Forget Facebook; Find Your Real Spirituality


Some General Information About
The Companions of St Silouan Athonite

First of all and from the outset: This is not a religious group nor a denominational outreach. It is not a cult-in-the-making.


One nagging question that I have frequently posed is this: Why do most people think of spiritual care at the last minute, when someone is at Death’s door or when you are facing the dying process of a loved one? It’s like exercising and eating a healthy diet after the heart attack, isn’t it? Why not get started now.


This is an ecumenical, interfaith, non-denominations, judgement-free community of persons who are solely interested in companioning each other on their spiritual pilgrimages.

The inspiration for forming a wider group of spiritual companions came from my association with a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Northeast New York. The monks decided to resurrect a concept of a group of lay persons who would live some of the monastic values while in the secular world. These so-called companions of the monastery would apply, be considered as aspirants and then admitted to the so-called companions. They would subscribe to a rule of life, establish for themselves a prayer discipline, support the monastery in time and treasure, and make regular pilgrimages, either to the parent monastery or to some other monastery or retreat venue. It was a great idea but poorly organized. It was open to all faiths and, while it had an insignia identifying the companions, a small stylized cross, it still had the flavor of a very distinct Christian denomination. I couldn’t imagine a Buddhist, a Jew or a Moslem wanting to become a companion and having a cross as their insignia.

My patron saint is St Silouan of Mount Athos, St Silouan Athonite for short. I chose Silouan because of his humility and simplicity, his dedication to love and forgiveness, his compassion. Although Silouan was highly advanced in monastic ascetic spirituality and reached the height of monastic hierarchy as a Staretz or elder, a schemamonk, his humility and simplicity were legendary. Silouan, a Russian Orthodox Christian elder monk, who lived on the exclusive Greek peninsula known as Hagios Oros, the “Holy Mountain”, or Mount Athos, he lived values that transcended the Christian model and are the common threads of all the great world spiritual traditions.

As a professional theologian and thanatologist, a scholar of religion and psychospiritual care, I find that the vast majority of persons who call themselves members of a particular faith or belief community don’t have a clue about what their denomination teaches. Most ministers have no clue about what’s going on in interreligious dialogue, much less about their particulars. Most institutionalized religion has been caught with their pants around their ankles when it comes to credibility.

In recent decades we have all too often heard the ambiguous and practically meaningless phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Even the “spiritual” professional literature from the healthcare, deathcare and spiritual care disciplines can’t even agree on an across-the-board commonly held definition of what spirituality is! In fact, one publication did a review of the literature and found more than 90 different “definitions” of  spirituality!

In my professional practice I deal with end-of-life, death, dying, and survivors. I know the value of religion and I know the value of spirituality; I think I know where the one stops and where the other starts. Every time I think I’m sure, a situation arises that sets me back to square one.

One thing is certain: every human being is spiritual. There’s no doubt about it. Once you can admit you recognize that there’s something greater than yourself, that transcends your understanding, you have become spiritual. Now how you use that evolutionary revelation to best advantage and how you ease into it to make meaning of difficult moments, suffering, challenges is another story. To get the most out of your spirituality, you need companioning, guidance, others willing to talk about their spirituality and to share their insights.

That’s what this group, the Companions of St Silouan Athonite, is all about.

It’s an open group meaning that anyone inclined to explore the group can freely do so. What you receive from the group and what you give to the group is purely a matter of what you have at any given time in your journey. The pilgrimmage is self-paced. The requirements are your own.

The only formal hierarchy is me, the self-styled “Principal Companion,” actually the monitor of the group and the main person doing most of the work on this site.

In the near future, once the group shows signs of stability and growth, I will offer two levels of formal membership: Aspirant and Companion. The Aspirant is a candidate who has identified a sincere calling to companion others in developing their spirituality. The Companion is the person who has achieved a certain level of competence in companioning through personal discipline and involvement.

Initially, there is no commitment other than the personal commitment you make to yourself and to those with whom you have a relationship to follow the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan Athonite. As the Companion community matures, we may ask for volunteer support or offer specific products for generating funds. Those products will be subject to the Community’s approval, basically all full Companions will have a say in what is offered and what is done.

