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Death, Lives and video Streams

Death, Lives and Video Streams

Professor Kevin D. O’Neill
University of Redlands
Redlands. California

Running Head: Death Lives

Kevin O’Neill is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Redlands who has
published and presented papers on representations of death from ancient Greece to 21st century America. He has also written about, and participated in, experimental higher education and interdisciplinary studies and done work in adult education.
Kevin O’Neill
6200 Del Valle Drive
Los Angeles CA 90048

Death, Lives and Video Streams

This paper discusses two topics. First, it presents an analysis of the canonical funerary corpse prepared by morticians and discusses how this corpse serves two functions. It tames death by reappropriating the corpse for culture, and it serves as a focus for two kinds of memories: the individual/psychological and the essential/Platonic. But since the mortuary corpse has limits -- it can only help us to remember and offers no information about the afterlife. American culture has supplemented both this corpse and traditional religious accounts with many new forms of immortality, one of which is the second topic of this paper. One of the most interesting is that offered by the Cassity brothers at their Forever cemeteries. There one can ‘live’ on forever in a professionally produced filmed biography that is always available as streaming online video. This new option offers a needed supplement to the memory-bound corpse because the newly immortal filmed individual has the possibility for a post mortem career as a video entity.

In the long run, metaphysics does itself no good
in scorning its own physics.
(Debray, 2001)

The American corpse has a fixed look and a stable identity. It is an icon created by the funeral industry with the complicity of a public that wants its dead to assume a canonical, consoling form. This iconic corpse appears timeless and at peace. It rests without moving in its perfectly fitted casket. It lies face up, hands folded on the lower abdomen. Catholic corpses often have rosary beads twined around their fingers. Protestants sometimes “hold” Bibles. Each corpse is dressed up. Its hair is meticulously combed and its face carefully composed. The eyes are sealed shut, the cheeks built out with special lifts, the lips sewn closed, the rictus of death flattened into a noncommittal line. The face is tilted up slightly so the skin of the neck does not wrinkle or gather, and inside the casket there is a slight elevation up and to the right so that the corpse presents itself more clearly, not sunk too far into the plush fabric that lines the casket. The corpse’s face is made up using special cosmetics. The casket is open so that the corpse’s legs below the waist are not visible.
If the casket is closed everyone present knows how it would look were the casket open. We know that the corpse is dressed in a suit or dress [or however deemed appropriate] and is embalmed and properly arranged. Were we to open the casket we would see the expected object looking its expected way.
Increasing numbers of Americans are being cremated. But even the corpses that disappear into the furnace, even those whose only “appearance” is at a memorial service still pass under the control of professional morticians. The standard funeral, and the mortuary corpse displayed in its casket, remain the type and this “specter” haunts every memorial service. (Habenstein and Lamers, 1990, Laderman, 2003).
This iconic corpse preparation is a response to a fundamental fact that is a challenge: human beings die, and when they die they leave behind corpses. Aries (1980), argues that death presents a challenge to human culture. Death is a “natural kind” (Quine, 1969.) This means that the dead body occurs without reference to cultural encoding. Death happens whether we want it to or not, and we are compelled to provide am meaning for it. It erupts into ordered life and takes whomever it “chooses”, whenever it chooses. Because of this transgressive and disruptive quality, death has to be tamed. Death is wild. (Aries, 1980). And this is a major source of the impulse to create civilizations, city walls and laws. Death must be contained, its lack of meaning remade into significance. Taming death takes many forms. One form is the honorific regard most cultures give to corpses. The American funerary corpse represents such an investment in social order.
In this essay I will accomplish two things. First, I offer an analysis of the taming of death the iconic American copse accomplishes. Second, I note its limitations and present an analysis of a “supplement”, the video corpse, which compensates for the iconic corpse’s shortcomings in a way that replaces or supplement traditional religious narratives. This re-imagining of the afterlife of the dead exploits the representational techniques offered by film, sound recording, and the Internet, but does so in a way that keeps the corpse under the control of funeral professionals and builds a conceptual and emotional bridge between the mortuary corpse and its cinematic iterations.

