Lauren is a psychology major at Boston University. She was a runner in this year’s Boston Marathon, only half a mile away from the finish line when the bombings took place. Her fellow Boston University student, Lu Lingzi, was killed. Over the past week, Lauren has been bombarded by media reports and social media musings from friends and acquaintances. She has received university alerts of “suspicious packages” and literally “dozens of emails about scholarship memorials in the name of the deceased, candlelight vigils, live streamings of the memorial, etc.”
In general, Lauren was feeling uncomfortable for not being devastated enough by the bombings and by the death of Lu Lingzi. She did not know Lu Lingzi, and feels like whatever fear she might be feeling is very small compared to, say, the fear that her friends deployed overseas face on a daily basis.
Lauren contacted the Order to ask the following question:
“What do you think propels people to go to [memorials] for a person they never knew the name or face of until it was plastered all over CNN? Does it give them a sense of control in the face of something utterly out of their control? Does it have to do with their own mortality? Survivor’s guilt? Or am I reading too much into it and they are just trying to honor the memory of the one student who died?”
Survivor’s guilt? Sense of control? Addressing their own mortality? In a word: YES.
You’re not reading too much into this at all. In fact, it can be really healthy to ask these questions about potential motivations. It helps us understand more about death, society, human nature, etc. Now, if someone posts an inspirational picture about Boston on Facebook, not a good idea to comment “SURVIVOR’S GUILT, BRO.” But that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t an excellent one to have.
Ernest Becker (who wrote the amazing Denial of Death, which I recommend frequently) said that humans are basically narcissistic creatures. We’re built biologically to be narcissists. It’s a pretty brutal life, after all, trying to find our place in a universe that can kill us off at any second. We often see situations (and certainly death) in terms of how they relate to us. This isn’t always fun to hear, but it’s the reality.
So mass grieving for any devastating event is often not a totally pure exercise of honoring the memory of those who died. The people grieving are absolutely self-identifying, facing their own mortality, and trying to adjust to their own feelings. This is not to say that’s a bad thing. I’m not demeaning their process in any way, as they are searching for answers like you are. It can be a healthy thing, a good thing, an attempt to understand how the role of death and more importantly the fear of death plays in our lives.
When I handle the dead body of a young person, say a drug addict who looks just like a dear friend of mine, I will think about my friend. I will grieve over the fact that he will someday die, and the sorrow that I will feel. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the person who actually is lying dead before me, it just means that we frame things as they relate to us.
BUT – you, Lauren, should not feel bad about your own process, or that you’re not doing enough grieving or identifying with the people who died. Being so close to the actual event, by its very nature, gives you liberty to engage at your own pace in your own way. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you should be more upset/scared right now. Engaging your feelings head on and asking the questions you are asking shows you’re ahead of the game.
The fifth installment from awesome Austin-based funeral director Sarah Wambold documenting the process of opening her own funeral home.
Death darlings –
Over the past few weeks, I have been able to get a glimpse at how the other half of the world lives — and of course, dies. My discovery was not that they do it better (yet they do) but that my weird, sometimes inarticulate idea for a funeral home is actually already happening somewhere in the world. When I decided to go to Spain, it was for the purposes of vacation, to take a break from what was becoming a claustrophobic quest in funeral entrepreneurship and get some clearer headspace about the whole project.
But the Grim Reaper is always beside me, so of course I decided to investigate the Spanish way of death as soon as I arrived. This led me to Málaga, a gorgeous city on the coast of the Mediterranean; the birthplace of Picasso and Antonio Banderas and the place of death of my favorite writer, Jane Bowles. If you are unfamiliar with her work, go out immediately and get My Sister’s Hand in Mine, the collection of her work that includes my favorite pieces: “Two Serious Ladies” and “Camp Cataract.” Jane was married to Paul Bowles until her death, despite the two living apart, and often with other lovers. She was committed to a “sanatorium” in Málaga a few years before her death and was then interred at the Cementario de San Miguel. The cemetery looks like this:
Orange trees line the walkways, which are paved with old tombstones.
Families come here to spend the afternoon and let their children play:
I pattered around for about an hour, taking pictures and feeling right at home. It is an old cemetery, but is undergoing some pretty serious renovations, thanks to the Asociación de Amigos del Cementerio de San Miguel. This group believes the cemetery to be culturally relevant to their community, with some of the brightest minds and most prominent citizens buried there. They are committed to restoring it and my heart swells as I read about their dedication to the dead. Also, this is a common sight throughout the cemetery:
I quietly continued my search for Jane’s grave, but was distracted by this little guy, who looks like my own beloved cat, Clyde:
Trying not to disturb him, I turned to leave and that’s when I found Jane’s spot.
Now what kind of mortician would I be if I didn’t take a black cat leading me to the grave of my hero to be some kind of excellent sign? As I sat beside the grave, an older couple came to visit it and lit candles. I was moved by their reverence and we shared brief words about our respect for Jane’s work.