At some point in time, again as the Community grows and matures, it would be great if we could have a Companions retreat once a year at locations offering retreat accommodations and meeting facilities.

The organization will be very loosely structured: Most of the site will be public access. That means that announcements, reflections, etc. will be public access.

Anyone interested in more intense involvement will be asked to “Follow” the site by signing up with their real name and their email. This means only that the moderator, I, will see who you are and know our email. You will receive an email automatically notifying you whenever a new item is posted. You can do the same for comments.

At some time in the near future, I will post an application form on this site. If anyone wishes to become an Aspirant they will fill out the form and email it to me.

To become a full Companion, you will fill out the same form but only after 6 months of Aspirancy, include an essay about your spirituality and the importance of being a Companion, and you will document your spiritual activities, retreats, spiritual direction, etc.

A full Companion will receive a letter of good standing and a Certificate of Companionship, both of which will have only sentimental value.

Very soon I will create a suitable “habit” for Companions. The habit will be a small item identifying the wearer as a Companion. It will likely be a lapel pin or similar item. Cost will be kept low, since the value of the habit is to be kept intrinsic and the habit itself is to be kept very humble.

Since most everything will be done digitally and the material for reflections etc. will come directly from my own resources or from material I’m reviewing at the time and find suitable for the Companions, no real overheads will be generated. As for the habit, the Companion will purchase that directly from the manufacturer.

I may from time to time suggest certain devotional items such as prayer ropes and the like or items to enhance sensual aspects of the spiritual practice. If I do so, I will also provide links to suppliers of such items. I do not have any financial interest in any of these suppliers but if one were to come about, I would announce that fact publicly to the Community.

Aspirants and Companions are accountable to themselves. If you misrepresent something you do your conscience is your judge, no one else.

Finally, all I ask is if you are seriously interested in becoming a participating member of the group that you contribute to the reflections or to the feedback about reflections. The only requirements are that you remain on topic, leave egos outside, and don’t bring any personal baggage on board. No proselytizing and not judgmentalism.

In closing, I do sincerely welcome your comments, recommendations, suggestions, even criticisms of me and only me. Comments should be made using the comments form on each post; they will be moderated and then published. If you don’t want what you write to be public please email me your thoughts to st.silouan.companions@gmail.com. Your email communications will be confidential and I now notify anyone concerned that I invoke clergy privilege should any law enforcement agency request insight into the emails. When I say confidential, I mean confidential.

As always, I am available at st.silouan.companions@gmail.com should you have any questions or concerns.

To view the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan click here.

Looking forward to exploring the beauty and mystery of spirituality with you,

Peace and joy!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
Principal Companion

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Customer Service is not Necessarily Human Service


As a provider of psychospiritual care to the bereaved, as a professional bereavement chaplain, theologian and thanatologist, I firmly believe that some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services. Not necessarily in that order or priority ranking.


Grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

The saying goes thus: “Death is the great equalizer.” We are all equal in death. Presidents, kings, supreme court justices, movie stars, athletes all die, all decay, all go the same way as the homeless man on the corner. But would you think of direct burial or direct cremation for a president, a queen, Mohammed Ali? So why skimp on grandpa? We celebrate the deceased’s achievements in life, not the fact of his or her being dead. And we do it with pomp, ceremony, rites, ritual, tradition, dignity and respect. Virtual mourning is none of the above and the grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

Furthermore, a death is a social, political and community event. The emotions involved in the acute grief experience are far too complex and idiosyncratic to be amenable to one method, one technology, one dose. As a social, political and community event death care requires real community involvement, hands on, and that means a local group understanding the local cultures, a “neighborhood,” if you prefer. This is a physical community, complex, deep, involved, alive; not a virtual make-believe, conjured up community.

