The whole idea of funeralization is among other things, to establish and continue our bonds with our dead, and we do this in any number of healthy and not so healthy, sensible and not so sensible ways.
In the shorter term, we memorialize our dead in the funeralization and memorialization process. We have a funeral which is usually accompanied by some sort of spiritual or religious ritual, or a memorial service. Much of this is ritual and ceremony, and accompanied by traditional appurtenances, trappings, paraphernalia like religious symbols, caskets, story boards, etc. But the most irrational and wasteful of any of our traditional funeral practices is the tradition of flowers and flower arrangements. True, these can be very elaborate, very beautiful, very distracting, and very, very expensive.
Sending flowers is making a statement: It can be interpreted as a statement of love, respect, wish-I-were-there. In an environment which, in most cultures, leaves little to the spoken word, relatives may express themselves with a flower arrangement; Say it with flowers. It’s a lovely tradition but unspeakably wasteful.
This thought was driven home recently when, as officiant at a large funeral for a beloved matriarch, I rode just behind the flower cars. The weather was brutally cold and the wind icey. As I reflected on the cemetery ritual and the thought of the wind, cold, and freezing mourners, I found myself musing on the plight of those dozens of floral arrangements, so colorful, gorgeous, expensive, and very frozen in just minutes while waiting for the casket to be brought out. How many thousands of dollars on those two open-bed cars? Wasted! Frozen! Why?
While I am a very fervent supporter of the traditional funeral with all of its ritual, ceremony, trappings, the single aspect of the traditional funeral that I do find somewhat objectionable is the tradition of the funerary floral arrangement. These tend to be gorgeous arrays of blooms costing hundreds of dollars. I object not only because of the cost and the waste involved but also because they tend to distract from the reason we are doing the vigil, wake or funeral. How many times to I see people coming into the viewing parlor and going straight to the flowers to find “theirs” or to compare arrangements. Or the disappointment or outrage when “theirs” hasn’t yet been delivered. I frequently do approve of the “in lieu of flowers” notations in some obituaries, and often hope that the “in lieu of flowers” isn’t simply a dispensation from parting with a couple of bucks and sending nothing. That is, I fear, what generally happens: “Well, if I can’t be noticed or recognized at the event, I’m not sending XYZ charity anything, after all, the money never gets to the people it should.” Sound familiar?
I find one single arrangement, sensibly modest, from the immediate family, to be the most tasteful expression, whatever it’s supposed to express. It should not be a morbid affair nor gaudy; it should be tasteful and evoke a visual pleasure, dulling the sense of suffering. It can later be used as a centerpiece with a framed photo of deceased the at the mercy meal or reception following the funeral or memorial service, or it can be donated, or simply taken home and enjoyed.
But once the physical body has been disposed of, there’s little else but personal possessions and pictures to remind us of the deceased, and even these are too inconvenient to have with one’s self in our daily routine.
Over the years, I have developed my own traditions for the family and significant others of the deceased. I feel that something made by me that can serve as a memorial token, and can be held, carried in a pocket, worn, is the best way to go.
In my bereavement chaplaincy practice I sometimes fashion 10 or 15 lapel pins with ribbon, using a color that reminds one of the deceased. A particularly appreciated token is the Order of Service program featuring not only the service order but also a picture of the deceased and some special words in memory of the deceased, perhaps even written by the deceased. None of these cost more than a couple of dollars to produce, and are received with joy and appreciation by the family. The token can be as simple as a pretty little pebble, bags of which can be purchased at any crafts store, engraved or painted with an name or distinctive mark.
When in a pinch, I also rely on tasteful, prefab memorial tokens. Some of my personal favorites are available from Mourning Cross.
Another token is the meditation rope, which is a bit more time consuming, and cannot be produced in the numbers as in the case of the program or even the lapel pins, but can be very significant in a situation where one mourner is particularly close to the deceased or affected by the loss.
The meditation rope is a short sequence of hand-woven knots, so-called angelic knots, consisting of 33 individual knots, and formed into a closed loop or equipped with a clasp to form a bracelet.
The meditation rope can be done in one or a combination of colors, depending on the family’s tradition and the color scheme of the funeralization trappings.
While the so-called meditation rope is inspired by the Oriental prayer ropes, most notably the Orthodox Catholic prayer rope used by the Greek and Russian Orthodox when reciting the Jesus Prayer, the meditation rope does not necessarily have to be a “prayer rope,” although the user may wish to pray a particular prayer on each knot .
I call it a meditation knot because the user can use it for prayer, meditation, a particular mantra, or simply to hold in the the hand while remembering the deceased, similar to a memory stone or the like.
Depending on the preferences of the family and their belief or faith tradition, I provide a card with each prayer/meditation rope. The card contains some very short one-breath prayers, a mantra, or a short phrase that can be repeated by the user to restore concentration, relieve anxiety, assist in meditation or in prayer, and generally to soothe and relax the user.
The beauty of the prayer/meditation rope is that it is very unique, small, and can be easily carried in a pocket or even worn on the wrist. It can be religious, spiritual or secular in its meaning. It can center on the survivor or on the deceased. It can be very visible or very concealed. It can be very public or very private. It can be a symbol of how the user grieves, in other words.
For more information on the prayer/meditation rope and its history, you may want to visit The Orthodox Prayer Rope or make your own inquiries about obtaining prayer/meditation ropes from our source at Retreat Master.
If you have any special token ideas, I’d love to hear from you, as I’m sure my readers will as well.
Death does not respect age; any death is a loss whether it be an 18-month old infant, an 18-year old youth, or an 81 year old matron. They are all significant losses to someone and each instance has its own pattern of grief responses and challenges to overcome. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status or any other feature, each death is unique and special, like no other death ever or anywhere, because with each death we lose an entire world, an entire package of experiences that may have just been in the process of unwrapping.
We hardly ever speak of a beforelife but tend to be overly concerned with the afterlife. It may be comforting for some of us to reflect on who and where we were before we became who we are when we were born. It’s interesting to ponder that question because we can either trust that we were in fact somewhere, existing, before we were physically conceived. But where was that? The alternative is to believe that once a random sperm entered a waiting egg, a cascade of events was triggered that became the infant you and developed into the you you are today. Quite honestly, neither of the two hypotheses can really be resolved, because we have no real idea what constitutes “you.” Perhaps that’s why we prefer to occupy ourselves with an afterlife, since in that discussion we at least have a tangible quantity to work with: a physical person with all sorts of attributes has died, and we ask the many questions associated with a death, most often Why? and Where?
We are terribly uncomfortable with being so vulnerably human and can’t bear to think that we will someday, somewhere, somehow die. We will physically stop working and some rather disgusting changes will take place in our physical bodies. Like the proverbial ostrich, most of us wander aimlessly and with minimum purpose along the myriad possible paths through the time and space we call life. We greedily seek one diversion or entertainment after the other, never getting enough, and yet demanding and getting more and more distraction from the reality of ourselves and the world around us. We become a shell of what we potentially can be.
When death finally arrives to claim a loved one or a friend, we are shocked, confused, angry, and demanding. How could this have happened? Why did it have to happen? If only…! Reality is really hard to take and when you are so arrogant that you think you can handle all the answers or can control what happens, reality gets even harder on you. You attempt to quench your anxiety with denial but it doesn’t seem to work for you – or anyone else. Death visits and seldom knocks. Death rarely makes an appointment to come around when it’s convenient. Death just drops by and takes what is his.
When a death occurs it almost always ushers in a psychospiritual process we commonly refer to as grief, and a psychosocial process we generally refer to as mourning. Both grief and mourning have their sociocultural patterns we call ritual on the “micro” level and ceremony on the “macro” or public arena. Within these we have social norms, including how grief is politicized, acknowledged, and cultural dictates, bundled together into what we call practice or on a more substantial scale, tradition. Religion / spirituality of one form or another, or one of the philosophies seeking religion, frequently provide a foundation upon which these behaviors can establish and legitimize themselves. The psychospiritual and the psychosocial environments provide the contexts in which the bereaved engage in their grief work, find meaning in their loss, incorporate the transformed deceased into their lives, continue their bonds with the deceased, and transcend the bereavement experience as transfigured persons. It’s a complex process that requires time and permission to proceed. Although the social / public process of mourning may have temporal waypoints and a particular culture may set an end time for the public display of bereavement, grief does not have such an amenity. In fact, grief may be experienced for many years after a loss even without being classified as “pathological,” or complicated, and grief is unique to each griever, it’s a personal experience and must be accommodated by each griever in his or her own way. Grief cannot be rushed nor can it be stereotyped.
