beast and come to under the water, he, Greg and Dr. Cucumber (now named Jason Funderburker) would have surely died. Neatly wrapped up in a death positive package, the audience is contented to find that the Unknown was but a frantic figment of a slowly dying imagination. That is, until Greg shakes Jason Funderburker, and the ringing bell in his belly begins to glow.

“Shows like Over the Garden Wall slowly open the door to conversations with our children about what it means to die, and to be dead, even if it opens just a crack”

Making the claim that Over the Garden Wall changed my life is a bold statement; of that I am aware. But I would be lying if I said the series didn’t move me deeply. Its exploration of death, near death experiences and the ability of children to understand and face mortality is incredibly refreshing for someone like me who believes communication with children about death is of the utmost importance. In Western society, we hide our children from the realities of death, and often we try our best to hide ourselves. This approach to death facilitates an unnecessary fear in children and adults alike. Shows like Over the Garden Wall slowly open the door to conversations with our children about what it means to die, and to be dead, even if it opens just a crack. Aside from its message, the beauty and grace with which the story is told brings an almost comforting air to the idea of our own mortality through music, a warm, soothing aesthetic and beautiful prose. Aside from my profound love for the series, the message it sent triggered my memory. It returned to me the moments once lost in a haze of trauma and suppression over watching my small, helpless cousin cross into the realms of the afterlife and return unscathed. I have yet to ask her if she remembers that journey, if there was one at all. While in limbo between the spheres of the living and the dead, do we all travel to the Unknown? Or is it reserved for the vivid imaginations of children unfortunate enough to traverse such dimensions? There is a lesson here, to be taken from Wirt, Greg and Jason Funderburker the frog; death is not to be feared, for it comes for us all. And ain’t that just the way.

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Krista

Krista Amira Calvo is a Caribbean-Latinx Bioarchaeologist, writer and avid necropolitical activist. She currently heads the organization The Black Veil Coalition, a vessel she uses to promote communication, intersectionality and activism in the death positive community in regards to race, gender and feminist issues. She has conducted osteological research in Transylvania and is currently focusing her work on the bioarchaeology of women and children, exploring pathological abnormalities caused by stress and malnutrition in historic orphan girls. She enjoys talking about bones, writing about bones and generally just hanging out with bones. She has two fluffy cats and currently resides in NYC.

Krista is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.

Follow on Twitter, Instagram and at www.trowelandbone.com.

Murder Ballads, Gender, and Who Deserves to Die

By Sam Wall

I’m fascinated by murder ballads. They intrigue me with the way they mix beauty and grotesquery. I love how they show us that the cultural obsession in the U.S with murder did not start with O.J Simpson or “Making of a Murderer.”  Our fascination with bloodshed is deeply ingrained in our folklore and songs, songs that attract the slice of my attention reserved for all things morbid. On top of being a lover of the macabre, I’m also a feminist killjoy who loves pointing out the ways in which gender interacts with cultural storytelling. That overlap in interests is how I noticed that murder ballads tell us a great deal about domestic violence, and offers clues to how much (or how little) our conversations about it changed over the course of a century.

Murder ballads take all sorts of forms, from gallows confession to the chronicles of wild west outlaws. For our purposes, a murder ballad is any song telling the story of one person killing another. While murder ballads exist in many genres and countries, I’m focusing on songs from the U.S that fall into categories like country, blues, and folk. Because in those genres of murder ballad Domestic violence, be it committed by a spouse, a lover, or a former flame, is a common theme, although it’s never called by that name. Instead it’s called a jealous lover, make-up caked over a bruised face, a man who shoots his woman down. Let us take a journey through this morbid musical landscape to see how the ballads of different eras dealt with domestic violence.

“murder ballads tell us a great deal about domestic violence, and offers clues to how much (or how little) our conversations about it changed over the course of a century”

Early murder ballads are the ancestors of the modern true crime novel. Many of them are based on real crimes, and guide listeners from the scene of the crime all the way to the courthouse or the gallows. But due to multiple ballads intermingling and balladeers being all too willing to take creative license the accounts aren’t always accurate. It’s this narrative embellishment that leads the ballads to walk the line between true crime and horror story, moving from pure recitation of fact to gory imaginings.  The lyrics for songs like “Pearl Bryan” and “The Ashland Tragedy” paint horror-film-worthy pictures of young girls’ heads carried in bags or shattered by iron bars to “welter in their gore.” Like many slasher films, murder ballads serve a second purpose; they are cautionary tales for women.  They tell us the tragic, violent fates of our predecessors and urge us to beware the world around us. Or else.

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Pearl Bryan Muder Ballad Cover

Do the early ballads offer the same warnings to men? No, is the short answer. That’s due in part to men almost always being the perpetrator in these songs. Still, very little time is spent cautioning men to not let their passions or their rages lead them to murder. While the men in these ballads are not praised for their actions, they’re not automatically condemned for them. If their motives are unclear or if they kill a woman, especially a spouse, out of greed they are cast as villains, but if they kill because of unrequited love or heartbreak, they are sympathetic, driven to desperate ends for love. The ballad “Henry and Servilla, Or the Death Bridal” frames a murdered sixteen-year-old and her killer (a former lover) as a bride and groom united in death:

You shall be mine he said;

Then drew a pistol from his breast,

And shot her through the head.

Then with another shot himself

And by her side he fell

And from their wounds the life blood flowed,

As from a crimson well.

It would have moved a heart of stone

To’ve viewed them side by side

The cold, pure snow their nuptial bed

A dead man and his bride.

That ballad, unsettling on its own, is doubly chilling when you realize that it recounts something that still happens today. All you have to do is look at the #whenwomenrefuse campaign, which is littered with stories of women who were hurt or killed after they broke up with a man or otherwise told him no. Those tales are evidence that the belief “if I can’t have you then no one can” still circulates through American culture. Worse, if you read certain commentary (or certain comments sections) on stories of women killed for saying no, you will still find people [replace, who agree with? who uphold the ideas of] the killer. People who believe that it falls to women to not awaken the violent beast that, apparently, lurks just below the surface of every man. Whenever a story of a violent reaction to a woman’s refusal surfaces, a chorus of if-she’d-onlys is heard. If only she’d said yes, if only she’ been politer, if only she’d avoided him, if only she’d stayed home.

That’s what makes the cautionary tone of early ballads troubling. They make clear to us that if you’re a woman, your murder, no matter the motive behind it, was at least partially your fault. It could be you rejected the affections of a man who was otherwise decent, but your scorn drove him to fit of violent passion. Maybe you were too naïve or trusting, following a man into the woods when you should have known that the natural consequence of doing so is death.  Or maybe you were too worldly and strayed too far from the path good and decent girls must tread, and we all know what happens to girls who stray, don’t we? Ballad broadsheets are strewn with the ancestors of the victim blaming so many survivors of domestic violence hear today: you provoked him, you should have known what would happen, can’t you see you’re not blameless here?

“they make clear to us that if you’re a woman, your murder, no matter the motive behind it, was at least partially your fault”

From the 1940s up into the 1970s murder ballads maintained their popularity through musicians like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. A noticeable shift in the murder ballads of this period is the change from a third-person perspective to the first person. Specifically, the abuser’s perspective. These songs often continue the earlier ballad themes of crimes of passion or of a man murdering a woman because she had done him wrong. “Cedartown, Georgia,” “L.A. County,” and “Cocaine Blues” are all members of this family. In those three songs, and in most of their relatives, the narrator expresses no remorse for his actions. Sometimes, as in “Cocaine Blues” he feels remorse for having to suffer consequences for the murder, but not for the murder itself. Like their non-fictional counterparts, the men in these songs outline their reasons for violence with chilling clarity. Sometimes they’ll blame alcohol or drugs, but more often they believe that infidelity or perceived disrespect justifies killing their partner. As far as they’re concerned the dead woman got what was coming to her.

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Lyric Sheet for The Death Bridal

Lack of remorse continued to be a theme in murder ballads in the 1980s, and remains a theme today but with a twist: it is the abused woman who murders her abusive partner and is not in the least bit sorry about it. The tones of the songs in this category run the gamut from upbeat and cheerful to traditional and spooky, and running through all of these songs is a single moral: abuse a woman, become a dead man.

Before I get any further into why this iteration of the murder ballad is so striking, let me be clear: I don’t condone killing anybody, and I reject the notion that violence is a good way to solve problems. I’ve also worked with survivors of intimate partner violence and assault for many years. I’d be lying if I said images of what I’d do to certain abusers if I thought I could get away with it didn’t float through my head from time to time. I can’t say I’m proud of those thoughts, but I can’t deny their existence. Clients and friends alike have shared similar thoughts with me, and many survivors struggle with the anger that gives birth to those fantasies. That anger and desire for revenge runs counter to the narrative that so many believe is the right reaction for a survivor to have towards an abuser; initial fear and anger giving way to willingness to forgive. But that anger is there whether we (both individually and culturally) like it or not. These new murder ballads acknowledge those dark fantasies and in doing so reflect the emotional truth of what some survivors go through. To have that truth sung on the radio is remarkable in that it asks us to recognize and listen to the experiences of abuse survivors.