One more thing: We have to stop giving Jessica Mitford and her estate post-mortem kudos for a book and a sequel book that was not only self-serving and conflicted in its interests, but a masterpiece of biased muckraking appealing to the titillation lust of the masses and their denial of death anxieties. Mitford couldn’t attack Death itself nor could or would she attempt to attack institutionalized religion, so she went after the next best thing, the funeral services industry. I’ve cited Mitford several times on my various blogs so I won’t waste bytes on her here.

I place Mitford in the same category as Kübler-Ross in that neither of them can claim any objective or scientific credibility but their main contribution to Western, particularly American society, was to get people talking about death and deathcare services. That, my friends, was a big step in a society frozen in preadolescent fascinations, psychosocial pathological denial, anxiety and narcissism, steeped in materialist humanism and addicted to corporate-fed consumerism.

It’s progressively gotten worse with the public health problem of Internet Addiction Disorder and the pathological subset, Facebook Addiction Disorder, and the emergence of the multistate funeral services groups like Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International and their alter ego Dignity Memorial, and StoneMor, who have all added greed and indifference to the corporate mix of tastelessness and deception of the consumer public. and their dead Again, I’ve commented extensively on these ghouls of the funeral services niche so I won’t waste time or words on them here.

Newcomer, SCI/Dignity Memorial, StoneMor
Ghouls of Corporate Death Services

They want your money not your brains!

Like it or not, death is inevitable for every mortal creature from cockroaches to presidents and kings. No matter how you define or think about it, you will have to some day deal with death so get a grip. How you deal with the death of a significant other in your life, whether that loved one is a pet or a parent or a child–or your own death is a matter of what I will term befriending death. No, I don’t mean the superficial, make believe, virtual “befriending” most of you are addicted to on Facebook and other social media. I mean the kind of be-friending that involves learning about, nurturing an intimacy with, even trusting, welcoming into your world, and frequent contact. Being at ease with, acknowledging, being aware of death is key. That may sound a bit bizarre so let me explain.

Technology has evolved faster than we as human beings have done. We lag far behind technology in our understanding of it and our ability to wisely and prudently steward it. In fact, technology has overrun us and has taken over our lives; this can’t be denied. This fact has been used to the level of Dr Strangelove proportions by corporations and big business, and even by individuals with pathological ambitions like Donald Trump on Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg with the Facebook phenomenon. The medical, psychological and ethics journals are full of reports on the so-called Internet Addiction Disorder, which was described back in the 90’s, and now there’s a subset of that disorder termed the Facebook Addiction Disorder and the Internet Gaming Disorder, which all share the same symptoms as alcoholism and street drug addiction like heroin or the like. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, just go to Pubmed and plug in a couple search terms and you’ll get all the proof you’ll ever need of this fact.


Editor’s note: For those of you who are not familiar with Pubmed, it is the database and search engine maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health; it provides access primarily to the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. (Access Pubmed here. )


You have to admit you have a problem when you need Facebook to help you grieve!

The stimulus for this editorial, however, is not Newcomers or SCI. Nor is it Twitter or Facebook. The funeral service corporations and the social media and networking evils do figure in the theme of this communication, however.
If presidents and perverts have discovered social networking and social media, neither of which are social in the benevolent meaning of the word but serve a more sinister, asocial purpose of getting people hooked and then controlling them, just as the word “service” is used deceptively when used in conjunction with such greed mills as Newcomers or Service Corporation International.
The stimulus for this commentary is, in fact, an article that appeared in Forbes online, “Customer Service In Deathcare: How The Funeral Home Industry Cares For The Living” (contributed by Micah Solomon, MAY 26, 2017).—

Mr Solomon describes himself as a “customer service consultant” and “consumer trends expert,” — he doesn’t say how he got those credentials, though — catchy phrases but a bit too catchy to inspire any confidence or credibility. I’m a bit at a loss not at the What? but at the How? when Mr Solomon then goes on to say:

While some of my own work with the death care industry as a customer service consultant and consumer trends expert has been on innovation in the deathcare customer experience (methods for serving today’s far-flung bereaved customers by using connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies to allow them to take part in memorial/celebration of life service) most of the work I do in this industry and that matters the most, in my opinion, is simply aimed at improving the customer experience, which, of course, is for the living.

