The families place the ashes on the ground, and plant an endemic species, forming forests in memory of the deceased.
Funeral rituals have accompanied human beings since they have notion of self. The earliest recorded burial is in Kenya, dating back 78,000 years. It is one of the oldest indications we have of a transcendence-oriented thinking: to the possibility that there is something beyond our earthly understanding.
With the advance of urbanization, and the apparently irreversible trend of population growth on the planet, the spaces to deposit the organic remains of the people has been compromised. We no longer fit. Given the situation, burials in Japan have had to take a new direction, which affects less the environment and appeals to a contemplative sense of eternal rest.
Rest in the shade of a tree
Natasha Mikles has dedicated her life to exploring the alternatives that exist to face death in the world. With the climate emergency in tow, the expert in philosophy from the University of Texas considers that the appropriation of physical land in favor of funeral practicesit is simply no longer an option.
In recent years, Mikles has focused his study on Buddhist funeral rituals and narratives about the afterlife. In these Asian traditions, death is not understood as an end point. Rather, it is one more phase of the wheel of karma, and a step forward in the path to enlightenment.
Many times, however, the author acknowledges that “environmental needs collide with religious beliefs“, As detailed in his most recent publication for The Conversation. Rest perpetually under the shade of a tree in a public green area it could be an option, as is being seen in burials in Japan today.
A new way to face death
It is not the first time that burials in Japan have been practiced in this way. Since the 1970s, there has been a record of Japanese public officials fearing for the lack of funeral space for the population, particularly in urban areas. The problem deepened in the 1990s, when more serious alternatives began to be implemented throughout the island.
It was then that Jumokusō was thought of, which translates into Spanish as “tree burials.” In these, the families place the ashes on the ground, and plant an endemic species on site to mark its final resting space. In this way, instead of building more cemeteries, entire forests would be planted in memory of the deceased.
This principle leans from the Shinto tradition, which finds value in all the vital manifestations of the universe. For this reason, the spaces dedicated to this type of funeral rites are considered sacred: there is an intrinsic spiritual value in life that ends to make way for a new.
We suggest: Natural organic reduction: this is what ecological burials are like that turn your body into human compost
Do burials in Japan of this type interfere with traditional practices?
Many of the families that have implemented this strategy of sacred greening of public spaces they don’t even practice Shintoism, or are affiliated with a specific religious tradition. However, the interest in continuing this type of practice denotes a environmental responsibility extended throughout the population.
Despite this, these burials in Japan also obey an ancient Buddhist principle. Like the plants are considered sentient beings, it is a way to continue the reincarnation cycle for the soul that departed. Seeds embody a living component of this path, and therefore, they must protect themselves with the same honor.
The practice has been so well received that various temples and public cemeteries have adopted it as part of their agenda today. The model has been so successful that some Religious spaces promote it as part of the spiritual life of people. Although they do not necessarily align with the ancient practices originally proposed by Buddhism, they do obey the precept of respect for existing forms of life, which sets the standard for all branches of this spiritual tradition.
Some people may regret not being able to say something to a loved one before they passed, but for the next month, residents and visitors to Lincoln City will have the chance to put those words into one final letter, even if it’s only symbolically.
At parks around Lincoln City, several altars appeared last month as part of the Last Word’s Mailbox Altars Public Art Installation, which gives people who have experienced the death of a loved one a place to grieve and cope by writing them letters.
The project serves another purpose however, as the letters left at the alters will be taken and turned into songs that will be performed at a virtual concert in August and sold as an album to help raise money in support of houseless veterans facing terminal illness through the Do Good Multnomah nonprofit group.
“These art installations are part of an interdisciplinary project that’s really a fundraiser,” said Crystal Akins, founder of Activate Arts and the artist responsible for the project. “I knew I could have done a regular fundraiser, like an event where you get wine and do the whole thing, but instead I wanted to do something that would bring the community together around death using their own grief and loss to transform that into a way to support a person in dying a good death.”
The project has been years in the making and was inspired by Akins’ work as a death doula, someone who helps the dying and their friends and family cope with death.
“It’s a long-term project, and I’ve been working on it for about five years so far,” Akins said. “I’ve been researching houseless death and am a death doula. I’ve been working with a lot of people who live in poverty and seeing how they die. I decided now it’s time to help build a community around death and to help veterans in poverty get access to a good death.”
Akins said the project was also inspired by the Telephone in the Wind art project, which first started in Japan with similar installations popping up in the U.S. and other countries since it debuted in 2011. At these installations, visitors can use a secluded phone booth to symbolically have one final conversation with a deceased loved one as a way to help cope with the loss.
“I saw that and the ways people were connecting with it and wanted to bring something similar here to try that would help bring community together,” Akins said. “Some of the letters I’ve been getting so far have taken the time to thank me for providing this space, and that was the purpose of this, to provide a space for people to experience grief and loss, which is especially important during this pandemic with people facing loss every day.”
