How to be alive, according to Willa Cather’s grave.

georgia_okeeffe_paintingI’ve never understood why people visit the graves of famous people. I’m a very morbid person, yet this never struck me as something I wanted to do. However, I’d like to see Willa Cather’s grave, for as I recently learned, it holds a rather incredible message about happiness, life, and death. The line—”that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great”—comes from her novel My Antonia. Here’s the full passage (found via Brain Pickings):

The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Although I love the entire passage, I think my favorite part might just be: “Nothing happened.” I’m such a speedy person—impatient to my core. I frequently describe my motions in fiery terms. I burn through my work and blaze through books. I light up and burn out. I consume the world with big steps and fast motions. You know what doesn’t come naturally to me? Slowing down. Letting nothing happen. Being quiet and calm. Sleep.

I often wish I were different, that I could dissolve more easily into a moment. But perhaps that will come with time. If not, I’ll just try to keep Cather’s words in mind. At the very least, it’s a lovely way to think about death—a self disbanded, a body dispersed, a part of something entire.

Image by Georgia O’Keeffe, since the theme of the day is badass ladies of the American west, apparently. 

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A good death is hard to find.

momento mori soapsMemento mori is a Latin term that means “remember that you must die” and apparently, that’s what inspired a California artist who goes by Eden to create these beautiful soaps. Her project, which was launched on Kickstarter, has been fully funded though she’s still accepting orders. Embrace your mortality while cleansing yourself of all earthly sins! Bathe in the knowledge that death comes for us all! (And when it does come, do try to have a good death, yeah?)

As anyone who reads this blog probably knows, morbid-pretty is my favorite kind of pretty. Poe once wrote that “there is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion” and I just love that. Strangeness in the proportion. Ugly-beauty. Morbid-pretty. It does feel like this is becoming zeitgeist-y as of late, with lots of female morticians speaking out on Twitter and lots of trendy blogs posting about Goth-y topics. But I think I like that (as much as I ever like it when my pet subjects grow larger than me). Let’s all embrace the strangeness of our proportions and plan our funerals and hold hands with our deaths and dance until we all fall down.

A very merry approach to death. 

merry cIn Romania, there is a place called the “merry cemetery” or in Romanian, Cimitirul Vesel  (cimitirul=cemetery; vesel=joyful, jolly). In the place of tombstones with their solid, solemn permanence, the Merry Cemetery uses wooden crosses, made from oak and painted by local artist Stan Ioan Pătraş, who started the tradition in 1935. (Since his death, his apprentices and followers have kept it alive. Now the graveyard has over 900 crosses, all decorated in the same bold style). Each headstone tells the story of the person buried beneath it, but not in the usual “here lies beloved Mary, wife, mother, and churchgoer” format. No, instead of providing brief, impersonal sketches of the departed’s life, these crosses are decorated with irreverent poems that focus on the follies and foibles of the dead, the colorful details that, in a more staid and stoic society, would cause the corpses beneath to roll over in shock.

This is, I think, the most interesting thing about the Merry Cemetery—aside from the folk art paintings and the striking cerulean hues. This is a place where death is allowed to be funny, even joyful. The dead don’t lose their personalities; instead of being placed beneath bland and anonymous pieces of granite, the dead lie below brightly colored tributes to their idiosyncrasies. A critical mother-in-law is remembered in a rhyming epitaph for her sharp words and wit. A known womanizer is immortalized for his favorite vice. (“Ioan Toaderu loved horses,” reads his headstone, “One more thing he loved very much / to sit at a table in a bar / next to someone else’s wife.” I believe it rhymes in Romanian.)

merryc2I’m afraid of too many things, which is perhaps why I love this approach to death. It seems natural and human. Consoling, in that strange way (I think dark humor is comforting, even when it’s a bit terrible and offensive—it takes the sting away from real terrors). The moment I saw images from the Merry Cemetery, I remembered a book I once read about Frida Kahlo that describes the artist’s feelings about death. Obviously, the visuals call to mind Mexico’s Day of the Dead, with its sugar skulls and dancing skeletons, but I think the resemblance goes even deeper than that. According to this book, Kahlo saw her death as a figure that was always close, always waiting for her, a thing that loved her, and wanted to see her home. It was her skeletal shadow. If you look at death like this, like Kahlo did and perhaps some Romanian artists do—death isn’t the enemy. Just a friend that you don’t want to meet right now.

Images via Flickr here & here.

Your body is a wonderland.