The Tamed Corpse: Icon of Memory

Is the sword of biological death so sharp
That there is no lingering association between corpse and
(Harrison, 2003, p. 143)

Corpses earn respect because on one hand they are so “short-lived” and at the same time represent a terrible challenge and unsolvable metaphysical conundrum. In the western tradition, when corpses disappear into the ground or vault, they take with them some of our deepest hopes and unanswered questions. The person, now dead, was just conscious, like us. It possessed agency, intention, motives, memory, the capacity to respond, the ability to help or harm. It is often the corpse of someone we loved. Now it seems to have none of its former characteristics. And yet it still looks like the person who it just was
Yet, almost immediately (Nuland, 2000), we know that this is not our beloved but a dead body. The question is – where did all this – the agency, intention, responsiveness, the indefinable something more, -- go ? Is there a place where we can look for it and have a hope of finding it? Or is it just lost? Does it, like the attunement of Simmias’ lyre (Plato, trans. 1999), dissipate when death comes? And if it is lost then are we lost as well?
The agonizing difficulty here is that the only site that we know to look for whatever is lost is the body from which whatever it is, is lost . Western religious traditions would have us look to another world, but that world is frustratingly invisible, and we are left with nothing but the dead body. But that body is the last place where we can hope to find what is lost. It is what it is because whatever made it a person has departed or dissipated, and is deconstructing itself according to well-known physical principles. This unaltered dead body epitomizes Nature’s wildness. It is no longer an expression of anything that belongs to human culture and human expectation. Martin Heidegger (1962) captured this frustration when he wrote, that an individual’s death represents the “impossibility of possibility”. (p.307). A dead person, the corpse, no longer has possibilities. In a culture in which a person’s possibilities count for everything, Heidegger’s characterization captures our problem: what looks like a person, is not any sort of person at all, but the mere appearance of one.
What do we do with this disappointing thing that looks exactly like who the person just was and which can do nothing that persons do? We can reclaim the body for culture, and soften the terrible loss we feel, by making it into what it is not, by “remastering” it as an image of what it cannot be, the once living person. This is what the American funeral industry largely exists to do: to create “memory pictures” (Laderman, 2003 ) of the once living in the form of the mortuary corpse.
Transforming the dead body into an apparently stable and timeless mortuary corpse temporarily tames death by reclaiming the corpse from its otherness, in which it is subject to the laws of decay, and turning it into a site for memories and even future expectations.
This transformation requires a major cultural intervention. The corpse has to be remade from a natural object into a cultural object. It has to be turned from itself into an image of itself. But this image is not exactly of itself as corpse, but of the person, that the corpse no longer is. This is possible because, as Harrison (2003) says the corpse retains some ontological “residue” of the once living person
Making the corpse cultural entails, in standard American funeral practice, that it be embalmed, This treatment insures that even after the corpse is committed to the earth Nature cannot soon take over immediately because the dressed up body in its steel or wood casket, inserted into a concrete vault is temporarily impermeable to natural processes. It is as if, in defiance of the reality that the dead body represents, we insert, into the earth an indigestible cultural object that still looks like the person and the cultural agent that it can no longer be. “We” go into the ground as defiant repudiations of the reality of decay.
This mortuary corpse, prepared as a performance piece by the funeral director is intended to accomplish this ontological sleight of hand by serving as a site for memory of two kinds. First, the prepared corpse, which is remade to look as much as possible like the living individual reminds us of the particularities of the dead person’s life. A corpse that looks “just like” Helen implicitly contests the corpse’s natural tendency to look less and less like Helen as time goes on. It offers a culturally controlled “portrait” or stable image of Helen inscribed directly on Helen’s recalcitrant body. We can then use this fixed image of Helen as she was in life to do what the unreconstructed corpse forbade us to do. We can “find” Helen in the site from which she has departed. The mortician’s arts have paradoxically returned the “living” Helen from her lostness, made her available, not as literal presence, but as image. Morticians cannot bring back the dead. They are not necromancers. But they can reimagine, or literally re-image the dead on the surface of bodies. In doing this they allow us, who loved or cared for Helen, to know her again as a living presence, at least in image and memory.
