Tag Archives: cremation

The Future of Death

These are the slides to illustrate the talk I’m giving at the Nebula Conference tomorrow afternoon.

This is my first time sharing my slides like this, so I hope it works!

Is the Cemetery Dead?

Is the Cemetery Dead?Is the Cemetery Dead? by David Charles Sloane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked Sloane’s other cemetery book, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Times have changed since that was written and cemeteries have started to struggle as they are replaced by street shrines, RIP murals, memorial tattoos, and other forms of remembrance while more and more people are cremated and their ashes either scattered or kept at home by survivors.

I wish Sloane had delved more deeply into the ethnic foundations of these “new” memorial formats. He mentions the institutional racism in cemeteries across the US (which existed into the 21st century in Texas, if not elsewhere), but he doesn’t follow up by looking at the intentional destruction of historic African American, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American graveyards across the country. That history, combined with the distance to visit the cemeteries themselves, would seem to encourage people to record and mourn deaths closer to home.

I also wish he’d spent more time on Ching Ming, Dia de los Muertos, and other traditions that are only recently being welcomed into American cemeteries.

Instead, the book combines memoir — Sloane’s family has run several cemeteries across the generations and he lost his wife suddenly, which forced him into making arrangements for her — with explorations into the ghost bike memorials, the internet cemeteries (though strangely, not Findagrave), and brief glimpses of new disposal methods like green burial and resomation. When I bought the book, I expected there would be much more of that.

It feels like Sloane is arguing that the cemetery is not yet dead, that it is in fact starting to feel much better. He lays out a number of ways in which cemeteries could change (and some are) in order to make themselves over for the current century. He argues that people can have it both ways — a permanent grave and a streetside shrine — without looking too deeply into why people might not want (or be able to afford) it both ways.

Over all, I found the book raised a lot of questions, but was repetitive in bringing up the same answers. It reads more like a collection of essays pulled together than a book thought through from beginning to end. Unlike The Last Great Necessity, which felt like it had visited many of the sites it discussed, Is the Cemetery Dead feels like it looked up from its desk to view its sites through a window. There’s a distance from its subject matter that I wish had been crossed.

I would give the book 3.5 stars, but Goodreads doesn’t allow for that.

You can pick up your own copy of Is the Cemetery Dead? on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2GstnWW

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #163: Neptune Memorial Reef

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 11.14.31 AM

From the Neptune Memorial Reef gallery: http://www.nmreef.com/reef-gallery.html

Neptune Memorial Reef
International waters off of Key Biscayne, Florida
N 25° 42.036′ W 80° 05.409′
Founded: 2007
Size: 16 acres
Number of interments: There are 1200 places available “in the reef’s initial development.” More than 200 placements have been made.

Three and a quarter miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida stands a one-of-a-kind cemetery. The Neptune Memorial Reef, inspired by sunken cities like Alexandria and Herakleion, is the world’s most beautiful underwater graveyard.

Sponsored by the Neptune Society — one of the largest providers of cremation in the US — the manmade reef is designed as a repository for human cremains. Families select a design created by Key Largo artist Kim Brandell, add their loved one’s cremated remains and small mementos like fishing lures or crucifixes to the concrete, and the unique monument is placed by divers forty feet below the waves.

The monuments are all huge and quite heavy: five-ton columns on fifty-ton bases. Even the smaller sculptures of shells weight ten pounds.  Because of their weights and the depths at which they are placed, the Neptune Reef has safely ridden out the hurricanes that damaged the historic cemeteries of St. Augustine.

Shipwreck diver Bert Kilbride — who was immortalized in the Guiness World Records as the oldest scuba diver when he was still diving at the age of 90 — has a place of honor atop one of the columns at the Reef gate. Other monuments in the cemetery include benches, columns, starfish, and more. Future monuments may include dolphins and Neptune himself.  Brandell considers his architecture futuristic rather than classical, but the broken columns, colonades, and massive bronze lions echo the mythical Atlantis.

