Author Archives: Liv G. Nilsson Stutz

Tuck Everlasting, part deux

What is it people want most at the end of their lives? Is it peace? Or more time? I just watched Disney’s Tuck Everlasting (2002), based on the children’s fantasy novel published in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt. The story focuses on Winifred Foster, a fifteen-year-old girl from a wealthy family and strict household. Winnie runs into the woods out of her life of frustration and boredom to discover the Tuck family, who drank from a magic spring and became immortal. Apart from exploring themes of immortality, life, and death, Tuck Everlasting presents dualism of fear. Simultaneously, the movie ceaselessly challenges and redefines the definition of a lived life. Finally we see how ritual is as natural as the life cycle itself.
Tuck Everlasting (2002) presents a dualism of fear: fear of death or fear of an unlived life. Commonly people might say that they are scared because they don’t know what is behind the black veil or of leaving the earth unaccomplished. Nevertheless, the film poses a scarier thought: the unlived life. At the words of Winnie, the film suggests that living fully involves doing everything you can and what you want at a slow pace.
Even so, the main point to take home is that living also involves dying; dying oneself and experiencing death of a loved one. For example, Miles Tuck lives in regret and bitterness, wishing he could have died with his family. His immortality obstructs his death, and he becomes a “rock stuck at the side of the stream”. It’s as if his life is one long sentence without a period, forever expanding but never finding closure. Death is natural and it must occur in order to have lived.
To further illustrate is the scene of Winnie’s grandmother’s funeral. Winnie watches her grandmother be buried and she sees her mother crying. Her realization is two-fold: Dying is natural and unlike Miles, she and her mother will eventually pass too. This must have been the realization that kept her from drinking the immortal water.
Although this is not emphasized, we see the importance of ritual in the funeral scene and in the scene where Mrs. Foster mourns. Not only is ritual a way for mourners to remove themselves from social order and expectations, but their removal from society is as natural as life. Humans are designed to feel emotion and express it, and death rituals serve this process. Thus, ritual becomes a symbol of cyclical life itself.
Although, Tuck Everlasting (2002) may be underlined by cheesy romanticism, cliché aphorisms, or hokey mottos, it is an honest film. Ultimately it reminds us that we don’t have to live forever, we just have to live. So get out there and seize the diem.

Julio Medina

Redemption and Support after Suicide

On September 10, 2012 Amanda Todd, a fifteen year-old from Vancouver, Canada was found dead from an apparent suicide. Amanda had suffered for years from persistent bullying both at her school and online and had already attempted suicide once by swallowing bleach. Amanda spoke out against cyberbullying in a youtube video and an online presentation; they unfortunately did not end the suffering that was being inflicted on her. However, after her death, Amanda received a wave of support and condolences from both her peers and from people who never knew she existed. Her death has been featured on several news sites with reporters calling her death a tragedy. A facebook page was also created for her and now has over 11,000 likes.

Amanda’s death shares many similarities with the deaths of other teenagers from suicide including Jamie Rodemeyer, who killed himself after years of being the target of anti-gay bullying, and Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant who hanged herself after being tormented relentlessly at school and online by her peers. Instead of being vilified by people for having given up on life or brushed aside for more important news stories, both of these teens also received an outpouring of support from their peers and from others around the country. Rodemeyer also received support from several famous people, most notably Lady Gaga who used his death as a rallying cry to call for tougher anti-bullying laws.
All of these incidents of teen suicide due to bullying display an unusual trend. Normally in the US when someone dies by suicide they are still mourned by their peers. However, at the same time, they are often the subject of anger and questioning as to why they have given up on life when they could have potentially worked through their problems. American culture favors those with a “never quit” attitude and rewards those people with respect even if they never truly fulfill their goals. To kill oneself before reaching these goals or living a full life implies that the person is a quitter and did not take life seriously or stop to ask how they could work through their problems.
This definition does a complete 180˚ when it comes to teen suicide due to bullying. Instead of being seen as having given up in the face of adversity, their deaths are seen as a tragedy; the loss of a promising youth who could have been very successful in life. Given that these people are still teenagers and are in a critical development stage of their lives, it is likely that people are more understanding of their situations because they are not yet able to fully grasp the consequences of suicide as well as adults. Additionally, the stresses of everyday life as a teen can also make a bullying situation seem more hopeless in their eyes. Because of this understanding, the teens receive support in levels that they would not have received from their peers if they were still alive.
The tragedy of school bullying has turned teen suicide into a redeeming factor. Teens who are bullied and do not have the support of their peers while they are alive will receive an outpouring of support after killing themselves whether it be from peers who feel guilt for playing a part in the death or from people who genuinely see their death as a tragic one. By killing themselves, the teens redeem themselves in the eyes of their peers even though they likely do not see it this way and are only looking for a way to put an end to their problems.

