Friday, August 25, 2017

Urns & Outs: It is NOT despair


As published in The Dead Beat, Summer, 2017
I recently had the privilege to speak at a Funeral Directors Association convention in Maryland. Typically when I make presentations to various cremation, funeral, and cemetery associations, I have a cordial response. An hour of facts regarding the history of cremation can perhaps come across as a bit dull even though I find the story of cremation and its history and growth in the US quite fascinating.
Following this particular presentation, I received some of the sweetest compliments from a few of the attendees. They explained the fact that they have heard the instructional presentations from some of the greatest minds in the industry; they've received training on presenting cremation and it's options to the families they serve; they have been warned repeatedly about the despair of the litigious aspects of being sued as a result of cremation; but they told me something about my presentation that they said they had never experienced before. They said that after my presentation they didn't feel the despair of fearing cremation; rather, they felt inspired.
If you have read my column then you know of my penchant for regularly quoting the Lord of the Rings. In a particular part of the story when the fate of the One Ring is being discussed, the plan to overcome the power of the ring comes to light and others rebuke Gandalf calling the idea despair and folly. Gandalf, in his wisdom, replies, “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed…”
Have you seen the latest reports from the Cremation Association of North America? The preliminary numbers for 2016 show a rate of 50.6% of Americans choosing cremation. Wisdom shows us that cremation is not a fad, in fact it is now the predominant method of disposition in our country. “It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed.”
Think back to the reason you entered the deathcare profession. There must have been something along the way that inspired you to pursue funeral service. Shouldn’t there be something that can inspire you about cremation? I am easily inspired by cremation (no surprise there); whether it be the strength and encouragement of the early cremationists, the beauty and form of the cremation urn, the magnificence of the urn memorials in beautiful columbaria across the country, the purifying power of the flame, the multitudinous options we are able to present to families choosing cremation, the freedom of families to elaborate and expand their celebration ceremonies. These are all causes of inspiration for me.
Cremation is not a cause for despair. It is cause for inspiration. Cremation is on a course to your firm. But it isn’t a crash course – it is an opportunity for you to be inspired again and again to care for your families. Be inspired!
That’s my perspective…

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Urns & Outs: Live Your Dreams!


As published in The Dead Beat, Spring, 2017
I often find myself thinking on the past. I guess being a historian can produce that side effect. I often find myself wondering if I have made the right choices in life, taken the right opportunities, made every effort I can to treat others fairly and compassionately. I hope I have at least made a positive difference in the life of my family and friends.
A recent significant life changing move to pursue professional endeavors has brought many feelings and realizations to surface. Taking a new job, moving to a new city, making changes and taking chances in my own life… Even with the downsides those things often make me feel the need to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming.
I remember as a young man wanting to be a funeral director, with daily encouraging phone conversations with my patient mentor Rene Ferrer, and being inspired by the urn wielding manager of the Undertaker, Paul Bearer, I tried with all my might to pursue the dream of a career in funeral service. It was because of Paul Bearer that I first started to have an interest in cremation urns. The particular urn he carried was unique, and I wanted to find one just like it. So I began the search – one that would elude me for more than a decade – but a search that would instill in my memory the importance of cremation memorialization, the make and model of countless urn styles, the drive to learn all I could about cremation and its history.
Years later, I would learn more about the history of cremation. I found it fascinating that this was such a largely ignored topic of the history of deathcare practice. It would be even later that I would be named the historian for the country’s original professional cremation organization, the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). Most recently, I was offered to be the cremation historian for the National Museum of Funeral History where we are working on the world’s first History of Cremation exhibit.
Just a few weeks ago, I was walking through the Funeral History museum with one of my longest-time friends, Keith Kobayashi. Giving him the tour I showed him where the upcoming History of Cremation Exhibit will be located, and where I remember the various exhibits being set up when I was about 14 and my parents took me for a visit. He asked me something I had not considered. “How does it feel, to know that as a 14 year old you had no idea that you would one day be a part of this museum?” It had not dawned on me until then, but he was right. Some 23 years prior, I walked through that very space, though the exhibits have changed and the space has grown considerably, and longed to have a place in funeral service.
To say that I am humbled at the opportunities that have been presented to me, with the encouragement of Barbara Kemmis of CANA, Scott MacKenzie, Nikki Nordeen, Genevieve Keeney, and the legendary Robert Boetticher, Sr., is the understatement of the century.
I have spoken at national events, designed cremation urns, guided up and coming funeral professionals in their endeavors, written articles, published a book, received distinguished service awards, served on boards. I have been featured in the pages of TIME magazine. I have the opportunity to influence the future of cremation memorialization. And it all started with a desire, and an urn.
Now before anyone calls me out for bragging or for seeking adulation, I want to affirm that is not the intent of my writing. A couple of years ago, I was honored to be invited by the New England Cemetery Association to speak at their annual meeting in Rhode Island. As I sat on the long flight to Boston, my large frame having been blessed with upgraded seating, I found myself sitting next to a young man with whom I struck up a conversation. He told me of his recent graduation and his pursuance of his Master’s degree in some scientific field that I don’t understand. I told him as I have told my own son and the apprentices I have had the opportunity to help serve families: follow your dreams, strive to be the very best at whatever you set out to do. Learn all you can and become the expert. Then someday, when you are being flown to share that dream and passion and knowledge with others, you too can have the chance to inspire a person who is facing the great wide world of possibility that they can do great things.
I hope to instill and inspire in all who read my words that, even with rough patches in the road, even when it seems overwhelming, even with blood, sweat, tears, heartache; in the midst of all of these things, success and fulfillment are yours for the taking! You can do great things. You can be somebody. You can make a difference. You too can live your dreams.
That’s my perspective…

