Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief when I see some of the things that are going on in the deathcare sector. It’s really unbelievable the types that now claim to be gurus to the deathcare business and who tout themselves as being in the know about what and how funeral directors and funeral services providers should be doing with their businesses.
One such guru is Ryan Thogmartin, a self-proclaimed social media “expert” who runs Disrupt Media and publishes the online journal Connecting Directors. Actually, it’s Thogmartin who seems to be critically disrupted and the only directors he’s connecting have likely been drinking their own embalming chemicals.
For one thing the deathcare industry has taken a turn towards immorality and dehumanization in recent years. I say this because the growth of the funeral services corporations making death a commodity rather than a sacred mystery is doing inestimable damage to the human psyche, culture, tradition, and anything human worth preserving. I’m speaking of the Newcomers, the Service Corporation International, the Dignity Memorials, the StoneMorsof the world and their greed and gouging practices.
Even more alarming are the products they are foisting on the bereaved: direct cremation, direct burial, alkaline hydrolysis (dissolving the dead human body in a draino-like solution and sending the remains down the sewer lines); the indignities heaped on the dead and the insensitive treatment of the surviving bereaved are appalling.
I’m no friend of Facebook and feel that it is one of the greatest evils to arrive on Earth since Nazi national socialist movements or Stalinist communism. It’s an insidious agenda of mind control fostering self-destructive addiction on millions of unwary subscribers who, if they had half a brain, are sacrificing it to the anti-Christ Mark Zuckerberg and his army of censoring mind-police minions.
But Thogmartin sees an opportunity here and tries like hell to sell it to Guess whom? Yes! Funeral directors and funeral homes, one of the most conservative groups you’ll find today. One of the groups we would hope would have superhuman gifts of compassion, sincerity, empathy, humanity. Thogmartin is trying to sell them the idea that they need to market their services on Facebook. But I’m completely at a loss Why? they should believe anything the sloppy, uncredible, inarticulate Thogmartin has to say!
Here’s one of Thogmartin’s most recent pitches to the deathcare professionals whom he thinks he’s appealing to. Would you buy a used car from this guy?
Well, I’m not going to beat a dead horse (no pun intended). First of all, for those of us with any powers of discernment Thogmartin’s inarticulate double-talk is enough to turn us completely off. His presentation — I’m looking at his wardrobe, his set, his general appearance and personal hygiene, if I can abuse that concept when referring to Thogmartin — is simply grunge. Who on earth would want their families and clients to know that this is the man from whom your receiving your business advice?!?
Secondly, any funeral home’s business is largely local. Most established funeral homes are generations old and rely on a good reputation built over the decades and generations by providing top-shelf service. Their business comes from word of mouth, not from an idiotic platform calling itself social media, and catering to the lowest of the lowest of intellects. Sure, even the dumbest human being is looking at 100% mortality and someone’s going to have to dispose of those human remains, but seriously, when you receive that first call, it’s likely not to be from Facebook. It’s going to come from a local hospital, hospice, nursing home, or from a local family — unless of course your business is based substantially on repatriation of human remains and you do a lot of business after natural catastrophes but I can’t even say I’ve worked with such an operation in my entire career.
Moreover, most of Disrupt Media’s publications come to the subscriber as republished from other sources; most of it isn’t really of interest to the funeral director or his staff in his day-to-day operations. Besides, in the profession who has the time to sit and read poorly written commentaries hoping to find something worthwhile and of any value to a business that must be very attuned to local culture.
Maybe Thogmartin’s appeal is to the funeral corporations and their employees but on careful scrutiny and analysis, his whole operation is questionable and his advice serves only his interests, Disrupt Media.
Why Funeral Directors and Clergy Should Ally with the Chaplain.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div. Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist/Psychospiritual Care Provider
In principle and practice, as a celebrant/officiant, the focus of my attention is the family, then the deceased, the assembly and finally the venue. As a bereavement chaplain my focus is correctly spelled “t-r-a-n-s-f-o-r-m-a-t-i-o-n” and its outcome is correctly called “growth.” It’s a vocation not a career; a specialist profession, not a job.
Today’s most communicable disease is called control. But as a chaplain, control is alien to me. True, when I appear people seem to quiet down, to be more in listening mode. They seem to be more receptive to hearing a message that might possibly ease the suffering, the acute pain they are experiencing. There’s a certain authority that I have to bear with self-effacing humility; while powerful it’s not power as such, and it’s much less control than it is co-being. It’s the aura of authenticity, of compassion; people trust me. I care for and about them.
I am in fact not in control, nor do I attempt to assume control of anything, not even the funeralization rites and ritual, the ceremonial, on which I may have worked for days to organize and to tweak right up to the point of greeting the assembly and pronouncing the words of dismissal, “Go in peace and love one another.” I am merely an instrument of comfort and healing; a mere master of ceremonies. A sometimes crisis manager. A paid consultant.
“This is about the family, your loved one; it’s not about me or anything else. I’m here to serve you.”
I receive the first call from the funeral director with gratitude and commitment; I contact the family and the arrangers with compassion and humility. My first words after introducing myself and expressing my condolences and assurances, are likely to be “This is about your family, your loved one; it’s not about me or anything else. I’m here to serve you.” Those words usually break the ice immediately, and the anxiety associated with the protocol of chatting with the chaplain about rites and ritual that might be as strange and mysterious as death itself, is dispelled, and we can talk about the deceased loved one and the service like family—or as close to being old friends as the situation will allow. Always in the back of my mind is that these are suffering people, each in his or her own way experiencing a loss and attempting to cope with the situation and to manage the bizarre, unfamiliar ball of emotions with whatever they might have at hand. It’s my job in this initial phase to sort through my armamentarium of training and experience, common sense and wisdom (my own and that received), listening skills and vocabulary, style and demeanor, to find the right salves, ointments and incantations to assuage the acute pain, to prepare them for the chronic aches, and to ease, not remove, their suffering; it’s the suffering that will nurture their healing and growth, after all, you can’t harvest a good crop without wounding the earth and planting the seed.
