.To Live and Die in Silicon Valley

At Santa Clara University, I scan the campus grounds for what a friend describes via text as “a little faux telephone booth.”

The wind telephone is a death-themed art installation. Inside the closet-like structure, there’s an antique rotary phone in the same chocolate hue as the one my deceased grandmother once used.

“This phone is for everyone who’s lost a loved one,” the framed flier reads. “The phone is an outlet for those who have messages they wish to share with their lost friends & family. It is a phone for memories and saying the goodbyes you never got to say.” 

In 2023, the slender booth is out of place (and, thus, hard to miss). When I enter its windowed contours, I feel on display. I fail to avoid eye contact with the adults dining al fresco in the Mayer Theatre’s courtyard.

Lifting the receiver, I find it is totally dead. There isn’t a trace of a dial tone. The phone’s base is cord-free, cemented to the countertop to keep passersby from swiping it.

In an uncanny moment, I yank my smartphone from my seat pocket to scan the shrine’s QR code. Turns out you need a new phone to interpret the old phone. 

Mirroring a 2010 exhibit by Japanese garden designer Itaru Sasaki, the device is intentionally disconnected from “wires or any earthly system.” In the wake of a catastrophic tsunami, mourners used the original version to connect with loved ones on the other side.

In the decade since, many replicas have cropped up worldwide, including other corners of the Bay. In 2017, Oakland artist Jordan Stern constructed one on the porch of a community art space to memorialize the Ghost Ship warehouse fire victims. 

Today, the wind telephone is one of many novel means available for those in Silicon Valley to relate with death. Even burial itself is undergoing many changes. In addition to standard burial methods, options now include green burials, burials at sea, human composting, video memorials and more.

But, for now, it’s prom season. There’s an unexpected propensity of teenagers in sequins and boutonnieres. With so many observers nearby, I find I am too uptight to use the wind phone for its intended purpose. 

“Hi, Grandma,” I whisper into the receiver. Then, worrying about surveillance, I ask, “Am I being recorded?” 

When I exit the booth, I notice a trio of mothers. They crouch, snapping photos of a queue of dapper students in cummerbunds across from Mission Santa Clara de Asís’s memorial rose garden. The padlocked green space commemorates the graveyard where 6,000 Ohlone, Spaniards, Californios and Americans were buried between 1777 and 1851.

This is recent history in the grand scheme of things. After all, people have been grieving and dying in the region since time immemorial.

DIGITAL LEGACIES

If the wind phone is a medium for the living to contact the dead, what device might we use for the dead to make contact with us? From online memorials to QR codes on tombstones, there’s an array of ways we mortals can curate our digital afterlives.

These newer technologies have a locally schemed-up precursor: the Video Enhanced Gravemarker. Over 20 years ago, San Mateo-based inventor and advertising professional Robert Barrows patented this then-novel idea. 

“You thought ‘dead men tell no tales,’ well, not anymore,” says Barrows. “Soon you will be able to listen to all kinds of intimate secret confessions, as told from beyond the grave.”

Barrow envisions cemeteries of the future as being operable by a clicker. 

“You would basically rent or get a remote control from the cemetery office and then go listen to whatever tombstones you wanted to,” he reveals. 

Those of us who favor solemnity might disapprove of a graveyard that feels like a Best Buy showroom. Still, Barrows makes a valid point about today’s cemeteries being … well, pretty darn dead. 

“It’s called the Season of Death,” he explains. “People only visit a grave about one or two times after a person dies.”

From his perspective, the Video Enhanced Gravemarker could change all that. 

“It would make cemeteries fascinating places to visit,” he says. “Wouldn’t you love to go to Marilyn Monroe’s tombstone and learn she really did sleep with JFK and RFK?”

Recently, a similar concept—a digital tombstone—found purchase at the Pobrezje cemetery on the outskirts of Maribor, Slovenia. Their device is motion-activated, springing to life whenever cemetery-goers pass by.

And it’s only becoming more participatory. As of late 2017, a professor of computing was hard at work on a special smartphone application to increase the tombstone’s interactivity.

“It’s very funny,” Barrows states. “In my patent application, I talked about using a plexiglass screen to protect the device from the elements. The company in Slovenia actually specified bulletproof glass.” 

Why would a tombstone need to be bulletproof? Perhaps because of its salacious potential to incite strong, even negative emotions.

“In addition to changing how history is told, [these technologies] might also create a tremendous amount of controversy,” he says. “Who knows what kinds of things people might say from their video tombstones? And will it be truth or lies?”

From the safety of the great hereafter, the dead can evade accountability. They might state something slanderous, incriminating or emotionally distressing to the humans who outlive them. The resulting free speech issues, Barrows speculates, could provide grounds for legal cases that might go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Most excitingly, Barrows sees room for Video Enhanced Gravemarkers to spawn a whole new genre of storytelling. He’s even crafted Cemetery of Lies, a novel that imagines a world where the device is widespread. 

