I was pleased to share my view of funeral service with Life. Death. Whatever., gleaned from the work I’ve done, the experiences of my colleagues, and the perspective of the thousands of families I’ve served over the years. Despite what you may read in slanted press articles (with the fringe and/or inexperienced being used as sources to further a false narrative), funerals are as important as they ever were.
The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic — just in time for a death boom blared the Washington Post headline.
Whoever wrote this garbage must have scoured the depths of kook-dom. This article bears no resemblance to what funeral directors do on a daily basis. Perhaps if newspapers interviewed actual, experienced funeral directors instead of those who seem like escapees from an asylum they’d get a true picture of funeral service. Among those quoted here is a woman (said to be unlicensed) who caused a great deal of consternation during her time with SCI. Another is an inexperienced counter-culture type who makes a pest of herself, and because of that has been blocked her from our social media accounts. Still, she finds a way to pester.
The nonsense terminology–memorialpalooza, fabulous memorial shindig –and tawdry attempts to turn death into entertainment (“Final Bow Productions” –seriously!?) are affronts to dedicated funeral directors, and every person who has suffered a loss. Granted, death rituals have changed over the years, but not that much. The news, however, with their sketchy and slanted information would have you think otherwise. Reporters sometimes take the terms personalization and memorial services and somehow manage to turn them into something akin to circus antics.
Death is life-altering, painful, and so very sad. The often irreverent view of death by today’s Press made me think of Mike McAlary, a once well-known reporter in NYC. The father of four young children died from cancer on Christmas day in 1998, at the age of 41. I seriously doubt his grieving wife and devastated children would have turned to “Final Bow Productions” to handle his “celebration of life.” Nor were they likely wanting “to put the “fun” in funerals.” In fact, McAlary’s family and friends attended a Catholic Funeral Mass for him on Long Island. Raw with grief, they, and the priest, shared what he had meant to so many. That, and millions of other stories are the realities of death and funerals.
We submitted this piece to The New York Times @nytimes as an Op-Ed letter seven days ago and have never heard from them. We are publishing it here so our voices can be heard regarding this topic.
Recently, The New York Times published an article: Green Burials: At the End of Life, Thinking Outside the Coffin, (NYT, November 15, 2018)
It was clever, and complete with eye-catching graphics and unusual fonts to draw the reader in. However, it lacked basic research to make it useful for those who interested in learning about funeral options. The premise of the article was, in a quirky way, to tell readers the reasons people might want to consider a “green” burial. What has been the problem with nearly all the stories and comments about green burial is that although they are touted as an up and coming way of disposing of human remains, the facts do not support the argument. This hype-driven alternative is the province of a small fringe group who make it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. You often read statistics that claim people are very interested in this type of disposition, but there is an astounding lack of reporting about what percentage of the general public is following through on this choice. If you ask funeral directors how often families select green burial, you will quickly find that this is not a trend at all. Although, funeral and disposition choices have changed over the years, clearly this is not a choice that is widely popular.
Looking at this specific article (many other articles quote the same statistics and material) there is a comparison between traditional funeral costs versus green burial costs at $1,000 – $4,000 for the green burial option. This is an exaggeration. By calling cemeteries that offer “green” options you will find that the burial space alone may take up more than half of the $4,000. The Green Burial Council’s (greenburialcouncil.org) website provides lists of approved and certified green burial funeral homes and cemeteries. For example, if you look at the list of cemeteries near New York City, you will find that the closest one is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, about one hour outside the city. This means that the deceased would need to be transported a long distance for burial (as is the case in many areas around the country where there is no green cemetery nearby), adding additional costs.
The article goes on to look at the type of caskets and shrouds that can be used. Some green caskets are no less expensive than those typically used in funeral homes on a regular basis. A Google search for green caskets and shrouds reveals pages of listings. Memorials.com offers many varieties of green caskets on their website from woolen caskets starting at $1,297.00, up to $2,099.00 for a bamboo casket. kinkaraco.com has a variety of products for green burials. Shroud pages show items costing between $225.00 – $995.00. Bear in mind, these prices do not reflect the funeral home’s charges nor do they include the cemetery space. Combined, these costs can easily exceed $4,000.
The article also mentions urns and a starred box advises that “…cremation isn’t so green. Cremating one body uses as much fuel as a 500+ mile road trip.” There is no reference for this comment (nor for any of the other items in this piece) so one can’t determine its accuracy. Flame-based cremation usage is at an all-time high and continues to be a very affordable method of disposition. And newer flame-based cremation units are much more efficient. Last year, Facultatieve Technologies, a manufacturer of cremators, introduced the FT USA v2 cremation retort which minimizes the burning of natural gas during the cremation process. Flameless and aqua cremations are considered more environmentally friendly, but since they are relatively new their availability is limited across the country.
An exchange between the author and two workers at Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley, California, (fernwood.com) discuss interments with misguided humor. Of note is that Fernwood Cemetery, which bills itself as “one of the country’s first environmentally conscious cemeteries” is not on the list of Green Burial Council approved providers. What’s more, on their price list for ‘Natural Burial Options,’ the least expensive option is $6,700, far exceeding the article’s suggested cost of $1,000 to $4,000. These prices are just for the burial space and no other goods or services.