But even after breaking open the earth and planting the seed, aftercare is essential. You must water and weed the rows to ensure that the seedlings prosper and grow. It’s what I call a resurrection experience, similar to the seed parables of the Christian Gospels and so many other sacred texts that deal with death and rebirth. So, too, in our funeralization rites and rituals, we can describe the bereavement experiences as being broken open, the seeds of transformation planted, receiving the waters of life experience, wisdom, and then resurrecting as transformed beings. The final transformed being that emerges from the ante-mortem, pre-bereavement person becoming the post-mortem mourner doing his or her grief work, implementing coping and support resources, and finally healing and growing, differs with each unique situation, and it’s what makes my vocation that much more exciting and rewarding because each call presents its own unique set of challenges and opportunities.
I’ve often taught that Death is not an enemy; we just have to embrace it and befriend it. We often look at things we can’t control as the enemy; that’s a modern mistake in our relationship with everything from relatives to the line at the supermarket to the neighbor’s dog to the mysteries of life, including death. Death is not the enemy; our modern tendency is to think that everything, including creation, needs to be controlled, dominated, subdued. As soon as we find that we can’t do that we avoid or deny the situation until it can no longer be denied, and then we curse it. That’s unfortunate because we could enjoy life so much more if only we would accept the humility that brings peace to our lives. To do so would mean that we have to be silent and most of today’s humanity has been taught that silence is bad; movement, no matter how frenetic, noise, no matter how cacophonous, is a sign of life. That’s how we have lost touch with our innermost self, the core of our humanity, and we have become animate tools, an insidious but real violation of a basic moral principle: Human beings should never be used as means to an end.
I have found that most families whom I have served over the years have lived in denial of the inevitability of our 100% mortality rate. As the result, when Death ultimately pays a visit they are caught 100% unprepared, are shocked by the fact that a death has occurred, are devastated that so many decisions have to be made NOW, completely confused by the bureaucratic complexities of just getting the deceased moved, and once moved, bombarded by a bombastic but “compassionate” salesperson dressed up as a funeral director, and floored by the financial burdens of just one death. “We know you want to honor your loved one. Now that’s what we would suggest, but if you’d like to keep it simpler, we can also offer…” Sound familiar? As a bereavement chaplain trained in spiritual care and thanatology, I often have to recall one of the first things my deathcare instructors repeated: “The bereaved should never make a major decision in the first year following the loss.” But arranging for the final disposition of a dead human being, a loved one who has died, is a major decision, one of the most major decisions some of my clients will ever have to make, and that major decision — or perhaps more accurately stated, major decisions — have to be made within mere hours of the major loss and in the 2-3 days following the major loss. So now what do we do?
“Would you like us to bring along our chaplain?”
Well, too few funeral homes, too few funeral directors and — to my personal knowledge and in my experience — no funeral service groups or corporations tend to involve a chaplain in the removal call, the initial family meeting or the arrangements conference. In fact, I know of none who involve a chaplain immediately after receiving the first call. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the questions asked during the first call conversation would be, “Would you like us to bring along our chaplain?” In the hours immediately following the death the family is most receptive to the idea of having a spiritual care provider in their midst — not necessarily to talk but just to be present, perhaps just to listen quietly, just to be there if needed — at least that’s been my experience in my hospital and nursing home chaplaincy work.
Too few funeral homes, too few funeral directors and — to my knowledge and in my experience — no funeral service groups or corporation arrangement meeting guidelines recommend that a chaplain be present at the arrangements conference. I’m usually called after the arrangements conference and have to put the family through the ordeal of repeating so much of what I could have gleaned from simply sitting next to the funeral director or the arranger during the arrangements conference. Quite frankly, it’s beyond me why this is so.
Worse still, too many amateurs are allowed to inject themselves into the incredibly complex mix of emotions, physical reactions, social intricacies, and spiritual questions, and amateurs tend to complicate things beyond anyone’s expectations. When I use the term “amateurs” I mean people who are only minimally trained in spirituality, in psychospiritual care, people who read a book or take a course and are miraculously transformed into a being with privileged and extraordinary knowledge. Worse still, we frequently find volunteers or CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) trainees — most egregiously in the acute care setting, the hospital — winging it through some of a family’s most difficult moments! Fact is, they’re amateurs. Fact is that they can cause a lot of damage, directly and collaterally, simply because they are well-intentioned people but dilettantes, amateurs.
Bereavement chaplaincy, psychospiritual care is a vocation and spans a wide range of interdisciplinary subject matter. Many of us have graduate degrees in at least two academic or scientific specialties. Most of us have degrees in pastoral care, theological studies, or even the gold standard, divinity. Many of us have degrees in psychology or/and the humanities. Many of us have either formally or informally studied mortuary science and understand and appreciate what the funeral director has been taught, how s/he has acquired his/her practical experience, and most importantly, their limitations; perhaps we are not licensed to embalm or to operate a funeral home but we have made every conceivable effort to know what goes no behind the scenes and what makes the funeral home staff tick. Many of us attend regular continuing professional education (CPE) —not to be confused with CPE as in “Clinical Pastoral Education,” the training offered by some healthcare institutions under the aegis of a national or international accreditation program — courses and conferences, and maintain programs of continuing awareness and currency. Many of us are members of professional associations. And many of us study, study, study to be able to provide the most comprehensive and efficacious care possible.
As an on-call chaplain or chaplain “in residence” I have also made special efforts at understanding the protocols of hospice and the role of spiritual care in hospice environments; the same is true regarding palliative care. Hospice, palliative care, hospital, nursing home pastoral care providers differ considerably in their protocols and practices; as a bereavement chaplain serving funeral homes and providing post-funeralization aftercare, I have to pick up where hospice, palliative care, hospital and nursing home staff — some of them ordained amateurs —, and funeral directors have left off or, in some cases, dropped the ball!