The largest manmade reef yet conceived is in the process of transforming more than sixteen acres of barren ocean floor. The reef meets the guidelines of the EPA, NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Memorial Reef also belongs to the Green Burial Council.

The reef was designed to welcome fish and promote the growth of corals. Since 2007, the reef has attracted 56 species of fish. The most common is Bluehead Wrasse, followed by Sergeant Majors, Bar Jacks, and Tomtates. French angelfish and yellowtail snappers have been seen. Long-spined sea urchins and many species of crab have moved into the reef’s crevices. Sponges colonize the vertical surfaces of the reef, alongside trunkfishes, filefishes, and pufferfish. Fourteen species of coral have moved in, followed by spiny lobsters, spotted and green moray eels, and rainbow parrotfish. In fact, the ecosystem has developed faster than expected.

The Neptune Memorial Reef attracts recreational scuba divers, marine biologists, and researchers from all over the world.

Useful links:

The Neptune Memorial Reef homepage: http://www.nmreef.com

Atlas Obscura’s listing for the reef: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/neptune-memorial-reef

Night-diving in the Neptune Reef: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMvjvHxmrRE


Death’s Garden: Coimetrophobia

Alto de Sao Joao 2 - Daniel Do Nascimento

Bullfighter’s monument at the Cemetery of Alto de Sao Joao, Lisbon, Portugal. All photos by David Bingham.

by David Bingham

Here is a word that you may not be familiar with: coimetrophobia, the fear of cemeteries. My Portuguese wife does not share my love of burial grounds. Intimations of mortality cause her acute anxiety. Gravestones, mausoleums, hearses, coffins: any reminder of the lipless grin of the skull beneath the skin horrifies her. She has only been able to face visiting her mother’s grave twice in the twenty years since she died.

Cemeteries provoke overwhelming feelings of dread, perhaps because they arouse too many painful memories. Her elder brother once worked as a night watchman in the town of Evora, famous for its Roman ruins and the Capela dos Ossos, the bone chapel, in the church of Sao Francisco. He always made his way home after his 12-hour shift, tired and inattentive and no doubt dreaming of his bed, at the time when the daily rush hour was just starting. One day, instead of waiting for the lights to change at a busy intersection, he blundered out into the road, oblivious to the bus packed with commuters that knocked him down and killed him instantly. His funeral took place back home in Lisbon. He was a solitary man, with few friends, and the funeral cortege consisted of just the hearse containing the coffin and a minibus to carry the mourners.

Alto de Sao Joao 5 - tomb detailThe cortege set off at a suitably funereal pace — hearse in front, minibus at a respectful distance behind — to the cemetery. It wasn’t long before there were mutterings about the route chosen by the hearse driver. It did not seem to be the most direct was the general consensus. My fellow passengers grew increasingly restive as we drove on. When we halted at a set of traffic lights, one of them insisted on getting down from the minibus. He ran to the hearse and had what appeared to be a very animated conversation with the driver. When he returned to the bus, he announced, “O gajo disse que ele sabe aonde nós vamos.” The guy says he knows where he is going.

When we finally pulled into the cemetery 20 minutes later, there was uproar. My fellow passengers piled out of the minibus, surrounded the hearse, and began manhandling the driver. He had driven us to the wrong cemetery. Now we were at least 45 minutes from where we should have been, at 4:00 in the afternoon, an hour before the correct cemetery closed…just as Lisbon’s notorious rush-hour traffic was about to start.

Our hitherto stately pace soon stepped up a gear as we raced against time to get to the cemetery before it closed. Dignity went out of the window. The hearse gradually increased its speed as it wove in and out of the traffic on the freeway. The disgraced driver leaned heavily on his horn to warn slower vehicles to get out of the way. The reckless manoeuvring and excessive speed soon attracted the attention of the traffic police. Further valuable minutes were wasted at the side of the road, explaining to a pair of impassive cops in mirror shades what the hurry was, then arguing when they gave both drivers tickets.