In the end what does all of this mean for the consumer? We believe it means that while people may be curious about alternatives to tradition funerals that curiosity has not led to a greater demand for green burials. At a time when traditional funerals today are sometimes mocked and treated like vulgar, pagan rituals, the majority continue to find them normal and comforting. The funeral of President George H. W. Bush is a case in point. So, let’s validate the consumer’s choice by telling them that whatever they want for their final disposition is okay. Surely, each individual should have the type of final disposition — burial, cremation, entombment — that they want and can afford, and that includes adhering to time-honored rituals or trendy alternatives. Just don’t be taken in by the hype.
There was a picture that circulated on the internet recently showing a young man posed at his wake in a laid back style. Many commentators used the phrase “extreme embalming” to describe this supposedly new phenomenon. Most of those commentators know nothing about embalming or its history. If they did they would have known about the many photos that exist of posed deceased persons just here in the US from before the Civil War.
On this the 66th anniversary of the death of Eva Peron. “Evita” the devoted wife of President Juan Peron of Argentina, was famous in life and death. Her history and that of her husband can be found without difficulty through any search engine. What is interesting about Evita is her story after her death.
On July 26, 1952 when Eva Peron died, her husband was at her bedside along with Dr. Pedro Ara. Ara was a well known anatomist and very skilled at the preservation of the body. He came to Argentina in 1925 to organize the anatomy museum for a medical college. He had learned embalming from some of the best physicians in Europe. It is believed he had preserved through embalming hundreds maybe thousands of human remains.
Eva Peron was embalmed in the room she died in. President Peron gave him complete control and privacy while engaged in the operation. At the completion of the preparation the President expressed his satisfaction. She was washed, dressed, her hair prepared by her own hair dresser. Her nails were polished by her personal maid. The casket was a fully open mahogany with a glass top. Her remains were moved to the Ministry of Labor where she would lie in state until her state funeral on August 9. Millions of people came to pay there respects to her during the interval. For his final treatment Dr. Ara had her remains moved to a laboratory the day after her funeral. He immerses the body in a chemical solution in the belief that it would provide a permanent preservation. It would remain there until the construction of her monument was complete.
Political unrest gripped Argentina and President Peron was forced to flee to Paraguay on September 20, 1955. However, the new President believed he must rid the country of the Peron’s affection. He ordered the military with the help of a famous German commando leader to seize her remains.
The story continues, that her remains were sent to Bonn, Germany in 1956. Pope Pius XII gives consent for it to be buried near Rome but was moved one more time to Musocco Cemetery in Milan in 1957 under the name Maria Maggi.
Back in Argentina during this time it was not clear where her remains were taken. Those loyal to the Peron’s would begin a long search for it. The Peron loyalist, kidnapped the current president of Argentina in 1970 with the hopes of having him to tell them where she was. He was found dead several days later. The end came in September 1971 when a “man” appears at the Milan cemetery claiming Maria Maggi was his sister and he wished to have her disinterred. This was accomplished with extraordinary speed. The remains arrived at the residence of Juan Peron in Madrid a few days later.
Dr. Ara also lived in Madrid and the following day began repairs of the body that was now 16 years since being viewed and 19 years since embalming. A new coffin held Evita with it being placed in the Peron home dining room, where the current Mr. and Mrs. Peron ate dinner each evening. Juan and his wife returned to Argentina to lead the country but without Evita in 1973. Political unrest there led to the return of her remains the following year and she was placed next to her husband in the Presidential residence. Her coffin was open for viewing while his was closed. Evita’s post death travels end in October 1976 when she returned to her family in Recoleta Cemetery. Her husband was buried in his family cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Dr. Ara consulted with one of the world’s most prominent embalmers, Desmond Henley of London in 1972. Henley had embalmed many prominent persons and was considered to be a master embalmer. This consultation was one year before his death and while he was still interested in learning more about the practice of embalming.
There have been many famous embalmed remains around the world. Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Chairman Mao, and Joseph Stalin to name a few. Long term embalming is possible and an art. Embalming makes it possible to not just preserve the remains for a period of time but also have it look the way it was remembered. A positive final good bye.
This article was excerpted from previously published material from the American Funeral Director, April and May, 1986 by Edward C. Johnson and Melissa Johnson.