Some funeral service operators, whether independent funeral homes or corporate funeral service groups, need to learn that the chaplain is not the enemy. Mainstream clergy — those priests, ministers who run parishes and congregations as part of a mainstream institutionalized religious community (I’ll call these collectively “pastoral ministers”) do view the bereavement chaplain as an interloper cutting into their revenues. But a more compassionate view would be to accept the chaplain as an ally, someone with whom they should be collaborating instead of undermining and disparaging. Why? Well tackling the first proposition that the chaplain cuts into their revenues, I can say that most clergy will show up with Holy Scripture tucked under one arm and swinging a rosary in the other hand, machine gun a couple of verses or race through a couple decades of a rosary and then be off, tucking a hefty check into their pockets. Even funeral masses and church services are cookie-cutter and generally unconvincing. But they bring in the bucks. Consequently, if a chaplain is engaged to perform the funeralization rites and rituals, the pastoral minister will have to forfeit his or her stipend, and that can add up over the shorter or longer term.
Funeral directors are not stupid either. Most will get real cozy with a local congregation or the local priests and ministers, wining and dining them, ensuring that they have the local clergy in their pockets and then putting out the funeral-home sponsored annual free calendar promoting their funeral home in the vestibule of the church or temple. Pastor gets a call when a local family loses a loved one and recommends John Smith Funeral Home. Bingo! It’s a win-win for both the pastor and the funeral director. The only real loser is the consumer.
So, given the choice between the 15-minute Wham! Bam! Amen! cookie-cutter commendation-committal combo offered by the local pastor and the hour-long in-house commendation or memorial service with the 20 minute graveside or committal service offered by the chaplain/officiant, the funeral director will play his best, winning hand regardless of the quality of the service or the therapeutic effects — or lack thereof — on the bereaved and the mourning community. After all, for both the funeral director and the pastor the adage “Time is Money” applies with few exceptions.
But the difference between the chaplain and the parish priest or deacon or the congregation minister is that the chaplain is a specialist in psychospiritual care, especially end-of-life and deathcare, something few pastors can claim. Furthermore, the chaplain has the knowledge and experience to guide the bereaved through a complicated process, which may take the investment of hours of time, something that few if any pastors will do unless there’s a bequest or an estate to consider, or the deceased was a community leader. The chaplain is not concerned with what the faith tradition prescribes or what the faith community expects; the chaplain’s concern is directed and focused on the care of the bereaved, how they are coping, navigating them through the grief work, the mourning process, healing, transformation, and reintegration. Neither the funeral director nor the pastor is in a position to tackle such a situation. In fact, most funeral directors and pastors are really not interested in getting that involved in the process of grief work and forget aftercare altogether. The same applies to many pastoral ministers.
This means that the bereaved and the mourning community are short-changed; they’re cheated out of the full transformational experience of offered by the personalized funeral ritual that offers profound psychospiritual support and paves the way to healing and transformation, making grief less traumatic and life more promising.
When secular funeral professionals and pastoral ministers collude and conspire together under any pretense or for any reason whatsoever, they betray the trust traditionally conferred upon them by the community, they cheat the bereaved and the mourning community, and worse still, they set an fundamentally evil precedent! The resulting situation is not only regrettable, it’s reprehensible. Why? Because most persons who are in the traumatic throes of acute grief are in an altered psychospiritual state; they are not thinking right and see the world in a confused vision. They tend to grasp trustingly at any straw coming their way and think that it will save them. Regrettably, most funeral service providers and clergy take fullest advantage of that to spew their respective “pitches” whether it be merchandising or pabulum preaching. Both disguise a cookie cutter as a life preserver!
In reality, the funeral director, whether independent or corporate, is interested in getting the case processed and closed within the shortest time possible without traumatizing the bereaveds’ sense of decency — assuming that the bereaved have any such sense — and getting on with the next removal. The pastor has to prepare his sermon, supervise the bible study groups, plan the religious education curriculum, discuss Sunday’s worship music with the music director, meet with the parish council, look for a new car, check the obits, and make time to have dinner with the local funeral director(s). Tough life for both, right?
My message, if I may presume to state it in so many words, is that funeral directors and pastoral ministers or spiritual care providers must take their fiduciary duties and obligations ethically seriously, they must play fairly and remember their privileged role in the community. When I say they must play fairly and remember their privileged role in the community I mean that they must respect boundaries, admit their limitations, and practice true humility in compassion. Funeral directors and pastoral ministers must be ready to admit that they can’t do everything, that they don’t have the training or experience to do some things, and that they have to stop deceiving their respective publics by shamelessly representing or misrepresenting that that are masters of all trades.
While I would like to pass on some of the responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs, essentially caused and exploited by spurious funeralization practices and the greed of pastoral ministers in institutionalized religion, each at times illicitly operating both on the profane and the psychospiritual planes, on the shoulders of the consumer of funeralization and religious services, I can’t do that with very great confidence or credibility. The reason I can’t do that in the majority of cases is stated at the beginning of this essay, in a nutshell: They are simply so traumatized and confused by the complexity of circumstances surrounding a death that they have to legally, physically, practically and spiritually rely on others to help them through it all. It is here that the so-called professionals fail in their basic duties and obligations, and not only the bereaved, but all of society suffer the deleterious effects caused by these two professions, the funeral director and the clergy, alone.
Death is not just natural. Death is not just inevitable. Death is not just a loss. Death is a set of circumstances that sets into motion a vast array of complex responses and reactions in a process that can either be destructively or constructively transformational at the personal, community and societal levels. It is the vocation of the bereavement chaplain to provide the psychospiritual armamentarium to ensure that the transformation is constructive, healing, and nurtures positive growth and reintegration into life.
Why the Chaplain is Best Qualified to Compose the Obituary.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
An obituary is a public announcement of a person’s death and is the traditional and conventional way of providing the public notice of the death, and to provide information on the person who has died. The obituary is usually placed in a local newspaper and many funeral homes include a tribute or obituary on the funeral home website. It is a way to let people know of the death.
