Funeral Art
Grim reaping for fun and profit
Published October 29, 1999 in Scope

Who doesn't love a funeral? There's something simultaneously seductive and hilarious about the surreal finality of death, the somber pomp of a ceremony for the deceased, and all those yards and yards of delicious black cloth. Yes, death makes for great accessories, and it's the perfect opportunity to make art.

See also...
... by Annalee Newitz
... in the Scope section
... from October 29, 1999

Even Freud admitted that death was sexier than, well, sex. In his incendiary tract Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the grandfather of psychoanalysis admitted that something deeper than the search for pleasure motivates human activity. It's an instinct that's expressed most spectacularly in aggression or destruction, and makes the wish for oblivion overwhelmingly exciting. Freud called it the death drive. Which brings us to the Grim Rides Funeral Car Club.

"Don't let your first ride in a hearse be your last" is the club's happy-go-lucky motto, coined by club president and webmistress Amy Shanafelt. After being turned away from the Cadillac La Salle Club, Amy honored her two Cadillac hearses by founding Grim Rides. Now she keeps company with a small cadre of hearse aficionados, including the current owner of the much-lauded Harold and Maude Hearse, the actual 1959 Superior used in Hal Ashby's 1972 cult film about an alienated, proto-goth rich kid who attends funerals for fun, stages mock suicides to shock his insipidly bourgeois mother -- and, of course, drives the '59 Superior.

Many Grim Rides members have created small Web shrines to their restored, reworked, or under-reconstruction hearses. What drives these morbid collectors? Club member Wes writes, "I've always liked hearses, I think they're sexy." For Joe and Gail Galusha, who collect skulls and live in an old church, a 1975 Cadillac Superior hearse is just another part of their gothic lifestyle. And for the Specialized Bicycle Company, a 1966 Superior Sideloader became a bicycle-themed death vision. Fitted out with a bike rack, covered with Specialized slogans, and sprouting demonic teeth from the front grille, it's half art car, half advertisement. According to Amy, the car continues to evolve, though toward what end nobody is quite sure.

Perhaps more perplexing than the fate of the Specialized hearse is a bizarre series of international cemetery museums and theme parks being inexplicably planned by Investors Real Estate Development. The company claims to be filling a market niche by building places where artists can show creative monuments for the dead. Will this be a functioning cemetery or just a parody of one? Apparently both.

The project is called The Final Curtain, and already dozens of artists have applied to have their monuments -- ranging from the stupid (Steffani Martin's statue of angels fucking -- oooh, so shocking!) to the truly inspired (Barbara Kolo's mysterious topiary tree mound) -- included in the first phase of park construction. Somehow The Final Curtain has managed to combine art, commerce, and death.

That's something that would probably please artist Al Honig to no end. The San Francisco sculptor has been designing highly stylized funeral urns for over a decade, and his current show at the Melting Point Gallery gave me the chance to take Freud's theory out for a spin. An excellent example of garage collage sculptural style, Honig's urns are small glass or plastic jars transfigured into strangely unhappy constructions of metal, wood and plastic objects. Many of them look like little, festively deformed human bodies or body parts. Honig describes his choice of building materials as "determined by design, condition, and price. My intent is to use these objects when their utilitarian sense is gone and only the aesthetic sense is left."

If we take him at his word, that means that the penis no longer has any utilitarian value, which perhaps means we can finally enjoy it for the toy it is. Several of the custom urns are whimsically phallic. Graced with a photo of the dearly beloved, the shrine-like Sex After Death even features a detachable vibrator with a small container of ashes nestled in its transparent tip. Beneath the vibrator is a small cage containing a Giants pin that reads, "Humm-Baby, it's gonna be fun!!!" In Honig's world, death is no reason to stop titillating the pussies of the bereaved.

Urn Two is a bit more equivocal. A vertical frame houses two containers: One is an ambiguous black machine-thing hanging beneath an inoperative coin slot ("20 cents daily!" it says); attached beneath it with a metal hose is an unmistakably penis-shaped urn. And underneath the death penis is a tiny metal spigot. Incoming message, kiddies! Commercial culture will kill you and then sell you for twenty cents a squirt. Oh, and by the way, there's something strangely sexy about that.

But what could possibly be erotic about the grisly march of repetitious standardization that Honig parodies with his death dicks? Freud has the answer. As it turns out, the death drive is also about taking pleasure in repetition -- doing things over and over is all about wanting to return to an earlier state of being. And of course, the earliest possible state is before you were alive.

At least when you go to Vampyrates' functional coffins store, there's nobody like Freud or Honig bringing up messy questions about the meaning of death, money, and art. Vampyrates is part of that strange new breed -- the goth-oriented business. I guess that means we don't have to yell at hippies for selling out anymore, because goths are doing it these days instead.

With morbid aplomb, Vampyrates will sell you a full-sized, custom-made coffin in your choice of mournful colors. Suggested uses for these big boxes o' death are bookshelves, CD racks, and coffee tables. For a mere $400, you too can accessorize the goth way and store your Anne Rice collection in a sumptuous, silk-lined wooden coffin. Or impress your friends with your Morrissey-style tastes and serve them tea on a casket in your velvet-draped parlors. Emblazoned with crosses and other campy funeral icons, Vampyrates coffins are the perfect gift for the undead in your life.

The happy news is that you can start enjoying your impending doom right now -- just turn it into a fun hobby, a work of art, or a funky new commodity. So let's put death back in the driver's seat, where it belongs.

Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She has stopped attempting to murder people and now just writes about it.