Likewise unclear is Solomon’s terminology “far-flung bereaved customers” and “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” to involve them in the “memorial/celebration of life service“. Maybe it’s Mr Solomon’s sense of compassion that is represented by his use of the term “far-flung” to describe the unfortunate mourners who are separated by distance from the event. Describing the bereaved as “customers” further chills the atmosphere he’s creating. Technical jargon like “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” somehow put a damper on my sense that this guy has any clue about the nature of bereavement, acute grief, mourning, tradition, spirituality, cultural sensitivity, or even the characteristics of the vocation of funeral director. I’m therefore at something of a loss how he, with his frigid and disconnected technospeak, can improve the customer experience! This he leaves to the funeral directors he’s interviewing. Wisely so.

But even more poignant ar the three phrases caught my attention in that unimaginitive and deceptive title: “customer service,” “deathcare,” “funeral home industry.”

We alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it

Inserting a bit of Kantian deontology that I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind while reading this, I’d like to say that we are not measured by what the other guy or gal does, but by what we do; we alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it. It’s the quality of our values, morals and ethics that govern our behavior. As moral free agents we alone are responsible for what standards are used to guide our conduct.This applies not only to our inner forum, our conscience and how it guides us, but to the external forum, the community in which we live, work, and may disinterestedly interact.

Human service becomes “customer” service when an goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction

Customer service is at its most basic human service, service to human beings, human interaction, relationship building. By human services, I mean a broad range of interdisciplinary services whose commitment is jointly and individually to improve the overall quality of life in diverse populations through guidance in meeting basic human needs and support remediating real or perceived social challenges.  Human service becomes “customer” service when a goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction but it is still a subset of human services. Accordingly, customer service cannot separate itself from the humane aspect, the relationship aspect of its nature. The problem I have with the Forbes article is that, true to the materialist consumerist interests of Forbes, the article defines customer service purely in terms of selling and purchasing relationships but in the context of the so-called, malapropism, funeral service industry. Customer service must be human service, especially in the funeral services professions. Human service and hence customer service in this framework is near impossible on a corporate or industrial scale for reasons I’d be happy to substantiate in another article, if required.

Try doing this on Facebook or in cyberspace!

The second term that raised my suspicions is “deathcare.” We can defined death care as the care given to the dead or as post-mortem care. This would involve respectful and dignified custodianship and preparation of the dead body for whatever funeralization rites and rituals are appropriate as defined by the deceased individual during his or her life or as requested by the survivors. We must not oversimplify deathcare with the deathcare services businesses and industries that commonly provide services related to the dead body and death traditions, that is, preparation of the dead body (removal, embalming, cosmetology, etc.), funeral rituals, disposal (burial, cremation, etc.), and memorialization. The deathcare business includes for example funeral homes and their operations, including transporation services; containers like caskets, coffins, urns; accelerated decomposition services such as alkaline hydrolysis, cremation, etc.; cemeteries and burial plots, and headstones, markers, etc. What we most neglect in the discussion of deathcare services is psychospiritual care, and here we must include the professional bereavement chaplain and some but not most clergy.

The phrase that most raised my hackles is “funeral home industry.” First of all, the funeral home is not an industry. It may operate like a business but it is a professional operation requiring very specific training and licensure in most places. Most states require a trained and licensed funeral director to at least oversee the operations of a funeral home. The term “funeral home industry” is grossly misleading and deceptive because it creates an image of the traditional funeral home with all of its warmth and amenities together with the dignified and compassionate professional funeral director at its helm. Nothing could be farther from the truth if one looks at the funeral services industry, the more correct designation for the funeral services groups and corporations such as Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International (Dignity Memorial) or StoneMor, who operate more like waste disposal business than funeral homes. Remember corporations operate according to policies, procedures, protocols and most of all the bottom line and shareholder satisfaction. No room here for stuff like compassion, empathy, much less “human service”.

Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living.

The traditional, community funeral home is a hub of interdisciplinary teamwork.

