Thursday, January 29, 2009

Two Executions for Washington State?

Washington state is preparing for a March 13 execution of a man named Cal Coburn Brown.

Brown was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder in 1993 for carjacking a 22-year-old woman, holding her hostage in a hotel for 34 hours, and then raping, torturing, and murdering her. 

This would be a different execution from the one that was scheduled for last December and was postponed due to a stay in the court system. 

That execution, of Darold Stenson, was scheduled to take place on December 3rd and was dramatically stopped on December 2, to be delayed for at least 90 days. (The stay had something to do with the state changing processes for lethal injection without properly informing Stenson and his lawyers.) If rescheduled, it could conceivably put the execution around early March. 

Stetson's execution was to be the first in Washington state since 2001. So, after not having a state-sponsored killing for more than seven years, our state could potentially have two within the same month. 

If this does indeed transpire, it will no doubt prove an occasion for activists on both sides to stand up and shout.

Also, I'd like to repoint you to an excellent radio series our local NPR affiliate, KUOW, did on the way execution works in Washington state (both the logistics of it and how the systems in place function). 

January Poll Says "No" to Assisted Suicide on Television

So, my polls are always completely unscientific, being that they're internet polls that simply take the opinion of people who visit my blog and chose to vote. 

I can tell who comments if the posts aren't anonymous, but I do not track who visits. I track numbers of visitors, but that's it. 

Nonetheless, I find it interesting to ask questions, and I like having at least one interactive element on my blog. 

I've never had such a one-sided poll result before this month! 

To the January question: "Should an assisted suicide be aired on television?" the resounding answer is "No." 

1 "Yes", 22 "No," and 2 "I Don't Know." And, I have no way to know this for sure, but I would guess that people who visit this blog are more likely to be interested in talking/reading about death than the average person. So, it seems people do not want to see PAS on TV. 

It makes me wish I remembered better how the country reacted when 60 Minutes aired an assisted suicide enacted by Dr. Kevorkian in 1998

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Manipulation or Good TV Drama?

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that one of the few TV shows I follow with any regularity is Lost.

When last year's season came to an end, the fate of one of my favorite characters, Jin, was left up in the air (almost literally). Jin was on an exploded freighter, and under reasonable circumstances could not have survived ...

but Lost does not operate in the realm of the reasonable. And we've all seen enough TV to know, if the show's not reasonable, you can't count the character dead until you see the body.

After an eight-month hiatus, Lost returned last week with two new episodes. We saw what has been happening to the Oceanic 6. What's been happening to the survivors on the island. But no sign of Jin, dead or alive.

So, it seems we will have to wait longer to hear Jin's fate. Maybe we'll find out in tonight's episode. But somehow, I have a feeling this will get drug out for at least a couple more weeks.

I posted at the end of last season that I felt manipulated by these maneuvers. Am I wrong? Is this just good dramatic storytelling? Obviously, there have to be shifts in the story, big changes, surprises, unknowns, titilations to keep us guessing, keep us holding on to some level. I just felt like, intentionally holding one character off to the side, and telling the viewers, "We're not going to let you know whether he's dead or alive," for months and for multiple episodes, went too far. Especially since, they did this to Jin twice in season four.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike Passes

I was sad to read about John Updike's death today.

I first heard of it in an email from a friend who was also upset. He wrote, "Oh man, John Updike died."

I think that expressed my state of mind. Genuine regret, but not real pain. I did not know the man, after all.

Here's what I'm wondering though: Why are we sad when notable, great people pass away?

Updike is a great writer. I have enjoyed his work in the past, but I am nowhere close to having read all of his material. So, I know I'm not upset because he won't be producing new pieces. It's not a personal loss. There seems to just be some general sense of sadness that passes through us all when a larger-than-life figure leaves us.

John Updike on Charlie Rose. Updike interview starts 22:59.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Whisper House

Musician Duncan Sheik has written a new rock opera called Whisper House. Interviewed recently on NPR's All Things Considered, Sheik will release the musical as a solo album tomorrow, January 27th.

