The ‘Dead’ Body Politic – A Commentary on UNESXIT

This morning, I woke up to the usual: mewling cats who want to be fed, my neighbor who smokes more than the paper thin walls care to protect my clothes from, and the daily reminder that the POTUS is still the POTUS.

Today’s reminder of his seat at the table came in the form of the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), an organization whose declared purpose is to “contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedoms”. That is your straightforward wikipedia definition. Of course, UNESCO is not without its own questionable intentions, but alas, a story for another day. Hot-eared and slightly light-headed (my usual state when I read anything on the issue of the POTUS), I attempted to wrap my brain around what that means for us, for others, and thusly, for the idea of the body politic. After several minutes of quiet rage, in true lamaze style, I ran through my repertoire of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a rolodex acquired from childhood Goldenbooks about archaeology and my crisp Encyclopedia Brittanica, hand delivered by the door-to-door salesman (such was life in 1991). Eventually, during my mulling overs, my mind did that weird thing it always does, and I wondered about the dead.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites exist to protect places of importance to the cultural or natural heritage of the country it exists within. This exemplifies it’s importance to the world, hence the title ‘world heritage site’. What so often goes ignored by tourists and travel blog readers is that many of these places are the resting spaces of ancestors; whether it be in their spirit form or physical, the bodies of the past inhabit these protected areas.

From the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi in Uganada to the Complex of Koguryo Tombs in Korea, UNESCO sites are much more than a list in a Lonely Planet book for the effervescent college-girl wanderluster. But as fascinating of a subject as this is to explore, the bodies in these protected sites is not the most critical ‘dead’ body politic issue being buried as the U.S. departs from UNESCO. The bigger issue is the departure from the attention to the human rights facet of UNESCO’s initiative.

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Refugees Fleeing Burma

UNESCO’s mission attempt is one of equality and social justice, and social justice cannot come without the acknowledgement of death and death awareness. The ability for the U.S. to have a strictly “America First” policy is a complete disregard for life outside of the United States, not to mention flippant, petty excuses for departure and our current “you can’t sit with us” attitude. This attitude is historically present in America’s dealings with marginalized peoples on it’s own soil, but the choice to become an inactive entity in the world’s play is, to me, an act of Necroviolence. Necroviolence is more accurately considered as an act of violence against the corpse, stripping the dead of their agency and stifling surviving families as they attempt to move through the grieving process. Too often Necroviolence stops this process dead in its tracks by using the ‘disappearance’ of bodies as the chosen method of violation. But is silence not also such an act? Standing by as global genocide, systemic racism and structural violence act themselves out around us is equally an exhibition of violence, and exemplifies Necropolitics, or killing in the name of sovereignty, at it’s finest.

Rising death tolls around the borders of the U.S., e.g. the plight of Puerto Rico and the POTUS’ brilliant idea to pull FEMA, can be considered acts of war, and in the eyes of not-enough-of America’s population, an extreme violation of human rights. For a country whose foundation was built on the idea of equality and acceptance, we are definitely doing the shittiest job we ever have when it comes to protecting the dead and the dying. Citing only the dead and the dying is not ignoring the struggles of the living, for it is the systems in place that continue to marginalize people and are exacerbating our deaths, speeding our dying process at alarming rates. To be frank, these systems are killing people of color, migrants, refugees, the black community and LGBTQ+ very slowly, and very silently.

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Hurricane Maria Aftermath in Puerto Rico

Leaving UNESCO is one of so many messages sent to us by the current regime that no lives matter, except those of a privileged few on American soil. Whether we ignore conflict and death within our borders or outside of them, we are supporting the deaths of millions of helpless, if not committing the crimes ourselves by creating geopolitical spaces that do the dirty work for us, such as the Sonoran Desert kissing Arizona that we allow to take the lives of hundreds of migrants a year by strategic placement of border patrol along the “wall”. This keeps our hands clean, or so many believe. But our hands are far bloodier than we care to acknowledge.

Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist, discusses the ways that death and the right to kill (or let live) are exercised in modernity through political power. He states that “The ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die”

America’s exit from UNESCO (UNESXIT?) is therefore an act of political violence and Necroviolence. The only metaphor that rang true to me as I wrote this piece is that of the flow of the water. This silent aggression is its own entity, one that travels through various streams of violence, streams that become rivers that find their estuaries in the countries we have chosen to ignore. A dam of social justice and equality must be built to stifle these rapids, and breaking the silence is the only real means to a solid solution.

 

 

 

 

Ashes to Ashes: Talking Cremation and Memento Mori Tattoos With Artist Erica Flannes

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Memento Mori: the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

This definition of memento mori has morphed over time due to a rise in popularity of the term’s use; finding itself on t-shirts, patches and the ever popular enamel pin, its hard not to scroll past it somewhere on the internet. Many interpret such paraphernalia to be a symbol of darkness or just another goth accessory. But the idea of memento mori is so much more than that.