“these new murder ballads acknowledge those dark fantasies and in doing so reflect the emotional truth of what some survivors go through”

The truth winding through these modern murder ballads extends beyond emotions and into the lyrical details used to describe the abuse. It puts more power behind the story because, as with the early ballads, we can’t brush the account off as something that wouldn’t happen in the real world. Every day there are news headlines that say otherwise. Here are some examples:

Everyone thought they were Ken and Barbie
But Ken was always getting way too drunk
Saturday night, after a few too many
He came home ready to fight

Church Bells by Carrie Underwood)

“ The Sun and Daily Telegraph quoted locals who described Lance (who shot his ex-wife and daughter) as “a nice guy” -“We Didn’t Recognize him as Dangerous”

Well she finally got the nerve to file for divorce
And she let the law take it from there
But Earl walked right through that restraining order
And put her in intensive care

(Goodbye Ear by The Dixie Chicks)

Sheriff: Domestic violence leads to murder despite restraining order

He slapped my face, and he shook me like a rag doll
Don’t that sound like a real man?
I’m going to show him what little girls are made of
Gunpowder and lead

(Gunpowder and Lead by Miranda Lambert)

Wausau Woman Says Abuse For 30 Years Led to Murder

One the of the most famous examples of a modern murder ballad matching a headline is Gretchen Peter’s “Independence Day,” made famous by singer Martina McBride. Peters based the song on Francine Hughes, a woman who suffered thirteen years of abuse at the hands of a partner before setting the house on fire with him inside. He died as a result, and Francine was found not guilty in one of the first instances of “battered women’s syndrome” being used in defense of a killing. The basic idea is that being the victim of abuse can push someone to lethal action, and that the abuse caused the victim to become temporarily insane. That defense has morphed slightly as we’ve gained a better understanding of how the dynamics of abuse can force women to make the choice between killing or being killed. That choice should not be simplified into a woman simply “snapping” one day (although some victims do kill their abusers spontaneously when it appears the abuser is trying to kill them), and reducing it down to a version of temporary insanity ignores how logical the choice can feel. Many abusers tell the victim that they’ll kill her, or kill the kids, or kill her parents if she leaves. Many abusers follow through with those threats, which is why leaving is the point at which a victim is in the greatest danger of dying or being badly injured. When that is the reality they face, we begin to see why some women turn to murder as self-defense against. To those victims the choice likely mirrors these words from “Independence Day:”

Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong
But maybe it’s the only way.

For all it shows the reality of domestic abuse, this version of the murder ballad is still very much a fantasy. And not simply a revenge fantasy. The fantasy is that the murder works, and that the survivor goes on to live her life in peace with little to no fall-out. She doesn’t have to bother with the “battered woman syndrome” defense or a jury because no one even suspects it was her. The construction of the songs encourages the listeners of the song to see that freedom as a just outcome. Likewise, the abuser’s death is a natural outcome of his actions, the consequence he deserved for assaulting a woman. This remains the most striking element of this type of song to me: domestic violence is something that deserves punishment. Again, I don’t think murder should be the natural punishment for an abuser (or for anything else, for that matter). But abuse is still shrugged off in so many communities, still underreported because the victim believes, sometimes accurately, that they will not be taken seriously. When that’s the world we live in there can be a bittersweet enjoyment in having a cultural area where abuse is treated as a deathly serious crime.

Protesters advocating for the release of Francine Hughes
Protesters advocating for the release of Francine Hughes

That’s not to say that modern, women-lead country doesn’t contain other complex variations on the murder ballad. Perhaps the best example of this is “Better Dig Two” by The Band Perry. The title comes from this line in the song’s chorus:

If you go before I do
I’m gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two

Morbid, but still in the sad/sweet realm of “I you die first I will die shortly after that of a broken heart” until you realize that the preceding verse is:

So if the ties that bind ever do come loose
Tie them in a knot like a hangman’s noose
‘Cause I’ll go to heaven or I’ll go to hell
Before I’ll see you with someone else

The singer isn’t just talking about death by broken heart. She’s willing to kill her husband and die herself to prevent them from separating. This song brings us full circle to the early ballads where death is a means of uniting a couple forever, even if murder is required to enforce that union. “Better Dig Two” is a masterful bit of songwriting because it marries that element of the older ballads with the modern ballad’s understanding of how terrifying that abusive mindset is. The singer adds a sinister, implied “or else” to every romantic promise they make their partner. It’s unnerving to the point that you want to reach into the radio and hand the fictional husband a card for the nearest domestic violence resource. It keeps with the message of the other modern ballads in that it never tries to justify or excuse the abuse. It brings us to the place where, in a perfect world, murder ballads would have always inhabited. One where tales of domestic violence are never told in order to scold victims for not behaving correctly or justify the actions of the abuser. A world where we’re never encouraged to see abuse as anything other than the terrifying phenomenon it is and maybe be moved to do something about it.

If you or someone you know need resources on domestic violence:

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Love Is Respect

The Scarleteen Safety Plan

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Sam Wall is a queer writer and sex educator living in Nevada. She is the Assistant to the Director of Scarleteen.com, where she helps provide high-quality sex ed to young people around the world. She is interested in all the ways that gender, sexuality, and death intersect throughout history and in current cultures. She also enjoys exploring the ways in which marginalized communities use elements of horror and the macabre as forms of self-care and resistance.

Follow her on Twitter

The Child’s View

By Emily Andrews

I swear to this day it wasn’t her.

When I was 8 years old, my friend was killed and I remember crying and being confused. I remember newspaper reporters coming to our class and asking us how we felt.

But mostly, I remember her.

She had been stabbed. Found three days after her disappearance. As an adult, I can only begin to imagine how she must have looked before her family chose to embalm her body. Reflection is a gift.

I walked into the funeral home for the viewing and several of my classmates ran out, one grabbed me by the arm, declaring it wasn’t her. Running to the casket I wasn’t able to wrap my mind around who this stranger was. Her hair was curly and long, not short and straight. She had a layer of makeup rivaling a woman ready for a night on the town. She looked like she had been put in a wedding dress.

My mother told me to hush in front of the grieving family, insisting it was her. This was how my friend now looked. There wasn’t some terrible mix up. My friend had died and this was supposed to help me deal with it.

Later, when my uncle passed away, he was also embalmed. He looked exactly as I knew him; it was like he was sleeping.

I was not allowed to go to my cousin’s funeral.

When I ask my mother why now, she says it was to protect me, that she didn’t want me traumatized. I only remember my cousin alive now, which I suppose was the point, I can’t seem to picture him dead. He was still more alive to me than my out of town relatives, I could still see his face. His voice has faded through the years, though.

As the years past and I grew older, other family members were cremated. No muss, no fuss, no body to consider. The body had started to feel less important to me anyway, the person is no more, not in the physical sense at least. It felt like I was going through the motions of grief and I don’t remember feeling the same sadness as when I stared at a body.

I contemplated all these experiences when first trying to explain death to my daughter. When she was four, our ferret passed away. Always wearing my heart on my sleeve, I cried tears that others may feel a waste on a simple pet. My daughter cried with me, saying I was wrong, that he was sleeping. She was mad when we took him out of the cage, thinking we were going to wake him up. I felt a little lost. I wanted so much to fall back on those classic clichés and talk of heaven and how the ferret was now in a glorious place with other little ferrets having a grand old time.

It took more out of me to resist the impulse of glittery heaven than I ever could have imagined it would.

We decided to cremate him. I explained to my daughter that he now lived in her heart. I told her she could do whatever she wanted to be happy that he was not suffering anymore. She understood, to a point. That is, until the urn arrived. She now tells everyone that the ferret lives in the urn, but lives there dead. She dances with the urn sometimes.

When a friend of ours lost her grandmother, we both went to the funeral. The body was embalmed, something I had not seen since childhood. I tried to prepare my daughter, but I was the one who caught my breath. “This is not her” running through my veins. My daughter, on the other hand, was fascinated. She was five at this point, interested in how the had heart stopped and how the blood stopped flowing. Outside, she tried to make her own funeral pyre with twigs and stones. I felt awkward, like I should not be letting her do these things, that I did not explain the solemnity of death properly.

I realize now that she was doing a better job of teaching me.

While it may be obvious to other people, I didn’t realize how much stock I put on the presence of a body until my husband’s uncle passed away. Before he was picked up, he lay in bed at home. We all sat around him telling stories and laughing at our wonderful memories. Once his body had left I broke down. The finality was inherent before, but obvious and painful now.

Again, my daughter took more pleasure in the ritualistic side of everything. She enjoyed the wake; she enjoyed talking about her great uncle, she enjoyed the food (why does grief make everyone hungry?) and she only cried a little when someone else would tear up.