To read more about Amanda Todd and Jamie Rodemeyer:

If you suspect that someone you know is having thoughts about suicide, click here. You could potentially save their lives!

Nick Tigges

The Frozen Dead Guy Days

Some families traditionally cremate their deceased, some bury them, and in Colorado we sometimes like to keep them chilling in a shed in the back. Literally.

About 15 miles down the road from my home in the foothills of the Rockies, there is a relatively small town called Nederland, Colorado. Around 1300 people inhabit the mountain town, yet if you drive by during the first week of March you are sure to find it packed. You may also accidentally run into a scheduled coffin race or ice turkey bowling contest. In 2012 Nederland celebrated the 10th annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival, inspired by and dedicated to “Grandpa Bredo,” more formally known as Bredo Morstoel.

Mr. Morstoel is originally from Norway and after passing away spent several years at a cryonics facility in California. Since 1993, several of his relatives, who reside in Nederland, have kept him cool in the “Tuff Shed,” a mini cryonics facility on their property in Nederland. Unfortunately his daughter Aud Morstoel and grandson Trygve Bauge experienced some trouble with visas and a near eviction because of electricity and running water requirements, but with the help of a local reporter Grandpa Bredo became an international sensation. There has been some minor continued legal trouble surrounding the housing of Mr. Morstoel in the Tuff shed and the festival that is dedicated to him, including a new Nederland law concerning the storing of bodies (which does not, however, apply to Mr. Morstoel since he was already being housed in Nederland at the time of the creation of the law) and a complaint filed by the family concerning festival naming rights.

Even so, the festival is still going strong and grows with each year. This past year’s events included tours to the Tuff Shed, cryogenics presentations, Snowy Beach volleyball, and a polar plunge among other events and musical performances.

Being enrolled in a class that focuses on the topic of death and burial, the Frozen Dead Guy Days immediately caught my attention the first time I saw a flyer. I’ve always been interested in cryonics, but have never had the chance to view a cryonics facility or listen to a lecture on it. At what point does the freezing or the work of the cryonics team begin, since pinpointing a time of death becomes more difficult with every medical advancement? How does brain death fit into this? If a patient is certified brain dead, can the team from the hired cryonics facility come in and begin their work on an otherwise living body? Would this really be any different than if the process of organ donation were to be started right after brain death?

Though cryonics and the housing of deceased relatives on private property raises a lot of legal, moral, and just plain interesting questions, what I do know is that next time I’m in town during that first week of March, I will be hopping on the bus to Nederland for the weekend.

To read the fully history of the Frozen Dead Guy Days and find more information on the festival, see

Jana Muschinski

Report from Finland

This weekend I went to Helsinki. The object was to attend an archaeology conference, which I did with great interest, hitting sessions on cremation practices and post medieval mortuary practices and what archeology can tell us about them. It was amazing, stimulating and interesting. But, then, I snuck away. My brilliant colleague Howard Williams, who like myself, has an interest in all things death related invited me to come along to the Hietaniemi Cemetery.

I don’t know about you, but I have always loved cemeteries. These places are restful and loaded with sentiment, art and lived experience. And they tell a story. Hietaniemi is no different. In fact it tells many stories. The stunning eccentric monuments on the artist hill are striking in their daring design, and the large military section reminds the visitor of the loss of young lives in the fight for independence. The modernist fonts on the family graves stand out both as exceptionally beautiful and as a testimony of the embrace of modernist ideals also during the most sentimental of times. The avenues bordered by tall pine trees shape the place into a monumental landscape and a home for the dead. Peaceful and stern.

A storage space for lanterns at Hietaniemi cemetery, overlooking the urban industrial landscape across the small bay.

But, this is Finland. And Finland is special. It blends eccentricity and individualism with collectivism in a way that I found to be truly unique. Nowhere was this more striking than at Hietaniemi. The arrangements for cremations, with arrangements of natural stones in flowerbeds exploding with color, or the sterner granite square shapes of crosses or pillars with room for many names embody this notion of collectivity and conformity with individual expression.

