Mortal Remains

Mortal Remains

Release date:


Running time:

52 minutes


Available on DVD

Closed Captioned:


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Whether rich or poor, celebrated or obscure, human beings all have one thing in common: mortality. We are fearful of death yet helplessly entranced by it, fashioning elaborate ceremonies and observances to help us face the impenetrable mystery that awaits at the end of every life.

The ritual burial of the dead and the building of monuments to mark their passing are practices common to most cultures. The cemetery is a nearly universal institution - one that allows us to proclaim our beliefs, give voice to our anguish and express all that is ineffable about the human spirit. Though it may serve as a repository for the dead, the cemetery exists ultimately for the benefit of the living.

In Mortal Remains, Chris Gallagher examines the evolution of the North American cemetery through the centuries, and considers its unique place within our culture. The film takes the viewer on a historical tour that leads from the church graveyards of centuries past through such grand old garden cemeteries as New York's Woodlawn and Greenwood, and finally to the "memorial parks" of today. Along the way it traces the development of monument art, reflects on the wide variety of artifacts that appear in cemeteries on occasions such as Mother's Day and Halloween, and attempts to account for the pilgrimages that so many people make to the gravesites of the famous.

In addition, Mortal Remains offers insight and informed opinion from a remarkably varied cast of characters. Historians Kenneth Jackson and John Adams explain the importance of the cemetery as a cultural and historical resource. Janis Chandler of Vancouver's W.R. Chandler Memorials demonstrates the process of creating stone monuments. And John Warhola, brother of artist Andy Warhol, pays a visit to his well-known sibling's grave in Pittsburgh.

Materialistic and youth-obsessed, our culture often seems at pains to avoid the acknowledgement of human mortality: "sex is in, death is out" may be true but there is something undeniably fascinating about the rituals and practices that attend life's final chapter. From the simplest of wooden markers to the most ostentatious of crypts, every grave expresses the same desperate human longing to understand the meaning of death - and life.

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