Friday, July 27, 2012

Urn Your Keep

Obama by Cremation Solutions
 3D printing, they say, can print just about anything. With a couple photos of your face—front on and sideways—they can print a perfect 3D you. Better than Madame Tussauds. An outfit called Cremation Solutions—in case you need a solution; I’ve heard fire works well—is now offering of bust of whomever hollowed out into a cremains urn. The example they have on their website may be a bit premature, but the Commander-in-Chief could be known as the Deadhead-of-State. (We’re not  suggesting anything, Homeland, we know you’re there.)

If they can do a bust, I don’t know why they couldn’t do a whole naked you, but that might be asking a bit much. It’s a tad unheimlich.

On a more elegant note, Steve Prastka of Capsule Project chatted with me at the funeral directors’ conference about his modernist urns that are beautiful if pricey. That got me searching the Web for cremation urns, but found that the Web does a terrible job of finding such. Pretty much everything I found was awful or worse, and it never led me to Steve’s product. Back to “never underestimate the vulgarity of the American public.”
Urn by Capsule Project

Monday, July 16, 2012


Gerlene Thorne (1961-2011)
Sometimes this is a delicate job, this recording of cemeteries. For the most part, aside from certain categories where I try to religiously cover as much as I can find, the monuments and markers I choose to photograph and post as representative of any given cemetery are arbitrarily chosen by my own internal aesthetics and interests. I figure that, if nothing else, my biases will probably be consistent and therefore can be taken into account by independent observers.

I photographed the Marcola cemetery in early April of this year (2012).

Oregon doesn’t have an Appalachia, white folk haven’t been here that long. It does, though, like everywhere else, have its pockets where God avoids showing up on weekends and doesn’t drive down an unknown driveway. I had a whilom friend—I think he’s no longer whiloming with us—who, while living out Marcola way, got into a short gun battle with the sheriff. He fought the law, and the law won. It was on a roadside to Marcola where Diane Downs shot her three children in the backseat of her car. Marcola, perhaps, doesn’t aspire to greatness; it’s more likely to settle for a meth lab. It’s buffered from Eugene, the capital of the county (Lane is too big a county to suffer a mere county seat) by a line of Cascade foothills. You cannot hear the highway from Marcola and you can’t hear the cheers from Autzen Stadium where the Oregon Ducks play football. What happens in Marcola doesn’t want to get out of Marcola. It stays put and lets the endless firs soak up the sounds.

Brownsville is a small, preserved town near Marcola. The movie Stand By Me was filmed in and around Brownsville. It’s a picturesque and somewhat chic town. I used to help an organic farmer there get his crops of baby vegetables and flowers air-freighted to New York, Miami, and Chicago. It’s at the runout of those buffering hills.

At 3 p.m. on October 23 of last year, thirty-one year old Josh Shaddon stabbed his mother, forty-eight year old Gerlene Thorne, to death in the home they shared in Brownville. He was arrested shortly thereafter on his way out of town with three young boys, ages two to six, in a Chevy Tahoe. Two of the boys were his children and the other a nephew.

Shaddon was found guilty except for insanity and was sent to the state hospital in Salem for indefinite sequestration. Ann Webb (aka Ann Alto), who unearthed this information in the first place, posted this report from (Dec. 21, 2011).

“Court officials read two letters from family members before the sentencing.

“Mike Thorne wrote that every morning he says good morning to his wife and he tells her he loves her.

“‘What he did to his mother is unbelievable. He viciously took her life. I hope he realizes what he’s done,’ the letter said.

“Two of Gerlene Thorne’s sisters, Kathy Rocha and Helen Wilkins, wrote they were not sure Shaddon was insane at the time of the killing. They hope he gets the mental health help his mother tried so hard to obtain for him.

“‘We love you because you are her son, but we hate you for what you did,’ they wrote.

“Karen Johnson Zorn, one of Shaddon’s defense attorneys, told the court her client understands the family’s anger. She said it has been hard for Shaddon to accept his mother’s death. He can’t believe he killed her.”

I can understand the urge to kill. I have been up against that wall. More than once. The reasons I didn’t are as many as the reasons I had for wanting to. I do know, however, that being up against the edge of that wall is very, very short from being pushed over it, and that, once you’re falling what happens next is beyond your control.

What does it take to kill a person? I have no idea. But I suspect that even should I happen to non-accidently kill someone, I’d still have no idea what it would take to kill a person. All I know is that it would take madness. Something would have gone terribly wrong.