She taught me that death is not a solemn, drab affair and crying is okay. I would feel guilty remembering happy times, thinking that it was somehow disrespectful to smile after death. My daughter takes her time. A year after the ferret died, she cried and said she was sad that he wasn’t here. Part of me wanted to gently tell her to get over it, but why? Why was I taught that grief had a deadline? Why can’t she still be sad? He was an awesome little guy.

As a child, death slapped me in the face and then was hidden from me. I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t know to what depths of emotion I should go. Children have no qualms; they will feel and do as they please if allowed. I worried what to teach my daughter, but it is she, who has taught me so much about death.

 “I don’t like death but I love skulls and I love everything.”

– Hope (age 6)

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By Camilla d’Errico

Emily Andrews breathes words. She was born in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and recently moved back after 20 years in Calgary. She loves to read and write. Her six year old daughter keeps her on her toes and her loving partner keeps her grounded.

 

 

The Monster Inside Me

By Caroline Reilly

Since I was old enough to go out on my own, my mother has been talking to me about Ted Bundy. In high school, when we had off campus privileges starting in our freshman year, she explained to my 14-year-old self about the serial killer who was good looking, and charming, and who would use rouses to lure women into his car and then kill them. Bundy would remain an abstract boogey man for much of my youth and well into college – I had only a vague understanding of his crimes, but remained acutely aware of the ways in which he found some of his victims. My mother’s words still flash through my head any time a man asks me for help – any time a man leans in and asks what time it is while I’m in line at the grocery store, or gets too close to me on a train platform to ask if I know when the next departing line leaves. But it wasn’t until my own body, sick with an unfamiliar and confusing disease, became the most frightening thing in my life, that I really began to delve into the psyche of Bundy and others like him.

Let me back up a little.

Despite having a relatively low tolerance for horror movies until I was in college, I have always loved a good mystery. I grew up on a steady diet of Scooby Doo and the Boxcar Kids book series. When I got older, my tolerance for horror movies and thrillers hardened and I fell in love with the genre watching Silence of the Lambs. I couldn’t get enough of TV shows like Twin Peaks, True Detective, Sherlock Holmes, Law & Order and Criminal Minds. Still, one fact remained the same; the end of the movie, the unmasking of the monster, the unraveling of the mystery was always my least favorite part of the journey. There was excitement in the uncertainty, something to hold on to in the suspense. Don’t get me wrong, I always root for the bad guy to get caught, but there was nothing that kept my attention more than watching the clues unravel.

That is, until my own body became the mystery.

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Two years ago, I was diagnosed with endometriosis – a chronic reproductive health condition that can cause acute back pain, pelvic pain, fatigue, nausea, and infertility. It left me housebound in chronic pain for months at a time. It was an excruciating time, both physically and mentally. After an inept surgeon performed a botched ablation surgery on me, he put me on a course of harsh hormones that catapulted my body, essentially into early menopause. I had to stop going to school, and I became unable to do much on my own. I was plagued by the fear that this would be my forever reality; that I would never be able to have children, and that my life would be painful, lonely, and unlivable. I later found out that the course of treatments my first doctor had prescribed were ineffective, and that I wasn’t alone. Hundreds, even thousands of women in online communities I joined were being put through the same hell. I also learned that many of them were finding relief with what’s known as excision surgery – the gold standard in endometriosis care, which very few doctors can correctly perform. I did my research, and found a renowned excision specialist who performed an almost 5-hour surgery on me, removing disease from my bladder, my colon, my bowel, my cul de sac, and separating my uterus and my bladder which had begun to fuse. I am happy to say that that surgery was a success – and I am on the road to recovery, with the help of some physical therapy, which addresses the pelvic floor dysfunction that comes from living with endometriosis and some therapy, where I am working through the trauma of the whole experience.

A lot has changed in the last two years – and living in constant fear of the mysteries of my own body, my own pain, my own disease, changed the way I felt about basking in the mystery. Now I wanted desperately to face horror and say, I have the answer, I know how this story ends, or why it never does, and what’s more – because of that knowledge, I’m not afraid.

“It seems an unlikely refuge – immersing oneself in one kind of darkness to escape another, but the phenomena of turning to true crime in a time of trauma is not unique to me.”

Oddly enough, it all started with a true crime book where they never catch the monster. I read Zodiac when I was recovering from my first surgery, and was immediately hooked. Despite remaining unsolved to this day, reading about the dissection of Zodiac – his motives, his underlying issues, the trail that they hoped would lead to him – demystified the monster. He was no longer something unknown that went bump in the night, he was concrete; human. There was something empowering about staying up late and reading Zodiac without a chill running down my spine – I may not have known what was going on inside my body or how to fix it, but I was facing another horror, and I wasn’t scared.

It seems an unlikely refuge – immersing oneself in one kind of darkness to escape another, but the phenomena of turning to true crime in a time of trauma is not unique to me. In Jes Skolnik’s New York Times op-ed on why she’s drawn to true crime as a domestic violence and rape survivor, she says, “People who have survived trauma are often avidly attentive to true crime films, TV shows and podcasts because they help us reflect on the violence we’ve experienced and put it into context. None of us glorify or fetishize serial killers, or see ourselves as far removed from those who inflict violence or those who are subject to it.” And she’s right. She goes on to reflect on how true crime podcasts, like the wildly popular My Favorite Murder, don’t offer the same neatly tied up resolutions that TV procedurals might, and that this de-glorification, this refusal to oversimplify, makes them a perfect medium for trauma victims, who want their own pain, and their own lives, not to be seen as exceptional or ghoulish, but as a well woven aspect of society.

Interacting with true crime in this way is not at all dissimilar to thinking about and confronting death through death positivity. Death, like serial killers and true crime, is an issue fraught with mystery and taboo – likewise it is an issue that becomes less monstrous, less shadowy when we face it head on, and look for explanations, truths, and facts. It’s also important to distinguish this kind of interest from a more voyeuristic interest in serial killers and true crime, which diminishes the suffering of the victims in favor of a fan-club-like worship of serial killers, that has a dark and disturbing presence in some online communities.

“Interacting with true crime in this way is not at all dissimilar to thinking about and confronting death through death positivity. Death, like serial killers and true crime, is an issue fraught with mystery and taboo.”

For me, the ability to read about the psychological profiling of someone like Ted Bundy, or Charles Manson, or Jeffrey Dahmer, was a way to break down the mystery – to remove the unknown from the equation, and to expose these men for who they were; unexceptional in every way except in their capacity for brutality. There is something about understanding the difference between an organized and disorganized killer, or learning how some killers are driven to do the things they do for reasons out of their control, like the Vampire of Sacramento, who drank his victims’ blood because he thought his own would turn to powder without it – that makes me feel less afraid. It was a raw comfort in a time when the most frightening thing in my life was my own body; to be able to say I may be terrified of what is happening inside me, but I am not afraid of this boogey man, of the serial killer stories that are used to scare us as children, or restrict our movements as women, because I understand them – they are not mysteries to me.

Even in my recovery, I turn to true crime to prove to myself I don’t have to be afraid. I’m now making my way through Whoever Fights Monsters, by the late FBI agent Robert K. Ressler, who coined the term serial killer, and consulted on Silence of the Lambs. In it, he moves step by step through how they came to understand behavioral profiling of serial killers, and he explains in detail interviews he conducted with some of the country’s deadliest men. The irony of it all though is, these men are all just that; men. Not unlike the ending of the Scooby Doo cartoons of my childhood, these villains do not possess supernatural powers, but rather they epitomize evils that are very much of this world. The same way death positivity has taught me that hiding from death only serves to empower death phobia, my trauma has shown me we don’t need to look to mystery or the supernatural to face evil, and turning away from the “monsters” that exist among us doesn’t insulate us from their harm; it only empowers the mystery of it all.

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Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She recently presented at the Death and the Maiden conference on how anti-abortion movement co-opts death-phobia to advance their agenda, and is interested in the ways in which death positivity and the reproductive justice movement intersect. She is also an avid true crime fan, and wants to further explore the ways in which women connect to the genre as a source of strength and healing. You can find her writing on abortion rights, women and pain, and more at Bitch MediaBustFrontline (PBS), Scarleteen, and Rewire. You access her nationally recognized writing on teen access to abortion here.

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Caroline is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.

Follow on Twitter and Instagram.

Darker in the Sun

By Krista Amira Calvo

Forty pound knapsacks, the stench of garlic on leather boots to ward off rattlesnakes, and the scrapings together of U.S. currency stuffed into mayonnaise jars. These are just a few of the staples a migrant must burden themselves with on their trek to what they believe will be a better life.

