Animating a Cemetery

Last week, i09 posted a video by a collection of animators called Llama Rada.  Directed by Alejandro Garcia Cabbalero, Llama Rada projected videos on gravestones in Mexico’s 590-acre cemetery Panteón de Dolores.

According to i09, the Llama Rada project is bringing the work of animators into public spaces throughout Mexico City.

Although the Panteón de Dolores has around 700,000 tombstones, only a small section seemed to be chosen as screens for the animation.

Panteon de Dolores / Santolo / Llamarada from Ciudad Intervenida on Vimeo.

I don’t have the cultural knowledge to critique this as an art installation, but as much as I support creative ways to bring people into relationships with cemeteries, the video troubles me.  Beyond the violent content of the animations (which again, I don’t have the understanding to put into cultural perspective), I am made uncomfortable by the sense of disrepect this video installation shows, both to the people buried in the cemetery and their families.

What do you think?  Is a graveyard a valid canvas for temporary artwork?  Does beauty trump history? Do the dead cease to care how their monuments are used — or could they use a little music and light to get their toes tapping?

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The Death Salon is coming to San Francisco

This is lifted from the Death Salon events page:

We’re bringing our first ever one-day Death Salon event to San Francisco October 11, 2014. Deathlings will be taking over the Fleet Room at the Fort Mason Center. Just like our other Death Salon events, we’ll have speakers and performers from various disciplines informing and entertaining you all day and evening on diverse topics related to the culture of mortality and mourning. There are three ticket options:

Combo ticket for day & night sessions (best price, limited quantity)
Day Session only ticket
Night Session only ticket


Please Note: This event will be filmed, upon purchasing a ticket, you are consenting to being filmed. Questions? Email us at info at deathsalon dot org. Below is the tentative lineup of speakers and performers.


DAY SESSION emceed by Death Salon co-founder, mortician Caitlin Doughty of The Order of the Good Death

Doors at 9am, session begins at 10am

Loren Rhoads – Where Have All the Graveyards Gone: the Pioneer Burial Grounds in San Francisco and the Grave Migration to Colma

Beyond the remnants of the Mission Dolores churchyard, the National Cemetery, and the San Francisco Columbarium, relics of San Francisco’s pioneers continue to lie beneath many of the city’s neighborhoods, parks, and museums. If the last of the dead were supposed to have been removed from San Francisco in the 1940s, why do bodies and gravestones keep turning up?

Betsy Trapasso – Death Runs in My Family

Betsy knew that she was predestined to work in the end-of-life world ever since her mother gave her the nickname “Spooky” when she was only two months old, and it’s stuck with her ever since. She tells the tale of a familial connection to the history of hospice care in the US that showed her working with and advocating for the dying is in her blood as well as in her soul.

Jordan Posamentier, Esq. – Why California Should Be the Next State to Pass a Death With Dignity Law & What You Can Do to Help

Five states in the nation currently have death with dignity laws on the books, but California is not one of them. Compassion & Choices’ goal is to make aid in dying an open, accessible, and legitimate medical practice for all Californians. Currently, too many Californians suffer needlessly or endure unrelenting pain at the end of life and too many turn to violent means at the end of life when medical aid can help them die peacefully. ​A majority of Californians supports Death with Dignity, ​and Compassion & Choices has a five year grassroots plan to get there. As the boomer generation increasingly faces end-of-life choices, they’re making sure the last great civil rights battle of their lives will be won in our state.

Andrew Chesnut – Santa Muerte: The Saint For All Seasons

While the mass media in both Mexico and the United States almost exclusively portrays Santa Muerte as a narco-saint, for most devotees on both sides of the border she is an omnipotent miracle-worker who grants favors far removed from the world of drug trafficking. We’ll explore a few of her most important roles, such as curandera, love doctor, and agent of prosperity, in addition to the most recent developments in this the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas.

1-hour lunch break on your own, 12-1pm

Paa Joe & the Lion – a Death Salon exclusive clip from the forthcoming feature film documentary chronicling the life of Ghana’s greatest living fantasy coffin maker.

Melissa Cooper – Forensic Facial Reconstruction: Reading the Skull of a 9,000-Year-Old Los Angeles Native

While reconstructing a face, the skull holds an impressive amount of clues. I’ll be discussing the techniques used to achieve the final depiction based solely on the skull in addition to the surprising reactions a simple rendering of a face has the power to inflict. Whether it is to assist in solving a cold-case or to obtain new information about our ancient past, the purpose of these reconstructions all come down to one major common denominator: utilize the given clues to solve a mystery. However, as we all have likely experienced, solving one mystery has the potential to only make the plot thicken.