Whisper House follows a young boy during WWII whose father has been shot down by a Japanese pilot. The boy is sent to live with his spinster aunt in a haunted lighthouse in Maine.

Throughout the musical, ghosts sing to the "living" characters and the audience and function as a sort of Greek chorus, according to Sheik. In Greek theater, the chorus would often help narrate the play, but also speak the feelings and thoughts that the characters themselves were afraid to name. Making ghosts into the chorus seems to fit the Western idea that ghosts are more connected to the spiritual and somehow more know about emotions and about the unfolding of events than the rest of us do.

The video for one of the songs, "Earthbound Starlight," is at this link (embedding is disabled.) It's a pretty cool video.

And here's a bad-quality video of another song, "It's Better To Be Dead":

Sheik also wrote the hit musical Spring Awakening., Resources Pages

A follow-up to my recent commentary on

I wanted to point you to their resources pages. The site has excellent links with step-by-step directions for what to do when you're planning a funeral, a cremation, a memorial service, or making business decisions that need to be made after a death.

The logistical details can get overwhelming when someone dies, and it's nice to have a guide.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Would you be buried with your pet? Part 2

Washington State Senator Ken Jacobsen's bill that would make it legal for people to be buried with the cremated remains of their pets has passed through committee. 

This article from the Associated Press implies that the bill is still unlikely to pass ... but it has passed one hurdle. 

Personally, I would not be buried with my pet, but it would also not bother me to be buried nearby someone who was with their pet. 

However, as this article points out, many cemetery owners are opposed to the bill because they must account for all religions, faiths, and beliefs. And some religions, like the Muslim faith, for example, would consider it an insult to be buried near an animal. This is a very good point. 

And with funeral homes, I don't think regulations are quite so simple that a funeral home could chose not to offer a legal option. So, it may not be as easy as saying that some cemeteries can have pets and some can't. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

After Near-Death Experience on a Plane

An interesting article in the NY Times today about the range of reactions people have after near-death experiences on airplanes.

Some, as expected, are traumatized and experience post-traumatic stress.

“But others come through the trauma re-energized, with new sense of living and vitality — they’re very grateful, and feel blessed to have survived.” This according to Kenneth Manges, a clinical psychologist in Cincinnati. The article goes on to point out that this mirrors what researchers call near-death experiences, in which people — surgical patients, heart attack victims who have been resuscitated — report transformational experiences, in the fogged cleft between life and death.

However, still others feel burdened by the expectation that they should have had some sort of epiphany about life come out of their near-death experience.

What the article points to most, I think, is that, what was happens in the heads of people who survive plane crashes varies wildly, despite certain expectations that are often put upon them.

An excellent, step-by-step account from an O'Reilly interview that goes trough what Flight 1549 survivor Fred Beretta was experiencing and thinking/feeling. It overgeneralizes more than this article would suggest is accurate, but it gets at what Beretta is thinking very well.

And another survivor of the same flight who seems a little more rattled.

We've talked about cyber-afterlife before on this blog, but in the realm of MySpace pages, something created by an individual that simply remains up after they die and then becomes a sort of de facto tribute to them, after the fact.

But what about using the technology for a more purposeful memorial? Such options are out there. I had the opportunity earlier this week to speak with Louise Zweben, CEO of, a company that allows users to create online memorials.

It's a fascinating site, and I recommend everyone check it out, at least for a quick parusal.

There are two immediate benefits available from this type of memorial, benefits that Louise has consciously worked to create.

First, due to the one-to-many and even many-to-many nature of social network communication, information can be posted on one of the sites and instantly dispersed to family all over the world. When someone passes away, there are lots of logistics that need to be communicated to family and friends—where is the funeral, where should everyone donate money, where should they buy flowers, what hotel is the immediate family at, etc. With a memorial site, the immediate family can designate a single person, or a couple of people, to post the relevant information, spread the site address, and then interested parties can simply log in to see all information as it is updated. Clunky phone trees are not necessary. Multiple, emotionally taxing phone conversations can be avoided. Brilliant, right?