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Photograph by Emanuele Satolli

Oaxaca is 2,860.7 miles from Arizona. 32 hours by car, and 24.29 days on foot under a blazing sun. The typical migrant seeking work in the United States will take a series of buses, trains and car rides until they are close enough to the border to cross on foot. The majority of them hop a train just north of the Guatemalan border, in a town called Arriaga. These trains, aptly called El Tren de la Muerte (the Death Train), carry upwards of 500,000 migrants toward the border a year. They ride atop these high-speed snaking monstrosities, risking life and limb on a journey that will hopefully end in America – yet,  often ends in death.

I tried to imagine what being on El Tren de la Muerte must be like, the dusted wind roaring in my ears, the sun beating down on my skin and the gut wrench experienced at every turn of the barreling beast. But I knew no matter how tightly shut I squeezed my eyes to drop into that moment, I could never feel the fearful rush they felt. Not because my imagination is lacking, but because I am not them.

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Photograph by  Michelle Frankfurter

The migrants that ride these ‘beasts’ through the country are easy targets for abuse at the hands of corrupt officials and violent gangs, namely Los Zetas, a group of renegades who kidnap migrants, placing incredibly high ransoms on their heads. If the families don’t pay, the migrants are murdered. Considering these families have little to no income, the migrants usually fall victim to Los Zetas, their bodies left in the desert, bloated and vulnerable to scavenging coyotes. Often they are thrown in mass graves where they may never be found – invisible in life and invisible in death.

“As I understand, the United States is investing billions of dollars on that wall. Why invest in something that is inanimate? It’s a dead investment. Why not invest in human beings?”

(unknown migrant worker)

The issues that these migrants face, whether Mexican, Guatemalan or Honduran, are just as perilous on either side of the border. Their non-optional poverty, the gun battles between rival criminal organizations taking place on day-lit streets and the death of innocents caught in the crossfire are part of many of their daily lives. It is easy enough for the privileged U.S. traveler to just avoid places of high conflict until things ‘die down’, an ignorant hope many tourists have. But this is the sun-up, sun-down reality for the people who inhabit these areas. They are among the groups of the marginalized who will never have the option of a ‘good death’, and leaving to find work across the border seems the only answer to the question of how one saves their own family from a bad death to give them a better one: you must risk experiencing your own bad death in an attempt to reach the land of milk and honey.

“You could say it’s a decision about death. Death is what you come up against most on the road. From one day to the next you decide that you’re off. You go with the hope that you’ll actually reach the USA.”

(unknown migrant worker)

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Photograph via Al Jazeera America

The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, Arizona is the final resting place for many of the migrants who encounter death on their journey across the border. From recent, fleshed bodies to sun-bleached bones, they all arrive in white bags, tagged with a number. This number will, too often permanently replace the names given to them by their mothers, heirlooms lost in the unforgiving desert on the trek to the equally unforgiving system of structural violence and systemic racism they would have faced as workers in the United States. Working in the strawberry and blueberry fields on the West Coast also often ends in a slow and painful death from injuries acquired on the job, the lack of healthcare available to migrants and the inability for some western medical professionals to adjust to properly treating indigenous peoples and the undocumented. Often this inability doesn’t stem from the lack of experience, but from the disdain for the people that these clinicians cannot understand, neither culturally nor linguistically, as well as the misconception that these peoples are abusing the healthcare system. In truth, only 10% of the indigenous Triqui peoples of Oaxaca who cross the border utilize the healthcare system, and in 2014 a mere 29% of migrants bothered with insurance or clinics at all due to mistreatment of the body, which translates to mistreatment of the soul. Thus, the death of migrants is exacerbated, and which of these deaths is truly worse?

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Photograph by Don Bartletti

Padre Alejandro Solalinde is a priest who has set up a facility at the halfway point where El Tren de Muerte stops and the journey by foot begins. Padre Solalinde knows these migrants better than anyone; he sees their hopes and the worn out photos of children who may never see their brothers again, never smell the familiar sweat on their father’s necks, never again safe in their embrace. “Migrants are not a threat.”, says Solalinde. “They are an opportunity. They come with values and great things to offer. Poor people are the spiritual reserve of the world.”

I come from a very mixed heritage. I am part Mestizo, part Indigenous Central American, and part Caribbean West Africa. Thus, my connection to these migrants is not just through my desire to share their story. The string that ties me to these peoples is the blood in my veins and my love for the country that I come from. When I was writing this piece, I imagined my family’s hardships moving to the United States. Extreme vetted and burdened with financial struggle, they managed to migrate to Miami to give us a better life. Marginalized communities experience varying levels of suffering based on socio-economic contexts, the ways they feel about the soul, and the value they put on their own lives in hopes of something better. At some point between the beginning and the end of this piece, I desperately attempted to channel my ancestors to gain some sort of understanding of what these migrants actively experience, and the past tense of that for those who met a horrific death on the road to something they imagined to be greater. The realization that I came to is that these migrants are heros.

“They are like rays of light shining on the things we must change. They are heros who not only fight for their families, they are fighting to change the story of the US and Mexico.”

(unknown migrant worker)

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Photograph by Jorge Rivas

Resources

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies by Dr. Seth Holmes

Who is Dayani Cristal?

Migration Policy Institute 

Healthcare access among circular and undocumented Mexican migrants: results from a pilot survey on the Mexico-U.S. border 

Krista

Krista Amira Calvo is a Caribbean-Latinx Bioarchaeologist, writer and avid necropolitical activist. She currently heads the organization The Black Veil Coalition, a vessel she uses to promote communication, intersectionality and activism in the death positive community in regards to race, gender and feminist issues. She has conducted osteological research in Transylvania and is currently focusing her work on the bioarchaeology of women and children, exploring pathological abnormalities caused by stress and malnutrition in historic orphan girls. She enjoys talking about bones, writing about bones and generally just hanging out with bones. She has two fluffy cats and currently resides in NYC.

Krista is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.

Follow on Twitter, Instagram and at www.trowelandbone.com.

Iris Schieferstein’s Death and The Maiden

By Gabriella Daris

I met German sculptor and taxidermy artist, Iris Schieferstein, at her studio—43km outside of Berlin, by the Langer See (Long Lake)—where I encountered giant freezers filled with carcases—major raw materials for the artist’s work.

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Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), 2013, sculpture
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Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), 2013, sculpture
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Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), 2013, sculpture

Gabriella: How did you come up with the idea of creating, first the photographic work (2010) and then the sculpture (2013) entitled, Death and the Maiden? What do they represent and how does the feminine versus death manifest in this work?

Iris: There is a beautiful music composed by Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”, and the idea behind it is the beauty of the feminine, and the unknown and invisible creature called death, one which we will be following at some point in our life. Death is always like the dark side of the moon and it is also the dark side of our thoughts and of our life. And both versions of Death and the Maiden are about our thinking and being. It is a fascinating theme and a very old one as well. So I made different versions, each one with different intensions but they all represent the opposite sides such as life and death, beauty and the beast, day and night, summer and winter… The feminine part is usually the possibility to create life: following the steps of a young girl until she becomes a grown up woman and the changes she undergoes, from an innocent being to someone with taste of sexuality and brutality. A young female body is so soft and fragile, and it is so interesting for me to place it together with the opposite creature of death. Bones are edged, clear lines, prepared to carry a lot of weight, the weight of life. Bones are the remains, where you can reconstruct a creature. The skeleton is the past; a young girl is the future.

“Death is always like the dark side of the moon and it is also the dark side of our thoughts and of our life.”

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Der Tod & Das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), 2010, photographs
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Der Tod & Das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), 2010, photographs

Gabriella: How long did it take to produce the sculpture Death and the Maiden, and what is it made of?

Iris: I modelled it and made the mould in clay. The sculpture is made of A-crystal, gyps, plastic particles, marble powder and horns. It took 3 years to produce because I’ve done everything by myself. And during the production period, I was getting very sick, actually, at the same spot were Death comes out from the Maiden. That means that I am now quite close to a cyborg, with titanium incorporated in my back.

Gabriella: Tell me about your most renowned work, the series of shoes made from discarded animal feet.

Iris: The animal shoes are a mixture of sexuality and brutality, which are so close to each other, and they tell the same story, like the Death & the Maiden. War and the military are always interested in aerodynamics, in making things faster for example with the use of supersonic aircraft and bombs, and showing off power, the power caused by mass and sound. So in former times they used horses, these days they use technology intelligence. But when they want to show how powerful they are, they march on special historical days, like the Waffen-SS during World War II. They were well prepared by Hugo Boss, with these black coats and trousers, looking rather sexy and fearsome. The shoes may question how degenerate we were and we still are. Why are we using the symbols of animals? Is it for reasons of empowerment? Anyway, my series of shoes reflect elements of human history through the lens of fairy tales.

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Horseshoes, 2006
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Horseshoes, 2006

Gabriella: You made a hat embroidered with stuffed rats in 2013. Why is it called Thoughts?

Iris: Because the rats are jumping in and out of your head, like thoughts, and on the back of the head they are dark rats because of the dark thoughts.

