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 she 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 can barely contain our disgust at this article. In essence, the writer is complaining that the funeral home made her deceased mother look too good, and it has traumatized her. She writes: “I thought she was alive again. She looked better than she had for years. Her skin was pink and smooth; her hair, nicely groomed. Even her fingernails were done, and she had a very small smile on her face.”
This woman is hawking a book, and that likely accounts for her hyperbole, laughable terminology (slumber room, coffin) and misleading information (once again someone who can’t understand that cremation is a type of final disposition and does not preclude embalming). She did, however, catch the attention of a major magazine with her tripe. And she is yet another voice slamming the work we do with such caring and dedication.
This is one (seemingly disturbed ) woman’s opinion, and we know that this is not a normal reaction to a perfectly presented remains. As we have seen time and again, it is quite the opposite: families cannot thank us enough for taking away the ravages of disease.
Funeral service is being slammed on a regular basis. Unfortunately, part of the problem is that we have stayed silent while kooks (often inexperienced and/or unlicensed) speak for our honorable industry. We encourage funeral directors everywhere to reach out in rebuttal to these defamatory articles, starting with this one.
The New York Time’s email: email@example.com.
Southern Calls is a prestigious funeral service journal. The SouthernCalls.com website has interesting articles and images on their pages that are a mix of old and new. The Funeral Profession page has two separate pages, The Present and The Past. The Present page has this as its headline:
Steeped in history, defined by compassion, The Funeral Profession moves ever forward buoyed by innovation, rooted in tradition, and made lasting in the service to others. We proudly honor the purveyors – past & present.
This should be funeral services motto. Every generation moves ahead but it should always be rooted in tradition and made lasting in the service to others. Funeral service history is not considered important by many today. It’s old fashioned and outdated. But what has never changed is this: We serve families. Whether they want a full traditional funeral or they want something modern and innovative we are still rooted in the tradition of honoring the deceased AND the family.
Too many times today it feels as though the material that is published in regard to funerals is oftentimes more about entertainment and getting likes on posts, or more followers. Funeral service built its reputation on not getting recognition for what we did. We did our work respectfully and quietly with reverence and compassion. Many people will not “like” this (in whatever form you take that) statement but funerals (now being called “celebrations”) are about remembering someone who has died and honoring that life in the most appropriate way for the family. This should be our only focus.
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.
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.”
While browsing for other books about funerals, I happened upon this. I love the description of it from Amazon. All reviewers give it 5 stars.
“A funeral is a ceremony marking a person’s death. Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from the funeral itself, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honor. These customs vary widely between cultures, and between religious affiliations within cultures. In some cultures the dead are venerated; this is commonly called ancestor worship. The word funeral comes from the Latin funus, which had a variety of meanings, including the corpse and the funerary rites themselves.”
In a time when many people want to move away from the word “funeral” – this simple definition really is important to remember. We can celebrate any life during a funeral. I question if those who are so quick to remove the word “funeral” from our vocabulary, are the ones who really are denying death.
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.
During the early days of the Civil War, it became apparent that there was a need to identify and develop space for cemeteries to honor those who fought for their country and gave the ultimate sacrifice. On July 17, 1862 Congress authorized the President to purchase cemetery grounds “for soldiers who shall have died in the service of their country.” Fourteen cemeteries were established in that first year.
In what is considered to be one of President Abraham Lincoln’s monumental acts, the Gettysburg Address was only two minutes long but is still remembered and quoted today. President Lincoln gave this speech at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery) on November 19, 1863. His dedication to those buried there set the tone for Memorial Day remembrances of the future.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Memorial Day was officially established by an order of John Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic on May 5, 1868. “The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
Today, the best known of these is Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington is the eternal home of more than 400,000 deceased soldiers and American dignitaries is visited by nearly four million people each year. The Old Guard perform a 24/7/365 vigil over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a moving experience to observe the hourly changing of the guard.
Today, there are a total of 147 cemeteries within the National Cemetery System (including those outside the continental United States) with 4.1 million burials or inurnment of cremated remains.
On this Memorial Day let us say thank you to those who have served our country and pray for those who are no longer with us.
In 2004, I traveled to Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery to do research for an article I was working on about the place. My trip there was also a pilgrimage of sorts, as the first monument I wanted to see was that of Gone With The Wind author, Margaret Mitchell. As a teen, I had read –and reread—the lengthy novel, enthralled by the tempestuous romance between the fiery beauty, Scarlett O’Hara, and her dashing suitor, Rhett Butler. Mitchell, I soon learned, was more than the author of one of the most lauded books of all time (as if that were not enough), but also a widely-read journalist who had worked for the Atlanta Journal. As a respected writer, she became a role model for me.
As I neared Mitchell’s grave site, I could see her family name, Marsh, prominently etched into the monument. There was no mention of the literary legend she had been. As I knelt before the stone, to lay flowers at her grave, I reached out a hand to trace the letters of her name. Tears welled in my eyes. Mitchell had never seemed as real to me as she did at that moment. The monument was Mitchell’s legacy in tangible form. She was no longer just a name in print. I still count that as one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was a grave site experience shared by countless others who have visited the graves of those they love and admire.
Recently, a friend shared a similar story with me. He told of the satisfaction of traveling to a military cemetery in the Philippines to visit the grave of his uncle. It had been a “lifelong quest” for him. Like my friend, I long to visit the graves of those who meant much in my life. My first fiancé, and my 6th grade teacher are on that list, and a visit to their graves would be a way of saying that to them. So far, I have been unable to locate them. But I am on a mission.
We’d love to hear your own stories about visiting graves. Please share them in the comments section.