Second, the site allows the family and friends to tell the complete story of the deceased: their life and their death. Louise says, "It starts a conversation about the person's life." Users have a choice to make the site public or private. If public, anyone can read the site and comment. If private, viewers and commentators are limited to those selected by the site's moderator. You'll notice on the public sites, there are photos and stories. People share anecdotes and memories.

After my grandfather died, one of my favorite moments was going through all of the cards everyone left at his funeral. Many people wrote about great things he had done for them, things my parents, my grandmother, my aunt and uncle didn't know about. Some shared funny stories. If this was done on a memorial site, everyone who had access to the site could share in the joy that we felt reading about my grandfather's best moments.

Also, something I like better about this type of site than the MySpace site, it is honest about time and tense. The person has died, and the site starts out telling the story of their complete life and death. There is no incomplete, weird forever alive in cyberspace feeling like you get with MySpace pages of people who have died.

I have more to say about than I can reasonably fit in one post. So, I will be adding more later ... but these are my first thoughts. Please check out the site and let me know what you think.

It's National Pie Day

I'm not sure why that's a holiday or what it means—and for some strange reason we're celebrating it at my office—but it gives me an excuse to post one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite television shows of all time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monster Truck Death

On Friday, a six-year-old boy was killed at a Tacoma monster truck rally. (The below video is not graphic. The opening photograph is the most intense shot.)

Four more rallies were scheduled at the Tacoma Dome throughout the weekend. All events took place as scheduled. None were canceled or delayed for extra safety checks or out of deference to the family of the deceased boy. And according to The Associated Press, the very next show after the death was sold out, and prospective ticket buyers had to be turned away.

Before the opening of the following show, a moment of silence was held in the boy's honor. But is this enough? It seems the show just went on as the big money-making machine that it was without real thought of the death it caused or new safety measures it might need to enact.

Something else I've noticed about this situation: The Seattle PI allows comments after their online article on this event. And many of the comments point to the fault of the parents for taking their child to the monster truck rally, saying they got what they deserved (a dead child) for taking their child to a risky event. (Update: Having trouble linking to the PI, but a similar thing is going on at the Times, so I will link to their discussion.)

Now, the PI article, which presumably these commentators have just read, cites statistics that state monster truck accidents have killed five people and injured more than 40 between 1992 and 2007. Those aren't large numbers. It's still probably something you can go to with the expectation of safety. I'd have to look up statistics, but the zoo might be more dangerous than that. Certainly, driving your child in the car is more dangerous. And would you throw blame at a parent who just tragically lost their child in a car accident that clearly wasn't their fault?

I know it's an overarching trend, but I'm frequently shocked by the tenor of some people's comments online. It reminds me of Marshall McLuhan's theory of Discarnate Man. What will we say and do when separated from our physical selves. (McLuhan meant it in relation to the telephone, but it perhaps applies even better to newer technologies.) I doubt someone would face-to-face accuse a grieving parent of being responsible for their child's death because they took them to a monster truck rally.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Life After Writing About Death

In this week's column, Elizabeth Lardie of Lemondrop contemplates how to know when it will be time to give up her obituary-writing gig.

Averted Disaster

Since hearing of yesterday's plane crash, I've been wondering a lot about what Amanda Ripley would think of the averted disaster.

Ripley authored the book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why, and I've blogged about her work before.

Well, The New York Times has answered my question with an interview with the woman herself! As you would expect, she praises the survivors calm thinking and orderly behavior.

And she also notes, that the pilot's landing, while laudable, is only one part of the survival equation. Another great step he took was getting on the intercom and warming passengers to brace for impact. Ripley says, "We know people are so obedient in disasters, so it's really helpful to get that kind of command."

I recommend the interview, and I also highly recommend the book. It goes in-depth into how the human brain responds when put into extreme, disaster scenarios. It might help you survive a disaster, but if nothing else, it's a fascinating read, and treats a dramatic topic in a non-sensationalistic manner.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Would you want to be buried with your pet?

Washington State Senator Ken Jacobsen is purposing a bill that would make it legal for the remains of cats and dogs to be buried alongside their owners.