Alto de Sao Joao 7 - Fernão Botto Machado

Monument of Fernao Botto Machado.

When we finally arrived at the cemetery, the main gates were already closed. The staff told us to come back amanhã. I swear money had to exchange hands before the gates swung open again and we were issued a pair of shovels and told we had 15 minutes. The priest who was meant to officiate had long since gone home, as had the gravediggers, and so my brother-in-law was buried without benefit of clergy. The funeral directors seemed most reluctant to get their hands dirty, but being surrounded by a mob of furious, grieving relatives who looked likely, at any further provocation, to batter them senseless and bury them alive, accepted the spades thrust into their hands. They shoveled dirt unenthusiastically on top of the coffin.

The experience may have put my wife off cemeteries, but it merely whetted my curiosity. A few years later, when my sister-in-law moved to a new apartment in the high-rise suburb of Olaias, I was intrigued by the large hillside cemetery I could see from her 8th-floor windows. The Cemitério do Alto de São João didn’t look too far away. I promised myself that, when an opportunity presented itself, I would go and have a good look.

It took a good couple of years before that opportunity came. One day we were in Lisbon at my sister-in-law’s. She was engaged with my wife in one of those interminable family conversations that are deeply interesting to the participants and utterly confusing to anyone who doesn’t know the family tree root, branch, and twig. We had just eaten a heavy Portuguese lunch (at which I probably helped myself to more than my fair share). I’d had a couple of Sagres beers, the apartment was warm, the conversation was about the avô of some tia’s cunhada back in Beira Alta, and the inevitable happened. My wife shook me brusquely awake and told me to go for a walk and get some air.

I finally had my chance to visit the Alto de São João, the Heights of St. John. It took me a while to find the cemetery. Still groggy and disoriented when I left the apartment, I took the easiest route out of Olaias, downhill, which took me down into the valley below the cemetery and left me with a long walk back uphill to skirt the walls and locate the entrance.

Alto de Sao Joao 6 - mausoleumsThe cemitério is a true necropolis. The dead mainly reside aboveground in sepulchres and mausoleums that line streets that have names and numbers, just like in a real town. In Lisbon’s strong light, the cemetery’s deserted lanes, its mausoleums and memorials, take on the eerie atmosphere of a De Chirico painting.

The site was first used as a burial ground in 1833 during a cholera epidemic, when plague pits were dug on what was then a hilltop outside the Lisbon city limits. At that time, Portugal had very few cemeteries; most interments were made in religious buildings of one sort or another, mainly parish churches, but also in monasteries and convents. Following centuries of burials within the walls, these became overcrowded and unsanitary. In 1835, a Liberal government passed a law obliging the civil authorities to create walled cemeteries in all urban areas of Portugal. It was an unpopular measure, provoking riots in the town of Lanhoso that grew into an anti-government uprising in the northern region of Minho. However, in the more sophisticated cities of Lisbon and Porto, the Portuguese bourgeoisie were as enthusiastic about cemeteries as their counterparts in London, Paris, or Berlin.

In response to the new laws, the city government of Lisbon founded two cemeteries in 1835, both on high ground on the city outskirts: Prazeres (Pleasures! The name is not ironic, it came from the name of the quinta, the country estate, on which the cemetery was laid out) and on the Alto de São João, looking out over the broad sweep of the river Tejo (Tagus).

In death as in life, 19th-century Portugal was a divided nation. Which of Lisbon’s two cemeteries you were buried in depended very much on your political views. Prazeres is the resting place of choice for the Conservatives — the aristocrats, clergy, military, and high financiers — who were the backbone of traditional society. The inhabitants of the Cemitério do Alto de São João, on the other hand, are Liberals to a man: republican political figures, journalists, writers, artists, and the petty bourgeoisie who supported them.