“The genre of stories told through video tombstones, whether it’s a horror story, a love story, an action-adventure, a whodunnit or even a historical piece, could make zillions of dollars,” he pronounces. “So if you know any literary agents or movie producers who are interested in the video tombstone, send them my way.”

Despite steady buzz from the press in the early 2000s, the market for the Video Enhanced Gravemarker has yet to materialize.

The cost of upkeep is one inhibiting factor that Barrows faced when pitching his concept to funeral companies and monument builders. His proposed solution? A perpetual care fund that would generate a few thousand dollars a year in interest to maintain the devices for eternity.

ASHES TO ASHES 

Whether today’s cemeteries will stand the test of time is yet to be seen. Many long-held traditions are rapidly falling out of vogue, and far fewer people are opting for pallbearers and open-casket memorials.

The National Funeral Directors Association reports that, in 2022, cremation accounted for 68% of funeral services in California. By 2040, the organization projects this figure will rise to 84%. In the U.S., well over half of our country’s cremated remains are not buried or interred at a cemetery. Instead, they’re returned to families, scattered in a sentimental place, or split among relatives. The report cites fewer religious prohibitions against the practice as one of the main factors contributing to cremation’s rise. 

The largest faith-based group in our region—the Catholic Church—has an ever-evolving stance on cremation. While its leaders now permit the practice among followers, they have several specific guidelines.

According to statistics on their website, the Diocese of San Jose serves 600,000 Catholics in 54 parishes and missions spanning 13 Bay Area cities. That’s just under the population of Portland, Oregon. The diocese’s churches offer masses in 14 languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Polish, Korean, Croatian, Tagalog and American Sign Language, among others.

“The reality is that Silicon Valley is an amazing tapestry of people,” says Father John Pedigo, the Director of Advocacy & Community Engagement at Catholic Charities. “We’re connected by the love of family, a passion for our cultures, our food and our music. And everyone’s just looking to be seen.”

The Church’s diversity requires cultural competency of its leaders. 

“If you’re a Catholic priest, deacon or liturgical musician,” Father Pedigo emphasizes, “you are constantly having to switch contexts each time you go into a funeral.”

He says that, though some funeral customs and attitudes vary significantly from culture to culture, the focus of the service remains the same. In addition to talking in loving tones about the person who has passed, the sermon focuses on Catholics’ core belief in resurrection and life after death.

For much of the Church’s history, its leaders forbade cremations. Then, in 1963, the Vatican lifted these prohibitions. Twenty years later, the permission became a part of canonical law as well.

At first, the standard practice was to celebrate the funeral mass before cremating the body. Nowadays, it’s becoming more common for an urn to appear on the altar.

On All Soul’s Day in 2016, due to a steep uptick in Catholic cremations, the Vatican clarified its rules. 

“It is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way,” they decreed. “Nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.” 

It’s also against the doctrine to divvy up the cremains among loved ones. Instead, the living should preserve the ashes in cemeteries, columbariums, or other approved sacred places. 

Intriguingly, while Catholics can’t spread ashes in the ocean, they can bury them there. 

“An appropriate and worthy container, heavy enough to be sent to its final resting place, may be dropped into the sea,” reads a diocese-approved Q&A on the St. Francis of Assisi Parish website.  

“It’s always about having an actual resting place,” Father Pedigo explains. “The body needs to be in a space that’s set aside so that it can be lovingly received and visited by the family.”

DYING AU NATURAL

For those searching for greener options, a new method will soon join the current array of end-of-life choices. Owing to a bill signed by Governor Newsom last September, human composting will come to California in 2027. 

Less energy intensive than cremation, the process of breaking down a human body takes 30 to 60 days. Once complete, the typical result is enough soil—roughly a cubic yard—to fill up a truck bed. Families might use this fresh earth for gardening or other purposes.

For those locals who wish to decompose via ecologically sustainable means before 2027, there’s also natural burial. 

A natural burial begins with an unenbalmed body. Instead of a vault, it’s placed in a biodegradable container or shroud. There’s no upright monuments set in concrete. 

The Green Burial Council has certified 11 cemeteries in California, more than any other state. Of those, four are in the Bay Area. 

One such natural burial ground, Purissima Historic Cemetery in Half Moon Bay, was resurrected after many years of disuse.

Established in the early 1860s, the small town of Purissima was one of the earliest settlements on the San Mateo Coast. In its heyday, it had all the basic amenities: a school, a hotel, a saloon, a post office and a dance hall.

But owing to crop failures and natural disasters, the farmers and loggers who frequented these buildings had all either died or moved away by the late 1930s. An old village cemetery—replete with the graves of 58 pioneers—remained as testament to the disappeared town. 

In 2017, cemeterian Ed Bixby purchased the serene-but-overgrown property with plans to restore the old gravesites and create a green burial space. Today, Purissima offers natural burial and is open to all. New plots stand alongside historic ones under coverings of cedars and pines. For anyone interested in the site’s rich history, an eco-friendly trail system is open to the public seven days a week.