Gabriella: What made you get into the art of taxidermy?

Iris: The love of the form, the love of animals, the love of nature.

Gabriella: Where do you source your dead animals and in which ways do you manipulate them in order to create new ideals of aesthetics?

Iris: In former times, from the street—the victims of the road—but these days, I take them from butchers and friends, as well as from breeders. We are the masters of our world and we are creators (society, medicine, research, politics, religion, etc.). I am a sculptor, and dead animals are the perfect raw material for my work, which symbolizes certain creatures, like humans.

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Thoughts, 2013

“We are the masters of our world and we are creators (society, medicine, research, politics, religion, etc.). I am a sculptor, and dead animals are the perfect raw material for my work.”

Gabriella: I find the statement depicted in She thought… (2005) to be reminiscent of the expression “little death” (la petite mort), which suggests a likeness of the orgasm to the death experience.

Iris: Sex gives you the most intense feeling of your being and one that is a memento that you are a part of the cosmos. It is especially during sex that you feel alive.

Gabriella: I love the title, Underfucked Oversexed (2005). What does this work represent?

Iris: Underfucked Oversexed is one of my personal favourites. When we make love, we are animals. That does not mean that we cannot be tender. Animals can be tender to each other. We should not think that we are something else, more intelligent than animals as we have the same origin. And women should not be ashamed of their sexuality. It is an ironical statement about women’s emancipation and the male’s viewpoint.

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She thought…, 2005, photograph
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Oversexed & Underfucked, 2005, photograph

Gabriella: What is All about religion or Adam & Eve (2017) about?

Iris: It’s a diptych consisting of two characters: a Pope and a Muslim woman clad in Burka. Even if they seem to be naked, they both wear clothes, which are transparent. Drawing from the fairy tale des Kaisers neue Kleider (The emperor´s new clothes), this work is all about religion and religion is a fiction; it is just an idea aiming at influencing peoples.

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All about religion or Adam & Eve, 2017, photographs
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All about religion or Adam & Eve, 2017, photographs

Gabriella: Tell me about your more recent work, the two versions of Cinderella (2013 and 2017), which are currently showing at the Virtual Shoe Museum exhibition at Schloss Lichtenwalde and in the exhibition Art Shoes, Odapark, Holland (until 29 October 2017) respectively.

Iris: The bleeding pair of shoes in Cinderella is a sign of all female life. That’s why I’ve chosen shoes commonly used by women all over the world, the “ballerinas.” The blood is dripping out from the shoes the whole time, non-stop, like in the fairy tale of Schneewitchen (Cinderella). The liquid, which looks like blood, is a mix of acrylic color with distilled water, totaling 3 litters. The reservoir inside the pedestal is circulated with a pump. With the bleeding used as a metaphor, my piece reflects the story of female oppression, destiny and punishment, i. e. if they get married to old men, if they cut their labia, if they have to build new homes post-war: women usually work harder, yet they are still second class peoples, “bleeding” during their whole life.

Gabriella: Would you say that your work is as much about death as it is about life?

Iris: No, it is more a celebration of the living than the dead. In life you can change things whereas death is a mystery, you never know what is hidden behind the curtain. But as long you can watch, you can change certain things.

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Cinderella, 2017, sculpture

“My piece reflects the story of female oppression, destiny and punishment, i. e. if they get married to old men, if they cut their labia, if they have to build new homes post-war: women usually work harder, yet they are still second class peoples, “bleeding” during their whole life.”

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Cinderella, 2017, sculpture

See more of Iris Schieferstein’s work on her website.

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Iris Schieferstein by Gerhard Westrich via westrichfoto.de

Gabriella Daris is an art and dance historian, curator, critic, essayist and scholar, as well as dancer and choreographer. She is the author of numerous magazine and journal articles, book chapters and research papers,  and editor of exhibition catalogues and artist books. She holds a BA in History of Art and Literature, a post-graduate certificate in Dance Writing and Criticism and an MRes in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London.

Gabriella
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

The Gendered Garden: Sexual Transgression of Women Walking Alone in Cemeteries

By Romany Reagan

My PhD research is a study of the layers of heritage and cultural meaning within the Victorian garden cemetery Abney Park in Stoke Newington, north London. I am a practice-based researcher, and my research methodology is to explore these themes by way of a walking practice in the cemetery. I have crafted four audio walks in an endeavour to offer the community an invitation to view a selection of, perhaps, new perspectives and doors of perception into the various aspects of the cemetery space.

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Romany in Abney Park Cemetery (2009)

Throughout my four years as a walking practitioner researching Abney Park, I have walked alone through the cemetery, at all times of day, at all times of year. However, I have been walking in Abney for a total of nine years, simply for my own personal enjoyment. Sometimes I would walk with other people, but the majority of my time in Abney has been as a woman walking alone.

Perhaps from naiveté, or a certain rash boldness, I never considered my walking practice as strange, or particularly dangerous. And it wasn’t until two years ago, when I read psychogeographer Geoff Nicholson’s account of taking a walk through Abney Park Cemetery, that I considered my gender – and my favourite pastime – could be perceived this way.

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Nicholson states at the beginning of his walk in Abney:

“I like walking in cemeteries, in town and in country, at home and abroad. They don’t absolutely have to be ruined, but I much prefer it when they are.” (Nicholson, 2013, 194)

Nicholson notes that when you walk in ruined graveyards and see other walkers, they seldom look as though they’re there to visit anyone’s grave. In ruined graveyards – and indeed, in all Victorian garden cemeteries, no matter their state of repair – the majority of graves will have been there for far too long to have visitors – so his supposition is that they must be up to no good.

“Well, he must be up to no good, skulking around the graves in the middle of the day, nothing better to do, an idler, a ne’er-do-well’, and of course you realise he (and it usually is a he) may well be thinking exactly the same thing about you.” (Nicholson, 2013, 197-198)

This observation caught me up short. Through my walking in Abney I had not previously given any thought to my gender. I have encountered many women walking in Abney Park. However, upon reflection, I realised that they are usually accompanied by a man or are jogging quickly through. A solitary cemetery walking practice for the sheer joy of taking a stroll alone is – for the most part – a masculine pastime.

As activist Rebecca Solnit observed in her comprehensive opus Wanderlust: A History of Walking: “Women’s walking is often construed as performance rather than transport, with the implication that women walk not to see – but to be seen – not for their own experience, but for that of a male audience. Which means that they are asking for whatever attention they receive.” (Solnit, 2001, 234)

If I am walking alone, then I must be waiting for my audience. A garden cemetery becomes a sexualised space due to its aspect as a private wooded enclave in an urban environment. It becomes a gendered space because of the power dynamics of who takes primacy in the right to walk there. The perceived transgression of women walking alone in cemeteries is created by the sexualised nature of the act imposed by others – not by her actual impetus to walk in a woodland park. Her motivations are seen through the lens of the motivations of others.

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Abney Park Cemetery

Throughout history, there has been a well-documented link between freedom of physical movement and freedom of thought. From Aristotle’s peripatetic lectures, roaming Rimbauds and Henry Millers, to Parisian flâneurs – to the constantly ‘on the road’ beat generation – walking and movement have supplied writers, artists, and political theorists with the tools to expand their minds through freedom of physicality. The widely accepted canon of great literary walkers, Rousseau, Thoreau, Debord, Defoe, Baudelaire, Blake, Machen – even into the 20th and 21st centuries with Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd – all present a body of intellectual work devoid of the female body. It’s interesting to imagine what would have become of many of the great male minds throughout history had they been unable to move at will through the world.

“A solitary cemetery walking practice for the sheer joy of taking a stroll alone is – for the most part – a masculine pastime.”

In 2009, avid walking practitioners Dee Heddon and Cathy Turner undertook a study speaking to a variety of artists and fellow walkers for their research project ‘Walking Women’. Over the course of their research, Heddon and Turner walked with thirteen artists based in the UK, discussing their practice, motivations, and experiences of walking as women. They found that in most written histories on walking, and anthologies on contemporary psychogeography, that despite many women practicing walking as a key methodology, there was a surprising absence of women discussed in these studies, due to persistent cultural and ideological narratives attached to walking.

Turner is also a member of artist research group Wrights & Sites focused on people’s relationships to places, cities, landscape and walking. However, even though the group’s stated manifesto is to “employ disrupted walking strategies as tools for playful debate, collaboration, intervention, and spatial meaning-making”, the group also cites Andre Breton’s command to: “Leave everything – including Dada, wife, mistress, children and the ‘easy life’.”

As Heddon and Turner note: “While Wrights & Sites’ citation of a manifesto-within-manifesto offers multiple viewpoints by which to engage such statements, something of this longing to be ‘a free man’ appears to remain. Although references from Thoreau and Breton are not expected to be taken literally, their words are associated with a political freedom that is desirable.”