What we see and remember is a psychological portrait, a representation of Helen in her individuality and privacy. We remember quirky things about Helen, and things she and we did together. In this sense, Helen-as-corpse is like a snapshot, a fragile and fragmented memento mori whose private particularity, whose existential singleness, is here touchingly invoked.
In this sense, the American mortuary corpse honors and ritualizes the modern, secular subject (Foltyn, 1996) the very person whose death so many pundits (e.g., Mitford, 1963; Heinz, 1999) have dismissed as an empty commercialized show. On this level the corpse produced by the funeral industry seems to “work”. Evidence for this is the fact that this corpse has persisted past the criticisms leveled at it from Mitford’s attack to those of the death awareness movement. (Webb, 1997; Kubler-Ross, 1969)
On a second level the funerary corpse provokes a different mode of memory that addresses the metaphysical question of where the person in the corpse, the ‘ghost in the machine’ (Ryle, 1949) “goes.” The funerary corpse, in its putative changelessness, is meant to reveal something more than the historical individual, namely that person as invisible, the essential person of whom the body, while living, was merely an envelope. It reminds us that the embalmed body bodies forth the inner and mysterious invisibility of the Soul that Plato introduced into Western consciousness and that have never left our cultural imaginary.
Just as post mortem photography in the 19th century was touted as a revelation of the true inner person – an idea that Nathaniel Hawthorne used in The House of the Seven Gables (Hawthorne, 1851)- so the funerary arts purport to manufacture a corpse that mysteriously unmasks who Helen really was (Laderman, 2003; Laderman,1998). Whatever it is that “passed” or “departed” still lingers with the corpse and can be gestured toward, by the right embalming job, which draws this hidden essence out of the body’s recesses and makes it visible, just as the soul was visible in the live Helen.
The great virtue and also the inherent metaphysical limitation of the funerary art is that it captures this Platonic identity, the hidden core of a person, as well as the historical individual whom that soul enlivened, but does so only in the register of memory. It allows those left behind to re-call (call back, re-invoke) the Soul that is now departed, and to re-member (or re-assemble) it, but nothing about the mortuary arts has power to help that Soul toward its new life, or to connect the living with that still-living Essence. The representation of the soul remains a representation. Morticians practice a metaphysics of absence, or, of provisional, representational presence, not one of presence. There is always already a Derridean slippage (Derrida, 1974) between the looks of a corpse and the absent essence to which that look purports to refer.
When Americans shared a religious metanarrative (Lyotard, 1979), the Platonic essence represented by the embalmed corpse had a secure Christian path plotted out after death. But as Americans moved away from this shared vision, narratives about what happened to the invisible Soul proliferated. In this shift in belief, the secular nature of the embalmed corpse was a hidden strength, because as representation of inner soul it was neutral as to either the continued existence or particular religious provenance of what was represented. Americans create and sustain their own versions of the soul, and the mortuary corpse does not by itself tell us any single story about the soul’s future fate. (Heinz, 1999; Barol, 2000).
In the USA, there are several post-Christian answers to the limitations of the mortuary corpse: mediumship, crionics, New Age ceremonies, borrowings from Eastern religions, gay and feminist ceremonies and rituals that draw on Native American beliefs. (Webb, 1999) There is a Christian response to the corpse – the Rapture , which promises that the bodies of believers will be taken directly to Heaven without suffering death. (LaHaye, 1999)
Each of these answers addresses, the questions: what was lost and where did it go? How do we contact whatever left, and what relationship can we have to it? Each answer corrects the failure of the mortuary corpse to offer anything more than a site for memories, and each does so by postulating a distinctive post mortem “career” for the dead.
The Virtual Dead