If the deceased person has lived in several places during his or her life, it is a good idea to publish the obituary in the newspaper serving the locales where he or she lived. This is a generous courtesy to those who may have known the deceased and would be interested in grieving the loss.
While there is no standard length or content for an obituary, the current trend is to publish shorter obituaries in the form of the deceased’s life and some significant accomplishments. Naturally, when publishing an obituary in a newspaper, cost becomes a consideration; the longer the obituary, the higher the cost. It is my personal practice to provide a mini biography in the funeral or memorial service program, if one is used. If the funeral home offers the option of an online obituary, a shorter announcement can be placed in the newspaper with a referral to the longer obituary on the funeral home’s website.
Every family member will have different memories of the deceased and a differnt perception of his or her life and milestones. I personally recommend that the information received from several persons during the family planning meeting be used to compose the obituary and then to have the draft obituary reviewed by family members to ensure that it is as complete as possible, given the preferences of the family, and finally to have the family approve it for publication.
Let’s face the facts: The vast majority of people, including most professionals, simply couldn’t write a good essay if their life depended on it. Most professionals were not trained in the skills necessary for obtaining relevant facts, selecting those most consonant with the purpose. Most have difficulty with reframing perceptions, emotional crafting, repackaging the past to include present historical meanings and social relations. This requires sophisticated inquiry and listening skills, sensitive creativity, the ability to navigate a conversation, persuade and curate emotions, and writing and presentation gifts. I argue in this article that the bereavement chaplain is a key resource for the funeral home and the bereaved family for creating the obituary.
Most professionals focus on method and technique; most people today look for a numbered list of how-to steps. This simply doesn’t work in the lifecare and especially in the deathcare vocations, where an obituary requires compassion and creativity.
The problem, the obstacle of method and technique is nothing new, it’s just so commonplace that we tend to overlook it. In fact, a whole generation, maybe three generations, has been born into and have grown up and matured in a culture of materialism, consumerism, disposalism, [a]social media, all of which nurture a sense of quick fixes, worthlessness, instant gratification, urgency, and anxiety. Quite obviously, none of these is conducive to the authenticity and relationship necessary for the helping professions, whether healthcare, psychospiritual care, or deathcare. Regrettably, this broad statement applies to most every level of education today: the focus is on method and technique; not on creativity and vision, and so individuals find themselves on the slippery slope right from the start.
If this broad statement can obviously be applied to everyone from the mechanic to the physician, from the priest to the nurse, how much more does it apply to the funeral director, whose training may be limited to two years in mortuary science school and one year of residency in a funeral home? These men and women, some of them not even physically much less mentally or emotionally mature – most of them have never experienced the death of a close relative or friend –, yet they find themselves sitting opposite a grieving family, “advising them” on how to cope with the death and what needs to be done. Or, in the even worse scenario, the family succumbs to the smiling ghoul-like CEO of a funeral corporation, literally a disposal factory operation, who preaches lowest price for dignified services; just sign here and get on the conveyor belt. Dignity and compassion, friends, are not mass produced goods and factory funeral homes cannot produce artisan goods.
I recommend a family meeting to include as many generations as possible who knew the deceased. No more than 5 persons should be included in order to ensure manageability and to allow everyone to make a contribution. Set the ground rules in advance so that no single person dominates the conversation. It’s useful to record the session. The venue should be warm, inviting, and relatively free of unnecessary interruptions. I frequently get the family to come to the funeral home where it’s quiet and there’s usually a meeting room available. Meeting in the funeral home has several advantages: the family will become acclimated to the environment and more familiar with the rooms, if there are any questions about the service, a quick walk-thru is always possible. I also like to include the funeral director in the meeting so that he is aware of what’s taking place and to answer any questions that may come up. Light refreshments should be available, since food is life-affirming and empty stomachs are not conducive to the rich sharing experience we are looking for in the family meeting. After the family meeting a Q&A is always helpful.
Even more concerning is the fact that most of our funeral and memorial writing is delegated to either the family or to a family member who, obviously are in the grieving process and really are not in the position to do any really meaningful writing despite their best intentions. My advice to such persons who may volunteer to write grandma’s obituary is that they participate in the service or do the eulogy instead. Truth is, most family members don’t know enough of their family history or social relations to write an obituary, much less the author skills required for such a special type of writing.
Alternatively, the obituary, as the most common form of funeralization literature is composed by the funeral director based on what few historical facts he can glean from the family during the arrangements meeting. The result is a rather paltry bit of bare bones, sometimes inaccurate or fabricated, script posted on a so-called “Tributes” page on the funeral home’s website.
What Most Clergy Lack In Public Speaking And Writing Skills They Attempt To Make Up For With Sentimentalism And Endurance.
Most clergy lack even the necessary skills for liturgical preaching, let alone memorializing a stranger ad hoc. Those of us who have experienced any funeralization presentation by a member of the mainstream clergy – or clergy on the funeral home’s clergy list, what I call “stock clergy” — can speak only of abject disappointment and must commiserate with the unfortunate family who has to hear the pabulum and scripted doctrinally correct, often narcotic, presentation at a wake service, funeral service, or funeral liturgy. What most clergy lack in public speaking and writing skills they attempt to make up for with sentimentalism and endurance. That’s not memorialization, it’s not communications skill, and it’s not a gift; it’s an abuse, and the bereaved should not have to put up with it, much less pay for it.
The Funeral Home Chaplain May Be The Best Resource Available
Then it frequently comes down to the funeral director to compose the obituary. All things considered, we really can’t fault the funeral director for not being an expert public speaker or writer, much less for not obtaining intricate details about the deceased. There is only so much a human being can do in the average three days from the first call to the closing of the grave. In those three days, the time available to the funeral director that can physically, emotionally, or intellectually be devoted to writing an effective and commemorative obituary is close to null.
The alternative is just as dehumanizing and degrading as a poorly written product. That alternative is the obituary template application. Just ask the key questions and fill in the blanks and Voilà! you have yourself what some would call an obituary. NOT! What it is, in fact, is a collection of words, some of which might have some vague or arbitrary resemblance to the life that is purportedly being commemorated, but not mot else. It’s what I disparage above: technique and method versus creativity and vision.