He says he was inspired by the recent passing of his beloved cat Sam.

I'm not sure exactly how the logistics of all of this would work, but since it's unlikely pet and owner would die at the same time, I'm guessing the pet remains would somehow be saved to be added to the owner remains once the owner passes. That part's a little creepy.

As it stands, it is illegal for pet remains to be buried in a human cemetery. For many people, there is something about the sanctity of human remains that the concept of a pet's remains might defile.

I don't see the need to hold on to my pet's remains. I've always found that urge a bit strange ... but it also wouldn't bother me if someone wanted to have their dog or cat with them in a cemetery. However, I say this as someone who probably wants to be cremated and doesn't have a whole lot of interest in what happens to my body after I die. I know other people feel differently.

I'm curious if anyone has any strong reactions to this bill though.

P.S. I will of course update if this gets passed. Senator Jacobsen has a history of starting strange legislation, and it's a tough year full of more pressing priorities (hello economy), but I'll be sure to blog if anything interesting develops out of this situation.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Measuring Your Own Grave

In the December 22nd issue of The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl writes about a MOMA retrospective of Marlene Dumas, a Dutch painter born in South Africa.

The exhibit is titled "Measuring Your Own Grave" and includes many paintings that deal with subject matter not traditionally glorified by art, including death. Her works have an interesting play of lifelessness and life—with the palette of mostly blacks, whites, grays, and only subtle punches of fleshy peaches and blues.

I share this one, called "The Kiss," which depicts a dead body, face down. It is in part a tribute to the Hitchcock's iconic image of Janet Leigh, dead in the shower in Psycho. As a Hitchcock fan, I was immediately drawn to this one.

A partial answer to the question of why such morbid subject matter: "Dumas matters as one of a number of now middle-age painters who dealt with the apparent dead end of painting after modernism ... when you can do whatever you like, why do anything?" In this artistic context, it's not too difficult to see death calling out to an painter as one of the few moments that still holds meaning, or if not meaning, at least interest.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Torture on TV

So, this is only about death in an indirect way, but this video and this argument are very compelling, and I want to share.

You've probably heard this argument in one form or another before, but the way torture is shown on television is not accurate. On television, torture always works, which isn't true to life. And one of the problems this causes is that actual military recruits, when they come to training, think they can use torture to coerce suspects—because they saw Jack Bauer from 24, or another television character, do it.

Here's a video from Human Rights First that lays out the case beautifully:

I don't watch 24, so it's pretty easy for me to condemn the show ... but I am a huge Lost fan, which is also mentioned in the video. And this video has got me to thinking, there is a lot of torture in that show, both with Sayid, who was an actual torturer in the Iraqi Republican Army, and with other characters. (Think Locke with Miles last season.) And I'm a little conflicted about how I feel about all of that. Actually, I'm not so much conflicted as I feel a little gross about it, and I'd like to pretend I don't. Especially since, if you watch this video, Lost producer Carlton Cuse, weasels out of any real responsibility for what they're showing on screen. He's basically saying, it's TV, it's not real life, it doesn't matter. That's a cop out, and I don't like it. Damn! My guiltless pleasure just became a guilty pleasure.

Heath Ledger's Golden Globe

You all know by now that last night, Heath Ledger won the Golden Globe for best supporting actor in a motion picture.

I haven't seen all of the performances nominated, but I'm a big fan of Ledger's work in The Dark Knight.

Have you seen the movie? Did he deserve to win? How much of the win is based on the fact that he died before the movie came out?

Here's video of the moment of the win.

I think the clip of "his work" was pretty cheesy, and if it was meant to be a tribute, it was a pretty half-hearted one. They should have just let it sit as a standard win and let the moment be what it was. It took away from the emotion of the standing ovation for me. But I am glad that he won the award.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Snoqualmie Falls Flooding

I couldn't believe this photo of Snoqualmie Falls. We've had pretty bad flooding in the areas surrounding Seattle this week. The wimpy looking photo is one I took on a trip to the falls in September. Granted, my visit was at a lower point in the year for the falls, but the other shot, from Wednesday, looks like a different natural phenomenon all together. 