Today, in the early 21st century, we are deluged with information and stimuli of indescribable variety and in asphyxiating volumes. Some of the deluge tends to shape our very physiology and repattern our nervous systems, especially our brains and the way we think. The information and stimuli enveloping us at every instant of every day is insidiously evil in that it is directed at transforming human beings endowed with free will into means to unhealthy ends. The media bombarding every single human being today is dehumanizing us and transforming our very existence from beings to doers. We are no longer mindful of the gift of the moment we are living in and we are unable to enjoy the moment in silent reflection We have no peace. Television, radio, emails invade every moment of our lives with commands to “Hurry!” “Don’t wait!” “Do it now!” “Last Chance.” Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging have all replaced real personal relationships with virtual personal relationships. The once sentient being we called human has become a mere reflection in a smartphone screen. We don’t even take the opportunity to speeddial a significant other and would rather spend the time texting rather than talking. Even “chatting” which was once a form of informal oral communication and stimulus sharing has become realtime texting and responding but there’s nothing real about it.
All of these intrusions and incursions into our humanity and their tragic effects on who and what we are can be seen in our death practices. Digital death is a term that once described online practices centering on death-related communications; today, digital death is the counterpart of a person’s physical death. Our dehumanization is almost complete now because we have moved away from metaphysical, spiritual trust in an afterlife and are now even concerned about what happens to our Facebook page or our Twitter account after we physically die; we are now concerned with a digital afterlife! How pitiful can it get?
Materialist consumerism has decided that your death-related experience, your bereavement, your grief should be limited to three days and then you need to get back to work, get over your loss, and become productive again. It’s called bereavement leave. But it’s not leave to grieve; it’s merely time to get the necessary paperwork done to dispose of whoever it was who died. Three days, people! You’ve lived with an individual for decades, sharing almost every moment and you have three days to get over his death. You’ve raised a child to young man or womanhood, watched a helpless infant become a strapping happy young adult and you have 3 days to get over the car crash that killed him. What have we become?
On April 25, 2017, at 9:20 a.m. two young men, Logan Penzabene and Matthew Hamilton, each 18 years old, were traveling down a main road near their homes, a road they had probably traveled dozens if not hundreds of times on their way to school or once they qualified for their drivers licenses. But today was going to be different, very different. Today was going to be so different that at about 9:20, one would be dead and the other, Matthew Hamilton, in a coma, and hundreds of lives would be forever changed. One would be dead, Logan Penzabene, and the other in a coma. Two families would be plunged into the darkness of despairing grief; a whole community would be plunged into disbelief. An entire school district would be offered grief counseling. Why?
Well, on that fateful morning, the two young men were driving along and for some reason we may never know – perhaps they were texting, perhaps making a call, perhaps responding to some electronic notification – the driver crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and hit a flatbed tractor trailer head-on, killing the young driver and causing critical head injuries to his passenger. Were they texting, making a call, responding to an electronic notification? Does it really matter? Yes, it does matter! One young man is DEAD, another is in a COMA, a whole community is thrown into disarray. Yes! It does matter!
The appalling part of the story is not that the event was preventable – I cannot support the belief that anything is truly preventable and must dispose of that notion of preventability as just more arrogance believing that we can control events. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of those arrogant, self-important political figures who believes that if he announces to a so-called program, “No Empty Chair”, Teen Safe Driving Campaign, which is heralded on the Campaign website as: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today launched the “No Empty Chair” teen driving safety education and enforcement campaign to raise awareness of highway dangers during prom and graduation season.” Apparently, Cuomo believes that if he announces a campaign the problem is solved. Cuomo’s campaign was announced on April 15, 2017, the fatal accident occurred on April 25, 2017.
What we have to come to understand is that inflated programs and bombastic political rhetoric or police efforts during a so-called “campaign” do little or nothing to fundamentally change what government and corporations have worked so hard to create: producers to produce goods and services, consumers to consume goods and services, and sheeple to hear and obey (and to consume). The hypocrisy is conspicuous, it’s glaring, but if you’re constantly gazing into your smartphone screen, constantly receiving the indoctrination (in the past called “brainwashing”) and loving every digital minute of it, you won’t notice.
The churches and deathcare providers are elated. The churches because you may never have set foot in church for Sunday worship but they’ll wheel you in one last time and the church and pastor can get 30 minutes of exposure and a check. The deathcare industry doesn’t care one way or the other; the funeral director will get each and every one of us sooner or later, but sooner is better for the bottom line, and even better if it’s a sensational death that will attract multitudes of mourners! Visibility for both. Revenues for both. Rescue and paramedical personnel get to flaunt themselves and their equipment, which is good stuff for budget negotiations. Local political hacks, including everyone from the coroner / medical examiner, to law enforcement responders, to local elected stumpers ever eager for that special moment to appear and look devastated and share “Our prayers are with you today” canned expressions for the cameras. Even the public mourners and their makeshift shrines erected at the accident site. Everyone wants to be seen meditatively and reflectively, even prayerfully standing at the roadside memorial, “paying their respects,” showing solidarity for the momentary grief of a community. It’s really difficult to tell the real from the virtual.
But the bottom-line, naked reality is that one young man is dead; another is critically injured. The bottom-line, naked reality is that one family is grieving the loss of a vibrant and vital part of that unit called family; a limb has been amputated and just like in the case of amputation of a physical limb, it is acutely painful, and there will be phantom pain even when the limb is no longer there.
Three days of bereavement leave is not going to work. Empty political actions like “No Empty Chair” or whatever they’re calling that stupidity is not going to work. Law enforcement “efforts” – as yet ineffectual and unrevealed – don’t seem to be doing very much. People are still killing each other, and people are getting dead regardless of whether the killing is intentional or unintentional. Sorry but dead is dead.
We can’t change what has happened and there’s no way we can justify any attempt to rationalize what has happened. That’s what makes Gov. Cuomo’s “No Empty Chair” campaign so political and so scurrilous. That’s what makes Bethlehem Police Commander Hornick’s statements like “it’s a tragic loss” and “our feelings to out to the families” so pro forma and empty. Incidents like this one are not “tragic” and they’re probably not “preventable” by inaugurating campaigns with political undertones like “No Empty Chair.” Most people would probably disagree with what I just wrote. Not tragic!?! How heartless! Not, preventable? How fatalistic, how pessimistic! But those people would be wrong and misguided, victims of their own delusions, denial, and despair.
What I will say is that incidents like these, while not tragic and not preventable, are important teaching moments. Are important opportunities for everyone concerned to re-evaluate themselves and decide what they have become. It’s a time to become reflective and for self-examination. It’s a time to honestly admit that we are all contributing to our own psychospiritual demise, some of you willingly others inadvertently, but the vast majority are all part of the “preventable tragedies” of our post-modern, post-Christian, dehumanized world.
So what’s the final take-home message? Dead is dead. Loss is loss. Grief is unavoidable. The living will bury their dead and go on living. But is it that simple? Not really.
In my thinking, grief is a unique opportunity for personal and community growth. What you can’t change you have to take good advantage of. We do this by extending ourselves in compassion and love. We have to allow ourselves to stop for a moment so that we can catch up with ourselves. In other words, we have to take a moment and sit on a rock and become lost in time watching the brook flow around the obstacles. We need to shut out the white noise in our lives, and listen to the music of the brook and the birds. We need to raise our eyes from the illuminated screen and allow our souls to be illuminated by the sunlight playing off the ripples and the leaves. We need to stop feeling guilty about caring for ourselves and for others. We need to take time off from being busy to being just be-ing. This is essential to reclaiming our humanness, our spirituality.