What Is Left Besides The Usual Mainstream Cookie-Cutter Clergy 15-Minute “Ashes To Ashes” Performance?
So, you might ask yourself, what is left besides the usual mainstream cookie-cutter clergy 15-minute “ashes to ashes” performance or the rushed, expensive, and questionable funeral home obituary product? Well, those funeral homes who have the good business sense to have a resident or a regular on-call chaplain, may just have an untapped resource for an important funeralization service. Yes, the funeral home chaplain may be the best resource available in the funeral home or anywhere else for creating the top-shelf obituary. Here’s why:
The professional bereavement chaplain is a specialist lifecare and deathcare provider, educated and trained as a psychospiritual care provider; a thanatologist, in fact.
He understands how to approach the dying and the bereaved in a sacred safe place, to meet them where they’re at.
The chaplain leaves the ego and judgment at the door, and practices a ministry of intentional presence, listening and talking little; deep listening deep learning.
The professional chaplain has clergy training plus extensive academic training in several disciplines: humanities, philosophy, psychology, pastoral care, theology, religions.
His broad learning base and life experience endow him with a certain wisdom and authority found in few other professions, including denominational clergy.
As specialist clergy or as a member of the “para-clergy”, the chaplain has the same training as any minister or priest. Because of his station in life, he has certain authority and an air of authenticity that nurtures trust; he can and does ask questions and talks about subjects that even the funeral director might find uncomfortable to address.
As a lifecare and deathcare professional the chaplain is intimately familiar with the healthcare and deathcare professions. He’s been on the front lines in the ER, the ICU, the morgue. He’s familiar with death in all of its guises, and also with the mortuary arts. Because he’s familiar and may have studied the back-room operations of the hospital and the funeral home, cemetery, crematory, he can confidently address sensitive issues and concerns with a gentle and compassionate honesty.
The chaplain who lives the vocation of lifecare and deathcare lives in a different concept of time; the chaplain’s time is cyclical rather than linear. Rather than counting cases, the chaplain moves effortlessly through the cycles of birth, life, death, and treats each cycle, each case, as the first case, each unique, each its own narrative.
Because the mature chaplain has an unusual familiarity, a unique relationship with the cycles of life, with transfiguration, with the teachings of many faith and belief traditions, he likely has a very unique way of viewing life’s transitions. He will seem more at ease, more comfortable, more accepting of others in their most difficult moments.
While others may avoid giving expression to the language of grief or abandon themselves to emotions, the chaplain can give meaningful expression to the silent pain of grief and loss; he is articulate in the language of the past to give meaning and hope to the future.
The chaplain does psychospiritual care and nothing else. The chaplain provides lifecare and deathcare and nothing else. Unlike career clergy or the funeral director, the central concern, the focus is only the bereaved and nothing else.
While most of what the chaplain might talk about or what the family might reveal is highly confidential and remains with the chaplain, never to be disclosed, much of what he learns is for the purpose of crafting his homily or “words of comfort” to be presented during the funeralization rituals. In other words, it’s publishable.
It’s not about the chaplain, so self-disclosure is rare. It’s all about the family and the family’s history, the dead loved one and his or her meaning and legacy, personal and social relationships with the deceased; in other words, much of the bereavement chaplain’s work is with the past, with history, and reframing it so that it has positive meaning for the future. So, too, the chaplain is the best-qualified team member to re-present this entire composite picture in the form of an obituary.
When meeting with the family to discuss details of the funeral or memorial service, the chaplain mines deep into the family’s history and selectively homes in on what is most meaningful to the various participants, teasing out of the intricate weave of the family tapestry the gold threads that are in the weave. Like any tapestry, the visible side is impeccable, perfect but the hidden back is full of loose ends and knots, just like families. It’s the chaplain’s expertise and people skills that allows him to relate the loose ends and the knots to the beauty and meaning of the idyllic front side.
The Chaplain Is Thus A Psychospiritual Art Historian
When interpreting a tapestry the interpreter has to be attentive to style, interrelationships of elements and symbol, and to the characteristics of the audience. The interpretation of the tapestry has to be packaged in a way that is acceptable to the audience, remaining true to the meaning of the historical style, technique, symbol, while still relating it to the reality of the audience’s world and perceptions of reality. In other words, the tapestry had its meaning and relevance in the past, when it was created, but it has to be re-presented in the present in new contexts that make it relevant now, and tomorrow. In many ways, the chaplain is thus a psychospiritual art historian, taking the past, re-packaging it in the contexts of the present, making it relevant to the future. These are important considerations in crafting an obituary.
With this understanding of what the bereavement chaplain is and what he does, it becomes clear how he can be an invaluable asset to both the funeral home and to the customer.
The funeral director has 1001 things on his plate with each case. He may be a skilled salesperson, a knowledgeable marketer, an expert embalmer, a gifted reconstructionist, a veteran listener. During the short moments between the first call, the removal, and the final disposition, he has little time to conduct an in-depth interview of the family and to do a family history, then to condense it into a commemorative obituary that doesn’t read like a cookie recipe.
If the funeral director is fully aware of the interdisciplinary resources at his disposal, he will get the legal and financial details he needs to proceed with the funeralization business and then turn the family over to the capable hands of the bereavement chaplain, who will then do the in-depth interview he would normally do for the service but also obtain detailed information for an obituary, much of which comes with the details necessary for designing the funeral or memorial service.
The chaplain teaches and preaches. He’s a skilled writer, speaker and presenter. He has highly developed writing skills that he uses every time he prepares a talk or a homily. He has the time and the expertise to create not only an inspiring homily but also a moving obituary.
While it’s true the chaplain will invest an average of 10 hours in preparing for a typical customized funeral or memorial service, once all the details are obtained, a stellar obituary can be created in record time, using much of the same information used in the Words of Comfort or the homily, but differently.