The alters themselves were made by Akins using a “found art” art style, which takes discarded and recycled items and repurposes them as a medium for artwork. They’re currently located at Josephine Young Memorial Park, Siletz Bay Park and Nesika Park in Lincoln City until July 1, when Akins will collect and store them.
Those wishing to participate in the project can visit any of the altars and leave a letter, and if they like, a small offering as well, such as a flower, photo or rock. Those writing letters are asked to keep their own privacy in mind and to address letters without specific names, such as “Dear Dad,” “Dear Grandmother,” “Dear sister,” or “Dear Pet Companion.”
Modern humans might share little in common with the Stone Age hunter gatherers who, 78,000 years ago, curled a dead child into the fetal position and buried it in a shallow grave in a Kenyan cave. But the humanity of their grief, and the care they demonstrated for the child, can still be felt by looking at those tiny human remains, arrayed as if still sleeping. Scientists don’t know whether the child’s family or community connected its burial with thoughts of the afterlife. In a way, though, their actions guaranteed the child would have another life. Unimaginably far into their future, the child is not forgotten and it offers a fascinating glimpse into how some past humans coped with death.
The 2-and-a-half to 3-year-old toddler now dubbed Mtoto (‘child’ in Swahili) was found in a specially dug grave now recognized as the oldest known human burial in Africa. The team that discovered and analyzed the child published their findings in this week’s issue of Nature. Extensive forensic and microscopic analysis of the remains and grave suggest that the child was buried soon after death, likely wrapped tightly in a shroud, laid in a fetal position and even provided with some type of pillow. The care humans took in burying this child suggests that they attached some deeper meaning to the event beyond the need to dispose of a lifeless body.
“When we start seeing behaviors where there is real interest in the dead, and they exceed the time and investment of resources needed for practical reasons, that’s when we start to see the symbolic mind,” says María Martinón-Torres, a co-author of the study and director of the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain. “That’s what makes this so special. We’re looking [at] a behavior that we consider ourselves so typical of humans—and unique—which is establishing a relationship with the dead.”
Panga ya Saidi cave, in the tropical uplands along the Kenyan coast, is a key site for delving into the lives of ancient humans. In 2013, excavations there revealed the side edge of a small pit, and researchers used a tube to retrieve a sediment sample for dating. The sample immediately revealed the presence of some degraded and unidentified bones. It wasn’t until four years later that scientists began to suspect they’d found more than a few random remains. They dug about ten feet below the cave floor and found a circular, shallow pit tightly filled with an array of bones. But this surprise was shortly followed by another—the bones were in such a state of decomposition that any attempts to touch or move them turned them to dust.
So the team extracted the entire pit, protected it with a plaster encasement and moved it to the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, and later to a specialized laboratory at CENIEH.
In the lab, scientists unleashed a toolbox of techniques and technologies to peer inside and analyze the bones and soils of the sediment block. Carefully excavating a bit of the block revealed two teeth whose familiar shape provided the first clue that the remains might represent a hominin burial. As the scientists delved further into the block they encountered more surprises. They found much of the well-preserved skull and face of the child, including some unerupted teeth still found within the mandible. These remains helped to ascertain that the team was exploring the remains of a very young member of our own species—Homo sapiens.
The group employed microtomography, a high-resolution X-ray based technique to determine that more bones were inside the block. But the bones were fragile and powdery; their low density made them very difficult to distinguish in images from the surrounding sediments. To solve this challenge, those cross-section scans were paired with software that sharpened them and eventually reconstructed 3-D images of the bones in the block. The image of a child, seemingly at rest, began to emerge.
Mtoto’s bones were articulated in nearly the same positions they would have been in life, anatomically connected at some points, with only small settling movements corresponding to those commonly seen as a body decomposes and flesh and muscle disappear. While the right ribs, on which the child was lying, are flattened, the spine and even rib cage curvature remain amazingly intact. This and other aspects of the skeleton’s condition provide a compelling line of evidence that the child had been buried soon after death, rapidly covered by soil and left to decompose peacefully in the grave. It stood in stark contrast to various animal bones of the same age found nearby—they had been broken, battered and scattered as a result of being left in the open.
The pit’s mix of sediment also differed in color and texture from surrounding sediments, revealing that it was dug and later filled in. And the dirt yielded still more clues. Geochemcial analysis of the soil showed elevated levels of calcium oxide and manganese oxide, chemical signals consistent with those expected to be produced by the purification of a body.
The child was lying on its right side, with knees drawn to its chest. The right clavicle (part of the shoulder) and the first and second ribs were rotated about 90 degrees, a state consistent with the upper body being wrapped or shrouded. The child may have been prepared and tightly wrapped with a shroud of large leaves or animal skins—an act that would make little sense for a body regarded as simply a lifeless corpse.