Rachel James – Transcending the East vs. West Suicide Paradox: Netting the Bridge and Walling up the Volcano

By comparing Mount Mihara and the Golden Gate Bridge, we’ll look at the conflicting ideologies surrounding suicide in Asia and the US, using these popular suicide locations and their prevention solutions in each locale as focal points to examine not only the opposing cultural attitudes, but how they are evolving from opposite sides of the philosophy spectrum and beginning to “meet in the middle” with concern and compassion.

Elizabeth Harper – The Public Corpse: Exploring Death Rituals and the Spaces Dedicated to Them in Rome

Death is not the end of the road for Catholics in Italy. Though the public display of corpses and bones may seem macabre, these traditions illustrate a spiritual and physical journey that begins at death. It’s a journey that takes us through the liminal space between here and the afterlife and between flesh and bone; where the impermanence and even embarrassment of the human body and it’s functions only underscores the permanence and dignity of the soul. In this illustrated talk, we’ll take a virtual walking-tour of Rome through its crypts, purgatorial societies, tombs and shrines and find this message of life hidden in places devoted to death.

Jill Tracy – Whispers Behind Glass: After Dark in the Mutter Museum

Composer/storyteller Jill Tracy presents songs she composed alone at night inside Philadelphia’s famed Mutter Museum, and spellbinding tales of the collection including Harry Eastlack (The Ossified Man), renowned Siamese Twins Chang and Eng, The Mermaid Baby, and eccentric laryngologist Chevalier Jackson.


Death Salon official banner logo, designed by Jenelle Campbell of

NIGHT SESSION emceed by Death Salon: SF Curators Annetta Black (Odd Salon) and Death Salon director Megan Rosenbloom

Starts promptly at 6pm, ends at 9pm

Cara Rose DeFabio – After the Tone: Performing Grief 

Through this humorous performance art piece, Cara comments on death in the age of the funeral selfie, with clever insights about the intersection of death and technology.

Beza Merid – Stand-up Comedy and the Popular Culture of Cancer

This talk will address the popular culture of cancer, and how cultural venues like marches for hope as well as the restrictive languages of illness proliferate the idea that there is a right attitude to survive disease. Beza explores how and where post-diagnosis individuals challenge this idea, and why stand-up comedy is such an apt space to explore anxieties about health, illness, and death.

Annetta Black – Dead Soldiers & Utopian Dreams: The Vernian Visions of Dr. Benjamin Lyford, Civil War Embalmer

On the battlefields of the divided Union, Dr. Benjamin Lyford was part of a new generation of death professionals, developing new (and secret) techniques for embalming in order to send bodies of fallen soldiers home for burial. Later, he brought his practice here to San Francisco – and across the water in Tiburon, he sought to create “Hygeia”, a health-obsessed Utopian village designed to keep death at bay. Remnants of his legacy speak to the lasting impact of the atrocities of war, the cult of health that sprung up in post-Civil War America, and our evolving relationship with the preservation of the dead.

Megan Rosenbloom – Books of the Dead: Death Imagery from the Library Vaults

While researching her book in libraries across the U.S. and abroad, Megan has collected examples of interesting death images and objects safely kept in the best research libraries’ special collections. Take a tour of some beautiful and macabre illustrations, photos, and objects that the public rarely get to see.

Paul Koudounaris – Sex in the Netherworld: Postmortem Erotic Spiritual Encounters

Does eroticism survive the grave? The idea that the dead might return to satisfy their carnal desires has historically been considered so uncomfortable that such reports have been hidden way or lampooned as wild delusions. But in fact, such accounts are voluminous, and Dr. Paul Koudounaris will discuss the murky and fascinating history of ghostly sexual encounters.

Sarah Troop – Nourishing Death: How the World Honors Death With Food

Since ancient eras human beings have incorporated food into their observances of death in diverse and often macabre ways. We will explore some of these rituals, practices and traditions of the past and present.

Caitlin Doughty – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

A gritty behind-the-scenes look at the death industry accompanied by reading from her newly-published memoir: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory.