This observation within Heddon and Turner’s study struck a deep chord with me. Eight years ago, I wrote my masters dissertation on the female perspective of the experience of mobility and freedom within the literary beat generation. Reading about these concepts in an entirely different context so many years later – from international journalism then, to Victorian garden cemetery studies now – suddenly presented a pattern in my research journey that I hadn’t previously noticed. That through no matter what sweeping loops my research journey makes, I always end up back here, circling this particular drain.

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Professor Dee Heddon during her project The Walking Library

This concept of ‘leaving everything, wife, mistress, children, and the easy life’ echoes the rage against this particular definition of freedom felt by the female unpublished poets of the Beat generation. The Beat’s driving need to explore, and hold personal freedom above all other values, was a men’s club.

As Allen Ginsberg notoriously said, thus coining a mantra for the era: “The social organisation which is most true of itself to the artist is the Boy Gang. Not society’s perfum’d marriage.” (Johnson, 1983, 79)

The women who did manage to stick around in their men’s lives and hearts, had to be (or at least take on the trappings of being) the old-fashioned, ‘hearth and home’ sort. They either kept apartment doors ever-open for whenever their lovers breezed through town or, even if they were married, were expected to stay with the children and stay in one place.

“The perceived transgression of women walking alone in cemeteries is created by the sexualised nature of the act imposed by others – not by her actual impetus to walk in a woodland park.”

Carolyn Cassady, wife of Neal Cassady, who was Jack Kerouac’s constant road-time companion, lamented that, as a woman, she represented hearth, home, family, stability. Something to be rebelled against, but always kept cosy and waiting to come home to. Any woman who they met on the road, or who dared to travel the road themselves, was a whore, disposable, a footnote. This whole ethos of freedom was predicated on the stability of a woman as somewhere to come back to. A woman was to have freedom from, not freedom with. The whole irony of their rambling proclamations of groundbreaking freedom, was it was based on the tired, age-old doctrine of misogynist oppression.

Joyce Johnson, Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend of a year and a half, tells us in her memoir Minor Characters: “I learned myself by the age of sixteen that just as girls guarded their virginity, boys guarded something less tangible which they called Themselves.” (Johnson, 1983, 56) As if the sole purpose in a young girl’s life is to trap and ensnare a boy, chaining him to her and, by doing so, somehow robbing him of his essence – and the only tool she possesses for this entrapment is her doll-like virginity, frozen in aspic, stripped of any independent agency other than that in relation to The Male.

Within this observation lies the key to what limits the mobility of women in public space: the automatic sexualisation of the female person due to society’s accepted main perspective being that of the male gaze.

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Abney Park Cemetery

Solnit observes: “Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality. Throughout the history of walking, the principal figures – whether of peripatetic philosophers, flâneurs, or mountaineers – have been men, and it is time we look at why women were not out walking too.” (Solnit, 2001, 233)

As Sylvia Plath wrote in her published journals: “Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars – to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording – all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, god, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.” (Plath, 2000, 71)

Sylvia Plath seems to have been interested in men for the very reason she was unable to investigate them – because their greater freedom made their lives interesting to a young woman just setting out on her own – interesting to a woman who can only dream of walking freely at night.

Women’s presence in public becomes with startling frequency an invasion of their private parts, sometimes literally, sometimes verbally. Even the English language is rife with words and phrases that sexualise a women’s walking. Among the terms for prostitutes are streetwalkers, women of the streets, women on the town, and public women (and of course phrases such as public man, man about town, or man of the streets mean very different things than do their equivalents attached to women).

A woman who has violated sexual convention can be said to be strolling, roaming, wandering, straying – all terms that imply that women’s travel is inevitably sexual or that their sexuality is transgressive when it travels.

As Solnit notes, throughout the nineteenth century, many European governments attempted to regulate prostitution by limiting the circumstances in which it could be carried out, and this often became a limitation of the circumstances in which any woman could walk. Nineteenth-century women were often portrayed as too frail and pure for the mire of urban life – and their value was considered compromised by being out at all if they didn’t have a specific purpose. Thus, women legitimised their presence by shopping – proving they were not for purchase by purchasing – and stores have long provided safe semipublic havens in which to roam.

“Women’s presence in public becomes with startling frequency an invasion of their private parts, sometimes literally, sometimes verbally.”

One of the arguments about why women could not be flâneurs was that they were, as either commodities or consumers, incapable of being sufficiently detached from the commerce of city life.

“Feminism has largely addressed and achieved reforms of interactions indoors – in the home, the workplace, schools, and the political system. Yet access to public space, urban and rural, for social, political, practical, and cultural purposes is an important part of everyday life, one limited for women by their fear of violence and harassment. Women do not feel at ease, as we are always reminded of our role as sexual beings, available to, accessible to men. It is a reminder that we are not to consider ourselves equals, participating in public life with our own right to go where we like, when we like, to pursue our own projects with a sense of security.” (Solnit, 2001, 240)

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Abney Park Cemetery

Men are allowed their public sexuality because they are perceived to have a higher sex drive than women do. Men have ‘needs’. The transgression of women walking alone in cemeteries is heightened by that sexualised nature of the space that is created by others – with no relation or bearing on her internal motivations to walk in a woodland park. Cemeteries can become gendered space due to their sexualisation; and they become these sexualised spaces because they are a private wooded enclave within an urban environment. Bel Deering, from the University of Brighton, researched the alternate public use of cemetery sites, and found sexual activity in the cemetery reported to be quite common. She interviewed cemetery workers about their experiences – and there was a fairly large consensus that the cemetery space was the local ‘fornicatorium’, as one groundskeeper dubbed it. With this common consensus that cemeteries are sexualised – and women walking in public already primed to be a sexual provocation – a woman walking alone in a cemetery can appear to be doubling down on her public sexuality, irrespective of her own personal feelings or motivations for the walk.

For the majority of my research as a walker in Abney Park Cemetery, I didn’t think of myself as a ‘woman walking’ – merely a ‘walker’. I identify as a woman and do not feel conflicted about my given gender – however it might be a privilege of my white middle class status that I am able to consider myself in a ‘human-first/woman-second’ way.

During my attendance of the Trump inauguration protest earlier this year at the American embassy in London, and then for the Women’s March the following day, we all stood in solidarity with not just women, but showing intersectional support with subjugated groups banding together under this new bizarre world order, which has been very frightening for many groups of people. Listening to speeches, walking with strangers, and hearing people’s stories of their experiences underscored how unanalysed my passive acceptance of my privilege has been, in regards to my mobility through public spaces, even as restricted as they already can seem as a woman. These issues suddenly became a very obvious omission in my practice. Especially considering, in retrospect, how much being not just a ‘walker’ – but, yes, actually, a ‘woman walking’ – has been part of the process of crafting my walks, however tangential it has seemed as I’m doing it.

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Abney Park Cemetery

Which brings me back to the observation with which I began this post: through my many years walking in Abney Park Cemetery (or indeed any cemetery) I’ve never thought of myself specifically as a woman until I read Geoff Nicholson’s comment about solitary walkers being ‘ne’er do wells’ – and almost exclusively men. Very soon after that, in February of 2015, midway through crafting my audio walks, I read of the attempted rape of a women in Abney Park Cemetery.

The victim was reported as a woman in her mid-30s, who was attacked in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the park was closed. I have only been in the park twice when it was closed, once on an ‘official’ afterhours special Christmas tour I organised with the cemetery manager and some of my friends, and once ‘unofficially’ eight years ago, when I lost track of time walking around with a boyfriend and was accidently locked in. Climbing over the fence was a pretty harrowing experience, which has made me very mindful of the time ever since. However, sometimes, when I’m working on an audio walk, I can still lose track of time.

“I identify as a woman and do not feel conflicted about my given gender – however it might be a privilege of my white middle class status that I am able to consider myself in a ‘human-first/woman-second’ way.”

After reading of this attack on a woman my age, in a place I frequent, the space of the cemetery changed. My attitude changed. I know that any wooded area can be dangerous, but my mind had pushed those associations to the periphery. I compartmentalised those thoughts away into the realm of the unlikely so I could get on with my research. While before my fears at lingering too long over my work while walking the paths were merely about being locked in – suddenly these fears took on an entirely more sinister meaning than ripping my jeans on a fence.

Getting lost in my work, as I often do when I’m walking and writing and thinking, I suddenly noticed one day that I hadn’t seen anyone in quite awhile. The sky was darkening and I checked the time – the park was closing. I do know that a grounds keeper stands next to the main Egyptian Gates for 30 minutes past closing as an escape hatch for stragglers such as myself. However, taking my headphones out and feeling the darkness fall fast, and the lonely silence around me, I rushed towards those gates with an ominous feeling enveloping me that I’d never felt there before. I felt vulnerable and watched from the shadows. Since first moving to London in 2008, Abney has been my happy place, my sanctuary. Suddenly it felt dense and foreboding. I felt anxiety.