I recall as a child the silent dying of a favorite apple tree. Of course, as a child I had the time for be-ing and for listening, for seeing; where there is no time for be-ing there’s no time for seeing or for listening. If we slow down we can hear what the Spirit is telling us about the dying of trees, the planet, of people, and what these deaths mean to us as beings capable of creating meaning and reflecting on love and how all of these things came into being, how a Spirit of love brought us into being.
The questions that we ask about death and dying are basically questions about the meaning of being, of be-ing. These are the questions that go into the stories once told around tribal campfires, and which now become part of the narratives that are told about our dead. These stories were the subject matter of the drawings on cave walls long ago, of the poetry of love and loss, and the emotions associated with the death of green in autumn. The Spirit is very generous in using any opportunity or event to make a point to us arrogant, uncertain, hesitant creatures.
We as educators, spiritual care providers, thanatologists, human beings, need to get back to basics and enter the world of the deep soul.
No condolences, no campaigns, no law enforcement efforts, no roadside memorials, no funeralization service will every have the desired, the needed effect unless we learn to appreciate silence. Our institutions from the family to church to government have taken a wrong turn. We live in an “increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness…” [McGilchrist, p. 6]
Our institutions cannot help but have a stake in blunting our maturity even if it means they must destroy the original versions and insights on which those very institutions were founded. We can easily identify that fragmentation in our education system, our government, our churches, and even in our families. [Aside: Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a fascinating work of literature in many ways, but the story about the Grand Inquisitor is probably the best illustration of the perverse change in institution over time. Here’s a link to a brilliant portrayal by Sir John Gielgud. The Grand Inquisitor ]
I’ll close with a quote taken from Maggie Ross’ fascinating book, Silence: A User’s Guide, in which she cites a passage from Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, noting that Holloway’s use of “religion” should be thought of in broad terms, in the sense of any pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance
“All institutions overclaim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights in them. They seque from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging.” [italics mine]
The subject of clergy involvement in the funeral or memorial service comes up again and again. Most people feel that spiritual or religious content is very important in the funeral or memorial service, and I agree. I can’t even start to count the number of families who start off the conversation with me with something like, “He used to go to church but stopped going” or “She wasn’t a churchgoer but she did believe in God and prayed.” My question, sometimes asked aloud, is “Why is that important?” I ask that question because I do not feel that a person’s spirituality or sense of a transcendent God is determined by how often one sees the inside of a church, or whether the individual wears his or her faith on their sleeve, or quotes chapter and verse with every breath. In fact, I’m sometimes very suspicious of such people and smell hypocrisy in much of that behavior. Your essential and core spirituality is how you live your life, and that’s what I as a professional bereavement chaplain explore in my meetings with the bereaved when planning the funeral or memorial service.
I frequently get involved because the bereaved do not want “clergy” involved because they’ve been wounded by their “clergy” or the faith tradition represented by their clergy. The ineffectualism of mainstream clergy is a whole discussion on its own, however, but let’s just say a few words about it. “Clergy” as used in the non-clergy community means anyone who provides some sort of pastoral service, or anyone who has some sort of leadership role in a religious congregation. “Ordination” is a canonical or legal term that means that the particular person is approved by a particular denomination to provide pastoral care to that specific denomination. Regrettably, adhering to the rules of that denomination may not provide much relief of the suffering experienced by the bereaved; it may have just the opposite effect, leaving them with a sense of emptiness and loneliness, and asking the question, What was that all about?!? But it doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be that way. Spirituality and meaning-making is quite different from religion and religious doctrines and notions of popular piety.
In all honesty and fairness, and in my personal experience, clergy is not really what it’s hyped up to be. In fact, clergy tend to deliver the most boring, impersonal, and unsatisfying services imaginable. While there are good reasons for the deficient performance, a lot of the blame should be placed on the funeral home’s hands-off spirituality attitudes, and their failure to provide reliable recommendations to the bereaved. Simply handing the bereaved a clergy list at the arrangements conference is a bit irresponsible. What’s worse still is if a funeral director or funeral home staffer attempts to play chaplain and deliver some insincere “words of comfort” or preside over a prayer vigil. It’s generally like the plumber doing the catering.
Even considering the ignorance of many funeral services professionals regarding the psychospirituality of funeralization rites and ritual, calling an individual a clergyperson can be very misleading. First of all, only the mainstream denominations really have an “educated” clergy; that means attending a seminary or seminary college, assuring that the “seminarian” is properly indoctrinated. Most other non-mainstream, storefront or megachurch, clergy may have attended a so-called Bible college or something like that. Basically all that is is a glorified Sunday school for adults. There are many problems associated with both mainstream and non-mainstream clergy. First of all, most are poorly trained in handling existential crises like death and grieving, and will turn to their denomination’s religious teachings, their doctrines, first, since that’s all they have. Secondly, they don’t have the necessary training or education in death, dying, grief and mourning. Thirdly, they lack interfaith, intercultural training to be able to understand the cultural dynamics that occur in the particular family system. Fourthly, they very rarely take the time to get to know the deceased, much less the key mourners and the family in general. Fifthly, most clergy do not understand the importance of continuing bonds of the living with the dead. In fact, most have a rather antiquated Freudian approach of the need to cut any continuing bond with the dead and replace the bond with something else. That’s a very psychospiritually unhealthy attitude indeed. And last but certainly not least, since I could go on with this list, most clergy have parishes or congregations to run and can’t really provide the kind of service or care required for funeralization and aftercare. The result is what I call the cookie-cutter service with all of its failures and insincerity. The clergyperson, a priest, minister, deacon, or layperson – sometimes, embarrassingly, even the funeral director – steps up at the appointed time, opens a book or recites a formulaic prayer, and it’s all done and over.
Sometimes there’s the de rigueur church service that’s all but meaningless to most attendees and represents only an additional expense (can approach more than $600 in some cases). Practically and theologically, the dead are in God’s hands, there’s little the living can do to change things, despite what the minister may preach.
For all of the reasons given in the above, the best choice for the spiritual or religious care of the bereaved is, believe it or not, the experienced bereavement chaplain. An experienced bereavement chaplain is a specialist in dying, death, psychospiritual care, and aftercare. The experienced bereavement chaplain is not only trained in the disciplines relating to interfaith practices, rite and rituals associated with death, psychology and spirituality of dying, death, and survivors, technology of deathcare, and much, much more that is of essential benefit to the dying and to survivors. No funeral director and no denominational clergy can offer the scope and depth of services that the interfaith bereavement chaplain can offer.
It’s the scope and depth of expertise of the interfaith bereavement chaplain that make him or her the go-to when a family is faced with the dying process, death and deathcare, grief and survivor care. It’s that expertise that makes the interfaith bereavement chaplain an essential member of the care team at all phases of the bereavement process. The professional interfaith bereavement chaplain does what neither the funeral director nor the cookie-cutter clergyperson can do: the chaplain makes death a meaningful and survivable experience.
When a family considers spending $2000 to more than $10000 on a casket alone, or when the family opts for an economical funeral package of say on average $3,000-5,000 does it really make sense to do without an essential service costing a mere $200-300, in most cases less than 5 % of the total cost of the funeral? When survivors consider spending up to $800 on embalming which won’t last more than a couple or days or a maximum of a couple of weeks before decomposition sets in, and embalming is not even required by law in the majority of situations, even when there’s a viewing planned. Why would any family not request the services of a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain with all of the long-term benefits to the survivors socially, psychologically, politically, spiritually that are associated with dignified funeral rites and rituals, and aftercare by a deathcare specialist? You’ll consider several hundreds of dollars for unnecessary embalming, several thousands for a casket, a couple of thousand for a vault, but will go cheapo when it comes to dignified, personalized, meaningful spiritual care? Go figure!