Finally, the position of the head suggests a tender touch. The first three cervical vertebrae, still attached to the base of the skull, were collapsed and rotated to a degree that suggests that the child was laid to rest with a pillow of biodegradable material under its head. When this pillow later decomposed, it appears that the head and vertebrae tilted accordingly.
Durham University archaeologist Paul Pettitt, an expert in Paleolithic funerary practices not involved with the research, called the study an exemplary exercise in modern forensic excavation and analysis. The totality of evidence seems to show that some person or persons cared for the child even after death. But what thoughts the ancient humans had about the dead is an intriguing question that may never be answered.
“The point at which behaviors towards the dead becomes symbolic is when those actions convey a meaning to a wider audience, that would be recognized by other members of the community and may reflect a shared set of beliefs,” says Louise Humphrey, an archaeologist at the Centre for Human Evolution Research at the Natural History Museum, London. “It’s not clear whether that’s the case here, of course, because we don’t know who attended the burial, whether it was the action of a single grief-stricken parent or an event for the larger community,” adds Humphrey, who wasn’t involved in the research.
Mtoto’s community was becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Surrounding soils in the cave from the same age as the grave are replete with an array of stone tools. The array of implements found suggests that Homo sapiens may have performed this burial during an era when they were gradually developing and using more advanced tool technologies.
Interestingly, the child wasn’t buried in some out of the way locale. It was buried at home. Panga ya Saidi cave is a key site inhabited by humans for some 78,000 years, until as recently as 500 years ago, and it also houses other, much younger burials. It remains a place of reverence for local humans to the present day, archaeologist Emmanuel K Ndiema of the National Museums in Kenya told reporters in a press conference unveiling the find.
The body was also found in a part of the cave that was frequently occupied by living humans. Martinón-Torres says this suggests a kind of relation between the dead and living, rather than the practical act of simply disposing of a corpse.
The bones were securely dated to 78,000 years ago. Though the date places Mtoto as the oldest human burial known in Africa, the child is not the oldest burial in the archaeological record. Burials of Homo sapiens at Qafzeh Cave, Israel, some 100,000 years ago, included pieces of red ocher, which was used to stain tools and may have been employed in some type of burial ritual. Iraq’s famed Shanidar Cave, which saw burials by Neanderthals, suggests another way in which Homo sapiens and Neanderthals may have been more similar than scientists once believed.
But evidence for funerary practices among Paleolithic humans and Neanderthals alike remains thin on the ground. That’s especially true in Africa, where it may be that scientists simply haven’t looked enough, as much of the continent has yet to be investigated. Climate works against African preservation as well, and different humans in different regions may have practiced different types of mortuary rituals as indeed they still do today.
Pettitt notes that the majority of humans who lived in Pleistocene—from 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago—Africa or Eurasia are archaeologically invisible. “They could have been tucked away in vegetation, floated off down rivers, placed on hills and high places…or simply left behind when the group moved on,” he notes.
If burial wasn’t standard Pleistocene practice, it begs the question why humans sometimes went to greater lengths to inter contemporaries like Mtoto. Pettitt leans towards the idea that such deaths were outside the norm.
The death of a child may have tended to spur humans to undergo the rigors and ritual of burial. A high ratio of child graves exist among the few Pleistocene sites that survive, including both of the earliest African burials, Panga ya Saidi and South Africa’s Border Cave, and many sites of Europe and Asia. Pettitt adds that among some hunter-gatherer societies the death of infants or children is viewed as unnatural and disturbingly out of the norm. “I wonder if these reflect the distinct treatment of dead infants that reflects societies emerging horror at such abnormalities?”
If Mtoto’s death caused exceptional grief, the child’s careful burial and the grave’s unlikely survival to the present day somehow create an equally exceptional connection between modern and ancient humans. In the physical world, ancient humans had to confront death too, and might such burials suggest that they also had symbolic thought about those that died?
“Somehow these types of funerary rites and burials are a way humans have to still connect with the dead,” says María Martinón-Torres. “Although they have died, they are still someone for the living.”
When hospice physician Christopher Kerr first started moonlighting at Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo in 1999, hearing about the powerful dreams and visions that dying patients often had made him uneasy. But it didn’t take long for Kerr to realize that these inner experiences could be profoundly therapeutic — not just for the patients, but for their families, too. “They were undeniable,” says Kerr, now CEO of Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo. “They couldn’t be ignored, and they had worth.”
To better understand these end-of-life experiences, or ELEs, Kerr has interviewed more than 1,400 dying patients. The stories he collected at their bedsides are featured in his 2020 book, Death Is But a Dream. They also informed seven published studies, tackling topics like post-traumatic growth and the ways that ELEs can help bereaved loved ones process their loss. In the days, weeks and even months leading to their deaths, Kerr and his team found that patients had visions of reunions with deceased relatives, dreams about travel and vivid memories of past experiences. More than 60 percent of the patients found them to be comforting.
