As a last statement, our funerals are remarkable as much for their uniformity as for their conclusion of highly personal lives. The embalming, the church, the pricey coffin, the tombstone — it’s a well-rehearsed finale that’s accounted for countless memorials in the United States, from the 20th century to now. There is, however, a growing movement to change this, with green burial and cremation on the rise. And in redesigning mortality, artists are getting involved, like Jae Rhim Lee and her Infinity Burial Suit, which is embroidered with mushroom spores activated by the decomposition of the dead, and Pia Interlandi, whose fashion design practice includes couture garments for the deceased, where textiles are chosen to decompose with the body.
The funerals of artists range from inventive — as with these new tactics that Lie and Interlandi are considering for themselves — to quiet, to ostentatious. The most elaborate plans of a contemporary artist are probably those of Marina Abramović, who’s arranging for the burial of three coffins in Belgrade, New York, and Amsterdam, with only one containing her remains (a preview of sorts was staged in Robert Wilson’s stark The Life and Death of Marina Abramović). As she told the New York Times in a 2012 interview:
I was friends with Susan Sontag the last four years of her life. She had this amazing charisma and so much energy, but she had a sad little funeral in Montparnasse in Paris. It was rainy. It was all wrong. And I was thinking, God, she loved life so much. Like the Sufis say, “Life is a dream, and death is waking up.” I went to the lawyer immediately and made this statement of having three Marinas.
The “sad little funeral” has often been the case for artists, who often die without a lot of money — like Rembrandt, buried in an unmarked mass grave in 1669, or Henri Rousseau, who couldn’t afford treatment for an injured leg that proved fatal and was interred in a communal grave at the Parisian Cimètiere de Bagneux with seven friends in attendance. (He finally got a memorial at the site three years after his death, in 1910.) In the Renaissance, on the other hand, elaborate monuments were devoted to Raphael in Rome’s Pantheon and Michelangelo at Santa Croce in Florence — a work of mourning pomp that later inspired the tomb of Galileo. But recent centuries have seen fewer of these kinds of showy acts of memento mori for artists. Even Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, whom you might expect to have planned grand absurdities for their deaths, both had traditional church services, returning to their religious roots at the end.
There are exceptions. Frida Kahlo’s funeral was a fitting mix of the traditional and the provocative — dressed in her favored jewelry and Tehuana costume, she was laid in state at Mexico’s Palace of Fine Arts, and then, during the procession, a mourner draped a Communist flag over her open casket, which Diego Rivera did not let anyone remove. He later scooped up her ashes in a red silk scarf after a cremation accompanied by friends and family singing Mexican songs and hymns. Then there’s Kasimir Malevich, whose 1935 deathbed was positioned beneath his bleak modern symbol of the void, the “Black Square.” Malevich was interred in a coffin made by Nikolay Suetin and painted with the square; his gravestone also depicted the Suprematist shape (the Charnel House has a thorough photo essay on the procession). In perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the meaninglessness of figurative representation, his Moscow grave was subsequently lost, only to be discovered in 2013 beneath a housing development.
Will the growing desire for alternative burial solutions result in more artistic and creative funerals that respect the life lived as a continuation of it, rather than a generic conclusion? In the United States we have a curious relationship to death, where we’ve transformed many of our funerals into incredibly expensive affairs that have little to do with our loved ones. In a recent talk given by funeral director Amy Cunningham — whose Inspired Funeral site is a valuable resource on creative funeral planning — she suggested that funeral homes could offer information on endowments in the deceased’s name, setting up a memorial plaque on a bench in a favorite park, or communicating that the embalmed body in the wood coffin is not the only way to go. There’s a way to balance affordability with respect in death, and artists, with their visual creativity, could be at the forefront of reimagining the modern funeral.