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Cemetery of the Week #144: St. Philomena Churchyard

Philomena001St. Philomena Catholic Church
Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Kalawao, Molokai, Hawaii
In use: 1872 – 1932
Number of interments: Unknown
Open: The national park is open Monday through Saturday, but the number of visitors is capped at 100 per day. Visitors must be at least 16 years old. Unless you are invited by a resident of Kalaupapa, you must take a tour offered by Damien Tours of Kalaupapa.

Molokai, the most isolated Hawaiian island, has so little automobile traffic that it does not have a single traffic light. Molokai’s Kalaupapa Peninsula was used for more than a hundred years as a place to intern Hawaiians infected with leprosy. The area — where internees were sentenced to live until 1969 — became a National Park in 1980.

The first case of leprosy documented in Hawaii was found on the island of Kauai in 1835. It’s believed that that Chinese, imported to work in the sugar cane fields, brought the disease with them, but that’s impossible to say when whalers and missionaries brought so many other diseases to the vulnerable Hawaiians.

Since there was no cure for the disease, infected victims were rounded up and exiled to the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Surrounded by such rough seas that ships could land only rarely, sufferers were often thrown overboard and told to swim. A 2000-foot cliff on the southern side of the peninsula kept them penned in.

Although Hawaiians had lived on the peninsula previously, they were displaced by order of King Kamehameha V in order to isolate the leprosy victims. The first group of exiles consisted of nine men and three women dropped off on January 6, 1866.

New internees found an area with few buildings. The sick often lived in caves or such lean-tos as they could cobble together. Supplies were seldom delivered, so those who were strong enough grew taro, sweet potatoes, and fruits, and gathered seafood from the oceans and tidal pools.

In 1864, two years previous, Joseph de Veuster had arrived in Honolulu. Before long, the Belgian was ordained in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu and became known as Father Damien. Nine years later, he traveled to Kalaupapa to minister to the victims of leprosy.

Father Damien, two months before his death

Father Damien, two months before his death

With Father Damien’s help, the lepers built themselves homes, a church, and a hospital. Damien, who spoke Hawaiian, ministered, nursed, and encouraged them. In 1885, after 12 years of aiding the sick, Damien himself was diagnosed with leprosy. He eventually died of it on April 15, 1889. He was 49.

Damien was buried beside the walls of St. Philomena Catholic Church, which he had helped islanders expand several times over the years. He was buried in a site he’d selected personally, beneath the gnarled pandanus tree under which he’d slept when he first arrived on the island.

The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, to which Damien had belonged as a young man, erected a black marble cross above his grave. It read, “Sacred to the Memory of the Reverend Father Damien de Veuster. Died a martyr to his Charity for the Afflicted Lepers.”

Damien's grave

Damien’s original grave and marker

A movement to have Damien beatified – the first step on the path to sainthood – began the year following his death. Bishop Koeckemann of the Sacred Hearts Mission, who had clashed with Damien in life, stymied the process. It gained momentum in the 1930s. Rome announced formal beatification proceedings in 1935.

Of course, Father Damien wouldn’t be allowed to rest. The National Park Service site says, “Because Kalaupapa remained an isolation settlement and the world could not come to his church and grave, Damien’s remains were exhumed in 1936 and reburied at Louvain, Belgium.” Hawaiians objected loudly, but an arrangement had been reached between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Ferdinand III of Belgium. Internees of Kalaupapa were left only with the cross marking his grave.

In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien venerable, the next step up the ladder to sainthood. A relic – Damien’s right hand — was returned to his original grave at Kalawao in 1995. He was canonized as a saint on October 11, 2009. Kalaupapa National Historical Park became the only National Park site connected with a saint. (Mother Marianne Cope, who cared for Damien in his final years, then stayed to tend the other victims of leprosy for 30 years, was canonized in 2012. Although she died in Kalaupapa, she is buried in Syracuse, New York.)

Kalaupapa from the ocean

Damien in not the only person buried in the National Park. Since 1866, more than 8000 people, mostly Hawaiians, died at Kalaupapa. Damien himself buried around 200 a year. The National Park Service estimates there are 1200 grave markers and several thousand unmarked graves spread over 15 cemeteries inside the park. In Moku Puakala, the area around St. Philomena Church at Kalawao, lies Brother Joseph Dutton, who served with Father Damien, and other religious workers affiliated with the Baldwin Home for Boys.