How differently? Well, that depends on what the chaplain discovers during the family conference. You see, during the family conference the chaplain will guide the participants through a series of questions posed in the form of statements, statements that cannot be answered with a Yes or a No, but need actual responses requiring disclosure. By inviting each participant to join the conversation, each will disclose a different, a personal perception. While such a conversation is intended to do several things, not the least of which is naturally to gather family historical information, it serves a therapeutic purpose by getting the family participants to talk, to feel, to realize, to share. Such a conversation in the safe, non-judgemental, trusted presence of the chaplain usually develops into an amazingly open and candid sharing session. You’ll hear things like: “I didn’t know that.” “Dad never talked about that before.” “Mom sure was fierce, wasn’t she?” “Yeah. Those were good times.” “Remember the salad?” And the chaplain is very sensitive to the body language and quiet moments that signal “We don’t want to talk about that.” And realizes that they do and that they will but only when they’re ready. They know that, too. So the chaplain moves on, but gently.
The Tone May Be Upbeat, Intellectual, Reverent, Dignified, Humorous, Or Cooly Distant.
It’s what’s said as much as what’s not said — the nonverbal communication — that goes into the tone of the service, the tone of the homily and consequently sets the tone of the obituary, and that kind of stuff can be accessed only by someone who is intrinsically trusted, the chaplain. The tone may be upbeat, intellectual, reverent, dignified, humorous, or cooly distant; the tone should, if possible, be reproduced in the obituary.
This Is The Point To Which They Have Been Navigating.
What is it that John would like most to be remembered for? What would John say his greatest contribution to the world would be? What would John say he valued most. What will your best memories of John be from this point on? What will you tell your children, your grandchildren about John? Sitting here now, what it something you remember about John that will make you smile? Those are some of the final questions I ask at the end of the family conference. How can you get a grieving family, a family who might have just lost the most significant person in their lives, to answer questions like that? Well, because they want to. Because throughout the entire conversation, this is the point to which they have been navigating. These questions form the basis of the continuing bond with the deceased. These questions give the survivors, now in the depths of grief and grappling for some sort of understanding of What?Why?How?, permission to continue the bond with their dead loved one, while playing an active role in internalizing this new relationship, transfiguring the deceased loved one into a living symbol of someone no longer physically present but eternally inwardly present.
An Obituary Is Like A Sacred Narrative And Should Read And Be Read With All The Reverence And Reflection Of A Gospel
The obituary is a tangible keepsake to whichany family member can turn at those special moments, to read and recall, and to recall and to remember the loved one. The obituary loses all of its morbidness and becomes an essay about the dead loved one and his or her relationships, his or her meaning. Even more than an heirloom ring or brooch, the obituary is personal, a living account of a real person. In a sense, an obituary is like a family Gospel and should read and be read with all the reverence and reflection of a Gospel.
So far I have written about the obituary as a concept, almost an ideal. Well, it’s not an ideal, it’s a reality, and an incredibly important one at that. I briefly touched upon the obituary as a tangible family record, as a family Gospel. Well that’s one role it can play but we need now to turn to the physicalness of the obituary, since the obituary is something that has to be drafted, written, refined, and finally published in some medium whether newsprint, an order of service, a website, a social media platform, or as a permanent memorial on a platform devoted specifically to memorialization and commemoration.
I shall devote a separate essay to the media used for publishing obituaries and say a few words about each in terms of how I feel they serve the survivors in facilitating continuing the bond with their loved one, coping with bereavement grief, transfiguring the dead loved one and internalizing the memory, serving as a chapter in a family’s living history, repackaging the past to be a lodestone for drawing a family together, a guide for the present and for the future.
 This review and approval step is extremely important in order to avoid offending or hurting feelings. Special attention should be given to spellings of names, degrees of kinship and names of any spouses, living and predeceased relatives, special friends, special organizations, etc. A clean draft should be provided to the family for review and approval within 24 hours.
 Simply asking an arranger for the family’s religious preference and if they would like clergy participation in the funeral or memorial service is a bad start. Many families do not regularly practice and most are unfamiliar with the traditions and rites involved in funerals. This is one reason why I recommend always to have the on-call chaplain available at the arrangements meeting; he can best discuss any religious or spiritual matters with the arranger or the family and avoid any inconvenient incidents and possible problems caused by “religious” insensitivity of “stock clergy” who are unfamiliar with the family, its history, dynamics, and social relationships.
 We can thank Western industrial culture for the three-day rule for funerals. Most employed persons are allowed three days in the event of the death of a close relative; it’s called Bereavement Leave. An employee is entitled to up to 3 workdays of paid funeral leave to make arrangements for or to attend the funeral of an immediate relative who died; after the 3 days, the employee can either take personal vacation time or unpaid time off. In the United States The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee’s representative). After three days, everything has to be wrapped up and the employee is expected to have disposed of his dead and finished his grieving. After three days it’s back to work. Thus the dehumanizing of humankind in the industrialized West.
 These various media for publishing obituaries will be discussed in the next article, and will include print as well as digital obituaries, their characteristics, their strengths and their weaknesses.
As we approach the Winter holiday season, we, especially those of us in the helping professions, become even more acutely aware of the value of our profession to our brothers and sisters, both at the end of their lives, during the active dying process, and to those bereaved and mourning the loss of someone special. This is a time for reflection, to look back on the past year, and on past years, to assess where we are and how we managed to get here. it can be a startling, an alarming epiphany!
We’re here. Now What?
Our attention is drawn even more acutely to the importance of support, compassion, presence and skilled companionship during some of the most difficult hours, days, weeks and months a human being may ever experience in his or her life, both individually and in community. We become even more aware of the importance and indispensability of our knowledge, skills, and services to those suffering among us.
It is a recognized fact in the deathcare professions that total care to the bereaved, and without a doubt even to those who prefer to make advance plans for their funeralization rites, the professional expertise of the funeral director and the bereavement chaplain are indispensible.
Would you like to speak to the chaplain?”
