I recall, as a small child living in Bali, chasing funeral processions through the dusk, drawn by music and the sweet perfume of rice cakes and tropical flowers draped over the deceased. These were grand occasions indeed, and I was enraptured watching the flames from the funeral pyre lick the sky. Later on I heard tales of Tibet, where bodies were left on the steppes for the wild dogs and vultures to consume, while incense and butter candles chased away the violent spirits. Then, one day when I was older, swilling away the late-night hours with suitably morbid companions, someone asked me where I'd like to be buried. Because of my childhood, burial had never occurred to me. Being sunk into the ground with the trappings of life -- clothes, jewelry, a lock of hair placed in my pocket by some smellfungus -- seemed an entirely anticlimactic way to shuffle off this mortal coil. After careful consideration I decided I would ideally like to have my body left out on Vultures' Peak beneath my great-grandmother's house on Mount Diablo. But, taking into consideration the sensibilities of the present homeowners and the well-fed temperament of the birds, I'd settle for cremation.
According to death-care workers, cremation accounts for only 25 percent of funeral rites in North America today, but this figure was not always so low. Decorated funeral urns dating from the Stone Age have been found throughout Europe, Russia, and the Near East. In the Mycenaean Age, cremation became an integral part of the elaborate Grecian burial custom, and it was so popular with the Romans that a law was passed banning the burning of bodies within city limits. Of course, the Christians considered cremation to be pagan and, by 400 A.D., earth burial had completely replaced cremation, except in the "ungodly" instances of war and plague. Thanks to the efforts of Queen Victoria's surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, and an increasing disregard for Christian convention, cremation is back on the rise, and people need nice places to put their ashes. (Remember, scattering ashes in open spaces is still illegal without a permit, even if it is at the top of the Golden Gate Bridge or under your grandmother's house.) With this change in mind, Funeria has curated "Ashes to Art," the first juried exhibition of urns, vessels, and reliquaries created for art lovers. The collection of 100 works offers a look at the "grave" ruminations and physical expressions of 80 artists from six different countries, with an opportunity to buy. Whether you'd like your ashes ensconced in something sleek and futuristic, crude and organic, or bright and delicate, all of these will complement your living room better than a coffin. "Ashes to Art" will be on exhibition Friday through Sunday, Nov. 30-Dec. 2, at the Fort Mason Center Firehouse (Marina & Buchanan) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (An opening reception will be held on Thursday, Nov. 29, from 6 to 9 p.m.) Admission is $5, which includes a $1 donation to the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York Local 94 Widows' and Children's Fund; call 345-7544.
After decades of touring with the testosterone-drenched shock-rock outfit GWAR, Slymenstra Hyman has decided to get a little girly. Draping herself in white feathers and pink light, Hyman directs her all-female Girly Freak Show cast in the very womanly arts of sword swallowing, fire breathing, and glass munching. Beyond the fact that Ms. Hyman holds the Guinness World Record for fire breathing (38 feet for nearly two minutes) and is capable of shooting 25-foot lightning bolts from her fingertips, her traveling freak show is the hottest ticket in town. Just ask Miss Behave, who enjoys sleeping on a bed of nails, as well as dining on intimate dinners of crushed glass and razor blades; or Cammanda Galactica, the Mistress of Fire, whose revue of dervish, tap, burlesque, and belly dancing is sure to offer an unexpected sizzle; or Madam Twisto the Pain-Proof Rubber Girl, who can fly up a trapeze in 6-inch heels, shatter cinder blocks on her chest, and act as a human ashtray without breaking a sweat. Expect a chaser of internal neon combustion, lasso arts, snake charming, and a little thing Hyman likes to call the Cannibal Stripper Hoochie Coochie Dance. Girly Freak Show will appear on Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Odeon Bar at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 550-6994.