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Urns & Outs: The Sacred Urn


As published in The Dead Beat, Early Spring, 2017
I was asked many years ago by my friend and historic crematory photographer Dan Baker about the connection of the shape of cremation urns and, more specifically, why they are traditionally in the vase shape. I admit that, while I can recognize the difference in manufacturers of urns almost instantly, and I know how many twists of the hand open a typical modern brass urn or even an antique bronze urn, and though I have seen almost every urn that was manufactured as an urn since cremation’s modern revival in 1876, I did not have the answer.
Desiring this knowledge, I began to seek avenues to learn the specific answer only to find that I am apparently the only person to have sought this information. While I have still not found any precise answer, I have formed a hypothesis based on knowledge acquired over years of research on the subject.
Firstly, ancient cinerary urns in the traditional vase shape have been discovered in many ancient Asian civilizations, some dating as far as 2000 years BCE. In ancient western culture, Greek customs indicate urns in the vase shape were used to store cremated remains, while the Romans favored highly-sculptured cinerary chests that were placed in columbaria, though they also were known to use the vase shape.

With this information, I arrived at my next realization: the influence of the classic Greek vase on today’s modern cinerary containers. Typically Greek vases were created in terra cotta or bronze, the former often found with images in red and black painted on their surfaces.
Three types of Greek vases are arguably the most common. The Krater, classified in bell, volute, and calyx shapes, is one of the most recognizable of the Grecian vases and was most often used for mixing and diluting wine. The Amphora, most commonly in shapes known as neck and belly, with large vertical handles, a narrow base, and cover, was used for storage of grain and wine. The Stamnos, probably the least-known style of Greek vase, characterized by its narrow footed base, wide mouth, horizontal handles, and cover, was used as a wine vessel. This last vase, the Stamnos, is the most akin to today’s modern cremation urn, and all three styles have been used as cinerary containers.
With all my research, even into the beginning of cremation’s modern revival in western society, it seems that the containers used to hold cremated remains were not always designed for that specific purpose, but were in fact common vessels used in everyday life. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the business of making urns became a business at all – and even then, the mantel of their creation was taken up by companies who created household items.
So it seems that there is no precise answer as to the original idea of form for cinerary urns. It is true, though, that the decorative vases that, even to the present day, represent the sacred vessels used to contain the mortal remains of our loved ones have always been utilized for two common reasons: functionality and inherent beauty.
The poet John Keats concurred with the beauty of the form of an ancient urn in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He ends his well-known poem with the urn’s symbolism that will outlast time, writing “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
I’m inclined to share that perspective.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Urns & Outs: Life is Alchemy