So liberal was the climate at the cemetery that it was the obvious site for Portugal’s first crematorium. Its construction was approved in 1912 and completed shortly afterwards. Predictably, the innovation was opposed by the Catholic Church, but cremation proved a proposition too radical for even their most Liberal opponents. The crematorium only became functional in 1925, when an incinerator was acquired from Germany. Once working, it proved a huge flop: between 1925 and 1936, only 22 people chose to be cremated. The decoration of the crematorium itself is remarkable: the skulls, femurs, and pelvic bones, wreathed in flames and smoke — with its hint of the inferno — seem calculated to create unease amongst potential clients with religious qualms.

Alto de Sao Joao 4 - Crematorium detailCemetery management conceded defeat and closed the crematorium down in 1936. It didn’t reopen until 1985, and then mainly as a result of pressure from Lisbon’s growing Hindu community. Cremation gradually became an acceptable method of disposing of the dead, though nowhere near as popular as it is in the UK or the USA.

Alto de Sao Joao 3 - Tomas da RochaMy favourite memorials at the cemetery belong to the bullfighters Fernando de Oliveira, Daniel Do Nascimento, and Tomás Da Rocha. Portuguese bullfighting is very different from Spanish: the bull isn’t killed. The important toureiros (bullfighters) are not matadors, but the cavaleiros, horsemen who dress in 18th-century costume. Mounted on Lusitano horses, their job is to stick three or four bandarilhas into the big hump of muscle that sits over a bull’s front legs to weaken it. This makes it possible for the cavaleiro to be replaced by an 8-strong forçada, a group of amateur fighters, who enter the ring unarmed and whose job is to engage the bull in an intimate clinch, a group hug called a ‘pega.’

Accidents, sometimes fatal, are not uncommon in the Corridas. Fernando de Oliveira died in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon on the afternoon of 12 May 1904. Fernando was fighting Ferrador, a bull bred on the estate of the Marquês de Castelo Melhor. Fernando managed to sink his first bandarilha into the bull’s back, but the incensed animal charged, knocking his horse’s legs from underneath him. Bullfighter and horse collapsed in a tangle of arms, legs, and stirrups, and the bull attacked again. Other toureiros ran to help. The bull was coaxed away. The panicked horse climbed back to its feet and ran, bucking and kicking, around the ring. Fernando lay where he had fallen. The base of his skull was fatally crushed.

Alto de Sao Joao 1 - Fernando De Oliveira

Monument to Fernando de Oliveira.

In the days before film and video, no one could be quite sure what had happened after the horse stumbled. Some thought that the fall itself was responsible for the head injury. Others were sure that Fernando had been smashed on the back of the head by a flying stirrup. Others swore that the horseman had managed to raise himself to his knees immediately after his fall, but with his back towards the bull, which gored him from behind. Fernando’s monument in the cemitério was raised by public subscription amongst aficionados of Portuguese tauromaquia.

I have been back to the Cemitério do Alto de São João many times since that first visit, but have never been able to persuade my wife to accompany me. Ironically she shares the common Catholic antipathy to cremation and insists that when her time comes, she must be decently buried. In a cemetery, of course. Death reconciles us with everything, it seems, even coimetrophobia.


Self portraitBorn in the north of England, David Bingham has been living in London for 35 years. He loves the city and its history, especially the cemeteries. He is married to a Portuguese coimetrophobe and they have two teenage girls. They have a house in Portugal and one day plan to split their time between Lisbon and London.

David started The London Dead three years ago as a way of sharing his fascination with the stories he discovered in the cemeteries and churchyards of London. One day, when he finally rids himself of work commitments — and the girls don’t require chauffeuring and chaperoning somewhere virtually every evening and weekend — he will start a blog called The Lisbon Dead.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.



Death’s Garden: Martinique—an Island of Mystery

Martinique postcard

Photos and postcards of Martinique from K. R. Morrison.

by K. R. Morrison

Martinique was one of the stops on our 1996 cruise of the Caribbean, one that my husband and I were eager to explore. After all, this might be the only time we’d be here, and we wanted to make the most of it.