One new option is what I call ”virtual immortality” a new narrative about the fate of the soul that is a direct extension of the mortuary arts. It is controlled to some extent by morticians and offers a virtual immortality that is in some ways entirely new and in other ways a reference to both film history and much earlier traditions of post mortem photography.
The Cassity brothers, Brent and Tyler, purchased Hollywood Memorial Park in 1998 for $375,000. The 60-acre cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, which contains within its walls the small Jewish cemetery, Beth Olam, was originally opened in 1899 and is Hollywood's oldest burial ground. It was solely owned for many years by the controversial figure Jules Roth, from whom the State of California purchased/took over the then-derelict cemetery in the mid-1990s. Roth had looted the cemetery's endowment and when ownership was transferred the site was making more money from disinterments than from new burials (Lyons, 1998; Spindler; 1998; Cloud, 2000). The Cassity brothers were allowed to buy the place because they pledged to invest several millions of dollars in improving and maintaining the property (Lyons, 1998 Spindler, 1998, Kramer, 1999; Barol, 2004; Resting Place, n.d.).
The brothers, from a Missouri family that had owned funeral homes and cemeteries for two generations, came to the business of reviving Hollywood Memorial with definite ideas. Tyler Cassity, who directly manages Hollywood Forever, the new name for the cemetery, holds a degree in English literature from Columbia University and dreamed of becoming a novelist. This interest in creating narratives is reflected in the cemetery's online self-description:
We believe it’s time cemeteries offered more than a name and date etched in stone. That's why Hollywood Forever Cemetery is a "Library of Lives" with thousands of interactive Life Stories made from film clips, photos, and written and spoken words.
We believe everyone has a life story that deserves to be shared and preserved for future generations.
Our professional LifeStory specialists are dedicated to helping you gather photos and film clips, audio recordings and documents, all captured and stored permanently in our unique Life Story Theaters. (Cassity, n.d.)
As one navigates the Forevernetwork.com site, of which the Hollywood Forever site is a part, one finds examples of these LifeStories, which include, as the blurb above indicates, film clips, photographs, family trees and music as well as audio.
These LifeStories are only the most elaborate and best produced of a welter of memorial sites online. Companies such as Legacy.com, Memory-of.com, Mem.com, Last Memories.com and PartingWishes.com all offer low cost space to set up memorial web sites. The companies not only offer locations, but also provide simple software so that people with little computer savvy can set up and maintain such sites. These companies compete with millions of individual memorial sites, which are in turn parts of larger Web Rings, such as the United States Marine Corps Webring and the God Bless America Webring. (Howington, n.d.) There are also several sites, such as the Memorial of Love Webring, dedicated exclusively to ongoing memorials to and discussions of those who died in the 9/11 attacks. (loveatchristmas, n.d.)
These sites have provisions for leaving email messages for the dead and for the bereaved family and friends; some are linked to chat rooms and message boards and strangers often visit memorial websites and leave encouraging messages. New film and photos and text can be added at will. As a Washington Post article relates, people keep adding new material so that these sites take on a life, or afterlife, of their own (Noguchi, 2006).
This theme of a "second life", or of virtual immortality, is reinforced at Hollywood Forever because their post mortem offerings go well beyond the relatively haphazard assemblages of sounds and images that characterize most memorial websites. Each Forever cemetery has its own studio on the grounds of the cemetery. This is a separate enterprise called Forever Studios, and, as various commentators note, especially in Hollywood there is no shortage of well-trained and underemployed film editors, sound specialists, and producers to help craft coherent "second life" narratives for the dead. (Forever Studios, n.d.; Alm, 1999; Barol, 2004) As the prose on the website says, the Forever "Biographers" work with friends and family to create LifeStories from "photos, spoken descriptions, text, video clips, old film reels, awards or other memorabilia." (Cassity, n.d.) All this information is transferred to digital format and put first onto hard disks and CD-ROMS or DVDs, then online.
