• ANTIQUITY UNVEILED
2331 St. Claude Ave & Spain
New Orleans, LA 70117
by Andy P. Antippas
This is an invitation to participate in an exhibition at Barrister’s
called Hydriotaphia: Artists Design Their Own Funeral Urns. The
exhibit is set for February 12 thru March 26, 2005. You may, of course,
literally, make an urn or an "urn"...freestanding or for the wall, you
can paint or assemble your urn on a surface, or depict it in any other
way you choose—in any medium. The work can be brought to the
gallery as soon as you complete it, but no later than the last week
of January. There are only a limited number of pedestals available
in the gallery, so please help solve any special exhibition problems
your piece may present. Dan Teague and I will "curate"—but only
in the original, and more appropriate, ecclesiastical sense of the term.
Even though this invitation is self-explanatory, as always, when
I set out to organize an extensive annual group show, I feel the
need to explain the impetus for the idea and theme for that exhibit--
with the expectation that, as an artist, you will be able to
re-imagine that idea.
In 1658, Sir Thomas Browne, published an essay entitled
"Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall, or A Discourse of the Sepulchrall
Urnes lately found in Norfolk." In 1656, Browne, a well-known,
writer, scholar, antiquarian and physician practicing in nearby
Norwich, was presented with one of the 40 or so excavated funeral
urns for his inspection. The resulting "Discourse," it is agreed, is
one of the finest prose meditations on the fugitiveness of life,
the utter certainty of death, and our overwhelming fear of oblivion
written in any language.
When I say "written," I’m using that term loosely: more architectural
terms would be appropriate---the essay is built, constructed, erected.
Literary critics invariably, but feebly, describe his convoluted and
dense style as "baroque"---it is simultaneously Gothic, Romantic,
Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Surreal, Modern, and Post-Modern.
The only thing it is not is Minimalist: where one or two words would
do, Browne finds five, and if there are only four available, he invents
one out of Greek or Latin. The style is so remarkable that it has been
suggested that he dipped into the opium in his medicine cabinet---that
would certainly explain why hallucinatory-brained men like Coleridge,
Poe and Borges admired Browne’s writing so much.
The governing idea in "Hydriotaphia," that all the burial customs and
funeral ceremonies he surveys of, among others, the Egyptians, the
Greeks, and the Romans, up to his own time, are all merely examples of
our vain, pointless efforts to immortalize the identity of the dead. The
tone of the essay is elegiac, solemn, melancholic, and very Christian:
when he contemplates the urn and its contents before him, with its ashes,
bits of charred bones, and a few eroded, personal objects, he is struck
by the irony that despite the efforts to preserve the identity of the cremated
person, there is no way to know anything about the character or personality
of the interred. (The irony is compounded, inadvertently, because Browne
thought the urns were Roman, when in fact they were Saxon.) Browne
says there are many seemingly unanswerable questions about antiquity that
we can make intelligent guesses about, even as to when the interred died,
but not about the actual identity or quality of the person reduced to those
ashes and bones:
What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he
hid among women, though puzzling Questions, are not beyond all
conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entered the
famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Consellors,
might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these
bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question
Herostratas lives that burnt the Temple of Diana, he is almost
lost that built it...Who knows whether the best of men be known?
Or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any
that stand remembered in the known account of time?
Browne’s point, of course, is that God has promised immortality for our
resurrected souls, He has not promised immortality for us, for our identities:
pyramids turn to sand, monuments and mausoleums to dust, and inscriptions
on urns erode---all are displays of human vain-glory. Browne, a neo-Platonical,
alchemical, meta-physical Christian, says we live eternally by the "pure flame"
(U-B, V) within us, not by the huge ceremonial fire that cremates us. Browne
implies an analogy: "…the common forms [of the urns] with necks was a
proper figure, making our last bed like our first..." (U-B, II) The human body
is an earthen vessel created by God the Potter-Artist within which the soul is
contained---the funeral urn is an earthen vessel created by a nameless potter
in which our ashes are contained; the earthen body releases the human soul
into immortality---the funeral urn mixes the ashes with dirt---anonymous,
no fame, no immortality. Worse yet, we could be "knav’d out of our graves,
to have our sculs made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes." (U-B, III)
Who better than an Earthly Artist then to design his own funeral urn to
insure his own immortality? If it is possible to make the metaphorical
argument that every significant work of art is a kind of funeral urn, (because
the artists have "buried themselves" in their work or "put everything of themselves"
into their work), it would then follow that the quintessential artist’s creation
would be his own funeral urn or "urn." By the choice of shape, material, design,
the personal sentiments outside the urn and the personal things mixed in with
their ashes, etc., etc., an artist could create something that would be an eternal
time capsule, a hieroglyph decipherable for all eternity speaking volumes in
behalf of their ashes---how and where they grew up, why they became artists,
who they hated and loved, what was important to them, if they voted for
Kerry or Bush or Nader.
This is a grave undertaking, but I know your good humor will shine through
the gloom. Let’s not forget the "fun" in funeral.
"The process of reducing human remains to its basic elements in the form
of bone fragments through flame, heat, and vaporization."
With the exception for periods of plague and the battlefield, it should
not be surprising that the advent of various versions of Doctor Browne’s
Christianity brought a halt, for two thousand years, to the common disposition
of bodies on top of blazing wooden funeral pyres which left nothing but coals---
a process as old as the early Stone Age. It was a symbolic way of honoring the
dead and also a reassuring way of being certain that embodied spirits would not
come back to haunt the living. While "inhumation," corpse embalming, and
coffin and mausoleum burial remains the overwhelming funeral preference,
in relatively modern times interest in cremation has been rekindled. (Unquestionably,
the Nazi’s use of cremation ovens cast a heavy pall on this resurgent interest.)