Kerr hopped on a call with Discover to talk about the paradox of dying, how ELEs evolve as patients near the end of their lives and the ways that research like this can influence how we approach death as a society. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: What kinds of attitudes and perspectives do you see among patients who are nearing the end of their lives?
There’s a significant amount of misinterpretation from the outside. We have this natural, visceral response to the dying process, which is understandable, and actually critical to survival. And I think when we project ourselves onto that space, we think of the news of finding out that you have a terminal illness — that almost always comes as a true shock.
But what happens to people who are truly dying, after a protracted illness, is an entirely different level of acceptance. It comes from a number of things. Physically dying — being sick — is hard work; it’s exhausting. So there is this willingness to give into that process. And it tends to look after itself in ways that people don’t imagine. Our fear of pain, for example, is grossly overestimated. And the majority of people do find comfort and meaning in death.
Dying is this paradox where you’re physically declining, but spiritually, you’re very much alive. People who are having end-of-life experiences, who are the majority of people, are actually showing positive signs of growth, gaining insight and adapting right to the end. The point is that we view dying as this medical phenomenon when it’s ultimately just this human experience that is very rich. It’s more than organ failure. We’ve medicalized it and sterilized it to the point that it’s been dehumanized. There’s a much broader story.
Q: How do you define end-of-life experiences?
It’s really those subjective experiences at the end of life. Those inner experiences. The nomenclature gets really tricky because the only reference point we have is to call them dreams. But what’s interesting is that the patients themselves will say, “No, no, I don’t normally dream.” So they’re described as more unlike than like dreams, but that’s what we call them. We use the term visions in our studies because people say that they’re awake. But it’s not like we walk in and people are seeing things around the room. I think what’s happening is that they’re probably lucid dreaming.
There’s two commonalities to the dying process — you eat less and your sleep architecture has changed. So you’re in and out of sleep states. It may be that they’re lucid dreaming.
Q: Are patients lucid when they’re having these experiences?
First of all, these are IRB [International Review Board], university-approved studies and the consent process is pretty intense. There has to be a witness and you have to be aware of risk, ramifications, all those things. It’s a heavy document. The other thing is that we used this method called the CAM [Confusion Assessment Method], which is a clinical tool to rule out delirium. In the early piloting studies, we did labs, we looked at meds lists and we filmed a lot of people, so you could see that they were functional.
A very important distinction is that vantage point is everything; we’re not talking about the moments and hours before death, where you’re literally talking about a deoxygenated brain and altered states are more common. We’re talking about screening by days, weeks and even months before death. Some of these people are driving, doing their taxes and living alone. These people don’t have compromised neurologic functions. You can’t attribute it to neurotransmitter flux or anything like that. These are people who are highly functional.
What was really important was that we did this daily. Because we knew that there was a detectable change as people got closer to death. So what happened to the frequency? And what happened to the content? And the end story is that nearly 90 percent of people, within the days and weeks before death, have at least one of these events that are defined by being extraordinarily real and profoundly meaningful. They increase in frequency as people get nearer to death.
What’s interesting is that the subject changes; the content changes. The closer you get to death, the more likely you are to see people who are deceased and who you loved.
Q: Tell me more about these dreams and visions.
What seems to happen is that there’s this progression where people almost have an affirmation of having lived, and it lessens the fear of death. The stories are just remarkable. Even the negative ones are probably the most transformational or meaningful. Somebody, for example, had PTSD, in his end-of-life dreams he was comforted by seeing soldiers that he felt survivors’ guilt from. And then he could sleep. He found peace.
What was also fascinating was who was in the dreams. And, far and away, it was the people who loved or secured us best; who loved us unconditionally. You could be 95 years old, but it could be your mother’s voice from when you were five that you’re hearing. It’s really quite profound.
Q: What differences did you find from patient to patient? People tended to die as they lived. If you had tortured, distressed, tragic elements to your life, these processes didn’t deny that. And they don’t deny death; they almost transcend it.
I’ll give you an example: A mother who had a child who had addiction issues and ended up in prison. Her identity as a mother was questioned by herself. In her end-of-life experience, her parents came to her and told her she was a good mother. And a guy who lost his arm in childhood was wondering how he was going to be and live autonomously. He ends up working and people who he worked with came to him during his end-of-life experience and told him that he was the best at what he did.
There’s variance in as much as it’s individualized to that person. There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all.
It’s based on the presupposition that dying is an adverse event. And even if you are accepting of dying, there is adversity, obviously, in the form of loss and anticipatory grief and pain. I don’t think the analogy is wrong to talk about it traumatically. But then the question is whether there’s value in something that is, by definition, negative.
We sorted people who were having end-of-life experiences from people who were not. And the people who were having these experiences showed statistically significant gains in overall growth, particularly in insight and adaptation.
It really inverts our idea of dying, which is this idea of a lessening. Which is clearly what we experience as observers — we’re seeing physical decline and change. But what we don’t see is the experiential piece, which is going in the other direction. The fact that we were able to show that these experiences led to growth, right up until the last days of life, I think is just really remarkable.
Q: Wow. For me, that’s really a new way to think about death — that you’re growing, spiritually, while you’re physically declining.
It’s funny. Other cultures don’t look at it that way. I was contacted by a colleague, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker, and she’s working with indigenous people in the Amazon. And we’ve heard of this, anthropologically, but she said, ‘What you’re describing, these people have a whole language for.’ It’s a very common way for cultures and societies throughout history to maintain their ancestral ties. They experience death differently; they’re sad, but they’re not feeling like there’s this loss. It’s interesting. Q: How do these experiences impact caregivers and loved ones?
We have published twostudies based on surveys and interviews with 750 bereaved family members. We looked at scales of grief, and it showed that what was good for the patient was good for their loved ones. People who had witnessed these very positive experiences absolutely transitioned through grief and loss differently. They had better remembrance of the event.
It makes sense. How we experience and visualize somebody leaving us absolutely impacts our ability to process that loss.
Q: Does this research change your perspective on how people can better care for — and relate to — loved ones who are dying?
Dying is inherently isolating. And we’ve dehumanized it in so many ways. Yet this serves as one mechanism by which we can humanize what is a very human experience. What this research does, I hope, is take dying from being viewed as organ failure to the closing of a life. We are so much more than failing parts. I think what’s important, on the caregiving side, is giving hospice patients the permission for these experiences to be expressed. And the bereaved are typically a part of that story, so it feels like people are brought together.
Q: Can knowing about these experiences help people who are in hospice prepare for death?
Yeah. And we’re seeing that. It’s interesting. People who live to their eighth decade have often observed this. So they go into the dying process with hopes of reunion. It’s remarkable. It really depends on their life experiences, but it absolutely informs how people face the end of their life.
Q: How can this kind of research inform how we approach death, culturally?
I think we need to reclaim it. I don’t think the solution is a medical one. Dying, generations ago, was a shared experience between a family or a town. That’s a healthier approach. And I think we’re seeing that in the baby boomer generation — we’ve really gone from death aversion to people wanting to have a say. You see death doulas; you see death cafes; and books on death sell.
As people are looking at their own mortality, and we are a consumer culture, people want ownership of it. They don’t want to be medicalized by the doctor. They want to have a say in their story.
At the heart of every culture’s funerary ceremonies lie rites meant to guide ritual accounting of the meaning, in death, of the deceased. The obituary and its cousin, the eulogy, is a literary document clearly conceived to be read out loud. It is often the central aspect of rituals of reckoning for gathering communities of bereaved audiences. The performance that is the reading of an obituary sets the tone for how shared memories of the dead unfold.
The onslaught wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic has occasioned death on a historic scale for humanity. Beyond the massive corporeal loss of life, the coronavirus is marking myriad cultural losses for mankind. This season of industrious dying is ironically denied much of the ritual usually associated with death. The funeral, central in every culture as a ceremony for communal mourning, and perhaps the commencement of a shared acceptance of healing, has been cancelled or at best curtailed by policies meant to curb the virus’ outbreak.
As a result, many families lose out on the chance to gather and remember their loved and departed members, barred as they are from sharing the crucial ritual of reminiscences.
The obituary is a form of portrait, the reading of it performance art denied its customary audience by Covid-19 funeral restrictions. Those with means have found a way to connect with physically distanced mourners over social media platforms. The result is a new content regime in which private quarrels generated by grief become larger public spectacles as a result of streaming. In an earlier time, these would have been the preserve of gathered friends and family, at worst gossip fodder for the immediate community.
At the height of the initial strict lockdown, social media gave us an example of this kind of contentious occasion. The Rakgadi meme exploded on to our smartphones after Semati Moedi contradicted decorum at the memorial service for her brother, the tombstone king Lebohang Khitsane. Driven by grief, Rakgadi, the eldest aunt of the family, attacked his widow with accusations of infidelity. The farce and fervour that followed pried open age-old debates about decorum, trauma and the limits of righteous indignation. Close behind were questions about why obituaries always read like sanitised versions of the dead, deviant in life now made darlings after death.
The obituary as newspaper feature
Beyond the funeral gatherings that make theatre of tributes, the obituary exists as a cherished newspaper feature. In this mode, it becomes a potentially polemical memorial. A public letter occasioned by the death of a notable figure to contest crucial social issues.
