On Being Away, the Death of My Great Grandmother, and Death Cafes

Hello to the void. I’ve really let this blog die *I promise that will be my one and only pun.* In all sincerity, this blog was the most important thing to me during a really rough time and I should not have given it up so easily. I apologize. It’s time for a pivot as they say in the biz (I’m not sure which biz exactly but it sounded good); here’s an unsolicited story about how I see this blog and my great grandmother’s death (which contains no cemetery research, I’m afraid).

Preface: I love talking about death more than any single topic. I’ve always felt slightly guilty and indulgent for letting my routine conversations drift to darker places like mortality and the accompanying macabre. At one point in grad school I was writing a term paper about women who light themselves on fire as a form of political protest (see Kathy Change) until I discovered that someone else had already finished a dissertation about the rhetoric of self immolation. I was so jealous and pissed that I didn’t get to it first. The topic was admittedly morbid and over the top, but I loved brining it up with my colleagues and friends. In some ways, I liked being the girl always talking about suicide and death. It seemed to fit. All of this is to say that death is a really special and important topic to me, and if you find yourself wanting to share in further conversation about it please stick with this blog. However, I no longer live next door to a cemetery so I must transition to reflect where I am and how I can best contribute to discourses of mortality, the meaning of consciousness, and our relationship to death—even at the cost of not being able to do routine research and losing your interest. With Thanksgiving around the corner I want to tell the story about witnessing my great grandmother’s death and how incredibly grateful I am for that.

The morning of my great grandmother’s death I was running out the door to go to work at my library job. She was 92. We had just celebrated her birthday and a large family reunion. I know she was holding out for that. My grandmother had always been a stubborn woman who didn’t like extra attention. She would not let you take her to the doctor or make any fuss, so when she started allowing people to carry her around because of the edema I knew it was getting close to the end. She called to me from the back bedroom where she slept. I rushed in and saw her clutching at her chest. I remember watching her thrash wildly and struggle for faltering breath. I could do nothing but watch. I hoped that simply standing there was enough, letting her know through my touch and gaze that I would be there with her however I could in those very last moments. We didn’t say much. She tried to get up. She was terrified and clearly knew that she was dying. I yelled at my grandmother (three generations living in one house, a story for another time) to call for an ambulance that I knew wouldn’t make it in time. She eventually stopped fighting and she grew calm and grabbed my arm. I held her with everything I had. I wished that she could feel every ounce of my love and gratitude for her. I also wanted her to feel and know that it was okay to let go.

Finally she did. She let out a long strange bellow that turned into a rattling gasp. As her breath flattened she appeared to let go as if drifting to sleep, peacefully even. I sat with her until the paramedics arrived but we all knew she was gone though they detected a faint heartbeat. They took her to the hospital and everyone was called knowing that it was for the purpose of saying goodbye. We gathered around her, stretched our palms against her arms and legs gently, and took turns telling our secrets into her ear. It was beautiful and I felt a kind of joy in that moment. I was happy that it was quick, it seemed like she didn’t suffer greatly, and that she was surrounded by five generations of love.  

When we got back to her house we discovered hanging on the back of her bedroom door the clothes that she wished to be buried in. This woman who needed a team of grown men to carry her the day before somehow managed to get up, arrange her favorite dress, and adorn it with matching jewelry and heels. She was truly a remarkable woman and classy as fuck. (She would be so mad if she knew that I cussed).

This time of year I think of my great grandmother for obvious reasons. She was the matriarchal super glue that held my family together like broken porcelain. We haven’t had a normal Thanksgiving since. I’ve probably mythologized this woman whose namesake I bear, and maybe I’ve fetishized her death, but she was the symbol of womanly strength for most of my young life. She used to let us go “grocery shopping” in her pantry because there was rarely enough food at our house. I am sure she was in large part responsible for keeping my sisters and me alive and in a warm home whenever my mother went through her bouts of mental illness and suicide attempts.

To this day, my great grandmother’s life as well as her death are things I deeply cherish because in both she demonstrated that humans do triumph over death. There is nothing to fear. It is something that I want to talk about and celebrate.

So, that’s where I am with this right now. And maybe it will evolve from here. But for now I’m happy using this space to extend an already dynamic and wonderful community that welcomes death as a necessary component of human communication. Through this blog I’m taking a stance to talk about death in more empathic and ethical ways. Stay tuned if you’d like.

Also, check out this amazing network if you’re at all interested in similar topics and sharing with likeminded people. It’s a steadily expanding group with a wealth of information. I’m excited to start learning more: http://deathcafe.com/user/I’d love to host a Death Cafe or something similar in Columbus, OH, my current place of residence. Please email me if you’d be interested! diggirldesigns@gmail.com.

For Alice Hageman.img_2932

Thanks For Listening & Sorry to Be Away,

Alysen

dead famous: Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol (born Andrew Warhola; 1928-1987) is one of Pittsburgh’s most notable natives. Celebrated throughout the region in various structures and monuments, his gravesite is no exception.

Many visitors make the pilgrimage to St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery, a tiny burial ground just outside of Pittsburgh in Bethel Park, PA to see Warhol’s humble remains.