As published in The Dead Beat, Mid-Winter, 2017


Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a phenomenon that pervaded Europe – the understanding that, through applied science, any base metal could be turned to pure gold via the “Philosopher’s Stone.” Along this same idea was that with the right combination of materials one could create the elixir of life – the fountain of youth that would allow the person who drinks it to live and never die. Alchemy, it was called, and was practiced by any number of alchemists in Europe, Asia, and Egypt.
Of course the fact of turning any material into something better was a highly contested practice and was often compared to witchcraft. Yet philosophically many religions taught just that very basic belief: the soul is a sort of alchemy in which, through teaching and wisdom, could become something better than it was; thus elevating the spirit toward godliness and salvation.
Renowned psychologist Carl Jung, the originator of personality typology that many therapists use even in the present, believed that life was alchemical. Jung had a recurring dream that his house contained a separate wing, one that he had not seen, and to which he could find no access. Finally gaining entry to the part of the house that had been concealed, he discovered a secret library with countless volumes, each with symbols emblazoned on their covers and containing alchemical texts and diagrams. Upon waking, he began studying alchemy and eventually came to the conclusion that alchemy didn’t aim to make precious materials in a physical sense, but that its aims were more of a psychological parable – which he called opus magnum. “The opus magnum,” he wrote, “had two aims: the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos.” This was achieved through an alchemical process of the psyche toward individuation, or the evolution of the maturity of the personality.
The truth is that because we are a living and evolving species, then all things are an alchemical reaction that takes us onward and upward toward the betterment of existence. At least, that’s our hope.
Death is likewise alchemy: a transition in which the body goes from innate moving parts to inanimate matter – and more importantly, the soul, as our hope goes, becomes something better than it was. As funeral practitioners we aide the body toward purification, whether by fluid or by fire; scientific processes that promote the health of the living. Additionally, we know the psychological advancement that comes with the grieving process, the healing that we are able to promote through proper services and memorialization.
We face alchemy every day – whether it is in something we do to better society or ourselves. We move forward in our careers and in our dealings with others, constantly striving to be better than we were before. We make dreaded or hopeful changes. We educate, encourage, always moving onward. Upward.
Life is alchemy. When we do our part to promote and encourage the betterment of society and mankind, we are indeed rescuing the human soul. We are aiding in the salvation of the cosmos. We are becoming better human beings.
That’s my perspective…

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Urns & Outs: Music is Moral Law


(As published in the Dead Beat, Fall, 2016)
It is no secret that I love Elton John. His contagious personality and music have always made me smile, and there are so many of his songs that I can’t help but sing along with. Even his deep cuts are enjoyable and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics complete the overall sound that has become the trademark of his classic songs.
As much as I love Elton John, it is tough for me to choose from his repertoire an absolute favorite song. The bubblegum fun of Crocodile Rock, the melancholy of Someone Saved My Life Tonight, or maybe the spacey sound of Rocketman... the complacency of Roy Rogers... the hopefulness of Are You Ready for Love... those are all among his most well-known, and several rank in my favorites. Above all those, though, his hit Levon from his Madman Across the Water album, is probably at the top of the list.
In my interpretation, Levon tells the story of a normal guy; he is proud of who he is, he was born into meager circumstances but he has money. Levon has a son named  Jesus (because he likes the name), who wants to leave the mundane world he lives in and go far away from his father. Some of the story we hear about Levon and Jesus are very parabolic in nature, and much is left to the interpretation of the listener. For instance, “Jesus wants to go to Venus, and leave Levon far behind.” I take those words to mean that Jesus wants to go far away from where he grew up, maybe out from under his father’s watchfulness. But why Venus of all places? Maybe, for those of us who believe in love, it is a representation of that planet’s ancient symbolism and influence in the area of love.
I think that one of the primary reasons that I like the song Levon is that it really speaks to me. Sure the tune is catchy, and the lyrics rhyme well, but even more than that it speaks to the part of me that is so afraid of change but longs so much for the very change I fear. I want to leave and go far away at times, and I often long for sailing away to where love lives.
Have you ever had a song speak to you that way? Maybe it is a hymn that stirs your soul, or a favorite love song. Music can really touch our innermost being, the soul of life.
Think of how music can touch and soothe the soul of the grieving. In the same way that I can hear the thirst for change and new beginnings in the sounds of Levon, the families that we serve can be transformed by music as well. A minister can stand and speak and share goodness and life, but when a song plays, there is something about the combination of words and music that speaks when words cannot penetrate. I cannot remember the exact words that were spoken at my Granny’s remembrance service earlier this year, and I spoke the words. But I can remember the music that was played, the song that I shared.
Recently, I attended a concert by the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra in Northwest Arkansas. The concert was titled “A Night at the Movies” and played various pieces from the compositions of John Williams, well known for his memorable movie scores such as Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Superman, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, among others. Prior to the start of the concert, there was a discussion time with the conductor of the orchestra and he discussed the importance of music in movies. My friend who was with me raised the topic of movie music manipulating the viewer to invoke a certain emotion. Think about how that is true in life in general and not just in movies. Think about how a song can take you back to another place or time, and for that instant you are experiencing the same feelings once more. A song can catapult you into the future where things are maybe different or exciting.
Only music has this power.
Plato wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
That’s my perspective as well!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Urns & Outs: Don't Be Sad?!