It is rather bizarre, I suppose, how quickly even this incident left my mind. Just as I discounted Geoff Nicholson’s account of walking through Abney and seeing lone men walking through the cemetery and thinking that they were up to no good. He saw the irony that he himself was a man walking alone in a cemetery, so surely they might think the same thing of him. Never in this reverie did he mention seeing women walking alone, or even note the phenomenon enough to note its absence. It was simply a void. Something that perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, was an unheard of idea for him.

I don’t know what the way forward is. I don’t know what – if anything – can transform an urban woodland park suddenly into a safe place for a woman to walk alone. But it seems the best way to strip transgressive behaviour of its shock value and attention-grabbing aspects, is simply to make it less transgressive. We need to find new language for addressing women walking alone, or women walking at night, and we need to simply get our numbers out there. The cemetery doesn’t need to be a male-centric gendered space. My solitary walking practice in a cemetery should not be gasp-worthy behaviour in the year 2017. If more women walked alone, then we wouldn’t be alone. Let’s regender our community spaces by doing something shocking: taking a walk.

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Abney Park Cemetery

Bibliography

Cassady, Carolyn, Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, (London: Black Spring Press) 2007. Book.

Deering, Bel, ‘From Anti-social Behaviour to X-rated: Exploring Social Diversity and Conflict in the Cemetery’, Deathscapes: Spaces for Death, Dying, Mourning and Remembrance, Ed. Avril Maddrell and James D. Sidaway. (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd) 2010 p75-90. Book.

Johnson, Joyce, Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 1983. Book.

Nicholson, Geoff, The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism, (New York: Riverhead Books) 2008. Book.
– Walking in Ruins, (Chelmsford: Harbour Books) 2013. Book.

Plath, Sylvia, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, (London: Faber and Faber Limited) 2000. Book.

Solnit, Rebecca, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, (London: Verso) 2001. Book.

Heddon, Dee, and Turner, Cathy (2012) ‘Walking women: shifting the tales and scales of mobility’ Contemporary Theatre Review, 22(2), pp. 224-236. Paper.

Romany Reagan Abney photoshoot headshot

Romany Reagan is a final-year PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis centres around the layers of meaning that coexist within a cemetery space. By way of an audio walking practice, artistic interpretations of outdoor archive, nonhuman networks, and mourning practices are explored in Abney Park Cemetery, located in Stoke Newington, North London. Areas of interest encompass: psychogeography, mourning practices, ‘The Good Death’, anachronistic space, heterotopias, gothic sensibility, liminal spaces, the uncanny, and the Victorian ‘Cult of the Dead’. Her walk ‘Crossing Paths/Different Worlds in Abney Park Cemetery’ was published in Ways to Wander (Triarchy Press, 2015)

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@msromany

@abneyrambles

Double Take at Sharon Tate

By Tia Price

It has been 48 years since Sharon Tate was murdered and the memory of the woman Mia Farrow described as a ‘beautiful and gentle soul’ continues to live on. Try as you might (go on, try it) it is impossible to find an image of this woman that does not shine, stun and glimmer.

Was it her undeniable beauty, life in the public eye or the sheer brutality and senselessness of her murder that has immortalised Tate’s image? She died just two weeks from her due date, pregnant with the baby boy devastatingly laid to rest in her arms at the Holy Cross Cemetery near Los Angeles. Tate is said to have pleaded ‘give me two weeks so that I can give birth and then kill me’, her death, and all subsequent representations in homage or deference have affected many lives, laws, and wallets since.

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Recently I was researching the Museum of Death in Hollywood and was struck by the display of crime scene photographs from this murder. The exhibit focus was not on Tate at all, rather the perpetrator or to be specific, inciter, the notorious Charles Manson. Photographs, headlines, paintings, and other memorabilia line the walls, tracking Manson’s journey. Charting his progression from man, to criminal, to brand, Tate and her fellow victims, being just that: victims. Sprawled, bloody, medicalised specimens, if it were not for their combined Hollywood status this is all they might have been to the world.

They were ‘important’ socially; owned and photographed, they were not just victims of crime, they had a social worth. It marks the tragedy that as publicly consumed their death seemed that little more ‘real’, the celluloid immortals or kids of fat cats can die, or be killed. If you type into google the name ‘Sharon Tate’ the third link will tie her to Charles Manson, you will also see the fifth or sixth tab read: ‘Sharon Tate baby cut out’ and ‘baby autopsy pictures’. This emphasises a theory termed ‘Wound Theory’ by Mark Seltzer, whereby we are drawn to view the body ripped apart; it also emphasises that human beings really need a boundary sometimes. Sharon Tate herself never got to see her child, was unable to name him yet she is buried holding him and the public clamour to view that grave as though by association it is a commodity to be consumed, and voyeuristically enjoyed.

“Her death, and all subsequent representations in homage or deference have affected many lives, laws, and wallets since.”

Through her short career, Tate tired of her looks, aware that it denied her more interesting parts in favour of the beautiful girl typecasting; referring to herself somewhat sardonically as ‘sexy little me’. Her penultimate film Valley of The Dolls was released in 1967 and rather hauntingly, she plays the character of Jennifer North, a beautiful but floundering actress who falls pregnant. Critics at the time were either entirely derogative or blasé, and yet after her death it was re-released and became a cult classic. Tate posthumously commended on her performance. That same year, in Don’t Make Waves Tate plays Malibu, a bikini beach maiden who spends most of the film semi clad, and this character is said to have inspired Mattel’s Malibu Barbie. The range of dolls making a strange parallel with her real life experiences as a commodified beauty. When asked about fate once, Tate is said to have stated, ‘of my life I have never had a hand in anything that has happened to me.’

Interesting that the film itself was inspired by beach parties and beach music, like The Beach Boys, a curious coincidence that the Manson Family had been seeking a member of the band the night of the murders.

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Tate’s family have been instrumental in many aspects of Tate’s memory and legacy. Tate’s mother Doris campaigned up until her own death, as did Tate’s sister Patti, against the parole of the Manson Family members. In fact, such was their involvement that California State Criminal Law was amended to allow the family members of victims to be present at parole hearings and speak in their place. Doris Tate, in what became her last public appearance in 1992, was commended by President George Bush as one of ‘a thousand points of light’ for her work for victim’s rights.

“Of my life I have never had a hand in anything that has happened to me.”

In 2009 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Tate’s death, Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell contemporary artist created a mixed art exhibition, again involving many stunning images to commemorate this ‘icon’.  A 2014 book released by Debra Tate featuring various images and personal photographs alongside many quotes from her famous peers of the time has had many positive reviews. Her sister, in the same year, petitioned Hollywood to give Sharon a posthumous star on the walk of fame, this was denied.  Personally, I cannot help but feel, given what I have read of her, Sharon would not have felt she had earned that, it would have been borne from her death and thus her victimhood, not her talent. It also reinforces this notion that Tate, did not have much control in her life, her goals and ultimately her death and how she is remembered. It is through the lens of her family, her sisters and all those famous folks she knew for a time until she was 26.

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A film currently in the writing stages proposed by Quentin Taratino, presumably to be released in time for the 50 year anniversary will perhaps threaten this ideal of ‘Icon’ which the family have sought to preserve. Given that Tarantino is known for his visceral representations and has not dealt with ‘real’ situations but has rendered fictional happenings for viewing many fans have suggested he steer clear of this. As Manson has become synonymous with a counter cultural narrative there is concern that Tarantino may be tempted to represent ‘the wrong side’ in favour. Tate’s sister Debra recommended Margot Robbie over the actress Jessica Lawrence to play Tate as in her opinion Lawrence was not ‘beautiful enough’. If then her sister is inclined for this to go ahead, how Sharon is perceived will affect her subsequent ‘immortality’. Much as the family or next of kin legally ‘own’ the corpse after death, so then too does the legacy of their memory.

“How Sharon is perceived will affect her subsequent ‘immortality’.”

Susan Sontag said that ‘all photographs are memento mori’ and in this case, it’s true. Those that capture ‘the air’ (Barthes), the real and genuine the images, the more as a consuming commodifying viewing member of the public I find these images only highlight that we will die. We may die beautiful or complicated or real and tragic. We may end up in a grotty downtown museum gawked at as the trophy of a psycho or we may die behind a curtain in a hospital, but we will die and years from now someone may remember us, or they may not. Surely then, with this is mind, isn’t it beautiful to breathe in and out and laugh and smile and jump and think about how stunning Sharon Tate was; how unfair that she could do nothing to make her face look in any way ‘wrong’ and how incredible it is that we can marvel in this beautiful existential way about this gorgeous girl who should have had a little longer, have that big break and actually feel the little baby she shares her grave with? Her most significant legacy then, truly, is for us to take stock in every moment and do everything to fulfil our goals, push against limitations and love in our lives because really, who knows what might happen or rather, when.

