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Extreme Embalming

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.

 

The Real Death Deniers

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.”

Women In Funeral Service, Not New

These pages are from the funeral service publications of the early 1900’s called The Casket and The Sunnyside.  As can be seen in these photos women are prominent in the care of the dead, specifically teaching embalming.  More than 100 years ago these women lead the way for every woman practitioner today.

KNOW YOUR HISTORY!

Funeral Customs.

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.

 

Not New and Not a Novelty

There was a time when women were seldom seen working in funeral service. It’s not that there weren’t any licensed females –there were. But their numbers were not appreciable, and as in many male-dominated industries, they were often relegated to the background and more feminine duties such as cosmetizing of the deceased. By the time I began my  career women were emerging from the shadows. My first boss was a woman and a very formidable one at that. I learned much from her. And when I would see a female funeral director, I hoped that they would speak to me, so that I might learn from them. They were all in their own way role models. Some, like my boss, taught me what to do and others (like another female boss years later) what not to do.  Then things changed and women began to enter the industry in rising numbers. Before long, they outnumbered men in mortuary school classes (although not all go on to be licensed). Today, women in funeral service are, happily, commonplace. Articles such as this Why Your Funeral Director Will Likely Be Female reflect that. Yet, I chuckle when perusing social media sites and coming across comments by newly licensed females about how “shocked” people are to learn they are funeral director. There was a time that gleaned such a reaction, but no more. And that’s a good thing.

Chicago Cubs Great Andre Dawson – His Quiet 2nd Career

I don’t think I would have ever thought that Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson would have been counted as one of the ranks of my profession. For more than ten years he has quietly owned a funeral home in Florida. No flashy publicity or news stories to get more business. Nothing to tie his career in baseball to his funeral home. He and his family have chosen to dedicate this second career to serving the people in the community. It’s not about him but about the grieving family.

Today, the funeral profession is regularly criticized. So many blogs and articles say that we need to change and that we aren’t relevant. Others even go so far as to suggest we don’t provide anything of value to the grieving public. It is true that the traditions of the funeral have changed. Anyone who studies history knows that every type of tradition changes over time, it is expected.

We, as funeral professionals have always had only one responsibility. We serve a grieving family at one of the worst moments in their life. That has not changed. Personally, I feel as though the public has been led to believe that tradition is a bad thing. Every family should have the type of service they want and can afford. That means different things to different families. Every family should be encouraged to include the traditions that comfort them, even those that may reach back to previous generations.

Each families needs are different and unique. Funeral service has always personalized services. But, we have evolved and changed to offer different types of good and services and create new traditions. That’s a great thing and that is how it should be. We will continue to change over time and it will be interesting to see what funeral service will look like in the future. In the mean time we will continue to serve families with the same dignity and respect as was provided by previous generations of funeral service professionals.

Andre Dawson made a conscious decision to become a funeral director. He offers compassion and sensitivity to the families that he serves. He is a “hands on” funeral director (he is not an embalmer) and wants his funeral home to be carried on in the future by the next generations of his family. I personally love that.

Read more about his story:

Andre Dawson

Visit his funeral home Facebook page:

Andre Dawson Funeral Home Facebook

 

Suicide

This week we have heard about two prominent figures that committed suicide.  A sobering statistic reveals that there are approximately 121 suicide deaths each day in the US. As articles poured in about the statistics, we find that it continues to increase over time.

Chronic depression and anxiety are sited by experts as causes of this increase in suicide deaths. For survivors, suicide leaves scars that may never heal. Every time we hear a new story about these deaths, we see a renewed abundance of advice about how to help. Here is just one of the hundreds of articles that have appeared this week.

For more information please visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  It is a resource for all of us to use and share to help end this health crisis.

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

 

What Is Death Positivity?

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.

Honoring Memorial Day

Gettysburg Address

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.

The Gratification of Visiting Graves

mmgrave - Copy

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.