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...


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Urns & Outs: America's First Cremation

(As published in the Dead Beat magazine, Dec. 2015)

It was a cold and rainy December day in 1876 when the Cremation movement in America made a major step forward. In the small town of Washington, Penn., Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a local eccentric physician, had built small, simple two-room building with a receiving room, a furnace room which contained a crematory, designed by a local engineer. Planned exclusively for use at his own demise, the facility was constructed on his private property after the local cemetery had declined use of their grounds. The Crematory, however, could not remain idle, as it was pushed into use by Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society of America, for the cremation of one of his followers, Bavarian immigrant Baron Joseph DePalm.
December 5, 1876, in Washington, Penn., the body of the Baron de Palm arrived at the train station there to be the first to be cremated in a modern cremation chamber. Among the party that met the train included Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, whose crematory was to be used, and Col. Henry Steel Olcott, founder of the Theosophical Society and executor of the Baron’s estate. The cremation was a newsworthy event that was covered in almost every major newspaper in the country. On their way to the crematory, they were met by doctors of the boards of health from Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, W.Va., and Boston – along with about 30 reporters from various news outlets.
The following morning, about 8 a.m., the furnace was declared ready after having been preheated for 6 hours. The body had been wrapped in a sheet saturated with alum to keep the body from igniting until the door was sealed. Various spices and evergreens were sprinkled over the body by Olcott and at 8:27 a.m., the iron cradle containing the body was placed in the retort.
By 10:45 the cremation had been pronounced completed, but the engineer in charge suggested that the fires burn a few hours longer to make sure the cremation was thoroughly complete.
That afternoon, public meetings and speeches were held in the town square. Various individuals spoke about cremation.
When the cremated remains were finally removed from the cremation chamber, they were sprinkled with perfume and were placed in an inscribed antique vase with brass handles which was delivered to the offices of the Theosophical society.
This first cremation in a modern cremation chamber took more than 36 hours to complete. Coke was used as fuel and 50 bushels were consumed. The total process cost $7.04.
The LeMoyne Crematory held the distinction of being the only Crematory in the country from its inception until 1884 when the Lancaster Crematory was completed in Lancaster, Penn. At that time, after twenty-five Cremations had been performed in the facility – one of which was that of Dr. LeMoyne himself, the crematory was closed to the public with the exception of residents of Washington County. In 1901, with the cremation movement in full-swing, the trustees of the crematory closed its doors for good after 42 cremations. It was later deeded to the Washington County Historical Society, in whose care it remains to this day.
In early November, 2015, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, Penn., for research regarding the upcoming Cremation exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History. I spent a day at the crematory, and although it is quite a small building, the feeling of the facility is teeming with history. The original wooden bier that held the body of Baron De Palm is still intact and display in the service room. The iron crib upon which the body rested, though in the basement of the Historical Society, is also intact, and a newer one (circa 1879) is on display in the crematory. The retort, still fully present, though later updated with gas piping for fuel, is all original.
I spent another day in the Archives of the Washington County Historical Society and had the privilege to peruse their early cremation collection – including a letter from Benn Pitman, stenographer, alerting Dr. LeMoyne to the fact that his wife was approaching the end of her life and would be sent to Washington for cremation per her request and with the Doctor’s permission of using the crematory. In 1878, she became the second person cremated in the LeMoyne Crematory and the first woman cremated in America. I also had the opportunity to view a detailed description of Mrs. Pitman’s cremation taken by Frank LeMoyne looking through the portal in the door of the cremation chamber, and to look through the notebook of John Dye, engineer who built the crematory, which showed a detailed listing of the cremations performed in the historic facility.
After more than 130 years, it is interesting to note that while cremation began with these meager beginnings, the Cremation Association of North America released the latest statistics at our convention this summer. In just three short years, cremation will be the preferred method of disposition by Americans and will take place in almost 3000 crematories across the country.
Cremation is no longer a trend, it is a tradition!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Urns & Outs: The Memorial Idea

(As published in the Dead Beat magazine, Oct. 2015)

From “The Memorial Idea” – by Jason Ryan Engler.
MEMORIAL: the very word stirs within our hearts and minds the fond, yes reverent, recollections of those near and dear to us, who have passed beyond our human contact, but of whom recollection is very sacred. Beloved grandparents, parents, a spouse, child, sibling, our friends; our heroes and role models some of whom we may not have personally known, but who, through lives of generous sacrifice of self or service have endeared themselves to and inspired their fellow man.
Memories. How dear they are to us. How we cherish them, and live again a companionship we loved, a tender relationship we experienced. Surely this idea is worthy of preservation and perpetuation. As you have stood at the memorial of the victims of great tragedy, or at the resting places of the great men and women who have served our country in the armed forces, have you not considered the contributions and sacrifices, however great or small, they have made to who we are as a people? Have you not felt within your heart a flood of overwhelming emotion?
As you think of those friends, those loving companions of your former days who have crossed to the Beyond ahead of you, do you not cherish a warm affection within your soul that is very sacred? Isn’t it fitting – isn’t it appropriate, that such thoughts be expressed through tangible forms?
It is our obligation, our duty, as caretakers of the dead and the living who survive them, to heed this call, to fulfill this sacred trust for the sake of humanity, as well as for the preservation of the future of our professions.
This is the “Memorial Idea!”