(Photo Credit: Joshua Trujillo/Seattle PI)

Mortuary Band

Today on Weekend America, I heard this story about a mortuary band. 

In San Francisco's Chinatown, they follow behind funeral processions and play songs like "Amazing Grace" and "Onward Christian Soldiers" on tuba and trumpet. The specific purpose to Chinese funerals is spiritual: The music helps keep the spirit close to the body until it can be buried. 

But the band also draws the attention of the entire community to the funeral. It announces the death. 

When I first heard this piece, I thought the concept was too bizarre to be of much value, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. I'm a big fan of public grieving. I think too much of our grief is dealt with behind closed doors, singularly or within a single family. This pulls it out into the open ... but in a beautiful way. 

One of the band members, Cindy Collins, says in the piece, "Even though it comes from a sad moment, it's this triumphant moment for the person who's going on and we're sharing that with the community. What gets better than that?" 

Out in the face of fear

The Stranger's blog "Slog," has a nice post covering last night's pub crawl in support of all 11 Seattle bars targeted by the ricin threat. Apparently, the bars were packed, and patrons are either not afraid or aren't letting fear stop them from supporting well-meaning, victimized businesses. 

I lived in Capitol Hill for years before I bought my condo (too expensive of a neighborhood for me to own in.) People there support their neighbors and won't put up with being bullied. It's an artistic neighborhood; it's a spirited neighborhood; and it's a tough, determined neighborhood. I'm sure the best in all of that was on display last night. 

Friday, January 9, 2009

Bring to Justice

One of my pet peeves is the phrase "bring to justice."

First, it's just a clunky, inexact phrase. Technically, it just means to set a proper punishment, but more often, I think the phrase is used as a euphemism for killing someone who has committed a crime the speaker finds particularly egregious. The first instance of this usage that really sticks out in my mind is when President Bush vowed to "bring to justice" the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

The wording smacks of Wild West–style vengeance rather than civilized law and order. Saying it almost allows you to play the role of grand hero, instead of facing up to the realistic facts of the situation. "Bring to justice" is not a plan or a way to deal with criminals.

I'm trying to track down the exact origins of the phrase, but the first time I remember it being used in political/civic circles was in fact with George W. Bush after 9/11. Does anyone know where and when this phrase actually came from though?

For Her Wife

I caught a fascinating segment on the radio as I was driving home last night.

Two years ago, Seattle was hit by terrible December storms—wind and rain followed by a week of frigid cold and ice. For some local residents (including my parents), power was out for over a week. One of the most jarring stories to come out of that whole situation was the death Kate Fleming. The incident was so sudden, so unfair, so unpredictable that it shook to the core people's faith in the comfort of every day.

Fleming was a voice-over actress who lived in Seattle's Madison Valley. When flash flooding hit her home, threatening recording equipment she kept in her basement, Fleming went into the basement to rescue the equipment before she evacuated. Fleming became trapped in the basement and trapped in rising water. 911 had difficulty locating her correct address. As a result, rescue workers could not help her in time. By the time Fleming's partner, Charlene Strong, and neighbors could attempt a rescue, it was too late.

Charlene Strong is now using this situation as a catalyst to activism. While in the hospital with Fleming, as doctors made last efforts to try to revive her, and while funeral planning, Strong realized she had no rights because she was a gay partner. Strong is fighting for equal rights for gays and lesbians so that other partners will not be put in the same situation she was—faced with losing a loved one and then having to fight to get their voice heard.

Strong had to call Fleming's sister in Virginia to be allowed into her hospital room. Fleming's mother was the one who was allowed to sign paperwork at the funeral home, even though Strong paid for the services.

A new documentary depicts Charlene Strong's activism. I remember vividly how upset I was when I read about Fleming's death over two years ago. I can't tell you how hopeful I am to read about something so positive coming out of such a terrible situation. This woman is an inspiration.