I personally serve the Albany-Rensselaer-Schenectady-Greene counties region in New York state, and have been requested by families in the New York City area for special services, but this blog is read internationally. Given that this blog attracts an international audience, I would like to provide some very general recommendations taken from my local practice, which can be applied to most North American and European regions with little or no adjustment for local conditions. Here is how I practice and what I recommend for families, survivors, and others involved in deathcare:
As soon as it becomes obvious that a death is about to occur, whether hours or days, contact a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain. Please note that denominational clergy have their place if the dying person has had a personal relationship with the clergyperson or was active in a faith community. Please note further that hospital chaplains are OK for certain interventions but their competencies are mostly restricted to the hospital setting. Hospice chaplains, too, have their place but are agenda and program driven, and have limited effectiveness outside of the hospice setting.
If the person is in the process of dying, you may want to ask for presence or companionship during the dying process. This presence/ companioning can be for those around the dying person as well as for the dying person. If this presence / companioning is to be provided in an institution such as a nursing home, hospital, or hospice, an institutional chaplain may be available, and the interfaith bereavement chaplain will coordinate care visits with the institutional chaplain(s). Nevertheless, when death is imminent, it may be helpful to have your interfaith bereavement chaplain present for the dying person and for the family. Consider the options carefully.
Make an appointment to meet with the interfaith bereavement chaplain to discuss your situation. The chaplain will listen attentively and will hear what you need even before you know it. It’s important that you hear what the chaplain has to say, and to share your interpretations with him or her. You should be doing most of the talking during this initial meeting; if the chaplain does most of the talking or interrupts, he or she may not be the ideal choice. Try again. Only after you have explained your situation and the chaplain has had an opportunity to ask some important, brief questions seeking a better understanding, should he or she start making any recommendations.
Once the person has died, you may want the chaplain to remain with the body until the funeral home sends a care to take charge of the body. I do this out of respect for the family and to ensure that they know the body will be watched over. This is very important in the initial hours following a death. The bereavement chaplain is also an advocate for the family if the family wants to spend more time with the body.
Once you have established a rapport and trust with the chaplain, and if you haven’t already given your funeral director the chaplain’s name, contact details, and the information that you have spoken to the chaplain, you should do that when you make the initial call to the funeral home for removal of the body. Inform your funeral director that you’d like the funeral director to contact the chaplain to discuss the arrangements made and any details if the chaplain is going to do the funeral for you. You may want to ask the chaplain to be present during the arrangements meeting with the funeral director. I find that families are less stressed if I am present.
Be sure to discuss aftercare with the chaplain. You should ask about regular contacts with the chaplain for at least the first year after the death. He or she should be available on what are called trigger dates (birthdays, holidays, special dates) when grief may be particularly noticeable, or if you find you need some help in getting through a particular day. The chaplain will likely have discussed grief and grieving with you so that you know what to expect. That discussion is standard practice during my initial meeting with the family.
Remember always, that the interfaith bereavement chaplain may be your independent choice or you may receive a recommendation from the funeral home you choose. Do not accept a mere list of clergypersons. You want an interfaith bereavement chaplain. If the funeral home does not have one on call or on staff, maybe it’s time to find another funeral home that can provide a complete range of services.
Beware of the funeral home chains and factory funeral homes. Their sole interest is in their bottom line and their shareholders; you are just a consumer to them. You’ll find chain funeral homes and factory funeral homes almost everywhere. I call them Walmart-funerals, because they are there to sell you everything because that’s what they do; they sell funeral goods and services. What you need is deathcare services not a sales pitch and a huge bill.
The worst time to do any of the above is when a death occurs. I usually counsel my clients not to make any major decisions for at least 6 months to 1 year after the death but now you have to make some major decisions within hours of the death. It’s an incredibly confusing and draining expereince. That’s why I unconditionally recommend that you really should seriously make pre-arrangements so that when a death occurs, you can deal with the grief you will experience, and will have everything else under control. We highly recommend advance directives and pre-arrangements. We also recommend having an interfaith bereavement chaplain present when discussing and finalizing both advance directives and pre-arrangements. You many know what you want but it’s always good to have an impartial presence who can do some impartial thinking.
In upcoming articles I will be discussing the importance of revival of traditional funeral rituals and why they are so important to the living. As a sequel to the discussion about traditional funeral and memorial rituals, I’ll share with you why the family’s participation is so very important, and how we can personalize the rituals and ceremony so that they have lasting psychospiritual benefit for you. I’ll also be writing about continuing our bonds with the dead and why it’s normal and healthy to do that.
But in the meantime, if you have any specific questions or would like more information, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be pleased to help in whatever way I can.
Walmart-type funeral services and how they nickel-and-dime the bereaved while falling short of providing meaning and hope.
Most of the Walmart-type funeral chains are, like Walmart, impossibly large.
When I use the term “Walmart” I mean any operation that is a chain of oversized superstores mostly found in the population centers in the USA, known for driving local family-oriented service providers out of generations-old businesses, and characterized up-selling poor-quality goods and services, assisted by clone-like corporate staff, and presenting a cloying and gawdy image of shallow, phony sensitivity and compassion and flag-waving, exploiting cherished values for profit, and contributing to the demise of tradition and family piety. A major competitor to municipal waste management in reducing the dignity of the dead and the bereaveds’ continuing bonds with their dead by advocating fast and cheap mortuary services, leaving the living cold as the deceased. Contributing to this grim scenario is the fact that most of the Walmart-type funeral chains are, like Walmart, impossibly large. Very large organizations need rigid rules and policies in order to function; this is true also of the funeral service chains. Examples of this type of Walmart funeral home chain or factory funeral home would be Newcomer Funeral Service Group (Newcomer Funerals and Cremations), Service Corporation International (SCI), Dignity Memorial® (SCI in public), StoneMor. All of these corporate funeral service corporations are hiding behind familiar, local, formerly independent funeral home names, so don’t be misled.
Overall, we see that families are increasingly interested in what a “celebration of life” and the personalized funeral or memorial service. Unlike a wedding or a graduation, the funeral or memorial is a one-off event. You just can’t do it again and get it right, you need to experience it when it happens. And you need to give yourself permission to grieve, to continue the bond with the deceased, to heal, and to go on with life. All of this involves a great variety of death-related activities both behind-the-scenes and up front, and it all has to be up close, intimate and personal in order for mourners to take home the benefits.
Despite the funeral chains, the funeral service corporations, and the grisly, sometimes disgusting alternatives to traditional funeral rites and burial, families are asking for more from their service providers. Dignity, personalization, ritual, tradition, compassion, sensitivity, fair play, just to mention a few. That “more” can’t be delivered by the Walmarts of the funeral service industry. To get that added value you don’t need a corporate log-roller with a policy, a pitch and a scripted program, you need a compassionate, caring, expert team of professionals who know the deceased, the survivors, and their culture.
Editor’s note. The ethnic diversity of Western culture makes it almost impossible for a multi-state or multi-national corporation to provide the promised one-stop full-service funeral or memorial service. Only a local independent funeral home and a funeral director steeped in the local culture and sensitive to the needs of the local population can serve at such an emotional and critical time as a death. We’ve all had the unfortunate experience of having to go to a corporate urgent care clinic or to a corporate hospital ER or specialist clinic while still living and able to say NO! to the long waits and impersonal service; compare that to the corporate funeral service treatment! Now that’s when you’re mainstream, middlish class, relatively unstressed and have time to make a good decision. That’s not the case in the event of a death when everything has to be wrapped up in 1-2 days! It gets even worse when you are a cultural or ethnic minority with solid traditions and values like Asians, Latinos and Hispanics, African Americans, or are a member of a real minority or a socioeconomically marginalized group.
The good news is that according to funeral industry observers, there is a good indication that consumer behavior will continue to trend back to the typical traditional funeral. Depending on where your traditional funeral home is located and its specific amenities, its services may vary in their scope but families will continue to rely on expertise of the bereavement specialist for unique ritual and ceremonial remembrances and other funeralization and memorialization options. As personalization becomes more popular in our funeral services, funeral directors should be ready to introduce and provide new service options that better represent and respond to how people want to remember and how people are remembering and paying tribute to their loved ones. These newer service options are not really new at all and draw on traditional rituals but with an updated presentation and relevance, more opportunities for mourners to be directly involved in the ritual and ceremony rather than sitting like dumb spectators. During pre-arrangement meetings, it is important for the you or your loved one to provide some indication of how they want to be remembered, since this provides important clues as to how the service should be designed and presented. Ritual is in, cookie-cutter is out!
It’s not just the family-owned funeral homes that are being pushed to the brink of extinction by these greedy giants, it’s also the cemeteries around the country that are increasingly being “acquired” by these corporations, frequently without informing families owning plots, and driving up the price of burial. Of course, if you balk at the corporations’ expensive cemetery scams, they’re there to sell you a cremation and an expensive urn. But beware, too, of cremation and take-home urns; there’s a sinister corporate logic and plan behind that, too. You see, the corporations don’t consider cemeteries to be consecrated, hallowed ground, sacred space. Service Corporation International, Dignity Memorial, StoneMor and Newcomer and their ilk all consider your hallowed ground to be valuable real estate! The space where you once buried a body can now accommodate up to 12 cremated bodies; the ground becomes 12x as valuable. Better still, the corporations say, don’t even bother burying the remains, and they’ll buy up the cemetery, dispose of the bodies buried there, and repurpose the land as commercial or residential real estate. They’ve got all exits covered. You would probably be very surprised to learn that your local Roman Catholic diocesan cemetery is controlled by a death corporation like StoneMor or Service Corporation International (SCI).
The corporations like SCI and StoneMor are acutely aware of the value of cemetery real estate and are standing ready to cash in on it (America’s Looming Burial Crisis. There are option, What Happens if a Cemetery Goes Under). Ask yourself where does it all stop? When do they start pushing to repurpose our consecrated, hallowed ground for a new condo complex or an industrial park?.
Don’t be mistaken: these Walmart-funeral service corporations are not interested in your loss or how you grieve; their sole interest is in how much money they can make by gobbling up as much of the death industry as possible to make as much money as possible by exploiting your loss. Their goal is to make money by actually reducing your choices or depriving you of what choices and options you have. They are, after all, corporations. As they “acquire” ( = buy up) what they quaintly call “locations” (formerly family-owned funeral homes, community cemeteries) their scandalous operations are resulting in more and more bad press and lawsuits. But you’re obviously not reading those stories in the press or you wouldn’t be surprised at what this article is telling you.
A well-known and popular online news and information site, the Huffington Post, recently published an article that would be comical if it weren’t so sadly true, Huffington Post asks: “Would you rest the soul of a loved one with a product purchased from Walmart?” (Walmart Caskets For Sale Online, Starting At $999 (PHOTOS) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/28/walmart-caskets-for-sale_n_337894.html). Has mainstream American culture become so trailer-trash cheap that we can’t even treat our dead loved ones with respect and dignity?
Those of us who study grief and mourning, dying and death, are frequently aghast at what we observe in so many chain funeral homes and factory funeral service providers today. The rushed atmosphere, the used-car sales tactics, the upselling and nickel-and-diming, the superficiality and insensitivity are appalling. It’s even more disgraceful to observe the bereaved being shuttled from signing stacks of paperwork to the “merchandise” room, and then to the door. It’s almost like bringing your car for an oil change. Pure routine. Where’s the compassion, where’s the humanity, where’s the feeling? You’ve just lost the love of your life and you’re getting the oil-change treatment.
The scam of the direct cremation or direct burial for $1000 or less (excluding various “ service fees,” of course), is not really intended to spare you any inconvenience like experiencing the necessary grief and mourning, finding meaning in the death, or even enhancing the healing following the death. It’s a quick buck for the mortuary services company. Why not just call your local domestic waste collection and disposal company and have done with it at a fraction of the cost. Just call the local transfer station for a pick-up. You may save a couple of bucks and a couple of hours of time by directly disposing of mom or dad but you still have to live with yourself, the unfinished work of grieving, and the guilt of failing in your natural obligations to your dead! Why not just drink some Draino or antifreeze; you’ll feel better.
Hold on! The corporations are offering yet another option. It’s called “resomation” or alkaline hydrolysis This is for real. You see, some companies have devised a way to actually dissolve the deceased in a draino-like solution and once the body is dissolve, it’s emptied into the sewer system. And you thought all that happened only in B-rated horror films or gangster films in a hotel bathtub. Well, there are some pretty disgusting things people are selling these days. [Liquifying human remains seen as “green” alternative to cremation]
And what about those hip and knee implants? You know the titanium and steel stuff that won’t burn or dissolve. Well your friends in corporate funeral services have taken care of that too! They recycle those parts and it’s become a big business. (Check out this BBC article, “Melting down hips and knees: The afterlife of implants”)
I remember one professor in my seminary used to say that we became human when we started treating our dead like a “Who” rather than a “What”. Non-humans grieve and mourn their dead. Every culture and every society has traditions, rites, rituals that are associated with death and mourning. Every culture and every society that is not controlled by corporate greed and materialist consumerism and its fake individualism, that is. Why is it that Western society has become slaves to corporations whose sole aim is to reduce human beings to means to an end, a means to making money and acquiring power, reducing us all to the degrading status of mere consumers. Why? Because you let them do it to you. In fact, going back to when we first became human, we’re making a 180º turn: We’re moving from being human to becoming non-human; we’ve stopped treating our dead as “Who” and are now treating them as “What”.
You think you have freedom and you think you have choice. Well, let me wake you up. Here’s the ugly fact: You have become that flimsy image reflected in the screen of your smartphone as you obsessively search your Facebook posts and your emails to find some acknowledgement of your existence by your disembodied electronic virtual friends. You’re vision is forever downward into your smartphone and your horizon extends only to your feet. When we used to say the sky’s the limit, your feet have become your limit. Your neck perpetually bent, your eyes forever squinting to read the small texts. You have become what the corporations have made you: hopeless, means to their ends, consumers. Time to step up and go back to being community!
You are invited to visit, follow and participate in this new specialist blog dedicated to funeral and memorial services, the important but frequently overlooked role of the interfaith bereavement chaplain, and many other funeralization and deathcare topics.
This new blog will share with its readers a plethora of information on the funeral services niche, what to ask for, what to avoid, who to avoid, and what services you should ask for, if you are a consumer, or offer, if you are a funeral director, both during pre-arrangement meetings and when making immediate need arrangements.
Visit Funeralization & Chaplain Services bloghere. Join the Interfaith Chaplain group on Facebook here. Learn about Chaplain Services available to you here.
We feel it is extremely important that consumers be offered the opportunity to consult and to talk to a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain, and that consumers should request such a conference; on the other hand, funeral homes should provide such an opportunity to all persons making funeral or memorial arrangements.
We are staunch supporters of the traditional funeral for all of its important psychological, spiritual, and cultural benefits. We are also strongly in support of locally owned and operated funeral homes as opposed to the corporate funeral groups and the factory-funeral service providers. Having said that, we do not believe that the traditional funeral should be outrageously extravagant or expensive but that it should be simple and dignified, personalized to reflect the family culture and the life of the deceased.
Welcome to this blog. Contribute to this blog. Make this blog a place of sharing.
Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Chaplain Harold at email@example.com or, if you are in immediate need of chaplain services or bereavement support, please call Chaplain Harold at (518) 810-2700.
Republished with Permission from Thanatology Café.
There is a great deal to be said about our healthcare and deathcare industries in the US, they are similar in many respects and exhibit similar functional flaws in a general sense. In the humanectomized materialist consumerism driven culture in which we live, the corporations have reduced most of us to human means to a corporate end. Most of US humanity has been dehumanized to the level of mere consumers. This is not a new development, however, and can be read in many quasi-prophetic sources.
In a recent conversation with a licensed funeral director and funeral home operator, who read our article on Nicholas Facciand Newcomer Funerals and Cremations (March 26, 2017), we discussed among other things the funeral chains’ exploitation of the demise of our traditions. We continue that discussion here together with some and some interesting anecdotes about the Albany County Coroner’s office.