In fact, some of the most important words spoken by the healthcare provider or by the funeral services professional may very well be, “Would you like to speak to the chaplain?” You might well ask yourself if, or when you ask a planner or a family that question, you realize what an important question that is.
“Would you like the chaplain to be present during the arrangements?” is another question that takes the sting out of talking about disposition or selecting merchandise. Somehow the presence of the chaplain mitigates the confusion and the sense of vulnerability; it softens edge of the formalities, the business, the paperwork, and brings everyone a bit closer.
The winter months bring with the snow and the frigid temperatures shorter days, less sunshine, more depression, and higher death rates. The winter holidays and the transition to the New Year trigger reflection, recollection, and frequently resurgence of grief and mourning of past losses. These triggers can intensify and complicate the grief reactions and responses accompanying a death; it’s at times like these that the presence and support of the bereavement chaplain assumes even greater importance to all concerned, funeral home staff and bereaved alike.
Over the years I have accumulated a considerable stock of observations, knowledge, experience, and competencies all of which, taken together, represent an invaluable resource for the funeral home business, its staff, and most importantly for the families who depend on you, on us, as deathcare professionals.
Based on my professional relationships and experiences with a number of funeral homes, funeral directors, cemetery administrators, and the bereaved, I have found that a personalized approach — including the process of information gathering, the planning and design of the service, the format and content of the service, the execution of the service — whether it be an end of life visitation at the home, the care facility, the hospital or even the ER, the family conference or the arrangements conference, and, very importantly, the quality of the aftercare, make a big difference not only in the immediate funeralization rites and rituals, but in the presentation of your operations and performances as deathcare professionals as well.
The impression you make, starting with the first call and your response sets the stage for all subsequent interactions, and are the basis of the message taken home by the family. It’s only natural that human beings in the acute enthrallment of the grief and besieged by the myriad emotions accompanying acute bereavement are not only extraordinarily stressed, they are confused, uncertain, vulnerable, hypersensitive, and, thanks to the incredible quantity and accessibility of both good and bad information, well informed and proportionally suspicious. Yes, nowadays, suspicion is part of the grief reaction, and has been since the first appearance of Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” (1963) and her sequel, “The American Way of Death Revisited,” (1998), which updated her almost libelous attacks, the attention that the deathcare industry has received at the hands of those specializing in the muckraking, which was and continues to be her legacy, has to a large degree misinformed the public. Add to that information glut the appearance on the scene of the funeral services groups, the funeral corporations, the acquisition of hallowed and sacred places of repose by cemetery real-estate corporations, the failure of mainstream religion to meet the needs of the faithful, the perversion of the notion of individuality, the ascendance of so-called social media, the disintegration of tradition and traditional values, the collapse of materialism and consumerism, the elevation of the idolatry of control have all contributed to the elevation of denial of death to an unprecedented apogee, the result of which is the movement towards disposition rather than memorialization, celebration or even funeralization. Consequently, the depersonalization and sanitization of human being has not only signaled the demise of community and the support resources and system it provided, further isolating the individual and the group; these developments have actually and literally driven a wedge between groups, a wedge that over time has become an abyss, and in a society that touts itself to be multicultural, multiethnic, raising diversity to the status of “idolatry” has actually fostered and nurtured discrimination, prejudice, bias, segregation, isolation, and suspicion among and even within communities living in close association with one another. Add to this the great leveler, the great common thread of all living creatures, even those only half-alive, death, and complicate this by, on the one hand, the denial of death by one element and, on the other hand, the awareness and acceptance of death by various other elements, and we have a veritable existential and cultural tohu-wa-bohu, total confusion.
Given the avalanche of marketing efforts by the professions since the 80’s touting everything from pharmaceuticals, to healthcare choices, to funeral services by small enterprises locally to multistate and even multinational funeral corporations and deathcare corporations selling their products ranging from direct disposition services to cut rate cremation or funeral packages in almost dishonest cutthroat campaigns, it’s no wonder the family funeral home is experiencing a crisis at the hands of the corporate agenda. The once family funeral home, like so many community service providers, has either been eliminated completely or has been devoured by some corporation employing the deception of keeping the name of the family funeral home but including a “member of some corporation moniker” somewhere on the shingle or the letterhead. Say goodbye to tradition, compassion, integrity, community and Welcome! policies, procedures, agendas, shareholders, bottom line and stuffed shirts. It’s all become, like so much else in life in the modern industrialized, dehumanized society, lifeless. They’ve even rendered the Grim Reaper lifeless, empty, and profane. Even the language has been perverted when we read words like service, compassion, sensitivity in their marketing collaterals, and are forced to see their cadaver-like grinning and fake compassion in their expensive choreographed video and television advertisements. The grinning death’s head has been replaced by the grinning cadaver Ren Newcomer with his comparison shopping graphs and promises, until you experience the horrors of the corporate factory funeral home and the nickel-and-diming of the bereaved in their most vulnerable moments.
Cut costs, increase revenues and profits, hire the neophyte, the recently churned-out graduate for next to nothing, the bereaved won’t notice their faltering efforts at feigning compassion and concern. Dedication to the community, professional pride and dignity, respect and compassion have all been replaced by sprawling funeral complexes complete with immaculate meeting rooms for arrangements, fully appointed merchandize rooms that look like death malls (you can now even purchase your casket at Walmart!), fully rehearsed “compassionate” funeral directors in immaculate attire, elegant parlors and chapels, a complete pool of multicolored funeral vehicles to choose from, an infinity of categories of services, and a very, very detailed pricelist with convenient check-boxes that tend to add up to a small fortune in a very short time. Someone’s got to pay for all of the glitz and guess who that is?