Area for the final deposition of cremations at Hietamieni cemetery. The crosses are standardized and can be engraved on both sides, thus forming the marker for two separate depositions.

What can I say? I grew up with the books by Tove Jansson (and by the way, her family grave is at Hietaniemi), I dress myself and my home in Finnish design, I have loved the brilliant movies by Aki Kaurusmaki, enjoyed many a sauna and placed myself in the lines of the poetry by Edit Sodergran and Marta Tikkanen, but it took a trip to Hietaniemi for me to finally get closer to what I think Finland is about. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but I can say with certainty that it is pretty amazing.

Liv Nilsson Stutz

James, Patsy and the Long Arm of the Law

James Davis walking up the stairs to his log cabin. In the front his wife Patsy's grave.

James Davis is 73 years old. When his wife Patsy died in 2009, he buried her at her own request, in front of the log cabin he had built himself and where they had lived their lives together in the city of Stevenson, Alabama. He buried her well. She lies in a vault and casket, marked by a marble stone, the plot covered with colorful flowers. Now the city of Stevenson wants him to move her. The grave, it is argued, is illegal. Neighbors may complain. Who knows, maybe house prices will be affected. We cannot have that! A bond of $10,000 has been set by a judge as a condition to stop initiating action to remove her body.

Surely, the burial of people needs to be regulated in some way, but as always when the law inserts itself into our most intimate and emotional relationships, it can often seem heartless.

As a child I remember my father’s outrage at a photograph depicting how a Romani man in Sweden was retained by police who hindered him from placing a bottle of vodka in the casket of his own father. The contours of this black and white photograph are engraved in my memory as an image of a kind of ultimate oppression. The act of hindering a human being from the right to mourn and honor their dead in their own way is inhumane. To physically restrain a man from honoring his father the way he was taught and the way he felt was right, seemed so unreasonable.

The Swedish photograph from the 1970s, and the story of James Davis both depict the collision of traditional cultures with modernity. While they are small scale events in the personal lives of individuals, they carry a larger message that should concern us all. Both are stories about how administrative red tape and principles can be used to hurt and humiliate people. To tell them: we cannot accommodate your grief, your needs or your sorrow, because they do not fit our standards. And what does not fit our standards has to stop.

I wonder how often individuals given the authority to step in, simply decide to let it slip through the cracks. How often do they “lose” the complaint against the old man who buried his wife by his house, or “forget” to hinder that man slipping a bottle of booze to his dad? I wonder, because those acts of letting be – despite the rules and regulations, are sometimes what makes us truly humane.
Read the full story at Huffington Post

Liv Nilsson Stutz

Win, Lose, Tie! Raiders Fan ‘Til the Day I Die!

Earlier this summer, one of my students, Haley Bryant, alerted me to this clip about sport funerals. Yes, such things do exist. Our dearly departed American sports fans find ways to bring the passion of their lives, the sport they love and the team they call theirs, to their grave.

Meet the Die Hard Cowboys Fan who was buried in full regalia (except for her shoes, because “they don’t bury people with shoes on, who knew?”). Meet the Steelers Fan whose dead body was displayed at the memorial service in a recliner, covered by his favorite fan blanket, in front of a game on TV. Meet Big George whose ashes were given a spin on the nascar track and allegedly called out from the great beyond.

Sports funerals are not just about emotions. They are also a business, or service, depending on how you look at it. Major League baseball teams have licensed caskets and urns that can be purchased by their fans as a final proof of loyalty and devotion.

But it can go further than that. In 2009 the Aggie Field of Honor was inaugurated at College Station, TX, as a resting place for fans of the college football team. The positioning of the dead, aligning to face the stadium (should they ever rise up)  is no less formal than the directions that for centuries have structured the burials of Christians and Muslims in their orientation toward the holy cities of Jerusalem and Mecca. You know what they say: In Texas Football is God.

But beyond the first impression of hilarity and absurdity, the clip also conveys something deeper. More than anything it shows the care, warmth and respect that people show their loved ones in death. It also translates how our rituals reflect more than just death. They mirror fragments of our lives – like concentrated capsules that can contain not only our beliefs about life after death, because “you never know” if you can play sports in heaven as the Cubs fan states in the clip. They can also reflect our dreams, our ideals, our passions, our relationships and our identities.  And they change with the world around us and the culture, to accommodate new needs as they emerge.

And after all, you never know.

Liv Nilsson Stutz