Perhaps it’s a consequence of being on social media, but barely a day passes that I don’t read some nonsense article, post or tweet about funeral service. Shooting ashes into space, turning cremains into bullets (Seriously, With all the gun violence these days !?), mushroom suits, and so much more fill pages. My colleagues who do not subscribe to social media (and there are many) are amused when I tell them what I’ve been reading. What’s more, my colleagues don’t recognize the names attached to these fanciful stories which seem aimed at turning funeral service into entertainment. Perhaps they are better off than I am, as seeing so much fake news about funeral service grows tiresome and demeans the serious work we do. For many years, I have worked side by side with dedicated funeral directors, many of whom were raised in funeral service families. In addition to coordinating meaningful funerals, we have painstakingly prepared remains for visitations. One of the things we were taught in mortuary school is that viewing of the remains “confirms the reality of death.” And indeed the first visitation is not an easy one. As Dr. Alan Wolfelt has said, “People tend to cry, even sob and wail at funerals because funerals force us to concentrate on the fact of the death and our feelings, often excruciatingly painful, about that death.” Still, despite the pain, we are almost always thanked by mourners, often through tears, for the opportunity to see a loved one for the last time. The feedback has been gratifying and convinced me that the work funeral directors do continues to be important.
Now, we are being told by unlicensed individuals, and those with limited experience, that we have been doing it all wrong. Funerals are somber and depressing, (No Kidding!) and we need to see death in a more positive light, they tell us. Then it hit me—these are the true death deniers. They are afraid, quite literally, to look death in the face, planning parties and investigating absurd alternate rituals instead. Making light of what we fear is not uncommon among people. Still, this “death positive” talk is an affront to all those who have lost a loved one, as it mocks (perhaps unintentionally) their grief. There is nothing positive about losing your child, the love of your life, your best friend, etc. It shocks, it hurts, it changes lives, and no amount of positive death talk will ever change that. As Dr. Wolfelt wrote in his book, Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart, “As a death educator and grief counselor, I am deeply convinced that individuals, and ultimately society as a whole, will suffer if we do not reinvest ourselves in the funeral ritual.”
We hear so much today about a “movement” called Death Positivity. As a funeral director, I couldn’t tell someone what that means. Once we are born, we all move toward death. It’s just a matter of when and how. It’s also a concept that some people have a hard time wrapping their head around. Being positive about anything that causes pain to not only ourselves but those we love is difficult to understand.
So, what does this mean in simple language? A number of websites discuss this concept. One calls for individuals to boldly state their support of the movement by signing their name to a page on a website. Others discuss Death Cafes, a European innovation to openly discuss death. One article states death can be “fun.” Describing an after-party of lecture on death positivity that had tarot card readings, palm readings and an insect petting zoo. And today there is even an app, WeCroak, to help remind you five times a day that you are dying. Too many times we see death depicted as a goth or ghoulish movement, something that brings to mind the Addams Family without its satiric humor. Clearly death is none of that. It is deep, it is emotional, it is personal, it is painful and, yes, it should be taken reverently.
In 2007, PBS aired a program called The Undertaking. It featured well respected author and poet AND funeral director, Thomas Lynch and his family owned funeral home. This program really was the beginning of introducing death, dying, and the funeral trade, as Lynch calls it, to a larger audience. His book, The Undertaking: Life Studies From A Dismal Trade, openly discusses what takes place within grieving families at his funeral home. A quote from the program website states “The Lynch family believes that the rituals of a funeral are more than mere formalities. Funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters, Lynch contends. A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”
That last sentence, “a good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and living where they need to be” is so important. Our American culture toward death has changed. It has evolved from the days of the Civil War, and that is expected. Our traditions and rituals surrounding death and funerals have changed. It’s hard to pinpoint when this happened. Many people now say we are a death denying culture. I feel that’s not true, it’s present every day, in our faces in every form of media. What I see is that more people do not believe they can die in the blink of an eye. We think that not seeing the deceased (it doesn’t matter whether it’s at home or a funeral home) removes death from us. It doesn’t. Many families have started choosing direct cremation, or immediate burial, which removes the deceased from the view of family and friends. Thus, denying them the opportunity to say good-bye and grieve with others. While the options for coming face to face with death, by viewing the deceased, are there we are seeing more families not choosing them. As funeral directors, we have to learn why so that we’ll know what we can do to make it easier for people to embrace the opportunity to see a loved one (family, friend, or co-worker), one last time.
In the meantime, we should reinforce the need to educate people as to why thinking about our own (or a family member’s death) is a positive thing. There is much to be considered around end of life wishes, along with preferences that extend beyond final arrangements. We should choose how we want to die, and how we want to be memorialized. It also helps those left behind to make that happen. We should be asking, “What we can do to prepare for that eventuality? We have to start somewhere and at the end is a good place to do that.
Marjorie Kunch is a funeral director, and writer, based in Arizona. When her grandmother died, Kunch, the mother of two young children, searched for books to answer the questions her two young children had about funeral rituals. Not able to find what she was looking for, Kunch decided to write her own book. Written from the perspective of her Slavic Orthodox faith, When My Baba Died was published in 2015, and a companion workbook soon followed. In 2017, Kunch published a Greek Orthodox version titled, When My Yiayia Died. Both books are tenderly illustrated, with Kunch’s children serving as models. In a piece I wrote for American Funeral Director’s December issue about Kunch’s works, I noted that the Worsham College of Mortuary Science graduate “aims to demystify death, funerals and cancer, events that are often kept hidden from children.” For more information, here’s a recent review on Goodreads.