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Urns & Outs: "The Monuments Men"

(As published in Volume 14, Issue 4 of the Dead Beat Magazine)

I recently (finally) took the time to watch the critically acclaimed movie “The Monuments Men” directed by George Clooney which was released in 2014. The true story follows an unlikely group of art professors, museum directors, architects, artists, and the like, during World War II as they try to protect and rescue works of art from the ravages of war and the plundering of Hitler’s army. If you have not seen the movie, I recommend it. It is an interesting glimpse into a part of World War II that has never been shared.
Following my viewing of the movie, I became unsurprisingly intrigued with the story and I began looking into other parts of the heroic rescue of culture and history. I discovered the book with the same name, written by Robert Edsel - the tag line of the book further interested me: “Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” I’ve just started reading the book.
I went online and watched an interview from PBS where Mr. Edsel is speaking about the importance of what these “Monuments Men” actually did for the culture of Europe. As he was wrapping up the interview, he said something that stuck in my mind: “The lessons we need to know in the future reside there in the past.”

Now some of you who read this column know of my interest in history – and specifically my interest in the history of cremation and in our profession in general. Being “The Cremation Historian” and as the official historian for the Cremation Association of North America, I have had the opportunity to glimpse into a largely uncharted history of an important aspect of the deathcare profession. My home is scattered with antique books and urns, my home office is set up to display important artifacts, not just from cremation’s history, but of my family history. My computer and back-up hard drives are teeming with more photos, books, scans, PDFs, documents than many museums and libraries carry.
This is why I can so easily and earnestly identify with the “Monuments Men.” It may sound a bit far-fetched for me to compare myself to the heroic gestures and actions demonstrated by brave men and women of the armed forces who faced death each day to rescue the landmarks and cultural contributions in art and artifact from total destruction. However, if you look at the mission of the “Monuments Men” and what their goals were, then each of us can relate as “Monuments Men.” Are we as funeral professionals not the guardians of the heritage of our communities – namely in the men and women our firms are called upon to help in times of need? Do we not guard and protect the memories of our culture?
Sometime last year, I began following a page on Facebook called “Funetorium.” The unique page and its administrators share the history of our profession in photographs of old ads and catalog pages, caskets and (my favorite) hearses. A new museum of funeral history has been opened in Virginia by William Simpson of Mastercraft Casket Company. The magazine “Southern Calls” shares historic photos and ads from the yesteryears of our profession. And the ultimate collection, the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas, houses an amazing variety of the history of funeral service – not just in America – but worldwide.
I feel like every person involved in death care can relate and get excited about some aspect of the history of our profession or the history of their individual firms. Whether it’s antique funeral coaches, post mortem photographs, advertising paraphernalia, funeral fans, embalming bottles and instruments, I have not encountered many who are passionate about our profession that do not collect or appreciate or study some aspect of our history.
We are the “Monuments Men” of the death care professions! Not only are we are all called upon in our communities to protect the heritage and memories of those who have died that have been entrusted into our care, but we are also called upon to be the guardians of the legacies of our firms and of our profession. For the love of our past, please keep it up!
Sometime back on a visit to the oldest funeral home in my hometown, I learned that a number of historic photos had been discarded by a former manager. I remembered as a kid seeing the photos behind the doors of the visitation room; photos of the founders of the funeral home in front of the original location and photos of the various stages of the growth of the current home. Now they are gone with no hope of rescue. Absolutely inexcusable! It does not take much to preserve photographs or documents and the permanent destruction of the heritage of any part of our businesses benefits no one.
History teaches that what is old becomes new again, so let us maintain our histories because, as Robert Edsel said it so accurately, “The lessons we need to know in the future reside there in the past.”

That’s my perspective, too!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

November & December Crematories

In the early history of cremation in the US, November and December have traditionally been very busy months for the addition of crematory facilities.
America's first modern cremation took place on December 6, 1876, at the LeMoyne Crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania.
America's first PUBLIC crematory was built by the Lancaster Cremation and Funeral Reform Society and its first cremation took place on November 25, 1884, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The United States Cremation Company's Fresh Pond Crematory on Long Island was completed and its first cremation took place on December 4, 1885.
The Buffalo Cremation Company erected their crematory on Delavan Avenue in Buffalo, New York, and its first cremation took place on December 27, 1885.
Michigan's first crematory was built in Detroit by the Michigan Cremation Association and its first cremation took place on December 10, 1887.
The crematory at Loudon Park Cemetery, built by the Baltimore Cremation Cemetery Company was completed and first put to use on November 1, 1889.
Lastly, the crematory of the Massachusetts Cremation Association in Jamaica Plain was first used for the cremation of suffragist Lucy Stone Blackwell on December 30, 1893.