The Brunetti cremation chamber, which made use of an even heat that kept
flames away from the body, was first shown at the 1873 Vienna Exposition.
Almost immediately cremation societies developed in the United States and
Europe. By 1875-76, the first crematories were established in England, Germany,
and the United States (Pennsylvania). The significant thing about cremation is that
one avoids the Big Death Business—in New Orleans, that’s Stewart Enterprises.
Presently, the body is first placed in either a cardboard or wooden
casket made specifically for cremation. An alternative is a cardboard box
which fits into a "rental" traditional-looking casket, which is removed
just before cremation.
The "retort," the chamber within the cremation oven, is lined with heat
retaining bricks. The propane or natural gas burns at between 1400° F to 2100º F.
After two hours all that remains are ashes and scorched bone. One pound of live
weight yields one cubic inch of ash; for example, a 175lb person would fill an
urn 11" high and about 8" in circumference---or a shoebox. Everything is
swept into a grinder leaving the final ash and tiny bone fragments (collectively
called, "cremins"---although many reject the ugly term) representing about 5%
of the original body weight. The chemistry of the ashes includes mostly Phosphate,
Calcium, Sulfate, Potassium, and Chloride, Carbonate, and Oxide compounds.
In 1913, in the U. S., 52 crematories assisted in over 10,000 cremations;
in 2003, hundreds more crematories facilitated 693,742 cremations---28.63%
of the total deaths. By 2010, it is projected the number of Americans choosing
cremation will rise to 35.07%, and by 2030, 50%. In Canada, it was close to
50% in 2000. In 2002, there were 5,135 cremations in Louisiana, 12.13% of
all the deaths; Alabama was the lowest, 4.44%, Nevada, the highest, 60.69%.
Disposition of the ashes
Once the ashes are collected in the urn, there are various options. The most
recent analysis available from the Cremation Association of North America
is from 1996, when there were a total of 492,434 cremations. (78% placed
the remains in urns.)
1. Delivered to the cemetery, 40.7%.
Of these, 25.6% (51,308) the urns and their contents were placed in
the cemetery’s columbarium ("dove cote"---a wall with niches);
the rest were either buried or scattered in a designated area of the cemetery.
2. Taken home, 35.8%--(for the mantle or closet)
3. Scattered, 17.8%--(land, 27%, water,72.7%)
4. Not picked up, 5.7%--(the crematorium is legally responsible to store them)
Of this 1996 group, the mean age of the cremated was 69.4 years old;
Female 51.9%, Male 48.1%; 88% of total were Caucasians, 3% Hispanics,
3% Asians; 6% African Americans. As to religious affiliation: 58% Protestant,
26% Catholic, 11% Buddhist, 3% Jewish, 2% Hindu. Only Islam,
Zoroastrianism, Orthodox Judaism, and Russian and Greek Orthodoxy
prohibit cremation; the Catholic Church requires the urn to be buried.
Of this same group, 67% had no religious memorial service before
cremation, 56.3% had no service afterwards; only 24% had ceremonies
before and after the cremation.
Here are some examples of additional options you can request of your friends:
The Eternally Yours Company will paint your ashes into a painting,
cost, $350-$550,---they are probably more trustworthy than your fellow
painters who might put you in a clown painting.
Ed Headrick (d. 2003), the inventor of the Frisbee, had himself molded into one.
Marvel Comics editor and creator of Capt. America, Mark Gruenwald
(d. 1996) had his ashes mixed into the ink used to print a special edition
poster of the "Squadron Supreme."
Reverend Mad Jack, a tattoo artist who worked out of Chicago, mixed
ashes into his ink to make memorial tattoos.
Celestis, a Soviet Corporation, will send one gram ($995) or seven
grams ($5,300) of ashes into low orbit. (Gene Roddenberry and Timothy
Leary were put into space orbit in September, 1999 aboard a U. S. satellite.
NASA put one once of astronomer Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes onto the
Lunar Prospector which crashed into the moon on July 31, 1999. He is,
therefore, the first human to be buried on another planet.)
Life Gems Company will extract the carbon from your ashes and
compress a diamond (.25 carat is about $2,000---a maximum of 3
carats is possible.)
Eternal Reefs Company will mix your ashes with cement and add
you to a "community reef" off the coast of Georgia ($1,500 to $5,000).
Memory Glass makes personalized, hand-blown glass sculpture and
paperweights with your ashes suspended within.
A search will reveal that there are companies prepared to make
agricultural implements, ritual objects, and necklaces out of your ashes---
one of my favorites is a teddy bear with a Velcro pocket in its back
to hold "a velveteen bag with your remains." There are companies
which sell urns made of every possible material, from split bamboo,
cardboard, wood, marble to bronze. Some are biodegradable and
ideal for forest burial.
Andy P. Antippas
Some of the more amusing urn peddling sites, in addition
to the companies listed above:
Re: Sir Thomas and "Urne-Buriall"
The complete essay is readily available on line.
For example: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/hgc.html
On-line essays on Browne I browsed:
Kevin Faulkner. "Scintillae marginila: Sparkling margins…." (2002)
“Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall.”
Adam H. Kitzes."Hydriotaphia, 'The sensible rhetoric of the dead' " (2002)
"Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial"