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.