The role of the funeral services provider, more accurately the funeral services team, is just that: to provide human services. Those human services are provided by a team of specialists that range from the funeral home cleaning and maintenance person(s), to the housekeeper, the groundskeeper, the funeral home assistants, the behind the scenes professionals (the cosmetologist, the hair stylist, the embalmer), to the front of house staff (the assistants, the funeral director(s)), to the psychospiritual care provider (the funeral home chaplain or associated clergyperson). Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living. The human services aspect persists far beyond the care provided with the first call, the removal, the arrangements conference, the chaplain visit and consultation, the visitation or the funeral; what happens at any of these milestones significantly affects the survivors during, immediately after the services, and well into the future, perhaps for years. That’s what the funeral services industry, the large groups, the corporations can’t provide but what the local family-owned funeral home pride themselves in: the human side of funeral services. So be clear on this point: once you start talking “industry” you are not talking “human”. Period.

So far I’ve taken issue only with three phrases that occur in the title of the article alone. But what about the remainder of the so-called article at issue? Well, there’s not much to say about it because the bulk of it is made up of questions put to three selected funeral directors and their responses. Their responses are totally acceptable in terms of the language, and to be honest I can’t find much with which I’d tend to disagree. The funeral directors seem to have their acts in order and say the right things. They are in a highly competitive business and have to be realistic, not necessarily traditional. Read into that what you like.

It should be clear by this point that I do not advocate virtual or technological or corporate solutions to anything as profound as the death experience or any occurrence of acute traumatic bereavement. Electronic signals, bits and bytes, virtual compassion just do not and cannot replace the warmth of human spirit, the compassionate embrace of a friend or loved one, the immediacy of the death experience, the real-ization of the death and its sequellae. The funeral home and its resident and on-call team members are the experts in offering compassion and comfort and no social networking scheme, no corporate disposal package, no virtual event and no DVD can replace the authenticity and true empathic response of face-to-face, human-to-human, verbal and non-verbal communications, the symbols and rituals that give meaning to this most mysterious of life events, death.

… some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services.

This is what we do.

The Editor

 


Editor’s Note: Solomon’s self-description reads line a narcissist’s mini-bio: “I’m best known as an author, keynote speaker, consultant, and thought leader in customer service, customer experience, company culture, leadership, hospitality, innovation, entrepreneurship and consumer trends. I travel nationally and worldwide, and home base is metro Seattle. Reach me at 484-343-5881 or micah@micahsolomon.com or http://www.micahsolomon.com” We’ve contacted him for a comment on this editorial.


Acknowledgement: I’d like to extend my special thanks to my colleagues on LinkedIn, Ms Linda Williams M. Ed., M. Th., who describes herself as an Entrepreneur, Virtual Event Planner and Facilitator, Instructional Designer, Educator, Inspirational Speaker”.” Ms Williams describes her business, In-Person Away Virtual Events, as an operation that provides “our clients, their families, and friends with a virtual alternative to come together in an engaging, realistic and meaningful way, as well as host and attend social events, without breaking the bank on travel expenses.” Ms Williams does not advocate virtual resources as a substitute for real presence but only as a valuable alternative affording an opportunity to share where no other viable options are available. I agree.


Flower Nonsense and Token Sense


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.

Outrageous Expense. And wasteful!

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.

Inexpensive polished peblles. Can be handed out to mourners, kept or placed on the casket before burial.

When in a pinch, I also rely on tasteful, prefab memorial tokens. Some of my personal favorites are available from Mourning Cross.

Examples of Mourning Cross Products

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.

Memorial Rope
Bracelet with Clasp

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.

Peace and blessings!

Rev. Ch. Harold

No Empty Chair at the Dinner Table


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.

Shells of former selves.

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.

The Penzabene Crash Site.

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

Hear the flow. See the light. Enter the silence.

“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]

Peace and blessings,
Rev.  Ch. Harold

Read a related article at Tragedy or Failure?

Download the final article from Spirituality & GriefcareNo Empty Chair

Further reading:
Holloway, Richard. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.   Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art,  2016. Print.
Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide, 2014. Print.

Chaplain vs. Cookie-Cutter-Clergy; A No-Brainer Decision


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.