This can be a sophisticated process: film reels and video clips as well as photographs, whether film or digital, sound recordings and written text are all integrated into a single digitally mastered streaming video in which old photographs and film clips are edited, enhanced and cropped as necessary, and in which grainy sound is purified. People who purchase the high-end Platinum package will receive professionally conducted and shot interviews hosted and produced by the Forever Biographers, as well as the services of a Forever editor, and the taping of a remembrance party for the deceased, or for the person who will someday be deceased. (Forever Studios, n.d.; Hampel,1998 ; Cloud, 2000).
One can watch sample videos and see that the deceased are not simply memorialized after the fact. The Platinum level LifeStories typically contain first person videos of the deceased talking reflectively, from beyond death, about their lives, and inviting their loved ones to come over when they are ready to join them in the afterlife. Such videos are shot as scripted interviews. Technicians from Hollywood Forever serve as sound and film experts and the cemetery provides an interviewer, as well as scene dressers. People make the videos before they die, sometimes years before the event when they are pain free and entirely coherent.
Such self-presentations are integrated into biographical “documentaries” that have been compared to televised A&E biographies (Forever LifeStories, n.d.; Cloud, 2000), and include photographs, sound bites from children and friends, bits of video, text, and pictures.
Every LifeStory is "preserved as a permanent part of the Forever Memorial Archive." "maintained by the Forever Endowment Care Fund." (Forever LifeStories, n.d.) These LifeStories “live” on optical drives and the Worldwide Web. Like the embalmed corpse -- or even better than the embalmed corpse -- they are "preserved" as a permanent part of a public record available on line. The dead have become effectively ‘immortal’ (Alm, 1999; Cloud, 2000, Barol, 2004) not purely on the Internet, but anchored to their earthly “homes” in real cemeteries where real corpses, the familiar mortuary corpses, along with the equally familiar urns filled with ashes, serve as stable referent and necessary ground for this new immortality.
The most modest as well as the most elaborate of the LifeStories are always playing at the "Forever Theaters", which are both virtual theaters found on the website and also "real" theaters spotted around the grounds of the Forever cemeteries. One writer describes them as looking like ATM machines. (Seay, 1998) They are touch screen computer outlets that permit visitors to access videos of any of the dead interred at a Forever cemetery anywhere in the country. This author has tried them at Hollywood Forever and can attest that they are eminently user-friendly.
The Cassity brothers have branched out from creating post mortem streaming video of the dead, offering immortality to the living as well. The Studios will track a child through his or her education, recording voice and video each year from kindergarten to college.(Forever On Campus, n.d.) They create no cost video packages that can be sent overseas to loved ones serving in combat zones (Forever Veteran Stories n .d.) They have even initiated a program at the University of Missouri, of which Brent Cassity is a graduate, to memorialize alumni For a price (Mizzou Alumni Association News, 2004).
All this pre-mortem footage can be tastefully integrated into a post mortem LifeStory at the proper time. Tracking one's whole life in video, from cradle to grave, and doing so self-consciously, will create much better and more coherent material for the post mortem biography than could possibly be generated from random digital photos and jerky minicam sweeps. And if Forever professionals either make or direct the making of the images, so much the better.
Here we get a glimpse of a new sense of life, one lived as a kind of performance in order for it to look good on film., a life lived as a series of "photo ops", rather than as a series of spontaneous events. Here we approach Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal: “real” life will be that which appears on video, and the best life will be that lived over and over on the Moebius strip of a streaming video loop. (Baudrillard, 1988). Shades of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return! (Nietzsche, 1999 , Sontag, 1977)
The reappropriation of the dead into biopics and photomontages rescues them from the immobility and transience of the funeral scene, and frees their memories from the undependable confines of the individual mourner’s consciousness. No matter how well laid out the corpse might be all that will be left is the internal memory, or, in rare instances, a photograph of the corpse. In the Cassity biopics, the images are all externalized and objectified, and arranged in consequential sequences that overwrite the memories of those left behind and replace them with undying representations of the “real” dead person. The dead return to life in a virtual sense and live or relive a new life in their biographical films.