After that discussion, I couldn’t help but think about one of the many hysterical scenes in the Monty Python film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or of the grim portrayal by Dr John B. Huber of the Manchurian Plague (20th c.) and the Black Plague (14th c.).
Monty Python’s “Holy Grail”
The scene takes place during the Black Plague in medieval somewhere, and opens with the sounds of strange medieval music. Discordant and sparse images. Wailings and groanings. Close up of contorted face upside down. A leg falls across it. Creaking noise. The bodies lurch away from and scene pans out to reveal they are amongst a huge pile of bodies on a swaying cart that is lumbering away from the viewer. It is pulled by a couple of ragged, dirty emaciated wretches, the cart drivers. Behind the cart walks another large man, a slightly more prosperous Porter, wearing a black hood and looking rather sinister. The Porter is carrying an emaciated old man over his shoulder who is still moving, and protests “I’m not dead!” The dialogue goes something like this:
The scene: (The Porter carrying an old man slung over his shoulder, approaches the cart and the cart driver…)
Bring out your dead!
I’m not dead!
Nothing…Here’s your ninepence.
Er…He says he’s not dead!
Yes he is.
Well he will be soon. He’s very ill.
I’m getting better!
No you’re not. You’ll be stone-dead in a moment.
I can’t take him like that; it’s against regulations!
I don’t want to go on the cart!
Oh don’t be such a baby.
I can’t take him like that!
I feel fine!
Oh, do us a favor…
Well, can you hang around a couple of minutes? He won’t be long…
I promised I’d be at the Robinson’s. They’ve lost nine today.
Well, when’s your next round?
I think I’ll go for a walk.
(To the Old Man) You’re not fooling anyone, you know! (to the Cart Driver) Look. Isn’t there something you can do?
(Singing) I feel happy, I feel happy!
The Cart Driver looks at the Porter for a moment. Then they both do a quick furtive look up and down the street. The Cart Driver very swiftly brings up a club and hits the Old Man on the head. (Out of shot but the singing stops after a loud bonk noise.)
Ah! Thanks very much! (Handing over the ninepence) See you on Thursday!
While transcribing the dialogue I thought to myself how prophetic this 1975 spoof was. More than 40 years later we can watch this clip and it sends cold shivers down your spine. Back then what was morbidly hilarious has become stark reality for us today.
“Bring out your dead!” Newcomer Funerals and Cremations TV Ads.
There you are, sitting enjoying a snack thinking “Life is good!” And Warren “Ren” Newcomer, the cadaver-like founder of the Newcomer Funeral Services Group based in Wichita, Kansas, appears on your television screen. He’s the 21st century version of the Cryptkeeper and plays the part really well. He looks like an embalming gone awry and oozes a false compassion and insincere expression that makes you want to choke on your chips. Here’s a guy who has made millions exploiting the deaths of loved ones and doing his part to destroy our death traditions while grinning like a corpse on the way to the bank. Newcomer Funeral Services Grouphas two locations in the Albany, New York, area, and has a presence in some 10 states. There are other similar funeral chains, Walmart-type factory funeral companies that have bought up private funeral businesses, cemeteries and crematoriums across the country. They operate under names like Service Corporation International (SCI), Dignity Memorial™, StoneMor Partners, Precoa, and of course, Newcomer Funerals and Corpse Disposal. What their advertising and marketing messages say to us, despite the actors and the phony compassion, is what Monty Python is teaching: “Bring out your dead!” Toss them on the cart and we’ll see you on Thursday (and don’t forget your checkbook or credit card).
“I’m Not Dead!” The Office of the Albany County Coroner declares a woman dead but she revives in the morgue
In New York Times article “They Said She Was D.O.A., But Then the Body Bag Moved” (Robert D. McFadden, 11/18/94) The author reports that Albany County Coroner Philip Furie and Paramedics allegedly “found no heartbeat, no pulse, no breath or other signs of life, and the coroner declared her officially dead.” So they “ zipped Mildred C. Clarke, into a body bag, took her to the morgue at the Albany Medical Center Hospital and left her in a room where corpses are kept at 40 degrees, pending autopsies or funerals. About 90 minutes later, the chief morgue attendant went in to transfer her to a funeral home. “ The attendant noticed some movement in the body bag, unzipped it and found that Mildred was still breathing. She was moved to intensive care and treated but the case has never been explained. The L.A. Times reports later that “Mildred Clark, the 86-year-old woman who spent 90 minutes in a morgue cooler last week after mistakenly being declared dead, died Wednesday of undisclosed ailments, a hospital spokesman said…. Albany Medical Center Hospital spokesman Richard Puff said Clark’s family had requested that the cause of death be withheld.” Any guesses as to the cause of death?
According to the article, “Albany is the only major city in New York State that does not have a medical examiner, an official who is trained in forensic pathology, and this would be a real advantage,” The office of the coroner is a relic still found in many American cities. Albany elects four coroners to declare deaths and investigate their causes. They have no medical training but are required to attend a “death investigation course.” The coroners are expected to evaluate crime scenes and suspicious deaths, but they have no medical training.
We’re investigating some leads relating to the performance of the Albany County Coroners, and will report on our findings in a future article. We suspect that the Albany County Coroner isn’t very popular among local funeral directors. But Hey! this is Smalbany, isn’t it? There’s a job for every misfit in the Albany Democratic Machine, isn’t there?
“Look. Isn’t there something you can do? Ah! Thanks very much! See you on Thursday.” Inconvenience of the Dying Process.
We’re so very busy and so much in a rush. Why? Because our handlers tell us we are. We’ve lost our sense for distinguishing what is nice and what is necessary. We no longer have to think. Advertisers tell us what we need. Marketers tell us what to ask for. Government tells us how to live. Churches tell us how to die. Emails tell us we need to Hurry! and to Rush! because time is running out to buy a certain something. Hell! We don’t even die in peace. Hospitals transform us into cyborgs with tubes and electrodes at every available spot, and when all else fails, they still want to provide “billable services.” Only when you have had enough watching the technology fail do you scream STOP! Even when the so-called healthcare team has the good sense to admit that they can’t do anything more, they recommend shipping what’s left of mom or dad to hospice. And so at hospice the saga continues. When death finally occurs, whether it’s helped along or drags out to the end, we are still in a hurry, still have other things to do. But yet again, the materialist consumerism we are addicted to has the solution for immediate relief of any inconvenience, even death. There are customized death packages for every budget ranging from direct burial or direct cremation to the “traditional funeral.” Just ask for the Detailed Price List required by the FTC’s Funeral Rule and prepare to be nickel-and-dimed. You have abandoned the traditional funeral home with the family funeral director and have opted for the Walmart funeral chain, the factory funeral service provider. And you deserve everything you get. Sorry but it’s true.
We’ve all read about states like Oregon and Washington that have legislated physician-assisted suicide (PAS), euthanasia in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. We all know about the hospice movement that has degenerated into another instance of corporate exploitation of death and the demise of the family. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Monty Python prophesied the hastening of death movement. True, we no longer use a club to help the dying along; we’ve become much more refined in the 21st century. We now use chemicals and drugs. Or, if we’ve made mom or dad into an ICU cyborg, we simply remove the respirator, inject some morphine and “Ah! Thanks very much. See you on Thursday” at the viewing. We’ve come a long way into our degeneration!
Get the shocking truth about Service Corporation International (SCI) here.
We really have to chuckle when we read such crapola like “Service Corporation International is dedicated to compassionately supporting families at difficult times, celebrating the significance of lives that have been lived, and preserving memories that transcend generations, with dignity and honor. (SCI site at , last accessed on April 6, 2017). If you’re ready to believe that operations like SCI or Newcomer, corporations with their eyes on the bottom line, with their programmed funeral directors and staff operating on a corporate agenda, are there to do what the family funeral home once did, you’re already brain dead. SCI is constantly being sued, settling, or paying out huge judgments resulting from their mistakes. But when you’re making billions, who cares. The living keep dying; sky’s the limit! Get on the cart.