When one thinks of memento mori, especially one who has an instagram and follows all the good accounts, memorial jewelry often comes to mind. The term has been used to brand objects that commemorate the dead, whether they be lost loved ones, late celebrities or a deceased pet. The green burial movement has spurred a revival of such jewelry, which owes its rich history to the lovely women of Victorian England. New York Jewelry designer Erica Weiner has a large collection of Victorian mourning jewelry, and gizmodo caught up with her in 2014 to get some insight into the origins of this beautiful tradition: “According to Weiner, “People started making memorial jewelry because there was no photography, and if your loved one died you wanted something as a touchstone to remember them every day.” You could also get a painting made of your loved one, and later on there was a fad in “death photography” — but before photography came along, this was the main way that people remembered their departed loved ones. These items weren’t limited to women, either; men could have memorial cufflinks or pocket watch fobs with parts of the deceased person’s hair braided in.”

Of course, modernity has stamped its own brand on this concept, and mourning jewelry comes in many new shapes and sizes. I have seen everything from the traditional mourning jewelry that contains the deceased’s hair to psychedelic, Tiffany-esque bracelets made from cremated remains, and, are you ready… bongs made from blown glass that contain the ashes of your lost love. That one really took the pan de muerte, until I saw that my dear friend and one of my most trusted tattoo artists Erica Flannes was tattooing with ashes. Yes. You read that correctly. Tattooing with cremated human remains. This incredibly beautiful concept blew my mind, especially when it came to technique and ethics, and I had so many questions. Naturally, I did what I do best and I interviewed her.


 

What is the process of implementing the ashes into the tattoo itself?

Erica: When a body is cremated, it is exposed to very high temperatures, pulverized, and returned as ash and bone fragments. These fragments can range in color, size and shape. The ideal particles for tattooing are the tiniest, most powder-like portions of the remains.

The ashes are removed, keeping the set up as sterile as possible, and added to an ink cap which is then filled with black tattoo pigment and mixed thoroughly. You want the smallest ash possible, as the larger fragments will not mix in with the ink, or be tattooable. The smaller particles can be tattooed into the skin successfully. You need the tiniest amount of ash- you really do not need much at all.

I’ve heard of people grinding it into the smallest size possible, and that’s definitely an option as well. For me, a thin mixture with little ash works the best, rather than a thicker, more paste-like mixture which might be difficult to tattoo with, and can cause difficulties during the healing process. Once you add ash to the pigment, sentimentally speaking, it’s an ash mixture.

 

Had you ever done this before and is it something you are open to doing regularly?

Erica: I have tattooed cremated remains 4 or 5 times. One was human and the others have been dog ash. Some people shy away from it, but I don’t have a problem doing it.

 

How does this process make you feel, both emotionally and ethically?

Erica: The first time was the hardest. The ash was a friend of mine who had passed away and his widow asked me to do this for her. It was odd and very surreal. The other times I’ve done this for people hasn’t been hard for me at all. Having lost a beloved pet myself, I understand the appeal and desire for the symbolic act of tattooing the cremated remains of your cherished one into yourself.  To me, it makes perfect sense. I don’t find it morbid or disturbing…  it seems very natural. A natural desire.  I don’t have any problems with it ethically, and i support anyone who chooses this. It makes me feel good to be able to do this for people. Grief can look like so many things, but one thing that it always is is disorienting. Going through the ritual of tattooing your loved one into a memorial tattoo seems to give people a tiny bit of the connection that they felt they’d lost. And it’s an honor for me to be able to help them reestablish that connection and begin to find that light again.

 

Considering that the green burial movement is growing, do you think this kind of commemorative work will become more popular?

Erica: It might! I know that the popularity of tattoos has exploded in the last several years, and memorial tattoos are very common. I know that people are choosing to be cremated and asking to have creative things  done with their ashes. It seems like people are exploring less traditional and more ethereal ways of “burial”…

 


 

So, if you are looking for a way to commemorate a late family member, friend or beloved pet, your options just expanded. This method of commemoration can’t be lost, broken, stolen or forgotten; diamonds aren’t REALLY forever, but tattoos are. Check out Erica’s work instagram: @ericaflannes. Or if you want to consult with her on a piece of memento mori art, email her at ericaflannestattoo@gmail.com.