When larger-than-life American star Little Richard died in May last year, the world went into overdrive with debates about the Black roots of rock and roll, its appropriation by white America and the neglect of the real progenitors of the multibillion-dollar art form, Richard among them. Centrepieces of the debate were defined by the proliferation of newspaper obituaries published globally in the wake of his death.
In Mzansi, Bongani Madondo led the charge against culture vultures. “Richard died last Saturday at the age of 87 and the world lost its marbles. Lord ha’ mercy, what we gonna do? For one, we can all claim we loved him madly. That he was our darling queer avatar,” wrote Madondo, taking issue with the public’s propensity to posture fake care for the dead who suffer neglect in life. At once, the obituary campaigned against pop culture’s social hypocrisies, and dared to settle historic racial scores for the credit of Black creative genius.
Following the death in 1964 of Sophiatown’s beer-beaten golden boy of letters, Can Temba, his friend and fellow writer Lewis Nkosi sat down to write his obituary. The article was headlined “The will to die” after one of Temba’s short stories. It opens with an epigraph composed of a statement Temba made at an unnamed friend’s funeral: “This son of bitch had no business to die… [sic].” What followed is a study of the horrible state of life in apartheid South Africa. Nkosi highlights the devastation borne by the suicides of creative people such as Nat Nakasa and Ingrid Jonker to understand the death of his friend Temba.
In less lofty instances, the newspaper obituary has been seen as an inconsequential space filler. This point was made by former Sunday Times newspaper editor Ken Owen in a brutal albeit memorable put-down of journalist Chris Barron. The pair were part of a larger media brawl with biographer Ronald Suresh Roberts.
Responding to what was then Barron’s latest op-ed attack against Roberts, Owen took his famous shot: “In his eagerness to smear Ronald Roberts, Barron has misquoted me … He should stick to writing obituaries – the subjects will not complain.”
In this way, Owen shored up the form’s propensity to be inconsequential content. To be balanced, though, Barron’s LinkedIn profile professes that “he turned what was a moribund and largely ignored obituaries section into one of the most eagerly read pages in the newspaper”.
A form and genre
There have been grand moments of glory for the form. The New York Times celebrated the newspaper obit as a genre in 2016 by sharing highlights from its archive. The editors noted proudly that since 1851, more than 200 000 people had been the subjects of obituaries in the paper.
Arguably the most notable was a piece announcing the death of Christopher McCandless. The account of McCandless’ fate stands as a monument to the power of the newspaper obit. McCandless died in the Alaskan wilderness during an ill-fated journey to sever ties with all he had known.
The first paragraph cloaked him in mystery and tragedy, turning him into a folkloric figure: “No one is yet certain who he was. But his diary and two notes found at the camp tell a wrenching story of his desperate and progressively futile efforts to survive.” It was a short newspaper obituary. But it unleashed an industrious mining for meaning into the life and death of McCandless that would yield further feature articles internationally, at least two bestselling books and a Hollywood biopic called Into the Wild. The film starred Emile Hirsch and Kristen Stewart, with Sean Penn as the director. It was nominated for best editing and best supporting actor awards at the Oscars.
It is doubtful McCandless would have gained this posthumous fame and glory were it not for that compelling newspaper obituary. It launched him as a symbol of youthful renunciation of modernity in search of a lost, liberated, prehistoric purity of man.
The obituary in literature
American novelist Ann Hood published an aptly titled piece of historical fiction, The Obituary Writer, in 2013. Its plot zeroes in on the cathartic benefits of writing obituaries. In part, the book tells the story of Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer, who by telling the stories of the dead not only helps others cope with their grief but also begins to understand the ravages of her own losses.
The Obituary Writer shores up Hood as a discerning novelist who manages to magnify the underlying feature of the obit as a cultural artefact. It converges the needs of the individual with the requirements of community for mutual healing during times of death.
There are few poets who’ve had to contend with the meaning of death and personal loss like Ted Hughes. His first wife and fellow poet Sylvia Plath killed herself after Hughes left her for another woman, Assia Wevill, who also killed herself along with their four-year-old daughter Shura. The tragedy of Plath’s death, for which Hughes was blamed, would become the subject of one of his most memorable poems. This in part because of the legend that surrounds its discovery more than a decade after he died.
Titled Last Letter, the poem is an account of the night Plath died. The various versions of the previously unknown poem were published in the New Statesman magazine, in part to report and register the historically unacknowledged torment Hughes lived with following the death of Plath and also to bear witness to his repeated attempts to perfect his poetic account of the night she died.
In the poem, which was read live on BBC Channel 4 News by actor Jonathan Pryce, Hughes recalls the night of Plath’s suicide, even the phone call that delivered the dark news:
What happened that Sunday night? Your last night? Over what I remember of it… Then a voice like a selected weapon or a carefully measured injection coolly delivered its four words deep into my ear your wife is dead.
