Sunday, March 1, 2009

Libraries of Dust

For those who choose to be cremated, there are a lot of decisions about what to do with the ashes. But what if you didn't have a choice? What if your ashes were stashed in a utilitarian canister, anonymously hidden away with others in a dark storage room? It sounds like a tragic fate. Yet photographer David Maisel has uncovered a strange and beautiful alchemy that has occurred in the realm of the forgotten.

In his book Library of Dust, Maisel photographs the ashes of patients from the Oregon State Hospital (formally the Oregon State Insane Asylum, the location where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed.) The canisters of the unclaimed are kept in a room with pine shelves, ordered as if they were books - literally libraries of dust. Maisel noticed how some of the cans corroded, transforming from stamped anonymity into hauntingly beautiful objects. The people here may have been forgotten in life, but in death they have become unique works of art.

This has me thinking about the nature of urns. We want them to be stable, permanent objects, stand-ins for the inevitable loss of our physical bodies. But what about an urn that changed with time? Evolved with the elements? Someone should make copper urns. And for some reason, I love the simple, utilitarian shape of the canister.

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