Airport Pizza or The Man Who Died in Terminal B

 

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The airport is no one’s favorite place. I don’t care where you are from or what you do for a living. No one really loves the airport. I am particularly put off by Laguardia, but because they offer cheap flights to Fort Lauderdale on Spirit airlines, the most tragic air bus to ever exist, I find myself here often. You can’t beat the price, but you can beat the terrible service into oblivion. “Here” was not a typo, because I am indeed here, right now, taking in the scenery. The waves of people undulating in and out of terminals, some of them lonely, some of them waving their arms frantically at toddlers eating bottle caps they found on the ground. I think to myself, don’t eat it! You’ll choke! You’ll probably die! But I never say these things out loud. Especially not after this.

Being at LGA is always the same. The same light bulbs in the bathrooms are blown out, there are always more people than the number of molting seats and the pizza is forever an imposter; it looks fine, but it is far too terrible to eat. However, today wasn’t like my previous visits to this airport. Today was different. I had just decided to take a field opportunity in my home country of Belize and had begun the process of applying for a grant to fund my research. The nerves induced by crossing paths with TSA aside (this was born of personal anxiety and in its maturity it has melded with the current political climate to become a full blown fête nerveuse), I was feeling pretty good for someone doomed to a mindless hour and half of waiting for a flight that would inevitably be delayed.

Today, I thought to myself, is my day. Today I will indulge. Today is terrible pizza day.

It’s hard to convince myself that the choice to actively participate in the consumption of terrible pizza isn’t masochistic. Masticating, gnashing away at a day old display slice seems like a cry for help. But something drew me there, whether it was the incessant grumbling of my gut or my desire to be someone who lived life on the edge I can not decipher. I’m sure whatever it was that was calling, calling me to the airport pizza stand didn’t intend for what followed to occur, or for me to bear witness to the simultaneously reticent and vociferous death of a man waiting for his flight.

. . . . . . .

Pesto. . . Plain . . . Pepperoni. Endless options. I mull over the gastrointestinal emergencies that each one will surprise me with later, and choose pepperoni. Maybe I really am a bit of a masochist, but heart burn is a humbling reminder that I am a biological entity that ticks and tocs and hiccups and hurts. Life doesn’t stop because you don’t have tums.

Pizza ordered. Seltzer purchased. Commence shuffling to a dirty high top where I squash myself and my bulbous carry on between two travelers, not unlike a mouse does when he achieves the otherworldly and seemingly breaks his own bones to slide under a door. It is always an unnerving experience for me, sitting between two complete strangers who are enjoying, or not enjoying, a meal. As soon as I start to board a mundane train of thought about strangers eating boring food, my peripheral catches a security guard barreling through the terminal. I had never seen anyone run that fast in an airport who wasn’t five years old and in extremely deep shit, so of course, my anxiety worsened. I nervously tapped my fingers, sending out a morse code message that said “Where is my pizza! Stop! I feel extremely uncomfortable! Stop!” The pizza did not arrive. Instead, being wheeled toward me was a man on a stretcher, moving alongside him were five paramedics and a tangible lack of urgency.

I knew what I was looking at the moment I registered it’s presence… the shift in the sounds and the smells of the airport pizza place. The man on the stretcher was quiet and still, but the machines that were forcing his heart to continue beating were not. The compression vest keeping him alive caused his chest to thrash wildly in the same successive “lub dub” I learned from Bill Nye as a kid: “This is the sound your heart makes when it’s pumping blood… lub dub… lub dub… lub dub.” But this lub dub sounded different from the one of my childhood. The robotic din was not the sound of life and warm blood, of cellular division or firing neurons. Instead it resonated it’s mechanical morbidity through the terminal, echoing this great defeat of human existence. The sound moved from the terminal and into my body and I felt it then, the sigh that everyone talks about. That whisper of a life leaving the body. Or maybe it was just the whooshing sound of the ambu bag the apathetic paramedic continued to pump listlessly.

And then, my pizza arrived. The woman at the Dunkin Donuts’ counter paid for her sickly sweet strawberry frosted, and the paramedics rolled the body of the lonely man out of the terminal. As I ate my pizza, I thought of the family that waited in vain for him to emerge on the other side of some other terminal, anywhere, in any airport. I realized at that moment that my eating was shock induced. My brain was so stretched from wrapping itself around this coincidence-vs-fate encounter with death that the only message it could fire was “eat this pizza.” I watched the woman with her donut, my fellow pizza eater typing away on his phone and the rest of the travelers that returned to their habit of blending into the molting seats, the way all travelers do, as if nothing had ever happened. I casually noted the ease with which everyone who had just witnessed the death of a human being returned to their cell phones, kindles and bags of chips. If we don’t acknowledge it, it didn’t happen. Therefore, death won’t come for the rest of us.

The embarrassing realization was this: What do we do when we witness a death, when we are forced to converse with our own mortality? What do we do when we receive a not-so-friendly reminder that some day we will be food for worms? Hearing everyone shuffle around me, their impatient mumbles and the squeal of a tantrum, I was able to put my finger on exactly what it is that we do in situations such as these.