With the discovery of sulfone drugs, leprosy could be put into remission and was no longer contagious. The isolation order was finally lifted in 1969, when the state of Hawaii officially decided to change the terminology to Hansen’s Disease, rather than leprosy, as a way to lessen the stigma of its sufferers. Internees at Kalaupapa were free to leave, but many of them chose to stay in the place they considered home.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter established Kalaupapa National Historical Park. The Park Service describes the mission of the park thus: “Kalaupapa serves as a reminder of a nation in crisis when Hawaiian people were exposed to diseases for which they had no immunities. It is a place where we can reconsider our responses to people with disfiguring disabilities or illnesses. Kalaupapa, once a community in isolation, now serves as a place for education and contemplation. It is a place where past suffering has given way to personal pride about accomplishments made in the face of great adversity.”

In 2009, President Barack Obama authorized a memorial for the estimated 8,000 former patients buried on Kalaupapa. Only about 1,300 lie in marked graves. The monument appears not to have been completed yet.

It can be challenging to visit Molokai. From Maui or Honolulu, you can catch an inter-island flight into Molokai or take the Maui-Molokai ferry from Lahaina. Life moves at a relaxed pace on Molokai, so plan to spend the night.

If you visit, National Park Service warns, “The 3.5-mile trail to the park is extremely steep and difficult. Hiking is physically demanding. There are no medical or dining facilities at Kalaupapa. Visitors flying or hiking in must bring their own lunches. Guests of residents also need to bring their own food supplies. All food and sundries must be brought in and all trash taken out. The mule ride ride concession provides lunch to its customers.”

There is also no place to stay over, unless you stay with one of the residents.

Most importantly, photographs of the few remaining patient/residents is forbidden without their written permission.

Useful links:

Information on the cemeteries of Kalaupapa

Information on visiting Molokai

Father Damien Tours

Guided Mule Ride Tours

National Park Service brochures

Outdated page on the monument to named the unnamed victims of Kalaupapa

Other Hawaiian cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Seamen’s Cemetery in Lahaina, Maui

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Oahu

Kawaiaha’o Churchyard, Honolulu, Oahu

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii

Keawala’i Churchyard, Makena, Maui


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Union Cemetery Companion

Union Cemetery, Redwood City, California: The People, Their Lives, Their CommunitiesUnion Cemetery, Redwood City, California: The People, Their Lives, Their Communities by John G. Edmonds

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this book after I’d taken a tour of the Union Cemetery in Redwood City. Because of that, many of the stories of the pioneers in this book were familiar to me. I wish there had been a way for the author of the book to feature the most interesting stories in some way that drew the reader’s attention to them. The encyclopedia style wins points for being comprehensive, but if you’re not familiar with the layout of Redwood City, Woodside, Atherton (and the surrounding towns) or Searsville, Summit Springs, and West Union (the surrounding ghost towns), it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the details.

I wish there had been more gravestone photos and that those that had been included were larger. The graveyard, which lies along a busy street, has suffered such brutal vandalism that this book could provide a photographic record if the monuments ever need to be replaced again.

I wish it had included a map of the old-time businesses referenced in the book. A map of the surrounding areas it mentions would have been helpful, too.

But those are all comments from someone who doesn’t live in San Mateo County, who only comes there to shop. Locals would get much more out of this book that I did. It’s still a gift to its community.

The book is available directly from the Historic Union Cemetery Association.  I bought mine from Amazon.

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Cemetery of the Week #143: Union Cemetery

The Grand Army of the Republic plot at Union Cemetery

The Grand Army of the Republic plot at Union Cemetery

Union Cemetery
316 Woodside Road
Redwood City, California 94061
Established: 1859
Size: 6 acres remain
Number of interments: 2500 or so
Open: dawn to dusk

After the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ceded California to the United States, California was proclaimed a state on July 4, 1848. Luckily for America, Mexico hadn’t heard the news that gold had been discovered in the soon-to-be-named American River on January 24, 1848.

As soon as the news got out, one of the largest migrations the world has seen began. Hundreds of thousands (mostly men, mostly young) descended, hoping to find their fortunes.

In 1850, sailors discovered that Redwood Creek, nearly 30 miles south of San Francisco, is a natural deep-water channel that empties into the Bay. This became useful when, a year later, men began to cut down the redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains running down the outer edge of the peninsula. At the foot of the mountains, the redwoods were milled into lumber, which was then floated down the creek to wharves along what came to be called the Port of Redwood City. From there, the wood was shipped to the towns springing up everywhere during the Gold Rush.

