Monday, May 28, 2012

“Let’s get this right for future historians.”

Oakwood Hill Columbarium
Tacoma, Washington
Do you know your history? The quote that titles this entry was by Dr. Hugo Erichsen during the ninth annual convention of the Cremation Association of America, stressing the importance of accurately portraying what went on in the meetings. Philosopher George Santayana made a bold statement in his Life of Reason saying “those who are unaware of history are condemned to repeat it.” Too many times have I walked into funeral homes or Crematories, eager to learn history from the dubious workers, toiling onward to the goal of furthering the future of their place of employment. How unfortunate when the only thing learned is that they don’t know (and often don’t care about) the strife and troubles their forefathers dealt with, how they operated and worked on a daily basis, how they reveled in their moments of happiness. On the other hand, another quote, this one attributed to writer Thomas Carlyle, calls recorded history “a distillation of rumor.” Sadly, this is often the case when looking back at the past. Perhaps it is because oftentimes history is only known by observing the traces that others have left behind.

On a recent vacation to the beautiful cities of Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, I had the opportunity to visit and pay homage to three of the oldest Crematories in the country. Ironically, these three were typical examples covering the spectrum of what I have seen countless times in other historic Crematories I’ve visited.

First, a Crematory built in 1905, the pioneer Crematory in the state of Washington, and only the 31st in the entire country. Here was an example of a location where the staff knows some history, a lot of which, though, is based on rumors. For instance, in the basement Columbarium where rest the Cremated remains of many early and prominent Seattleites in some of the most beautiful and unique Urns I’ve ever seen, the community vault where cremated remains were placed by families who didn’t purchase a niche, had large bronze doors on the front. The space is labeled “Gold Vault: Original Retort” – yet is placed under a set of stairs that appear older than the vault itself, and is located in an area where it would be impossible to introduce a casket. Upon sharing information I have learned, their eyes, maybe, were opened. The original retorts of this historic Crematory were located on the main floor and were removed in the late 1930s to accommodate a new, larger building that was built around it. The staff here knows the facility is historic, but it isn’t fully known or acknowledged. Luckily, a couple of members of their staff have shown some interest.

The second Crematory in Washington, and the 35th in the US, is in a small Cemetery in Tacoma. Under the care of a corporation, the Columbarium, with its beautiful stained glass dome and exquisite display of cinerary Urns, is one of the most awesome examples in our country. The original Crematory, located in an adjacent building behind the chapel, is exactly as it was when the facility was built in 1908. The resident historian, Bill Habermann, has taken the time to learn the history of not just the cemetery (as is usually the case) but the Crematory and Columbarium as well.  His research has been shared with the publisher of the book Cemeteries of Tacoma who have a nice space set aside in its pages. Through Bill, many residents of Tacoma have learned about the history of Cremation in their city, and many members of the staff have been enlightened as well.

The third Crematory I toured, which dates to 1921, is an example of the company who knows, loves, and appreciates their history. The staff of the funeral home, cemetery, Crematory, Columbarium and mausoleum is encouraged to learn about their history – and this history is embraced and treated as an overall asset to the organization. The Columbarium is attended at all times and the Crematory is kept spotless and is operated with the highest ideals of Cremation’s code of practice. Evergreen-Washelli is a thriving business, thanks in part to Scott Sheehan, Brian Braathen, Brenda Spicer, and the entire caring staff. I have a feeling, too that they will remain successful because their history is realized by those who create it for future generations.

Sometime back, I read an article in a public periodical about the amazing San Francisco Columbarium, the only active cemetery within the limits of that city. The article focused on the caretaker and “unofficial historian” of the Columbarium who had been there a number of years. I took great offense to one of his statements, when speaking of the number of “residents” of the facility that dates to 1897, “in the old days everybody got dumped into the same container. So you may have five, 10, 15 people sharing the same space.” This statement is based on conjecture and speculation – and goes against all ethical codes set by the national associations of our profession. My thoughts go to those who have loved ones inurned in the Columbarium there – hopefully their doubts have been soothed.

So where do you fall in this spectrum? Do you appreciate the history of your firm or your profession – or do you even care that there is a history? Did you know that your history is an asset to you and your funeral home? Maybe it’s time to look into the past, so that everyone – owners to groundskeepers – can know where they came from, and thus, know where they’re going. And we, who are in this profession of celebrating the history of lives lived, should know better than anyone that the past is so important – not just here and now, but for those in the future of the profession. “Let’s get this right for future historians.”

At least, that’s my perspective…