We did not book an excursion, deciding to nose about on our own. One of our favorite things to do when on a trip in foreign lands is to walk through areas that are not on the usual tourist agenda. We love to see and experience what the locals do. Tourist stuff is not really our cup of tea.

That morning, we filed off the ship with the rest of the sightseers and had a quick scan of the area. There were the usual booths wharfside that catered to the tourist trade, so we felt obliged to check those out. T-shirts, hats, the usual blah-blah-blah, all sold by charming, smiling natives. We made a quick pass and then plunged into the real world of the island.

Down a side street we blithely ambled, then turned a corner onto a sunlit square. In its center was a statue of Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. I’m sure that it was lovely at one time; in fact, I have a postcard that attests to that fact.

Josephine postcardNot so much now. The statue’s head had been knocked off, the body splattered with red…paint, I hope…and there was some graffiti on it in French that was anything but warm and welcoming. I don’t recall the exact words, but I do remember that it was racist in nature—and Hubby and I were on the wrong side of the sentiment. I can tell you that the atmosphere chilled considerably after we read it.

However, we decided to keep going; after all, we figured, this was probably a fluke. We reasoned that, if graffiti in New York was taken seriously, there would be no tourist trade there at all. Same would apply here, we supposed.

We were, however, on our best behavior from there on. No  blades of grass were bent or stones kicked, at least not intentionally. I felt it best to not look at anyone directly—that dockside charm and warmth seemed distinctly missing in this area. To say we were conscious of every movement around us would be putting it mildly. I was starting to think that the better option for the day would have been to stay on the ship.

After a short eternity of walking, a building loomed ahead of us, the sight of which gave us great relief.

A church! Surely goodness and kindness would follow us…

We felt like refugees seeking sanctuary when we crossed the threshold into that holy place. All the familiar sights of home greeted us. We felt at home and at peace. For the first time since seeing the ill-used Josephine, we could let our guard down.

It was a pleasure to walk down the hushed aisles, breathing in the aromas of burning candles and old incense, craning our necks to see the arches that reached heavenward, hearing whispered prayers of people there with us. The place was simple, but held a beauty in its simplicity that delighted my soul.

At the opposite end of the building, a double door opened to the churchyard. We decided to explore the sacred grounds of the church, seeing as others were already there.

The yard was squared off by wrought-iron fencing, with a path that bisected it and met up with one that took the perimeter of grass. Massive trees shaded the yard and the church, adding to the serenity of the place. It was a beautiful, peaceful garden, and would have been perfect…

…except that someone had piled mounds of what looked like grey dirt everywhere. These piles were left on top of the grass in heaps only a few feet from each other. It seemed really odd to us.

Until, that is, we got a good look at what made up these mounds of “dirt.”

They were, in actuality, ashes. Human ashes. And when we looked closely, we could see bits of bone poking up here and there.

This was Martinique’s idea of a cemetery! Ashes were just piled on each other and left to blow away on the wind. We had been walking around on what used to be people for some time now.

The creeped-out factor hit its limit at that point. Honestly, I don’t remember anything from that realization until we were back on the ship. I’m sure, though, that I wiped my shoes really well before I left that churchyard.


Kay photoK. R. Morrison has lived in the Pacific Northwest for over 25 years. She moved there from California, after the Loma Prieta earthquake caused her to rethink her stance on “never moving again.” At her first sight of Oregon, she never looked back.

She wrote her first book, Be Not Afraid, after a nightmare. A second book, UnHoly Trinity, launched this past January. The third and fourth in the series are being worked on now. She has also co-authored a book entitled Purify My Heart with Ruthie Madison. She edits for her publishing house, Linkville Press. Book reviewing and editing for indie authors take up a lot of her time as well.

Please check out her Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/K.-R.-Morrison/e/B009RBRJ0C/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.