Something went terribly wrong that fall day. Terribly, terribly wrong. The pain and anger from the family’s letters is palpable. The agonizing pull between “we love you…,” and “but….”

Gerlene’s stone was among those I photographed in the Marcola Cemetery in April. It was unusually elaborate for this modest cemetery: a matté, full-relief angel holding a burnished granite heart in the center of which smiled a photo-ceramic of Mrs. Thorne. Her grave was neatly covered with bark-mulch and richly adorned with ceramic figurines, photovoltaic butterflies, whirligigs, faux fleurs, and American flags. It compelled me to take a couple pictures, which is how Ann came to take up the story.

Time passes. Three months.

Then a Flickr mail from sadlydeparted. sadlydeparted, evidently, joined Flickr solely to comment on Gerlene’s photos. She/he just joined, has no profile, and has posted no photos. It’s not unusual for people to join Flickr simply to comment on a relative or friend’s tombstone. The note is reproduced in its entirety, as is. In offering it to you, I had two choices: one was to give you the backstory, as I have; but the other was to give you the letter unadorned as a short story in itself. I chose my way, but when you read it, read as a complete story. It needs no elaboration.

“amost every day they took him to mental hospital saying i have dreems and thouts of killing my famly and no one wold take him he was planing on going to my aunts house where he had a large amount of my family gathered that he had called 2 days before and told them to meet them at my aunts house he was heading there where he was planing to kill them all including his kids im reveled that my grampa was able to call 911 in time before he reached marcola”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Back to the Future: Neighborhood Cemeteries

I'm giving a talk here in a few days to the annual convention of Oregon funeral directors and cemetery operators at Seaside, OR. Primarily, I'm focusing on do-it-yourself cemeteries, but I end with a few remarks about the future of cemeteries, which I've reposted here. The photos are selected from those illustrating DIY cemeteries.

Agency Warm Springs Cemetery
Correlation: The rise of the lawn cemetery has been accompanied by the rise in cremation rates. Is there a causal relationship? If there is, what is it?

I believe that the rise of the large lawn cemetery—taking the maintenance of the cemetery out of the community and leveling the playing field—has withdrawn the value and use of the cemetery to the community. That, along with the steadily increasing cost for an increasingly abstract service, has driven many people out of the market place. Why buy sterility?

The lawn cemetery, as much as anything, was the result of the commercialization of the industry in the U.S., the necessity to trim costs and to stay in the black. The rest of the world did not follow our lead.

Other than National cemeteries where they give their plots away, can lawn cemeteries expect to survive?
Rob Strasser Grave: American Legion Cemetery (Manzanita, OR)
Question: should cemeteries ever have been commercialized? What are we going to do with all these stone parks that weren’t designed as parks very well? Are we creating a network of private parks that have little value for their communities? If we know all cemeteries eventually turn into parks, shouldn’t we design them with that in mind? Could the private sector ever afford to do that? What kind of job would they do? What are the constraints?

Two questions: 1) is the shift to cremation permanent? 2) what are the consequences of no longer having a memorial place for the dead? If we no longer have a physical spot to be with our departed, will that connection be lost? Do we care? Places where ashes are scattered tend to be lost to succeeding generations. Can we recoup memorialization without reversing the cremation trend? Do we want to?

Supposition: the majority of communities in Oregon are already in the cemetery business either directly or through maintenance districts. Some still have functioning IOOF or Masonic cemeteries that are, essentially, a community responsibility. All those cemeteries are still in business. I would wager that none supports itself.
Fire Pit: Camp Polk Cemetery
Fact (as I know it): aside from the golf course fantasy—it seems every golfer has come up with it—the idea of integrating cemeteries into a communities general park system has not been explored. Off-hand, I don’t know of any parks which include pocket cemeteries or free-standing columbaria. I don’t know of any park schemes considering burials or niches as a partial funding mechanism. For the most part, cemeteries operate as sub-functions of parks and recreation departments, not as an integral feature; and they’re certainly considered a drain, not an asset. Does that need to be reassessed?

Fact (as well all know it): parks developed out of cemeteries. Are the functions antithetical? Could governments use internment fees as a way of generating acquisition funds?

Who should be in this business and what’s it going to look like tomorrow? Is memorialization a thing of the past? Is it worth recovering? Is there a partnership available? Do you want the Post Office to manage your burial? Perhaps not.

It would be nice to have a dialogue about this, but I’m not sure how or with whom. Grade school kids and politicians? Neighborhood cemeteries?
Paul Washington Cemetery