A more powerful and subtler redemption is also going on in the production of the biopic. Individuals remembered in snapshots and home movies are inevitably surrounded with that sense of isolation and melancholy that both Roland Barthes (1982) and Susan Sontag (1977) find in all photographs. Photographs are intensely private and intensely ephemeral. Few artifacts suggest the contingency of an individual life in the way that photographs do. They reek of loss and impermanence. All the concrete details of fashion, hairstyle, cars, and the ways in which people hold themselves, refer to a specific time and place and to nothing else save the fact that this time and place are irretrievably lost.
One reason why individual photographs are so poignant and heartbreaking is that they occur in no context other than their sweet Otherness. What is missing is a meta-narrative, the sense of the photo as one moment in a stream of other moments that, taken together, make up a consequential narrative. Photographs ordered in a series that tell a story lose much of their poignancy because now we see where this or that isolated scene is leading, we understand that this moment is not self-contained. And this [what?]is precisely what happens in the Cassity brothers’ biopics.
An individual life, which might really be a series of discontinuous images that taken together do not add up to a compelling story, is assimilated to the strong narrative convention of the biographical film. Such films, like life, have an internal order – a beginning, middle and end. Making a film of a life presupposes that that life had a story in it that was worth filming, just as a 19th century oil portrait presupposed that its subject had a presence worth painting.
The relocation of the dead from the grave and urn to the Internet, as moving images, opens possibilities that the Cassitys have not yet exploited. According to Mr. Bill Obrock, a Forever employee, the dead will soon be able to be remastered as holograms and might some day engage in “live” conversations with the living, giving responses consistent with their in-life personalities. (Seay, 1999) There is even discussion of depositing samples of DNA at the Forever sites (Seay, 1999) so that people, or their descendants have the option to produce clones in the future.
These possibilities raise questions about the identity of the dead. Who lives on in the biopic? Do the dead become quasi-fictional characters whose identities are produced by the editorial “spin” they or their loved ones put on their biographies? Obituaries already do this. How much powerful when actual images and film clips are edited to produce the effect. And if the dead become characters in biopics do they then develop new virtual identities as characters in such online events? Further, do these new manufactured identities, which are crafted from the raw material of film and recording and photograph, then effectively replace inconsistent, fading and fragmentary memory? Are the Cassitys creating a new “species”, the changeless, fictionally produced dead with whom we the living can interact, thereby changing both their identities, and ours?
If all that I wrote comes true, won’t the dead, to use media theorist Thomas de Zengotita’s provocative term, be mediated beings, creations of the media but who assume “lives” of their own on-screen, lives for which new chapters can be written as they interact with the living and “star” in post mortem SIMS games? Mightn’t the edited biopics, and the simulated afterlives, be even better than the real lives, so that, fulfilling a Western Christian hope, the afterlife really will be better than earthly life, but in ways no Christian Father ever dreamed (de Zengotita, 2005)?

The video dead supplement the mortuary corpse, while “critiquing” it. These dead supplement it by using it as a point de départ that they both require and get beyond. Without the iconic mortuary corpse to represent both individual memories and a timeless soul, virtual versions of the corpse, the ForeverStories, would not be shaped to produce life narratives that represent the Platonic self, or to build these narratives from the individual fragments of sound and image that everyone in our culture leaves behind. The virtual dead journey to places the iconic mortuary dead can never go, but they can be traced back to the mortuary corpse as extended expressions of its ability to provoke memory of the inner and outer person.
But in an age of virtual representation, who are the real dead? In a consumer culture blessed with technology and personal freedom, death, and the corpse, are always troped, available to be reworked into a new shape that will always attempt to cover over death’s irresistible and ultimately undeniable wildness.


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