Why, we eat pizza of course.

Welcome to Trowel and Bone

Death and the Story of Me

When I was little, I thought about death very often. I didn’t immediately understand why, but in retrospect I realize it was born of the general anxiety I wouldn’t discover I had until I was a teenager. I wasn’t afraid of death herself, in imagery or in conversation. Rather, I was obsessed with the absence of someone, of never being able to touch them, smell them or hear their voices again. When I was in eighth grade I was so desperate to get out of class that I decided to tell my teacher that my sister went missing after school, and that I had to step out to call my mom (and hopefully never return). The performance I put on became so real to me, and my emotional reaction to my own tall tale was one of hysteric proportion. Then I thought, what if this were true? What if I somehow manifested the loss of my sister? I had managed to convince myself that she really was missing, and what I thought would be a fun get out of class free pass turned into a mourning session in the bathroom of my middle school for a sister that was not gone, but most likely in the backseat of my mom’s car whining about something. I admit I was probably too old for this sort of behavior, but the strange and specific type of thanatophobia I suffered from was so visible. I didn’t have a fear of death, but a fear of loss, whether it was death or disappearance, and a made up loss at that. Maybe it was more of an abandonment issue that traced back to childhood ::insert “it all started when I was five” here:: but regardless, the pain I invented and burdened myself with was so real, and I had to do something about it.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized my relationship with death went beyond any fear I associated with it. After a suicide attempt gone wrong, I understood that I was totally ok with dying. The idea of my own death somehow brought me comfort. This was mostly born of teenage angst and a recent diagnosis of bipolar II. But my eureka moment came not from staring death in the face and being awarded a second chance, but rather it made me realize that death comes for everyone, whether at your own hand or at the hands of the universe. You are going to go when you are going to go, and that was it; it just wasn’t my time to go. Thus began my slow-growing intimate relationship with death. I became obsessed with it, reading about it in novels both fiction and non, pouring through textbooks and watching choice television shows that explored it in every way. I watched X-files, Forensic Files, Creep Show and Snapped. My fear turned into an unhealthy obsession which hit its peak in college when I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to exploring death in art. I spent endless hours making dioramas and photographing them, desperately trying to find a way to relate them to death, even when it came across as convoluted, pretentious or plain old dumb.

Then my grandmother died, and everything went dark, quiet… everything I thought I knew about death and how to deal with it was snuffed out at the very same second her life was. I had to start from the beginning, and that feat seemed nothing less than impossible. I must admit, I did a terrible job going through the motions of dealing with personal loss, because not unlike being ill-prepared for childbirth despite convincing yourself that you are ready, no one is ever truly prepared to watch the life of their loved one leave their body. I can only assume that it is this moment that has inspired so many amazing people who study death and the afterlife, who have been ushered into this place where death becomes their world. After much deliberation and a haphazard “recovery” (I like to imagine that my fumbles through the theoretical five stages of grief were not unlike an extremely depressing Benny Hill intro) I too was ushered into the need to somehow dedicate my life to understanding and exploring death at an academic level. Eight years later, I have arrived.

In my field of study, I stare death in the eyes everyday. Whether in a book, through the words I write or as skeletal remains in my hands, she is always there. And I am not afraid of her anymore. I feel, with confidence, that we are friends. I am concerned for the day the loss of my loved ones will come; if I was not I would be worried about my mental state. I know this concern exists because I almost lost my mother to cancer. Whenever I held her hand, kissed her forehead, snuggled up beside her waning body, I absorbed her. I thought, if I can bring you into myself, if you leave us, I will still have some of you in me forever. She and I both danced with death in different capacities, but both experiences, despite the lead up, were very much the same. “I am going to die,” we both thought at some point. And yet, here we are with warm, beating hearts. Because of this, I have the tools to meet death if she visits us again. Of course, the fear of my mother coming out of remission still lingers. But the thought doesn’t engulf me anymore. It no longer catapults me into anxiety attacks I can’t control or episodes of depression during which going to the bathroom is impossible (forget brushing your teeth). Because of this shift, I can only conclude that thinking on and working with death everyday has helped me deal with the chemical imbalances that have afflicted me for so long. It has given me a point of meditation and allowed me to truly appreciate everything I have, every experience and the love of those around me who I will hate to lose when their time comes. And that is just the point; your time will come. But when it does, remember that it is not the end. We keep our loved ones alive in story, in song and in memories shared with the ones we still have. It is better to spend your life becoming comfortable with the inevitable than it is to live in fear of the unavoidable.

I hope that the content of this site, whether it is serious, scientific or whimsical, will help you reach a place of comfort with mortality. This is the manifesto. Welcome to Trowel and Bone.