(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!