Travis Bedel1What I’m Reading:
Mary Roach’s delightfully morbid, tastelessly funny Stiff. I’ve read Bonk before, Roach’s book on the scientific study of sex, and this one is similar, but I think much better. Stiff is all about cadavers (that word sounds too much like a food item for my taste, yet I like it more than “dead bodies”). How we care for them. How we use them. How we abuse them. In the introduction to the book, she describes the process of becoming so deeply obsessed with a topic that she pursues it for years—despite the fact that many people find her work off-putting and strange and her professional interests disturbing, even threatening. “I’m a curious person,” she explains. “Like all journalists, I’m a voyeur. I write about what I find fascinating. I used to write about travel. I traveled to escape the known and the ordinary. The longer I did this, the farther afield I had to go. By the time I found myself in Antarctica for the third time, I began to search closer at hand.” The world is full the strange and unfamiliar things, and Roach wants to find them, to peer closely at them, to play doubting Thomas and prod at their wounds. Reading this, I was reminded of a quote by essayist Kathleen Hale: “I never look for things to grab me. They just do, and once they do, the obsessions usually continue until I’m so sick of them—or of myself for enacting them—that suddenly, and with a sense of great relief, I’m repulsed.” When I read this passage, I wanted to find Hal and shake her. “You nailed it!” I would yell in her face. “That’s exactly exactly what it’s like!” To be obsessed, to be a voyeur, to be relentlessly curious to the point where you begin to wonder if it’s really healthy—I think maybe that’s what it is to be a writer.

Travis BedelWhat I’m Admiring:
To stay true to theme, I’ve been really digging the work of artist Travis Bedel. He use anatomical imagery as the jumping off point for his intricate collages, turning the human body into a lush and unsettling menagerie. I imagine if one dissected a nymph, or a citizen of Narnia, they might find this waiting inside. It’s a lovely visual depiction of the circle of life (dust to dust and earth to earth and guts to flowers and the worms crawl in and all that) or an eerie reimagining of what lies within. I personally think his work is very pretty, but then again, I consider Stiff light bedtime reading, so perhaps I’m a terrible judge of these things. (If you like his work, you can buy prints online at Society6 and Etsy.)

travis bedel3

A few thoughts on death, photography, and Ghost Busters

med_fuss_af-0462-jpgA fascination with ghosts can be written off as whimsical. Often, people imagine Casper or Bill Murray fighting ectoplasmic globs, when one mentions the g-word. True believers might find it a bit more sinister, but even then, they tend to speak of odd occurrences with windows, breathy sounds heard in the night, a persistent shadow that falls without light, old objects found with no point of reference. All things that are possibly spooky, but never truly threatening. As someone who writes frequently about ghosts, I tend to hear a lot of ghost stories. But even when the storyteller is uncomfortable, I find it’s more often out of embarrassment than fear.

But a fascination with death? That’s an entirely different kind of beast. Even the word trails off with fear, lingering consonants that dryly hang in the air. Death is threatening. It is real. It is ugly and universal and either entirely unfair or ruthlessly just, depending on who you ask.

Though I don’t like to think about death, I tend to do it a lot anyway. This helps explain one of my weirder possessions: a book of images from The Burns Archive. The Burns Archive, as you’ll see if you click that link, is a collection of photography that focuses primarily on the grotesque. There are images of soldiers and their gun wounds, portraits of the mentally ill, and lots and lots of postmortem photography.

Why would anyone take a picture of a dead person? Well, this used to be the thing to do when your relative died. It was a curious practice, and often involved propping the deceased up in a chair, pushing their eyelids open, and doing everything possible to make them appear alive. It’s the strangest masquerade; the dead posing as the living in a medium that has been described as a metaphor for death itself. Though I’ve never found the pictures particularly creepy, this idea freaks me the heck out.

And if I’ve just creeped you out, maybe this will bring you some peace: the New York Times recently ran a piece on their Wellness blog about German photographer Walter Schels, who captures his subjects in the days before death, and then again soon after. Instead of being sinister, manipulated and a little bit weird, these pictures are oddly peaceful.

“People are almost always pretending something, but these people had lost that need,” he said in an interview. “I felt it enabled me as a photographer to get as close as it’s possible to get to the core of a person; when you’re facing the end, everything that’s not real is stripped away. You’re the most real you’ll ever be, more real than you’ve ever been before.”

About the image: I didn’t want to clutter up my blog with pictures of dead people, so instead I simply linked to them, and used this gorgeous photograph by Adam Fuss, an extremely talented artist, to illustrate the point. It’s from a series call “My Ghost,” so I thought it was rather fitting.