As published in The Dead Beat, Summer, 2016.

From years of experience, I have found that personal wishes are one of the most common discussions I have when friends and family discover that I am a funeral and cremation professional. Recently during a conversation with a friend (who happens to be younger than I), the inevitable conversation came up.
“I don’t want anyone to be sad when I die. Just take my ashes and scatter them to the wind and throw a huge party.”
I sat looking at him in honest surprise. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the depth of the conversation that could have occurred in that moment, but the sheer overwhelming moment of argument passed gently through me. After all, everyone is entitled to their own ideas, their own wishes. I’ve heard the comment, but unfortunately it is more and more common.
Wouldn’t it be nice to never be sad when someone dies; plodding along through life unfazed by the loss of a friend or relative or coworker or other member of society? Make it a tidy affair with no muss and no fuss. Make the body disappear and the grief will along with it. Right? It really isn’t that easy.
While death is often met with grace and dignity by the dying, it is usually met with grief and sadness by the survivors. This is still so after thousands upon thousands of years of people dying, and recognizing that death brings sadness. It isn’t an emotion that we choose... it just is. The strange truth, however, is that sadness is normal. This unwanted, undesired, unappreciated, emotion is a natural part of the human psyche and an important part of the grieving process.
Unfortunately for the modern cremation movement, there are many in younger generations who think that cremation is an “out” for their impending sadness. It is erroneous to think that if we make the body disappear then the grief and sadness disappears along with the physical aspect of the body.
Renaming funeral and memorial services to “celebrations of life” is a wonderful idea, and the healing that comes through a positive celebration is immeasurable. Equally, an intentional outlook on the reality of death is healthy. Preparing one’s self and one’s loved ones for the inevitable is undeniably helpful and important for everyone who lives. We cannot say that there will be no sadness, and asking someone to not be sad at one of the most difficult times of loss is selfish and, quite frankly, impossible.
Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America wrote a really great piece that has appeared in several places over time – and her candor regarding the prearrangements of her parents is very enlightening. Her dad, who says “just cremate me,” is not aware of the desire by his loved ones to have a meaningful gathering of his friends, colleagues, and loved ones. She says my point so eloquently, “I love you, Dad, and I will mourn you and I will cry when you die. I need to be surrounded by family and your friends and former students… I want to respect your wishes, but I will mark your passing. I love you too much not to.”
I love you too much not to.
Love is the foundation of so many human emotions. When a heart loves, a heart grieves when it is broken. Saying goodbye gives us the opportunity for healing and moving forward. I love too much to not be sad when I am parted from friends and family. Face the sadness and let healing begin.

That's my perspective...

Monday, March 14, 2016

Urns & Outs: The Lesson of Life


(As published in the Dead Beat magazine, Winter, 2016)

I am a fan of opera music. Some people have difficulty listening to the intense vocal expressions offered by the world's great classical writers, but for me, listening to fine classical music often helps me relax or it invigorates. One of my favorite operas that has both effects on me is The Magic Flute, an interesting story by the phenomenal Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
 
I recently came into possession of a unique book by Max Heindel entitled Mysteries of the Great Operas - harkening back to famous works by Richard Wagner. In such operas as The Ring of the Niebelung, Tännhauser, and Lohengrin, Wagner tells the tales of German and Norse history and legend, and along the way gives some of the most beautiful and memorable music ever heard. The Bridal March is from Lohengrin; Ride of the Valkyries is from The Ring Saga, and Pilgrim's Chorus, notably performed in cartoons, is given to us in Tännhauser.
 
