Rachmaninoff: Not back in the U.S.S.R.



Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his most famous works while studying at the Moscow Conservatory. His music reflects the best of the Russian Romantic tradition. A three-bar Russian Orthodox cross is on his tombstone. He is buried in the Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

And seventy-three years after he was laid to rest in the United States, Russia wants him back.

The Russian cultural minister claims that the United States is declaring Rachmaninoff’s legacy as its own and that his body should be exhumed and returned to his homeland. The composer’s great-great-granddaughter refuses. Rachmaninoff came to the United States in 1917 in self-imposed political exile; he died in the United States; his wife and daughter are buried next to him; and he became an American citizen eight weeks before he died. His great-great-granddaughter wonders, “After fleeing from one country to the next in life, as he did, is it too much to ask that he be allowed to rest in peace with his family?”

So, where will Rachmaninoff rest in eternal peace, and who gets to decide? The New York State Not-for-Profit Corporation law §1510(e) applies to Kenisco Cemetery. Pursuant to N-PCL §1510(e), a body may be disinterred upon consent of the cemetery corporation, the owners of the lot, and of the surviving wife, husband, children, if of full age, and parents of the deceased. This would appear to rule out the great-great-granddaughter’s authority in the matter, but in fact the court has applied a broader interpretation of allowable kinship in these cases. In the case In Re Ellman, 152 Misc.2d 656, 658(1991), the court allowed a sibling to petition for disinterment and as the closest surviving relative, the sibling had standing to represent the wishes of the decedent. The court also noted that the feelings of the sole surviving next of kin be taken into consideration. Id. Further, the court was clear that the only issue is whether there exists a good reason for the court to exercise its “benevolent discretion” to permit the disruption of “the quiet of [decedent’s] grave.” Id. at 659.

There is disagreement as to whether Rachmaninoff personally chose his place of final resting. However, the great-great granddaughter is likely to prevail if disinterment is pursued. She is adamant that Rachmaninoff should be with his family and in his adopted homeland for eternity—or until the issue arises for the next generation.

Lisa Roach

The Tree of Life

The tree of life is a metaphor that appears in many different areas of study from religion, to biology, to literature.  However, thanks to two Italian designers the tree of life may soon no longer be limited to metaphor.  Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel have designed a biodegradable burial pod in which the body of the deceased is placed in the fetal position inside the pod and a tree is planted over the pod.  As the body decomposes it releases nutrients to the tree above.  The designers envision cemeteries with markers and headstones replaced by trees designating the burial places of loved ones.  They have also designed smaller pods for the burial of cremains. 

The designers have run into legal trouble with their burial pod design in their native Italy, which forbids “natural burials.”  However, there is a strong possibility that their design would be legal under many states’ statutes.  Despite being a non-traditional burial method, the body or cremains are still placed inside a container and interred in the ground with no intention to disinter the remains at a later date.  This is a key design element which would allow the burial pods to be legal in many parts of the United States. 

Turning to North Carolina, in addition to donation, the state provides for two methods of disposition: burial or cremation.  While this may seem limiting, “burial” is described as, “interment in any form, cremation and the transportation of the dead human body as necessary therefor.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-210.20(c).  This is an incredibly broad definition of burial and as a result is inclusive of ideas such as burial pods.  The only regulation on how a burial is to take place is that, “when final disposition of a human body entails interment, the top of the uppermost part of the  . . . encasement shall be a minimum of 18 inches below the ground surface.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 65-77.  When an individual is cremated, North Carolina law only demands that the cremains of multiple individuals not be comingled together or placed in the same closed container unless the individuals are of the same family.  N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-210.130.  Burial pods designed to nourish trees are perfectly legal under these provisions as each set of cremains would receive their own pod and corresponding tree.  Therefore, while on the surface the concept of a biodegradable burial pod designed to nourish a tree with the help of a decomposing human body may seem strange, it is highly likely that the design is legal under existing North Carolina law.  

Lindsey Rogers

Cemeteries As Gyms – Could This Exist in the United States?

Although the common perception in the United States is that cemeteries are simply places to bury deceased love ones and are only visited when remembering those we have lost, could a cemetery be more than that? A public park or even a gym?

In Harare, Zimbabwe, Warren Hills Cemetery is exactly that. Dozens of people visit Warren Hill Cemetery to go running and participate in work out classes led by instructors. Many people find that Warren Hills Cemetery provides them with a space they were lacking in their communities – somewhere to work-out and exercise. The layout of the cemetery provides a well paved uphill road for running and areas to do group workouts as well.

