"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" may be the traditional view when it comes to death. But "ashes to tattoos" is one unconventional way people have found to honor their dead, as mourning goes skin-deep, mobile, wearable and virtual this century.
It's all part of denying the "messiness of the corpse" and "returning" the dead to us, whether by paying tribute through car decals, T-shirts, online memorials or tattoos etched in conventional ink or even mixed with "cremains" -- cremated human remains, says Baylor University scholar and author Candi Cann, Ph.D.
"With 'do-it-yourself' memorials, people are creating their own ways of memorializing the dead, particularly in a more secularized society," said Cann, an assistant professor of religion in Baylor's Honors College. "Some people are alienated from some common traditions such as a long funeral Mass. Cohesive rituals may not be part of their lives."
Cann made a presentation on "bodiless" memorials at the recent international conference, "Death, Dying and Disposal," of the Association for the Study of Death and Society. Photos of unconventional tributes are in her forthcoming book Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century, based on interviews with the bereaved.
Such memorials are "the opposite of what occurs in the religious realm with martyrs and saints, and with relics," she said. "Martyrs and saints bring us closer to holiness and to God through their bodies and narratives of their suffering."
In a secular setting, movies and television shows dwell on the spectacle of corpses -- everything from a vampire's gory victim to a body on an autopsy table as a pathologist and assistant chat nearby. But when death is up close and personal, mourners are increasingly uncomfortable with the reality of the corpse, Cann says.
Granted, death has never been pretty, and humanity has dealt with that through embalming, purchasing elaborate headstones, and, more recently, embedding ashes in ocean reefs -- or even giving the departed a sendoff with a fireworks display that includes ashes. But many modern-day bodiless memorials are "returning" through visual or virtual "replacements" that some people feel are more personal than a memorial in a cemetery or in nature.
With tattoos as tributes, "The idea may seem new, but it's not that far removed from the customs in Victorian England" or the Civil War, when people might wear a lock of a loved one's hair or a photo in a brooch or watch chain, Cann said.
"People simply want to carry the dead with them," she said. "They see a tattoo as forever." In one photo in Cann's book, a father displays a tattooed likeness of his son's smiling face. The young man, who drowned, had longed during his life for a tattoo of Hawaii; in the image on his father's back, the son sports such a tattoo.
Generally, it's young people who get tattoos to express grief, Cann said. "Often, they choose one of their grandparents that died, because that's their first loss."
To memorialize her grandmother, one young woman opted for a tattoo of a bottle of window cleaner, accompanied by the sentiment "Put some Windex on it" -- a frequent admonition of her grandma.
Then there are tattoos from cremains that are etched into the skin after blending microscopic ash with tattoo ink. Medical experts caution that such tattoos may be risky, and many tattoo artists refuse to do them to avoid legal complications. Some balk at other types of memorial tattoos, too, Cann learned in interviews with them.
"The artist wants to do something personal, yet they also want to do something representative of their work," she said. "They might see flowers or angels as boring or cliché, and that's not how they want their work to be represented."
Other expressions of grief are just as personal, but temporary.
All-black apparel at funerals has long been an expression of grief, but these days, a "mourning T-shirt" may be the deceased person's favorite color. It may display dates of birth and death, an image, and an affectionate nickname.
"A T-shirt also is a way for people who aren't family or allowed time off from work to say, 'I am grieving,'" Cann said.
Car decals, as well as shoe polish or liquid chalk on vehicle windows, are being used to pay tribute to the dead. And while it has long been common to leave teddy bears or erect wooden crosses at the scene of a tragedy, people are becoming more imaginative. One of Cann's photos shows a snow-white "ghost bike," festooned with a maroon Christmas garland and placed at the site of a bicycle accident.
But "the bike is a clean, pristine version -- not the one that was mangled," Cann said. Besides funeral home websites that allow "virtual visitors" to sign guest books, online mourning has evolved to include Facebook's "R.I.P." permanent memorials, as well as virtual tombstones, which allow people to use their smartphones to scan headstone codes and launch websites with an interactive life story for those who visit the grave in person or online. While spontaneous public memorials with flowers and teddy bears sprang up in Newtown, Conn., after the mass murders at a school, as well as after the Boston Marathon bombings and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, "those spaces are becoming smaller in geography and time," with people differing over how much is enough, Cann said.
After the shootings at a theater in Aurora, Colo., memorials were allowed to remain for three months, and then moved to the city's archives for a future public memorial, while in Newtown, they were removed after two weeks, she said.
But when such public memorials are removed, Cann said, they almost invariably return in "the virtual realm . . . The dead will return to haunt us if we do not acknowledge them."
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