Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Undertakers' Supply Co. Catalog

Specialty trades can be mysterious enough without trying to understand the tools they use, the supplies they go through, and the way they communicate these needs to each other. Jargon meant to be exclusive to those in the know, is at times disconcerting to the uninitiated. For example, I have an empty bottle of embalming fluid labeled Frigid Jr. with a picture of a fat healthy smiling baby on it. It is supposed to be specially formulated for babies .... what can I say?

I managed to find a ca 1920 copy of the Undertakers' Supply Co. Catalog. (I've depended on eBay for a long time...) The catalog lists everything an embalmer could possibly need as well as furnishings for the funeral service and viewing. There is a section on special cases, diseases, and conditions that require special treatment, precautions, or materials. Here are a few pages which give one an idea of what early morticians and undertakers were shopping for. 
[for larger views, click on the image]

Sunday, April 18, 2010

BlackFlash Magazine

Volume 26.1, 2008 issue of BlackFlash Magazine, a photo, art, and theory magazine from Saskatoon, SK, Canada, featured my new suite of prints in their Death Issue. Here are most of the images or page spreads that were created for this project. For the first time in my art practice, I used appropriated images scanned from my own collections. You may recognize the casket photos from an earlier blog entry.  Included in this suite was a poignant excerpt from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, a must-read for all literary driven thanatophiles. A good on-line full text source is here.

These passports are from all over (Turkey, Argentina, Canada, Italy) and include my intrepid traveling aunt and my own taxi license from when I was a young university student.

These glass negatives are from a junk shop located in Butte, Montana. I was especially attracted to the damaged ones, although I also obtained a collection of amazing portraits from the late 19th to early 20th century.

This page of old studio photographs with the empty portrait settings were made from scans of vintage prints and tintypes where I digitally removed the sitter; their absence being a poignant reminder of loss and fading memory.

The above grid is made up of images from my collection of port mortem portraits of young children that I am building. You will see (and have seen) selections from this collections periodically on this blog.

And finally, this page spread of skulls was gleaned from the internet and represents a wide range of individuals. What I find especially interesting, is that they all seem to maintain their own identity and even personality. The numbers alone allude to our uncountable predecessors and the nameless faces that once were.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Japanese Death Poems

I have a wonderful book of Japanese Haiku called Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. compiled by Yoel Hoffmann (Chas. A. Tuttle Pub. Co. Inc. 1986)

Here are a few poignant examples:

RANGAI (d. 1845, aged 75)

I wish to die                                                  Fuji-no-yama
a sudden death with eyes                         minagara shitaki
fixed on Mount Fuji.                                        tonshi kana

NANDAI  (d. 1817, aged 31)

Since time began                                             Kanete naki
the dead alone know peace.                     mi koso yasukere
Life is but melting snow.                               yuki no michi

KYO'ON  (d. 1749, aged 63)

A last fart:                                                 Yume no ha ka
are these the leaves                             chiru sharakusashi
of my dream, vainly falling?                           saigo no he

KASENJO  (d. 1776, aged 62)

Depths of cold                                               Okusoko no
unfathomable                                      shirenu samusa ya
ocean roar.                                                      umi no oto

SENCHOJO  (d. 1802)

I cup my ears                                              Unohana ni
among the deutzia lest I fail                    kikisokonawaji
to hear the cuckoo.                                       hototogisu

TOYOKUNI  (d. 1825)

Is it like                                                      Yakifude no
a charcoal sketch—                           mama ka oboro ni
a hazy shadow?                                             kagebōshi

BOKUSUI  (d. 1914, aged 40)

A parting word?                                           Jisei nado
The melting snow                              zansetsu ni ka mo
is odorless.                                                  nakarikeri

TOKO (d. 1795, aged 85)

Death poems                                             Jisei to wa
are mere delusion—                         sunawachi mayoi
death is death.                                         tada shinan

The Zen of death is a very different way of looking at the issue of life and its final chapter .... one that I am not really very well versed in. I have always come at it from a physiological/biological point of view; not a very comforting stance. I appreciate the poetic but concrete reality of how these monks address the issue. Maybe that is why I like the poems with their pragmatic but dark nihilistic view. (like the last one, above)

Although not a haiku, this poem by Moriya Sen'an (d. 1838) showed an expectation of an entertaining afterlife:

Bury me when I die                                     Ware shinaba
beneath a wine barrel                         sakaya no kame no
in a tavern.                                                  shita ni ikeyo
With luck                                          moshi ya shizuku no
the cask will leak.                                      moriyasennan

And finally, Death, with calligraphy by Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768). The poem is written above the character (shi, death), as below:

Wakaishu ya
shinu ga iya nara
ima shiniyare
hito-tabi shineba
mō shinanu zo ya

Oh young folk—
if you fear death,
die now!
Having died once
you won't die again.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Murder Miniatures

Scenes of murder, mayhem, and doll furniture..........

The incredibly detailed miniature dioramas of Franses Glessner Lee are featured in a book called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (essay and photos by Corinne May Botz), New York: The Monacelli Press, 2004. Lee, a master criminal investigator, a grandmother, and founder of the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936, was also captain in the New Hampshire police. In the 1940's and 50's she built doll house sized crime scenes based on real cases in order to train detectives to assess visual evidence.

Still used in forensic training today, the book contains wonderfully detailed images of the eighteen Nutshell dioramas that were painstaking built by Lee. The window shades work, the newspaper has text on it, the pencils write, all at a scale of 1:12. Everything is there: the furnishings, wallpaper, carpets, clothing, blood stains, and spent cartridge casings. She made all the clothing and even hand-knit a victim's underwear using thread and straight pins.

The book includes annotations, diagrams, details and clues that you, the reader, use to trace and understand the actual events depicted by the model. Some details and answers are withheld, as these dioramas are still used by the police for training.

Death by misadventure has spawned a whole series of books and websites that border on what one might call trauma-porn. Grotesque images "borrowed" from police files of gunshot head-wounds, major physical trauma, etc. are not something that has any redeeming aesthetic qualities.

We sometimes find re-published collections of crime-scene photographs usually compiled by law enforcement officials as a record of cases they were involved in from before the advent of databases and officially organized forensic records. Many detectives used photography as a personal notational record, or maybe a perversely morbid scrapbook. Some of these are fascinating, although sobering when we face actual images of the fragility of the human body or the outcome of the dark side of human violence.

The use of photography as a forensic tool began with the famous Alphonse Bertillon, a late 19th, early 20th C. French police officer and biometrics researcher who created anthropometry, an identification system based on physical measurements. Anthropometry was the first scientific system used by police to identify criminals. Before that time, criminals could only be identified based on unreliable eyewitness accounts. The method was eventually supplanted by fingerprinting, but his other contributions like the mug shot and the systematization of crime-scene photography remain in place to this day. [text from wikipedia]