In this way, the writing of the poem as a private obituary, along with the promise of a probable audience in some future, allowed Hughes to live productively with grief in a way that writing about dead loved ones makes possible.
It is the singular power of the obituary, the making into artful verse the painful episodes in our personal universes. We write obituaries, read them out loud to gathered friends, to make certain that we are not alone in our hour of need. The legislated dearth of community in dealing with death during the Covid-19 pandemic denies us this connection. The omission of audiences for obituaries is central to the larger loss of our time.
Callie Hawkins had been working at President Lincoln’s Cottage museum for 10 years when she became pregnant. She and her husband were thrilled, and she joked with her co-workers about the baby’s “perfect” due date — Feb. 12 — Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
When the day arrived, Hawkins went into labor right on schedule. But when she and her husband got to the hospital, the medical team couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat. Their son Coley James Hobbie was stillborn the next day.
Three years later, Hawkins sits on a picnic bench near the cottage where Lincoln and his wife spent more than a quarter of his presidency, pressing with her thumb a pendant around her neck that says “Mama.”
“After my son died, I got really afraid that people would maybe judge me or think about me in the way that history has remembered Mary Lincoln,” she said. Which is to say, she was afraid they would think she was “crazy.” In her lifetime, the former first lady lost her husband to an assassin’s bullet and three of her four children to disease. Her lengthy, public mourning defied conventions of the day and led to criticism and questions about her sanity.
With that in mind, Hawkins, now the interim executive director and director of programming at the cottage, helped to create a unique exhibit called “Reflections on Grief and Child Loss” at President Lincoln’s Cottage. In it, accounts of the Lincolns’ grief are presented alongside the stories of modern-day bereaved parents and their kids, showing their similarities across time
Abraham and Mary Lincoln (she did not go by Mary Todd Lincoln in her lifetime) had four sons; only one survived past age 18. Son Eddy died of an unknown illness at 3 in 1850; Willie died of typhoid at 11 in 1862, while the couple occupied the White House; and Tad died of a lung disease at 18 in 1871.
Back then, Hawkins said, “society allowed certain types of grief. You could wear black, you could have a mourning band on your stationery, and things like that.” But Mary Lincoln didn’t stick to what was socially acceptable. When Eddy died, she tore out her hair; when Willie died she was so overcome she couldn’t leave her bed for weeks and missed his funeral. She would cry loudly and wore black mourning clothes much longer than was socially acceptable.
The modern bereaved parents in the exhibit, who are anonymous, describe a society that is in some ways even more uncomfortable with expressions of grief than it was 150 years ago.
“I think society expected me to just move on,” says the mother of Jacob, who was murdered when he was 6. “I think it is still a surprise for some people that we still talk about her so freely,” said the mother of Abby, an only child who died at age 17 five years ago. “I think they are confused as to why we are still talking about her, assuming reflecting on her life, and death, only accentuates the pain.”
Hawkins encountered this discomfort when she presented the project to some colleagues. “Isn’t it going to make visitors sad?” they worried.
Yes, it will, Hawkins replied. And that’s a meaningful experience.
Some in Mary Lincoln’s day thought to grieve as deeply as she did was sacrilege. It showed she didn’t trust God’s will, they said. A modern-day mother described the same judgment from her religious community. “I thought my faith was not good enough because I was sad and angry,” she said. Like Mary, she lost three children — Julia, Matt and Charlie — in separate events.
Mary Lincoln also participated in seances with various spiritualists — generally con artists — who promised to communicate with her dead children, and later, her husband. Instead of judging her supposed gullibility, the modern-day bereaved parents’ testimonials give some context to her desire to feel the presence of the dead. They too seek ways to connect: in nature, in prayer, in activism or simply talking aloud to their children before they go to sleep at night.
President Lincoln felt these losses deeply, too, but he expressed it in more socially acceptable ways, like throwing himself into work, locking himself in his office or secretly visiting the crypt that temporarily held his son’s coffin at night. In a sexist society, his grief was viewed as a more heroic “melancholy” than Mary’s, who was dismissed as self-absorbed or insane — a stereotype that persists to this day.
The exhibit has been designed in consultation with grief experts like professor Joanne Cacciatore, who has written several books dear to families going through traumatic death. So while much of it is intended to help bereaved parents feel less alone, it’s also meant to demystify this type of grief for people who may be unfamiliar or deeply uncomfortable with it. At the end of the exhibit, visitors can take with them a postcard-sized handout with tips on how to help someone who is grieving. Don’t try to fix it or distract them, it says. Show up.
“Other people are far more uncomfortable with my grief than I am. It’s a welcome part of my life now. I’m going to love Coley forever, so I am going to grieve him forever, and that is okay,” Hawkins said. “And we see that with Mary Lincoln. I mean, she grieved the losses of her children and her husband for the rest of her life. Even when it made other people uncomfortable.”