Don’t Let This Happen To You! Get Personal!

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.

Where was I? What’s his name? Where am I?

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.

Let’s do a prayer now. OK. We’re done.

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 compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com. I’ll be pleased to help in whatever way I can.

Peace and blessings,
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney

 

 

 

Eaten Dead or Alive by the Funeral Chains and Corporations


Originally Published on Funeralization & Chaplain Services

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.

How crazy does it get? Well, the recent development in cremation, with all of its promotional misinformation and propaganda, as an alternative to burial is clearly disgusting, you really have to spend a couple of minutes with these gruesome videos on alternative disposal options soon to be offered at a Walmart (or a Newcomer or a Dignity Memorial) funeral service provider near you! Alkaline hydrolysis, Dissolving Grandpa in a Draino Bath, Freeze-dry Grandma, then Pulverize Her. Then there’s the corpse composting movement, the Urban Death Project, A Project to Turn Corpses Into Compost, A Seattle based eco-friendly ‘initiative’ proposes a radical solution for urban food production: using human corpses as compost to feed crops. Or just dissolve human corpses by alkaline hydrolysis.  Resomation (Liquifying): The New Green Alternative to Cremation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnIEk2Leqnw. Everything You [Don’t] Want to Know about Cremation: An Overview, Did I get the right ashes?, Cremation Process, Behind the scenes in a crematorium, and What Funeral Homes Won’t Tell You (Forbes).

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.


All things considered, we can take a good lesson from our Jewish brothers and sisters who have kept their traditions and values and, when the funeral corporations threatened their cherished traditions, rose up and fought back (See our article How the Federal Trade Commission Promotes Corporate Deathcare Selling Out the American Way of Deathcare). When Service Corporation International (SCI, operating under the brand Dignity Memorial) and Stewart Enterprises, the second largest funeral service group in the United States, were merging, the merger involved an important Jewish funeral service provider in the Washington, D.C. area, the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of the Greater Washington Area (JFPCGW), which serves as a model to community funeral practice organizations throughout the United States. started a campaign to oppose the merger, and was supported by numerous public officials who wrote to the FTC in strong opposition to the foreseeable effects of such overreaching control of the funeral market in the United States. (See our article How the Federal Trade Commission Promotes Corporate Deathcare Selling Out the American Way of Deathcare). It’s embarrassing to have to note how sheepish and silent the majority of Americans are when it comes to defending their traditions and values, or what’s left of them.

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!

Corporations are Gobbling Up Our World!

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).

Cemeteries: Line up to be repurposed.

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?.

Be very aware that once the corporations take over your diocesan or community cemeteries they become Ghouls Gulch for everyone. Just read the Bloomberg news report on SCI and what happened at one cemetery, Huge Funeral Chain Settles Graveyard Desecration Suit, Buries Financial Details. There’s the StoneMor conspiracy with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia allowing StoneMor to take over 13 diocesan cemeteries for an initial $53 million to “assist in the diocese’s cash flow” (Read about it at StoneMor to Manage 13 Catholic Cemeteries, Bucks County company running local Catholic cemeteries denies families’ allegations of high-pressure sales tactics)  Or get the ratings on funeral homes at Funeral Home Ratings  and find Newcomer to be rated in the Albany, New York, area at 1.7 out of a possible 5.0 points, “Funeral Home New Comer Funerals and Cremations has a poor overall rating on FuneralHomeRatingz.com.” Newcomer is not Better Business Bureau (BBB) rated. (Editor’s note. Too many people are too willing to please so we don’t often give much credibility to positive ratings, and tend to explore the facts around the negative ratings; the negatives tell more of the true story.)

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]

What’s left after the Draino bath.

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”)

Post-cremation Knee & Hip 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”.

Support Your Local Independent Funeral Home

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!

 

 

 

New Funeralization and Chaplain Services Blog



Funeralization & Chaplain Services


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 blog here.
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 funeralization@gmail.com or, if you are in immediate need of chaplain services or bereavement support, please call Chaplain Harold at (518) 810-2700.

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