“A cemetery that exists, a cemetery that needs love and attention, can be repurposed,” he explains. “It can be given back to the community for these services.” This model, he tells me, is called “the historic hybrid model,” and it is how he cut his teeth in the business.

Bixby became a cemeterian by happenstance. In 2007, he unexpectedly assumed ownership of an old family cemetery in Steelmantown, New Jersey. Located in the remote Pine Barrens at the site of a long-gone colonial village, the property had fallen into stark disrepair. He initially planned to create a historic attraction with hiking trails and other points of interest. 

“I mean, I never thought I’d be burying people there,” he says. 

Turns out fate had other plans. Soon he found himself reading about prerequisites for natural burial grounds in an article in the Atlantic City Press. 

“That’s when the stars aligned for me,” he says. “I thought, geez, maybe there’s new life for this cemetery.”

When he was president of the Green Burial Council, he often touted the historic hybrid model to anyone looking to get their feet wet in the industry. 

“The bureaucracy of creating a new cemetery is very cost prohibitive,” he explains. “It wasn’t leading to success stories.” 

Today, he’s spreading the word via his latest endeavor, an international community of eco-friendly funeral professionals known as the Global Green Burial Alliance. 

Part of his fervor for the historic hybrid model is its ease to replicate. 

“Every community has a Steelmantown,” he enthuses. “Every place in America has the ability to do this, and that’s what we need to do.”

Fifteen years ago, early in Bixby’s cemetery career, most proponents of natural burial were environmentalists. Today, he’s noticing a broadening demographic. He credits the shift to the catharsis mourners experience when they’re less distanced from death. 

“In the last 100 years or so,” he reflects, “with things like movies and television, death has become creepy and odd and weird to people. It’s a subject they don’t want to be around.” He adds that the mainstream death industry, with its tightly scheduled march from the funeral home to the graveside, only adds to this alienation. “You don’t feel like you’re part of the process,” he says. 

With natural burials, the bereaved can take active roles in death-related rituals instead. During the ceremony, they help to lay their loved one’s body on a cart, shepherd them to the grave site, and spend time with them before lowering them into the ground. Bixby describes this process as healing. “They’re leaving with a different form of acceptance,” he reflects. “The grief feels different. They don’t feel quite as bad at the end of the day.”

There is another plus side to natural burial. 

“The beautiful thing is it knows no religion, no race, no gender, no sexuality,” Bixby says. “You name it, we’ve done it.”

NEW WAYS TO GRIEVE

At Santa Clara University, Brian Thorstenson teaches a playwriting workshop on a technique called “devising.” Rather than starting with a script, explains the playwright and senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Dance, you convene assorted collaborators: actors, musicians, designers, video artists and more. Then, the group coalesces around a “departure point,” like a question or quote. 

One such departure point was a passage from memoirist Suleika Jaouad. She writes: “When our lives are upended, either by an illness or a pandemic or some other kind of deep heartbreak or a sense of loss, we want to feel like we can move on from them, but we can’t compartmentalize these feelings. We have to learn how to move forward with them and carry what lingers.”

Thorstenson brought this quote along with the image of the wind phone to a group of trusted students. Ultimately, the quote and wind phone would become the inspiration for and carry what lingers, an original play they staged at the Fess Parker Studio Theatre last month. 

“They really ran with this idea of the wind phone,” he reflects. “We lost so many people so quickly in such a short amount of time. Even if the play is not directly talking about the pandemic, it’s tapping into a communal sense of grief that’s in the current zeitgeist.” 

Then, when students returned to in-person classes after the first lockdown, the student body experienced further tragedy.

“The campus community lost three or four students really shortly after each other,” Thorstenson shares. 

Having moved to San Francisco at 22 in the throes of the AIDS epidemic, Thorstenson is well acquainted with loss. His experience of this era is inextricable from his perception of the Bay Area, affecting everything from how he teaches to how he moves through the world. 

“It really informed my notion of what it means to grieve,” he says. “And what you have to go through, either as a community or as an individual, when somebody dies.” 

Recently, he recognized that his students were living through a parallel moment in their own histories. As a result, they are diving into complex material in much more profound ways.

Thorstenson and his collaborators spent ten weeks co-constructing the play, with the wind phone as their organizing image. The stage was vacant save for a vintage payphone on a metal pole, which actors incorporated into monologues highlighting loss. Set designer Heather Kenyon worked with students from the scene shop to construct the complementary installation in an area known as the Arts Plaza. The wind phone would provide a much-needed space for the campus community to mourn more openly, with less stigma.

“People have been using the phone,” Thorstenson says. “One of my students said, ‘I walked past the wind phone last night. There was a line.’”

1 COMMENT

  1. Well written, informative and balanced, except for the odd digression into Papist burial rules, especially unwelcome as they continue to evade responsibility for sexual crimes against children, continuing to defend their misogyny, disloyalty and crimes, mendacity and conspiracy against our country.

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