In Heindel's book, he correlates the mysteries of life with the symbolism in these great works of musical genius. One of my favorite passages in the book tells of the struggle of life. He writes:
“According to the teaching of the Norsemen, those only who died in Battle were entitled to be taken to Valhalla. [Odin] desires none but the strong and the mighty warriors... In this there is a great lesson, for none but the noble and the fearless who spend their days fighting the battle of life to the very last breath are worthy of advancement... It does not matter where we work or what the line of our experience may be, so long as we faithfully battle with the problems of life as they appear before us... we must keep on working and striving until the day of life is done.”
 
That is quite a lesson to be learned!
 
When I die, I will go to Valhalla. I don't mean that I'm such a hard worker that I deserve the nobility of Odin's Valhalla when I die. I mean I'll literally go to Valhalla: the Valhalla Chapel of Memories in St. Louis. It is an historic crematory and columbarium and its founders were heavily involved with the Cremation Association of North America. That's where my niche is and my urn awaits, and I'll be in good company of the early cremation memorialists.
 
The major decisions in my life are driven by meaning. When I purchased the niche at Valhalla in St. Louis years ago, I thought of the honor it must have been for those who died in battle to be chosen for rest with Odin in Valhalla. Then I thought of the Walküres, those angels of war that carried the fallen ones to their rest in those magnificent halls, and I realized how similar that act is to those of us who care for the dead. It was only when I read the wisdom of Max Heindel that I realized that we are all worthy of that noble rest.
 
I often come into contact with funeral professionals who are facing burn out. We all know that this profession can easily weigh on our minds and bodies so that it makes it difficult to offer empathy and sympathy. I confess that I have felt some tinges of burn out at times as well. I am, however, very encouraged by the words of Max Heindel, and his admonition to carry on the work that we are called to do. I hope you'll find encouragement in these words as I have. There is too much to gain to give up on the care we give those in most need of our support.
 
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge a recent experience I faced in my own life - the passing of one of my most favorite people in the universe, my dear sweet Granny. She played such an instrumental part in my upbringing and her death has truly changed my life. At age 85, in seemingly good health, she passed away unexpectedly after suffering a stroke and from injuries sustained from the subsequent fall. The professionals at Schertz Funeral Home in Schertz, Texas, including long-time friends Tess, Kim, Leonard, and new friends Tudy, Julia, Isaac, and the entire staff, all made her passing more bearable - for my family, and for me personally and professionally.
 
After a beautiful service of remembrance, Granny was cremated, her spirit set free, and her purified remains placed lovingly in a MacKenzie urn, appropriately personalized, and interred by the hands of her loved ones in our family plot. I have such a peaceful remembrance of the entire experience, even though it has been a tumultuous experience going through the grief process. I've lost love, I've lost loved ones, but I couldn't have prepared myself for this loss no matter how hard I could have tried. My Granny spent her life working for the good of others.  Her light shines brightly in me, and in all whose lives and hearts she touched.
 
That brings me back to my story. I know that it can be difficult and trying to face the battle of life. However, encouragement is given by the example of loved ones, fellow professionals, friends; knowing that our future reward is worth the hard work, and especially here and now our hard work makes a difference. I've seen it and felt it, so I know this to be true.
 
Benn Pitman was a 19th century stenographer and phonographer and was the husband of Jane Pitman, who was the second person cremated in the LeMoyne Crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania. Following Mrs. Pitman's cremation, Mr. Pitman wrote Dr. LeMoyne a letter thanking him for his kindness. Encouraging Dr. LeMoyne, who was in ill health at the time, he wrote “Bear the burden of life, if burden it proves at times - for the sake of others and the helpful example it is to us who have some years of work yet to do.”
 
Let us all “keep on working and striving until the day of life is done.” It is worth the effort and worth the example!
 
That's my perspective...