The exhibit puts a poignant emphasis on place and places of refuge. For the modern-day parents, that can be visiting their child’s grave, tending to a garden, sitting by a river or preserving their child’s bedroom. For the Lincolns, it was the cottage. While they had always planned to decamp to it during humid Washington summers, they didn’t get a chance to do so until shortly after Willie’s death. It was a balm to them, a peaceful place where they could just be. They spent the next two summers there as well.
In describing the cottage to a friend, Mary Lincoln wrote: “When we are in sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us.”
“I always thought that this was a truly special place, but I didn’t feel it in my bones the way that I do now,” Hawkins said. “I remember the exact moment, as I was sitting at the hospital, thinking, ‘Now I get it. Now I know. I know what they needed, and I need that, too.’ ”
Hawkins now sees the cottage as a place that holds broken hearts, both hers and the Lincolns’. Like the rest of the staff, she used to call their bedroom at the cottage the “Emancipation Room,” because it is where Lincoln wrote the historic Emancipation Proclamation. Now, Hawkins also thinks of it as a sacred place where the couple probably shed many tears together.
At the center of the exhibit springs a smooth white trunk evoking a weeping willow tree. On each dangling paper leaf, visitors are encouraged to write the name of a lost child, or someone else they love who has died. When the exhibit concludes in two years, each name will be transferred onto a sheet of seed paper and planted — all that love and grief sustaining something new and alive.
The special project “What Loss Looks Like” presents personal artifacts belonging to those who have left us and explores what they mean to those left behind.
By Jaspal Riyait
As the art director of the Well desk, I’ve spent the last year looking for images to reflect the devastation of the pandemic and the grief it has wrought. As the crisis has stretched on, I’ve thought of all the people who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 — not to mention those who have lost loved ones, period — and how they were cut off from the usual ways of gathering and grieving. Watching the numbers rise every day, it was easy to lose sight of the people behind the statistics. I wanted to find a way to humanize the death toll and re-establish the visibility of those who had died.
To help our readers honor the lives of those lost during the pandemic, we decided to ask them to submit photographs of objects that remind them of their loved ones. The responses were overwhelming, capturing love, heartache and remembrance. We heard from children, spouses, siblings, grandchildren and friends — people who had lost loved ones not only to Covid-19 but from all manner of causes. What united them was their inability to mourn together, in person.
Dani Blum, Well’s senior news assistant, spent hours speaking with each individual by phone. “It’s the hardest reporting I’ve ever done, but I feel really honored to be able to tell these stories,” she said. “What struck me the most about listening to all of these stories was how much joy there was in remembering the people who died, even amid so much tragedy. Many of these conversations would start in tears and end with people laughing as they told me a joke the person they lost would tell, or their favorite happy memory with them.”
The photographs and personal stories, published digitally as an interactive feature, was designed by Umi Syam and titled “What Loss Looks Like.” Among the stories we uncovered: A ceremonial wedding lasso acts as a symbol of the unbreakable bond between a mother and father, both lost to Covid-19 and mourned by their children. A ceramic zebra figurine reminds one woman of her best friend, who died after they said a final goodbye. A gold bracelet that belonged to a father never leaves his daughter’s wrist because she is desperate for any connection to his memory.
For those who are left behind, these items are tangible daily reminders of those who have departed. These possessions hold a space and tell a story. Spend time with them and you begin to feel the weight of their importance, the impact and memory of what they represent.
Museums have long showcased artifacts as a connection to the past. So has The New York Times, which published a photo essay in 2015 of objects collected from the World Trade Center and surrounding area on 9/11. As we launched this project, we heard from several artists who, in their own work, explored the connection between objects and loss.
Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, Elisabeth Smolarz, an artist in Queens, began working on “The Encyclopedia of Things,” which examines loss and trauma through personal objects. Kija Lucas, a San Francisco-based artist, has been photographing artifacts for the past seven years, displaying her work in her project “The Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy.”
“Saved: Objects of the Dead” is a 12-year project by the artist Jody Servon and the poet Lorene Delany-Ullman, in which photographs of personal objects from deceased loved ones are paired with prose to explore the human experience of life, death and memory. And the authors Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax spent years interviewing hundreds of people and asking them about the most meaningful single object in their lives, gathering their stories in the book “What We Keep.”
As the pandemic continues to grip the nation, the Well desk will continue to wrestle with the large-scale grief that it leaves in its wake. Other features on this topic include resources for those who are grieving, the grief that’s associated with smaller losses, and how grief affects physical and psychological health. As for “What Loss Looks Like,” we are keeping the callout open, inviting more readers to submit objects of importance, to expand and grow this virtual memorial and provide a communal grieving space.