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Sharon Tate

January 24, 1943 – August 9, 1969

Tia Price originally studied Drama graduating in 2003. Drawn to mysticism, New Age Spirituality and Pagan practices, Tia has been working from an experiential perspective since; reading Tarot cards and leading workshops in related subjects. She is currently studying the ‘Death, Religion & Culture’ Master’s Degree at The University of Winchester with an aim to focus further research on Vodou/Voodoo practices and related representation. She works part time in Adult Social Care, has an avid love for performing Shakespeare and has two young sons Newton (4) and Felix (2).

Almost Heaven

By Lucy Coleman Talbot

Almost Heaven is a beautifully crafted exploration of life death and love, described as a “vibrant, human story” by The Hollywood Reporter, it follows 17 year old Ying Ling, who is training to become a mortician in one of China’s largest funeral homes. The film premiered at Berlin International Film Festival nominated for Best Documentary and was one of the Little White Lies top 10 films at the Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Death and the Maiden’s own Lucy Coleman Talbot will be doing a Q&A with director Carol Salter at the Picturehouse Central following this Saturday’s screening (full details below).

Lucy: What inspired you to make Almost Heaven?

Carol: Fear of death, losing a loved one and seeing a dead body motivated me to make this film. I read about Chinese teenagers performing spa and beauty treatments on the dead- their job was to give respect to the deceased by cleansing and washing away their ills and pains. I was fascinated by how young people could cope with working in a place of death. At that same age, the concept of death was so remote to me.

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Lucy: You mention personal grief and seeing a dead body, I’ve often found these experiences channelled into creative outlets become a way of navigating through the journey of grief. Did the film impact on your personal life? If so how?

Carol: My parents actually passed away during the making of Almost Heaven.  The process of making the film and seeing the young morticians prepare the bodies helped me in a number of ways. I felt more equipped to make decisions on the preparation of my parent’s bodies. When organising their funerals we chose no body intervention and no embalming, just a simple linen cloth to wrap around them. I have gained a greater understanding and insight into how to treat our loved ones after they die through this experience.

“The process of making the film and seeing the young morticians prepare the bodies helped me in a number of ways”

Lucy: What felt familiar/ what felt alien when experiencing work at this funeral home?

Carol: The rituals, for example speaking to the deceased and bowing to them as a way of showing respect were new to me. There are many superstitions too, like not letting tears fall into the coffin so that the spirits do not become trapped. In my experience, preparing a dead body for a funeral would usually take place behind closed doors, but in China the extended family are able to watch the process from beginning to end. There was something so universal in the emotion and grief that was displayed and the need to give respect to the departed.

Lucy: Did you find it easy to access a funeral home when you first got to China? Or did your interest in death create suspicion or concern?

Carol: In China there is much stigma around death, many believing it’s bad luck to even mention the word. People who work in the funeral business were initially suspicious of my intentions. I gently and slowly found a way to enter this world by building trust. I also think that my approach to film making by filming on my own with a small camera helped.

“There are many superstitions too, like not letting tears fall into the coffin so that the spirits do not become trapped”

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Lucy: Did you get the opportunity to speak/follow others at the funeral home and if so was it easy to immerse yourselves whilst filming? Some of the scenes are very intimate and it never feels for a moment that a camera is in the room. Did you identify with Ying Ling’s experiences?

Carol: I met with a number of young morticians while filming, but there was something about Ying Ling that drew me to her. She was innocent, quirky and as fearful of being a part of this environment as I was. I felt we were both on a journey to confront our own demons and fears. She seemed comforted with the camera and was always herself – sometimes she drifted into her own world.

Lucy: Some of my favourite moments in the film are Ying Ling doing every day things, how important was this juxtaposition to you as a director?

Carol: Death and life are inseparable. Because of this it was very important to capture the ordinary moments between the young morticians that make our lives meaningful as much as it was showing their work at the funeral home.

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Lucy: What did you bring home from this experience?

Carol: I feel more equipped to talk about this aspect of life which we normally avoid – and perhaps less fearful at seeing a dead person. I feel more prepared when dealing with the practicalities of organising a funeral and the after care of a loved one. However, the loss and bereavement of someone is still a challenging journey that you can not always prepare for.

“I felt we were both on a journey to confront our own demons and fears”

Lucy: Lastly, tell us why people should watch Almost Heaven?

Carol: For both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences this film is an unusual window into the workings of a funeral home. It can be for an audience with no immediate experience of dealing with death and also to those who have experienced losing someone a life affirming experience.

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Almost Heaven will be showing on Saturday the 23rd of September 2017 at the 17:55 Picturehouse Central showing. Book a ticket here and join Lucy and Carol for the Q&A afterwards in the bar.

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Picturehouse Central
Corner of Great Windmill Street and Shaftesbury Avenue
Piccadilly
London
W1D 7DH

Screenings are taking place all over the world.

For where and when click here.

The Wise Owl: Part II

“Barfoot’s quietly powerful vocals soar amidst the passing images with grace and poise.”

One Film Fan

“She is best known for the ethereal poise of her crystal singing voice. Wise Owl is an evocative song, well arranged and placed within a delicate but solidly crafted recording.The clarinet, cello and vocal soar around each other throughout the track, passing through various tempos, weaving an exquisite texture over the guitar, all helped by very subtle atmospheric electronic elements from the producer.”

Folk and Honey

A woman goes into the mirror, into the depths of grief, everything fragments, she meets the owl who guides her on the journey of desperate grief and disintegration until she becomes the owl, accepts the journey of grief, garners the wisdom of the owl, walks hand in hand with grief and then comes back out of the mirror with that knowledge…

Background to Song

Following the death of her Mum, Lewis’s world fell apart, and her music was the only thing that kept her together. WISE OWL speaks of that journey through the darkest terrain of her grief, at first tormented by the terrors, the deep-searching, gut-wrenching disbelief and then the utter confusion as her world fell apart into a fragmentation of its former self. The wise owl was her journeying companion, at first attacking, tormenting and haunting her until she accepted the owl, learnt from the owl, and allowed the owl’s medicine to permeate her skin. She developed its vision and wisdom and with that the fragmented pieces began to fall back into place and see could see the truth of her reality without the delusion and confusion of her grief. In Celtic tradition The owl was viewed as the spirit animal that would carry the souls of the departed to the underworld. Similarly in Roman tradition the Owl could represent the spirit of a deceased family of close friend.

The companion piece to WISE OWL is a gentle lullaby LITTLE BIRD. Lewis was initially commissioned to write LITTLE BIRD for a Double award winning theatre show Hidden Birds directed by Abigail Anderson which she went on to perform in at The International Theatre Festival, Les Eurotopiques in Lille, France in 2010. The show explored the theme of torture and the song was written from the perspective of a woman imprisoned in a cell who had been tortured and was in her last search for hope. Hope appeared for her in the form of a little bird who appeared at the cell window and spoke of the unifying beauty and freedom of unconditional love. Having never actually experienced torture Lewis initially struggled to write the piece. Then one day half way through rehearsals, she was cycling past Brockley cemetery when a delicate grey and blue bird hopped onto the wall. She stopped her bike, grabbed her phone and sang Little Bird into her voice memos. And the song was born.

The death of her Mum was the greatest trauma Lewis had experienced and so LITTLE BIRD became the perfect companion piece to WISE OWL.

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Background to Video

Narae Kim is a visual artist who creates images and experiences with multimedia and physical/virtual spaces. She has directed, designed, and produced prize winning short films in VR, Animation, and Film, including ‘Pippa’s Pan’ (Art Director), work-in-progress showcased at Cannes Film Festival 2017. Narae holds MFA from CalArts where she studied Scenic Design and Animation. She is from Seoul, Korea and currently working and living in Los Angeles.

Narae and Lewis explored the idea of fragmentation, how to capture the sense of your world falling apart after loss of a loved one. They struggled to find a solid storyboard for the piece and really took their time in process to work out what the video was going to be. At one point it was all animation, then all film but with the themes of disintegration and fragmentation emerging as a solid theme the video kept on shifting. As if there was never sold ground.

The idea of fragmentation in and out of images became part of a surreal storytelling. They initially worked remotely with Narae in LA, and Lewis in London meeting regularly on Skype to share ideas, films, footage. Lewis recorded a series of movement/dance improvisations, and took a series of self portraits in the woods exploring the idea of fragmentation and also capturing footage of leaves falling, water flowing. Working with the inevitability of natures and natural cycles. Narae captured film footage of trees, plants, water, smoke rising, and body parts, the pair going back and forth for months, honing in on what felt right. Lewis describes it as all very organic, collaborative and exploratory. They decided to capture footage of Lewis in the woods for Narae to animate, and explored the idea of a mirror being a portal into the realm of grief with the owl being the journeying companion. In the end Narae flew over to London and they shot footage in One Tree Hill, Honor Oak Park, captured pinpoint animation in Lewis’ house. and worked frame by frame to tell the story.