(Last year, our state passed a domestic partner bill, and this clip from the documentary seems to infer that Strong was intimately involved with the passage. I do know for a fact that she testified in the State House. That's all I have been able to verify.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Oh no, Marley!

Sorry for the spoiler ... but I'm not sure it's actually a spoiler. (What dog movie/book doesn't start with a puppy and end with a death?) But it's not often that I get the chance to post something both lighthearted and on topic.

I can't remember where I found this photo, but it's been cycling around the Internet. Someone just couldn't resist scrawling out the poor doggie's fate.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Roland Burris Erects Mausoleum with His Qualifications

Roland Burris has erected a mausoleum in a Chicago cemetery that lists his accomplishments and qualifications for the office of senator. WTF?

I think he has his symbolism confused.

He seems to have wanted to put out his resume in a way that would grab great attention and show that he was grand. By using the stone and building a big structure, maybe he thought he was building something like a statue—monuments often built to great figures in society. But great figures do not build statues to themselves. And their accomplishments are not literally listed out on those statues.

He has greatly confused matters by putting this thing in a cemetery. Is he suggesting that it will one day serve as the mark of his entire life, and he will add to it the remainder of his accomplishments? Even if that is the case, building it now, in the middle of a media controversy over his senate seat, makes it look like an argument for his ability to serve.

It seems the use of a cemetery was merely accidental, as if it was the only place he could get land. Because, what public park would house this thing? I feel sorry for the friends and family of people who are actually resting in this cemetery.

Roland Burris sure seems like a piece of work.

(image from CNN)

Update: I've done some more research, and it appears Burris has had this monument for awhile; it's just getting lots of attention now because of him being at the center of a controversy. I'm a little disappointed that media outlets aren't making that more clear in their reporting. It seems to be a big distinction.

Anyway, the monument is certainly a reflection of a large ego ... but at least it wasn't done as an argument for his senatorship. And hey, he's making some plans for his death—which is more than a lot of people can say.

Death Threats to Patrons of Seattle Gay Bars

Some creep is using the threat of death to communicate an anti-gay message to the residents of Seattle.

Anonymous letters were sent to 11 bars in Capitol Hill, Seattle's largest urban neighborhood, and a historic home of much of Seattle's gay population. Many of the targeted bars are either specifically gay bars or just happen to draw a large gay clientele.

The letters claim to be from someone in possession of the poison ricin. He/she threatens to use it on at least five patrons from each of the 11 bars.

A letter was also sent to The Stranger, Seattle's leading weekly paper, advising them to watch for the deaths. It was addressed to their obituary section.

At this point, no one is really sure whether these are empty threats or whether real attempts will be made to use ricin. I'll keep you updated as more info. comes out. You can see a copy of the actual letter at this link.

Tribute Rap

Benazir Bhutto's eldest daughter has released a tribute rap to her assassinated mother on YouTube.

To my mind, it raises the question: is the tribute for the deceased, or the living who makes the tribute.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


My mom just opened up a Gmail account that she rarely uses. Actually, rarely is an understatement. She set it up, but really hasn't opened it up since then. So, it has sat idle for a couple of years. But fed up with hotmail spam, she finally decided to switch to the account. 

When she logged in, she found 177 emails from my grandfather, her father, who died 14 months ago. 

Email provides us with some odd timing situations ... and they can be especially odd when the sender has passed on. Susan Barnes writes about the nature of time as it relates to email: "Email messages are sent and received in asynchronous time." Barnes continues, "Cybertime blurs the distinctions between past, present, and future because when reading email we have the sense of simultaneously conversing with the author in cyberspace." 

The author sends the email in the present, and it sits in our inbox for a given amount of time ... could be seconds, could be years. However, whenever it is that we get around to reading it, we perceive that moment to be the present for the email. 

In cases where the author has since passed on in real-time, the reader is left in a strange, emotional limbo in which the author still exists in cybertime. 

Most of my grandfather's emails were silly forwards about safety at the gas pump, not forgetting 9-11, etc., so it probably wasn't as jarring as receiving 177 new, personally crafted emails ... but still, it had to be a disquieting experience for my mother.