A bit of history: In 1962, Robert L. Waltrip, a licensed funeral director who grew up in his family’s funeral business, founded Service Corpration International. SCI started out as a small network of funeral homes and cemeteries in the Houston, Texas, area.
SCI gradually increased its offshore presence, and it continued to acquire business interests in North America. Since the late 1990s the US and Canadian marketplaces a saturated battleground of competing companies intent on buying up and exploiting the deathcare business sector. SCI, In the course of the melee, Alderwoods Group and Stewart Enterprises emerged as the three principal companies in the resulting funeral corporation industry. As of December 31, 1999, SCI owned and operated 3,823 funeral service locations, 525 cemeteries, 198 crematoria and two insurance operations located in 20 countries on five continents. In 1999, SCI introduced Dignity Memorial, the first transcontinental brand offering deathcare goods and services in North America. By consolidating its network of funeral homes and cemeteries under a single brand, SCI expected that they could create a recognizable and marketable brand image. In 2000, poor market conditions forced SCI to reevaluate operations. While foreign operations had once shown promise, nearly 70 percent of SCI’s revenue was generated by operations in the United States and Canada. The company decided to divest many of its offshore businesses, in addition to many North American funeral homes and cemeteries. The UK arm now operates as Dignity PLC.
“I don’t want to go on the cart!” How we treat our dying; how we treat ourselves.
Monty Python presents an interesting scenario at a time when Jessica Mitford was enjoying the fruits of her muckraking book, “American Way of Death,” (1963), and the funeral home chains and funeral service factory corporations were reaching their peak of exploitation when Mitford’s “American Way of Death Revisited” was poshumously published (1998). Monty Python had it right. But we all laughed our way straight to hell.
J.B. Huber MD: “Psychology of Grave Epidemics”
(Med. Times, 1911)
Moving from a 1975 comedy spoof we can cite a remarkable article that appeared in the December 1911 journal, Medical Times, by John B. Huber MD. Dr Huber writes about the great Manchurian Plague (1910-1900), and compares it to the Black Plague (1347-1351). I’d like to quote some passages from that 1911 medical journal article. See if you can draw any parallels with our 21st century society.
Yet business was conducted as ordinarily—by those still alive; and the stroller “viewing the manners of the town,” would hardly realize from the superficial aspect of things, that a dreadful scourge was gradually but surely destroying its people. Yet the plague had, from November last up to this New Year’s Day, done for one-fourth of the twenty thousand inhabitants of that community; and it was then expected that more than half the remainder would be doomed before the plague would expend its energies.
On this festive New Year’s Day in that Manchurian town, the mounted policeman’s horse had its tail brightly decorated with green and red streamers; a shop keeper burst merrily out upon a group in the street, scaring them with a bunch of firecrackers which he flung up into the air. A green house was decorated with bright red, gilt lettered posters, festive banners and green paper flags, all by way of celebration. Next door the yellow poster of the Sanitary Bureau was in evidence, sealing up that house, and marking it unclean; “eight dead, two dying,” are the tally with which it began the New Year. (Huber p. 353)
Sounds like our modern lifestyle: death looms around us but we just continue partying, ignoring it, until we have to go down that dark alley and have no choice but to confront the darkness, the gloom. Manchuria in the early 20th century doesn’t seem much different from Troy or Albany in the early 21st century.
“Eight dead, two dying.” Sound’s like Monty Python’s Cart Driver, “They’ve lost nine today.” Or like the handoff report in an ICU. Whether you’re tallying plague victims or scheduling body collections, or handing off your charges to the next shift, the language used tells it all: We’ve all become mere garbage bags laying about until we get collected, transported, disposed of. Don’t you think there should be more to the final chapter of a life lived, and the received legacy?
“The carters that loaded the dead on the wagons and took them away would not walk, but sat companionably beside the corpses.” (Huber p. 353)
And so do we in the 21st century. The 21st century carters load up the dead and take them away; the bereft sit complacently beside the corpses. One would hope that we have advanced a bit farther along than our ancestors, that we would observe the traditions handed down to us, perform the grief and mourning rituals so important to psychospiritual healing. Some of us do. Most haven’t a clue, and rely on the bean counters to guide them.
“Nine hundred were buried coffinless in pits; above two thousand frozen corpses, in a most desolate stillness, awaited burial near the town, in a heap a quarter-mile long. Some coffins were in evidence, standing upright, without covers, the bodies erect in them; here an arm stuck upright out of its receptacle; there a naked leg protruded. Near the pile of which he was soon to become a member, was seen an outcast kneeling, worshipping, half falling in his weakness, as he bowed his head and rose again, before the grave of an ancestor.´ (Huber p. 353)
On the one hand we get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes at one of the funeral home chains or factory-funeral homes as described by a young licensed funeral director now employed by Newcomer Funerals and Cremations. On the other hand, we are presented with a feeble suffering wretch who, despite his own suffering, has not forgotten his obligations in continuing his bonds with the dead, one of whom he shall soon be. It’s a rich, telling image; in a sense very real but very metaphorical. Once you create that image in your mind, you’ll not soon forget it.
“[T]he plague was coming to its most dreadful stage, for it was now destroying the family affections…Thus, most gruesomely, does the twentieth century repeat the fourteenth.” (Huber p. 354)
While Dr Huber is describing a real epidemic, the Manchurian Plague of 1910-11, and describes the Black Death of the 14th century that swept away a substantial part of medieval Europe’s population, we are faced with a more insidious plague that is robbing us of our core values to family and kin, both living and dead. Huber, a medical man, calls this the “most dreadful stage” because it was destroying the core of the culture, the bonds of family. I’d guess he’d probably go further to say that the 21st century repeats both the 14th and the 20th, but that our plague is materialist consumerism promoted by greed and the catastrophe of so-called individual choice.
“Next to the fear of death was the fear of desertion.” (Huber p. 354)
Early 20th century China had very strong family ties, ties of responsibility, filial piety. This sense of duty was the basis of the veneration of ancestors, a form of continuing bond with the dead, similar to the West’s veneration of its sacred dead, the saints. Huber is describing a fear of abandonment, of “desertion” to be on a par with the fear of death. In clinical practice, whether in the nursing home or the hospital setting, or hospice, we find persons who are ready to confront death but fear doing it alone; they have a fear of desertion. We might extend that fear of desertion to the bereaved, as well, but their desertion is far more subtle than committing the dying to some remote corner of the medical ICU or to a hospice facility. The bereaved are not only saddled with their loss but also with the daunting confrontation with the corporate funeral director with his endless list of goods and services with their respective prices. All is done with the sensitivity of an embalming trocar. What ever happened to the compassionate family funeral home and its director, frequently assisted by his family.
“Who, then, would be so foolhardy as to throw good life after bad, by nursing a dying friend, when the Black Death lay per chance in his last sign, in the farewell pressure of his hand. So the nearest and dearest ties were dissolved, the calls of kindred and humanity neglected; the sick left to die and to be carted to the grave by hirelings…” (Huber p. 354)
Indeed, who today would be so traditional as to give up his or her self-time to care for a dying relative or friend, especially one who is in the disturbing phases of life’s end. Most persons are ambivalent about the whole process: On the one hand they look to the death as something unbearable in its finality; on the other hand they just want to get it over with. The death occurs and the bereaved are fed the 20th century psychological pablum that their connection with the dead person has ended, that they have to get on with a productive life. That was Freud’s teaching: You had to cut your ties with the dead. Quite the opposite of that in the East or in traditional societies, and quite a contrast to what we now teach in the 21st century. We now teach continuing bonds with the dead, a transcendence phenomenon, meaning-making, that the living’s relationship with the deceased is not only normal and healthy, it’s encouraged! We do it in the rituals of the support group or in ways like the AIDS quilt. We may do it differently than the poor wretch venerating his ancestors described by Huber but we nonetheless do it. We do it because it’s the human thing we do. But it’s also so very inconvenient for the chains and the corporations; they don’t encourage humanity, they encourage production and consumerism. Take three days and get over your grief. Back to work with you. See you on Thursday.