A village originally called Redwood Landing took root beside the creek. Its earliest burial ground stood on land owned by William Cary Jones. He’d allowed 13 burials there, but after Horace Hawes purchased the land, he wanted the graveyard moved. The little town was forced to start a proper cemetery.

Many of the people buried here were children. The Palmer children died of diptheria.

Many of the people buried here were children. The Palmer children died of diptheria.

Early in 1859, a cemetery association purchased land along Woodside Road. They oversaw the cemetery’s design and sold burial plots, but since they weren’t incorporated, they deeded the cemetery to the Governor of California — and his successors — as trustees. This led to California’s first cemetery legislation, as the government didn’t wish to be made responsible for every graveyard in the state.

The Union Cemetery’s name “reflects the controversy that erupted in the Civil War, three years after the cemetery’s beginning,” according to the historical plaque placed at the cemetery. “Founders of the cemetery strongly opposed the secessionist sentiment that threatened the nation’s unity.”

Jean Cloud, one of the first docents at the cemetery, believed this was the first Union Cemetery in the United States, since it was named before the Civil War began.

Union Cemetery’s first burial was a four-year-old girl named Ana (or Annie) Douglass. The brochure published by the Historic Union Cemetery Association, says she was the granddaughter of Benjamin F. Fox, San Mateo’s first judge. Annie and her brother were initially buried on the Hawes’ farm, but they were moved here to rest in the family plot.

Approximately forty veterans of the Civil War rest in the Grand Army of the Republic plot, along with a pair of wives and “a drinking buddy.” One of the men in the cemetery (though not in the GAR plot itself) was a survivor of the California 100, who fought at 23 major Civil War battles and was at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered.

Death on a headstone in Union Cemetery

Death on a headstone in the Masonic plot in the Union Cemetery

During the Depression, San Mateo County’s poor were buried in a potter’s field section of Union Cemetery, which lay along Woodside Road. Ellen Crawford, current president of the Historic Union Cemetery Association, says her research indicates that the bodies were not moved when the road was widened to four lanes in the 1960s. She believes several hundred bodies continue to lie beneath Woodside Road.

When the original Union Cemetery Association petered out in 1918, no one took over maintenance of the cemetery. Of the more than 2200 documented burials, only 700 graves are marked. Some graves originally had nothing more permanent than a redwood cross or fences. Weather and time defaced many of those markers, but vandals destroyed even more.

Burials came slower and slower after 1940, when anyone who could afford it wanted to be buried elsewhere, rather than in the neglected patch alongside the busy road. The final burial took place in 1963.

Even though it took no responsibility for it, the State of California continued to own the cemetery until 1962. Then it quitclaimed the cemetery to Redwood City. By then, forty-some years of neglect — and vandalism — had taken quite a toll.

Closeup of the current Union soldier

Closeup of the current Union soldier

In fact, the Historic Union Cemetery Association “was founded just to protect the statue of the Union Soldier,” which stands over the Grand Army plot, according to San Mateo County historian Michael Svanevik. The statue of a Union soldier leaning on his rifle was originally purchased by Mrs. Jane Stanford, widow of the founder of Stanford University . The soldier came in pieces that could be screwed together. The plinth it stands upon is actually more valuable than the statue, according to Svanevik, because it is unique. There are literally thousands of that same statue.

The statue was vandalized multiple times and completely replaced twice. The current statue was paid for by the Historic Union Cemetery Association’s fundraising.

Victim of the 1906 earthquake. Stone repaired by the Historic Association.

Victim of the 1906 earthquake. Stone repaired by the Historic Association.

The Association continues its good work. One by one, the fences which encircled the old plots are being repaired or replaced. Headstones have been pried out of the dirt and reset. The Association offers tours on a variety of subjects. (I was there just last month with the San Francisco Obscura Society for a wonderfully morbid tour.) On Memorial Day, they celebrate their veterans with an old-time anvil launching: two blacksmith’s anvils are placed one atop the other, with black powder in between. It’s worth going to the Association’s extensive website just to see the photos.

Useful links:

Home page of the Union Cemetery (with flying anvil)

Timeline of the Union Cemetery

History of the Union Cemetery

Photos of the Union Cemetery


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