Even though this may seem like an absurd idea, the idea of a cemetery being a community space is not foreign to the United States. In 1831, there was an architectural movement, the Rural Cemetery Movement, to create cemeteries that seemed to look and function like parks. These cemeteries focused on creating a tranquil and peaceful place where people could escape from the urban chaos. Although the idea of picnicking in a cemetery has mostly fallen to the wayside, it is not much different from what is happening in Zimbabwe.

However, this practice is unlikely to become a widespread trend in the United States any time soon due to public perception of the cemetery as a sacred or even spooky place. Additionally, Warren Hills Cemetery is a public city managed and operated by the Harare City Council, which makes the use of it as a community space realistic. Whereas, many cemeteries in the United States are privately owned and the operator could feasibly prohibit the public from using its facility as a park or gym. However, with the increasing problem of land scarcity, de-stigmatizing cemeteries and giving them multiple community uses, such as a park or gym, in addition to that of a burial ground could be a better way to capitalize on space. 

Kaitlin Price 

One Last Voyage—Death at Sea?

According to a story published by the Guardian on 27 August 2015, twin brothers from Brooklyn, NY want to take one final trip together.  However, this is no ordinary trip.  They hope that their trip will last until the end of their lives, and then they want to be cast overboard and have the sea be their final resting place.  This request is rather unusual, but not completely unheard of.  

Usually when considering how and where to treat the remains of our loved ones we often consider how we can respect their last wishes.  Ideally, people communicate their last wishes while they are alive.  "I want to be buried in the family plot" and "I want to be cremated," are two examples.   But in this case, will the law allow these two brothers burial wishes to be honored?  

In New England, funeral directors are licensed to conduct full body burials at sea.  When conducting burials at sea, these funeral directors typically have full day charters, and they must maintain compliance with EPA and Naval regulations, including the United States Coast Guard.  One such regulation describes how far off shore decedents may be buried (between four and eighty-five miles, and in at least 600 feet of water).  Additionally, decedents may be buried in a modified coffins or in shrouds.  

In the Guardian story, readers are not made aware of the specifics of the twin brothers requests, including whether they prefer coffins or shrouds.  But, there could be legal problems regarding where the brothers are at sea when they die and whether they can legally be buried anywhere in the ocean. Based upon the New England Burial at Sea standards, it appears that the brothers should consider asking a licensed funeral director to accompany them on their voyage.  Additionally, the brothers should consider having a plan for keeping their bodies until the boat can return within 90 miles of U.S. soil.  

Taylor Ey

Visiting Kaisergruft in Vienna, Austria

The Kaisergruft (or Imperial Crypt) is the last resting place of 146 members of the Hapsburg family, plus urns containing the hearts or cremains of four others.  There are 107 visible sarcophagi that range in style from plain to very ornate. 

Until far in the 18th century, the most common material for a sarcophagus here was a bronze-like alloy of tin, coated with shellac. The splendid tombs of the baroque and rococo eras are made of true bronze, a nobler and therefore more expensive material. Reforming Emperor Joseph II decreed simplified burial customs for the people, and introduced the use of lighter and cheaper copper into the Imperial Crypt, where it was then used into the 19th century. In the later 19th century a mixture of cast brass and bronze as well as silver-bronzed copper was adopted. Other metals were used only rarely, except for silver and gold plating on decorations.

Within the outer case lies a wooden coffin that is wrapped in silk (black with gold trim for rulers, red with silver trim for others). The coffin usually has two locks, the key to one is kept by the Capuchin Guardian of the crypt, the other is kept in the Schatzkammer of the Hofburg palace in Vienna.

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Visiting the Hill of Slane in County Meath, Ireland

The Hill of Slane in the Boyne Valley is within sight of the Hill of Tara.  Rumored to be a spot where St. Patrick lit a Pascal fire in 433 A.D., the Hill of Slane currently has the ruins of a friary church, including a 62-foot high early gothic tower.  The friary was abandoned in 1723 but the adjoining churchyard contains new burials.



Tanya Marsh

Visiting Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin

I had the opportunity visit Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland last week.  The Cathedral was founded around 1028, improved for centuries, and extensively renovated in the late 1800s.  Like other medieval European churches, burials can be found throughout the building and grounds.

The nave of the Church contains the tomb of Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, better known as "Strongbow," an English lord who participated in the Norman invasion of England.  Strongbow died in 1176.


There are also remains underneath the floors;


and in the walls;


and in the crypt.