Warhol’s parents, Julia and Andrew (Warhola) are also buried there:IMG_2133.jpgMementos like these Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles are left in homage to the artist.

The grave has been featured in many documentaries and art pieces, so I thought a post honoring Warhol with some quick facts would be fitting:

  • Warhol regularly attended a Byzantine Catholic Church, which is represented by the  Suppedaneum cross adorning the top of his headstone.
  • The official funeral took place on February 27, 1987 at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, PA.
  • Warhol’s body was taken from New York City by his brothers to be laid to rest on the family plot.
  • For the open-coffin ceremony Warhol was wearing a black cashmere suit, a paisley tie, his famous platinum wig, and sunglasses. He was posed in a solid bronze casket holding a small prayer book and a red rose.
  • Warhol had a bit of a thing for death himself: Many beloved pieces from the 60s are actually from his Death and Disaster series, which features images like electric chairs and fatal car crashes in his distinctive style. In fact, Marilyn Monroe did not become a subject of interest for Warhol until after her untimely demise in 1962.
  • You can creep on Warhol’s grave 24/7 by visiting earthcam.com/warhol.
The trip to Bethel Park is worth it. The whole place is about as small and quaint as it gets.IMG_2124.jpg

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IMG_2131.jpgMy favorite bag felt right at home:IMG_2121.jpg

IMG_2136.jpg(credits//author and photography by Alysen Wade. Please do not use photographs without permission)

grave-a-day: “the shark grave”

Welcome to my first running blog feature, grave-a-day. Here I’ll post noteworthy headstones and quick blurbs of the deceased.

First up is one of Allegheny Cemetery’s most famous residents: Lester C. Madden and his shark tombstone:shark.jpg

Located at Section 26, Lot 65 is Lester C. Madden, Korean War Veteran and lover of the 1975 cult film classic, Jaws:Jaws-movie-poster.jpg

Indeed, Madden loved the film so much that he turned his final resting place into what is arguably the most recognizable monument in the Allegheny cemetery.

Thanks for joining me and happy digging!

project 1.1 the royal arcanum

Welcome to my first project! I hope you’ll continue to visit as these stories unfold.

So, I accidentally stumbled upon a little known secret society while hanging out in the cemetery, which actually became my impetus for starting this blog. The society I discovered is called The Royal Arcanum, and as far as rich people clubs go this one is pretty great.

The Supreme Council of the Royal Arcanum, known simply as the Royal Arcanum, is a fraternal benefit society (i.e. old financial institution that includes things like banks, credit unions, and insurance agencies) founded in 1877 in Boston, MA. It is now an insurance agency dealing with over $100 million in protective benefits. They also worship the number 1105. Here is how I found this out:

I’ve been admiring a particular grave for several days. It’s a massive monument with an elegant greek goddess laced into the stone. Some days I visit and leave little trinkets, today I decided to sit down and stay.IMG_1619

It was an admittedly odd experience sitting against a stranger’s grave in the middle of the evening. Time passed in no particular hurry and I glanced up at a squawking bird on the tomb ahead.

I noticed a strange metal object on top of the crypt where the bird is initially standing, but did not see a similar looking object on the other side. What was perhaps more striking was the triangular emblem at the top of the tomb.

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I then decided to investigate the individual who was laid to rest under this strange symbol. His name was John Munhall.

Mr. Munhall was a well-liked and respected coal/oil baron who owned a successful mine and steamboat operation with his brothers near the Carrie Furnace during the mid to late 1800s. A quick Google search lead me to A Genealogical and Biographical History of Allegheny County by Thomas Cushing (p. 401). At the bottom of Munhall’s blurb was a list of formal associations: The Presbyterian Church, the Republican Party, and the Royal Arcanum.

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If you’ve not heard of the Royal Arcanum do not be surprised. In fact, this fraternal order is one among hundreds in the United States that handles billions of dollars each year. Fraternal orders are united groups that formed out of shared religious beliefs, gender, occupation, ethnicity, or political values. Many of these secret societies have roots as mutual aid organizations founded to serve immigrants and other underserved groups before government and employer-based programs existed.

Today such organizations are (as far as the American public knows for sure) state and federally compliant with financial services, reporting, and licensing. According to a 1993 study done by the Treasury Department, the activities of the entire fraternal system in the U.S. generates an estimated $2 billion annually – tax exempt since its 100-year-old inception, of course.

What’s weird about the Royal Arcanum and other secret societies like it is not the money that members shell out in order to be part of a protective organization, but their insistence upon following such strange membership rituals that accompany the purchase of life insurance benefits. Here are excerpts from a Royal Arcanum initiation ceremony as taken from a microfilm of their official Book of Duties:

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book of rites 1.pngrites 2.pngrite 3.pngrites 4.pngrites 5.pngrites 6.pngrites 7.png

I especially love the part about the mystic number:

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There you have it! They Royal Arcanum.

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As for John Munhall’s grave, I never figured out what that weird metallic t-shaped object was, or why the top of his tomb is clearly ajar. Whaaaat?:

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Thanks for reading and if you feel like adding some expensive secrecy to your life you can apply to be a member of the Royal Arcanum here (enjoy their bright pink color scheme).

Please also let me know if you find out exactly what is so mystical about the number 1105.