I sat for a while longer before I left the cemetery in search of the Museo Picasso (a truly worthwhile collection to see if you are ever in the city). Across the street from the cemetery was this Tanatorio (mortuary):
I looked them up immediately when I got back to my hotel. While they appear to be a huge funeral conglomerate in Spain, they don’t hide from the public what they do. Check out this picture on their website:
That’s their prep room. ON THEIR WEBSITE. When is the last time you saw that on any U.S. funeral home website? Maybe once or twice, but certainly not on the website for the biggest funeral corporation in America. Funespaña also has a newsletter called Adiós; straight-up called goodbye. No “remembrances” or “passages,” just — farewell! They hold a yearly Tanatacuentos competition. A death short-story contest!
They also hold a poetry contest called “Verses for Death” and a design competition, this year entitled “Reload the Mourning.” This crew, for as traditional as their services appear to be, has really made an effort to engage with their community on many creative levels. I am even more impressed because they are one of the leading independent funeral providers in Spain, with 86 funeral homes and 116 mortuaries.
It’s not that I felt like my idea was a bad one or not feasible — you all have been great supporters — it is just so nice to see something similar working so well on a much bigger scale. And I really needed to see that.
I take a trip to Savannah, GA to visit cemeteries and take ghost tours and drink more sweet tea than is right and decent.
Absolutely crazy about our newest guest essay, an investigation into whether or not it is truly comedian Del Close’s skull sitting in the office of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, awaiting its big break as Yorick in Hamlet.
Folk troubadour Vandaveer is a bit of a dark horse, and as might be expected of any folky dark horse, murder ballads are very appealing to him. Vandaveer has an amazing new video for his version of the murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” one song from Oh Willie Please, a full album of his renditions of traditional murder ballads. Vandaveer sat down with Order Member Megan Rosenbloom to discuss shooting this video and his fondness for the macabre.
How did you come up with the idea of doing a full album of murder ballads?
This was actually J. Tom Hnatow’s idea — he of These United States and Mynabirds infamy. We were rehearsing for our contribution to The 78 Project late last year, and we were having a helluva time whittling down our list of candidates to just one for the session. Tom was on the road with us at the time… at one point he said, “you should just make a whole record of these songs.” Immediately after, he threatened legal action if we didn’t include him in the record. We wisely obliged. That man can flat out pick a dobro.
What do you think murder ballads tell us about the culture from which they come, or more generally about the human condition?
I don’t know if I’m qualified to speak to either of those questions, profound as they are… but I do think we humanfolk have long been fascinated by the darker, gruesome aspects of the human condition. It’s the same reason shows like CSI or those real-life crime documentaries are popular today. People are strangely attracted to acts of evil. It’s a form a voyeurism on some level. For my part, I wanted to participate in the process of continuing the life of these songs. They all come from the public domain. They belong to all of us, and so I think it’s important to revisit, to reinterpret, to engage with them as living artifacts of our collective experience.
Is there a particular story in one of the ballads that moves you more than others?
Mary Of The Wild Moor is probably the most tragic tune on this record. It’s not a murder ballad, really. More of a tragic tale of ruin that ends in cold death. So dark, so very sad. Like an Edward Gorey story for really sad grown ups.
The concept behind your Pledge Music rewards for this record was very interesting. Besides the usual CDs or vinyl, you offered a lot of handmade or one-of-a-kind items. How does this approach jibe with the feelings your project is trying to evoke?
We felt that asking people to jump on board and participate in a glorified, protracted pre-sale endeavor was okay so long as we offered up enough interesting and unique items to personalize the process. I was a bit uneasy about the whole thing, but the response was very positive. We’re still trying to think of new one-of-a-kind things we can offer up to keep that spirit as the project progresses.
How did you come up with the vision for the Pretty Polly video shoot, and what was the shooting like?
The vision for the Pretty Polly video belongs to Jared Varava . That man has titanic creative spirit. We’ve worked together before, and I’d been keen to work specifically with him on a video for this song. He responded quickly and with a jarring, striking script/idea. So excited to see this clip finished. The shoot itself was remarkable. We hiked our way north of Bakersfield, CA to an old ghost town called Silver City. The place was stunning. And Jared had organized a lovely crew to pull the whole thing off. So many kind souls all working toward a common goal — it’s really what makes this endeavor worthwhile.
Was it odd for you to have a famous musician, David Yow, starring as an actor in your music video?
Not odd so much, but initially I was a little unsure how we’d get on. He always seemed like a dangerous character to me. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, so The Jesus Lizard was very cutting edge. We joked about it on the set a little bit. He’s such a sweet, affable guy. And he was terrific as Willie. David’s got a great portrait project thing going these days called Get Faced, btw. He showed me some of his work and it’s really quite good. Very David Yow. I’m going to have him work up a piece for Vandaveer one of these days.
For an in-depth look at murder ballads, their history and implications for modern musicians, visit Murder Ballad Monday.