Tanya Marsh



Roll Over Beethoven: Monty Python Tops British Funeral Charts

A press release on November 21 revealed that Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is the most requested song at British funerals. The announcement came from the UK’s largest funeral director, The Co-Operative Funeralcare which conducted research based on over 30,000 funerals.  Traditional pieces such as “The Lord is My Shepherd” and Elgar’s “Nimrod” from Enigma Variations remain popular but 84% of UK funeral directors say that requests for hymns and classical pieces are quickly declining. Among the popular songs to top the list were Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, and Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” Joining Monty Python under a category labeled “Humor” were Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” Several songs associated with popular “football” teams also topped the list.

Have the Brits lost their minds? According to David Collingwood, The Co-Operative Funeralcare’s Operations Director, the results may be a reflection of the increasing personalization in modern funerals. This phenomenon is not unique to the UK. In July of this year, the Huffington Post published an article on the rise of personalized “fun funerals” in the U.S. Among other things, the article addressed funeral-based reality TV shows, tombstone shaped cookies, and morticians who perform magic acts. In September, mourners remembered the legendary comedienne Joan Rivers with a “huge showbiz funeral” complete with moving eulogies, x-rated jokes, and Broadway performances, including the showtune “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity. Fellow comedienne Whoopi Goldberg described the funeral as a “truly funny, truly loving send-off by folks who loved her…funny and deeply moving, much like her.” A recent conversation with my own mother revealed that instead of a funeral, she would like to be remembered with a red wine toast against a backdrop of Janis Joplin songs.

It is often said that funerals are for the living, not the dead. But a move away from traditional funeral services may temper this distinction and also may help the grieving process. Friends and family can have more creative freedom to remember the deceased as they lived and how they would want to be remembered. In addition to reducing the somberness of a funeral, a more customized ceremony could be more effective at providing families with the closure they need.

It’s hard to imagine “Great Balls of Fire” becoming the next funeral anthem in the U.S., but like the Brits we seem to be looking on the bright side of life. For the funeral world it looks like “fun” is the new black. 

Kayla Frederickson

England's First Long Barrow in 5,500 years

Barrow outside

What’s old is new again.

A Wiltshire man, Tim Daw, recently finished England’s first long barrow burial mound in over 5,500 years. It is about 80 miles west and slightly south of London The barrow is a hollow, artificial hill about 160 feet long. Inside, ornate stonework contains four large chambers, each with 55 niches for storing cremains. Daw is charging £1,200 (aprox. $1,960 USD) to lease a family niche which is able to hold four or five urns. An individual lease runs £400 ($650 USD) and a lease for two is £600 ($980 USD).

English burial law only allows Daw to offer 99 year leases. In 1977, England’s Secretary of State for the Environment issued Local Authorities’ Cemeteries Order 1977. Article 10, subsection 2 of the Order prevents granting exclusive burial rights for more than 100 years. When the right expires, however, it may be extended for another 100 years. Further, the limitation does not apply to multiple or non-exclusive burial rights.

Britain’s Neolithic elite were typiclaly buried in long barrows. Neolithic Britons built around 300 barrows from 4000 to 600 AD. Barrows died out with the advent of Christianity. Stonehenge, where Daw works, is surrounded by barrows.

The Barrow cost about £200,000 ($320,000 USD) and took about a year to complete. Daw used traditional materials and construction. Construction began with a traditional ceremony including cutting the ground with an antler and drinking mead.

Daw built the barrow in response to the decline of Christian burials. The barrow does not contain any religious symbols and is “for those of any religion or none.” He hopes it brings together “traditional” elements in a manner that is “relevant for today.”

Several patrons have already leased niches.

For more, head to:

The barrow’s website and Facebook group

A local news story

Another local news story

BBC news stories on the planninggroundbreakingconstruction, and completion of the barrow.

Daniel Gibson

Dowager Duchess of Devonshire dies at 94


Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters, died this week at the age of 94.  Her son, Peregrine (which is a fabulous name) announced her death.  Deborah was appropriately celebrated during her lifetime for restoring the home of the Cavendish family, Chatsworth, and turning it into a sustainable 21st century business enterprise.  ("Home" is perhaps not the right word.  Chatsworth, built in the 1500s, includes 297 rooms, 112 fireplaces, 68 lavatories, 26 baths, 32 kitchens and workshops, 17 staircases, and 1.3 acres of roof.)

Each of the Mitford sisters were extraordinary and fascinating, but Jessica Mitford is particularly relevant to this blog as the author of The American Way of Death.

No word on whether the Dowager Duchess' funeral would meet with Jessica's approval.

Tanya Marsh