“Boccaccio attests vividly how the human organism in all its phases—physical, spiritual, moral, intellectual—deteriorated in stamina and in co-ordination. Compassion, courage and the nobler feelings were found in but few; whilst cowardice, selfishness and ill-will, with the baser passions in their train asserted their supremacy. In place of virtue, which had been driven from the earth, wickedness everywhere reared its rebellious standard and succeeding generations were consigned to her baneful tyranny.” (Huber p. 354)
Boccaccio here is describing the pitiful demise of humanity in the Middle Ages. We could describe the present state of affairs without changing a word, couldn’t we? Take a moment and go to the Newcomer Funeral Service Group or their Albany/Latham websites for Newcomer Funerals and Cremations and read their ridiculous claims of what they offer the bereaved. Go to the Service Corporation International site and read about their “compassion”, their caring, their sensitivity to the needs of the bereaved. That’s worse than General Motors telling you they care about your lower back pain. Yet how many consumers actually swallow that sordid brew. These factory-funeral corporations aren’t making billions because no one’s falling for the marketing hype, the sales pitches pressuring the bereaved in their most difficult moments to sign and buy. We say look at the lawsuits and how much they’re paying out for failing the bereaved, for causing the bereaved more suffering than they had ever bargained for.
“[t]he Black Death “seemed to arise the worst passions of the human heart, and to dull the spiritual sense of the soul.” Who would think, declared Papon, “that in the midst of horrors so suitable (it would seem) for extinguishing the passions, there were two—libertinism and greed—which should be carried to so high a degree!” (Huber p. 354)
Indeed! Who ever thought that liberties, individualism, choice could lead to the present situation we find ourselves in. How is it that human beings in their worst possible moments should be exposed to the worst possible motivations and motives of modern mankind: libertarianism and greed. Those very libertarians preaching choice and liberty are deeply rooted in the horrible hypocrisy that such choice and liberty give life to. The plague that is upon us now in the 21st century is not a plague that is carried by fleas, and it’s not a plague that kills in five days. Our 21st century plague is called materialist consumerism, market economy, capitalism and it’s carried by fellow human beings, and it kills insidiously but totally in mind, body and spirit. There’s no way to discern with any certainty the extent of the infection but one thing is certain, there’s no effective vaccine, and most people would not want to undergo the cure.
One woman was married five times in one day—four of the bridegrooms having been buriers of the dead, dressed in the clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.” (Huber p. 354)
Huber describes the total depravity of the people who now have lost all sense of morality and values, and who now in a devil-may-care attitude of let’s be merry because we’re dead anyway. He describes a woman who marries five men in succession who are carried away just as quickly. She describes those who profit from the belongings and property of the dead, whom they have stripped. For all of Jessica Mitford’s muckraking, she would have had a picnic with this line, somehow drawing a connection between these “buriers of the dead” and those “dressed in clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.”
Like horrors disgraced many other communities. He: is furnished another example—such as are so deplorably frequent in history of how fanatical frenzy, associated with hatred and the play of the baser passions, will work powerfully upon nations and peoples to the utter exclusion of the restraints of reason, of law, or of any other wholesome factor. And the greater part of those who, by their education and rank, might have been assumed to raise the deterrent voice of reason, themselves led on the savage mob to murder and to plunder the Jews. (Huber p. 355)
Throughout history, Satan has always been the “other”; humankind has never really been able to see its true self, it’s never been able to accept its shadow side. Huber is describing the desperate search for a cause of the plague and, then as now, hatred and baser passions take control, and the necessary scapegoat is found. Whatever doesn’t support the new agenda has to be demonized and sent packing. The dead are not producers, the bereaved are not efficient workers. The dead are distracting the living from their production or consumption. Make the dead and dying disappear, marginalize the traditions, deny grief, exploit the bereaved, then send them back to work. The voice of reason is muted. Our institutions teaching and training the healthcare and deathcare professionals teach technology and business law, not ethics and humanities. The mortuary science programs wouldn’t want to whisper a word against the multinational funeral chains and factory funeral homes, after all they pay the bills and hire the graduates. Why cut your own throat? Why bite the hands that pad your pockets? Of course they won’t hire anyone teaching real deathcare, psychospiritual support, tradition, ritual, healing. The bereaved are, after all, consumers. And you wouldn’t want to keep them from their producing activity for any longer than necessary. Besides, there’s always another body and we have to keep turning over the visitation rooms and chapel. Headquarters wants to see numbers, you know.
That the emotions played a part regarding the plague was observed by many. Those who were terrified were more prone to contract the disease. Those who feared not and were of a cheerful, equable mind were, to the extent at least of that benign influence upon the organism, the more likely to escape. Boccaccio, in writing the Decameron, recognized that pleasant thoughts were the best preventive….Those who despaired threw away their one chance of life; those of sanguine temperament resisted well. (Huber p. 355)
It’s really ironic that I should close with this passage from Huber’s article. Not really. What Huber is saying here is that if you despair you’re lost already. If you become complacent, you’re dead in the water. Those who step up, ask the questions like: Are you part of a funeral home chain? Are you owned by a funeral service corporation? Are you still family owned? will likely come out on top. It’s not necessarily the pleasant thoughts that get you through any plague, it’s the positive, affirmative thoughts that will prevent you from being taken for a ride. It’s really very true what Huber and Boccaccio are preaching here: You have to have the courage to ask the questions, to look beyond the bells and whistles, to see through the smoke screens, and to assert what you feel you need in your bereavement, not what’s on the corporate menu. The more you do your own thinking and planning the more likely you’ll escape the snares set by the corporate funeral directors. The article may have been written in 1911, over a hundred years ago, but it still has substantial relevance today. I hope to have shown that in my analysis.
Thus are all phases of individual existence mutually and inextricably interrelated: extensive and prolonged deterioration in any one aspect is bound in time to affect perniciously the others in time; such hideous psychic phenomena as are here stated do not obtain in the beginning of any such calamity as the Black Death. But it is the circumstance (and a most pathetic one) that the exercise of the heroic virtues for any lengthy period is contingent upon the maintenance of normal living conditions in general; otherwise the psychic stamina deteriorates, manners become dissolute, morals depraved and consciences debased. (Huber p. 355)
What Dr Huber is saying in this paragraph is that life events are intimately interrelated — I understand these life events to be the basis of our traditions and rituals — and that if we allow any of those events to be exploited or to lapse into irrelevance, all others will suffer as the result. Huber’s phrase “heroic virtues” equates with human values and ethical conduct, which logically rely on “normal” living in our society. When “psychic stamina deteriorates” we have a disturbance in coping and resilience, we forget the ritual and become lost, we forget our obligations, and our whole mindset, our worldview, deteriorates. This, in the 21st century, is what happens when we fall victim to the materialist consumerism of our age and become slave consumers of the corporations and their perverse messages.
And so you have it: From none other than Monty Python’s 1975 depiction of the Black Death, and from a physician writing in 1911 about the pneumonic plague in Manchuria, China, do we have the evidence that really nothing has changed; we have learned nothing. What more can one say?
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With permission from the publisher and the author, I recently republished an article of interest from the Smalbany blog and retitled it on this blog, “Isn’t Character Important in a Funeral Director, in a Funeral Services Provider?” I found the article interesting, relevant and topical and completely compatible with this blog’s purpose. I continue to be of that opinion, while taking especial care not to take sides and to offer the information as information to my readers, and not necessarily my personal or professional opinion of the parties involved. That having been said, I do agree in principle with what the publisher and the author have to say.
Apparently the original article has been receiving some considerable attention and the Editor of the Smalbany blog has published his/her personal remarks on the article, and I’d like to share those remarks with my readers.
While I can understand that some readers of the original article and perhaps even the republished article which was unedited and republished here in its entirety may have found it difficult to get their arms around the message, I find that the editor’s concern and care in responding to some of the comments he/she received is intelligent and responsible. I found them interesting and clarifying so I’d like to provide my readers with a link to those comments. Please take a moment to read the Editor’s comments. You may find them helpful.