But then you have the option of keeping your savings and your inheritance and choosing direct burial or cremation, or you can do the newest thing, you can simply dissolve dad in the process known in the industry as alkaline hydrolysis, misleadingly advertised by the manufacturers and those funeral homes offering it as “liquid cremation,” in which the body is dissolved in a Draino®-like solution at high temperature in a pressure cooker system; the remaining slurry is then flushed into the sewer system and the remaining bone and other hard materials (teeth, plastic and metal implants, etc.) are separated and processed (the bone is dried and pulverized, the metal and plastic implants are recycled). Does it get any more disgusting? Are we proud of ourselves? Have we given dad the dignified send-off he deserves? Well, you gotta do what you gotta do in the three days your company allows for bereavement, so-called bereavement leave. American materialist capitalism at its best.
Where has all the humanity gone? How has the human spirit managed to get so lost in the fray of digital relationships, electronic devices, the self-driving car culture? Even a national chaplaincy organization touting the moniker, “Caring for the Human Spirit,” has gone digital, even offering online bereavement counseling! Rubbish!
What’s even worse is that with the demise of institutional religion, there are no reliable tools to guide the majority of people towards a transcendent, healing, meaningful, nurturing, and growth enhancing spirituality. Values have become so perverted that spirituality has transmutated into an idolatry: the idolatries of narcissism, materialism, consumerism, money.
Our lives are no longer peaceful and tranquil; we can no longer enjoy simple quiet. Everywhere we turn we are accosted with “Hurry!” “Don’t miss…!” “Give!” “Do you have these symptoms…” “Limited time!” Let’s simply acknowledge that we are all living in limited time, and those imperatives that are driving us to distraction are distracting us from what is essential to our fully enjoying and living our limited time. Our only response should be, “Shut up!” “Unsubscribe!” “Don’t call again!” And stop telling me I’m the best part of Verizon while you are emptying my pockets with lousy services and fees! Deception ad nauseum!
The funeral service profession has not been immune to these wicked developments. What was once a dignified and compassionate, family-oriented, local icon has now become just another ticker symbol, just another corporate revenue generator for the materiealists, the capitalists, the consumerists. Every death and every bereaved family is distilled down to a consolidated ledger figure. The once dignified funeral director whose father and whose father’s father operated the family funeral home, and who knows everyone by their first name, has become the agenda-led, production-driven, sanitized, hair-gelled, twenty or thirty-something, recent grad from his two-year associate’s degree mortuary science program, and now a new-hire at the local factory funeral home. He’s probably never experienced the death of a loved one, has no idea of compassion for another physical person — all his friends are digital and he’s the product of the materialist, individualist, disposable society —, and is a corporate slave. He makes the first call, arranges for the removal, schedules and arrangements meeting, and greets you armed with a detailed price list, a merchandise room as big as a Walmart and fully stocked with every sort of container imaginable. He’s memorized his scripted pitch, and you, in the bewilderment of acute, crushing grief, sign on the dotted line! Consumerist corporate death services. The funeral professional has become the epitome of the disposal professional.
That can we do in our positions as thanatologists, as psychospiritual support providers, as deathcare professionals? Well, we have to establish clear boundaries as to what we want and can do. We have to establish clear ethical principles as to what we are qualified to provide and how. We have to stop striving for numbers and start caring for people.
The boundaries part is very simple: do what you have been trained to do, and let others do what they are trained to do. If you are a business man take care of the business end. If you are a cosmetician, do the cosmetics. If you are a chaplain, do the psychospiritual work. Set the boundaries, know which are flexible and which are rigid. Ensure everyone on the multidisciplinary team is aware of their boundaries and remind them if necessary. If something is working but you don’t understand it, don’t interfere; if it ain’t broke don’t break it.
The ethical principles are something that need clear statement and uncompromised commitment. Decide what your objectives are and achieve them in a right way. If you are simply selling merchandise and service, don’t try to be falsely compassionate; it will betray you and worse still, you’ll hurt vulnerable people who don’t deserve to be hurt. If you need to sell them something, and you do as a funeral service professional, turn them over to someone who can provide psychospiritual support with true presence and compassion, and wait until that expert turns them over to you. The chaplain will know when that time is right and will ensure that they will be in a proper mindset to respond to your ministrations appropriately. It is horribly callous to spend 10 minutes posing with a sad face, at T=11, you produce the pricelist and contract paperwork and launch into a sales script, only then to invite the dazed bereaved to make a selection in the merchandise room for dad’s final packaging. You may do everything quite legally, but in terms of right approach and moral conduct, you have violated every precept imaginable. Talk to the chaplain about ethical and moral conduct, he’s trained in the subject matter, you are not.
Better still, have the chaplain sit in on the arrangements meeting. His mere presence adds a note of trust and authenticity to an otherwise icey transaction.
The third item, caring for people, not the bottom line, is a bit more difficult because it redirects everything the mortuary science program has taught you, and focuses everything you have learned in your mortuary science program and your residency to a ministry of caring for the human spirit. Mortuary science curriculum taught you the principles of the funeral service business; it did not teach you how to be a funeral service professional, nor about ethics apart from business ethics and staying out of jail, and even less about spirituality. Don’t kid yourself.
Believe it or not, you can make a living as a funeral service professional without gouging every family that comes to you for support. Keep in mind that they are not calling you because they want to; they need you, in some states the law requires that they involve you. To take advantage of them at this time is abominable.
The situation is considerably different in the factory funeral home or the corporate funeral home. In those situations such as at Newcomer Funeral Service Group’s facilities, or Service Corporation International (Dignity Memorial), or any of the other multi-state or multi-national disposal corporations. In the corporate factory funeral home numbers rule. Statistics rule. How many bodies were removed from how many locations in how much time by how many removal persons using how many vehicles, and how many bodies were transported in one vehicle in one trip. How many cases did FD1 receive for processing and how long did it take for him to close the deal; how was he rated by the customer, and how does his performance compare with FD2, FD3…FDn? In the back of FD’s mind is the statistics, as well. FD is thinking how much can they afford? Can spend the time with them and can I upsell them? Do they look like they can spend some money or do I have to give them the quickie script and get them out of here, so I can move on to the next case. Have I complied with corporate procedure? Am I up to snuff on corporate policy? Have I read the latest facility production and revenues report? Am I on the bonus list? Can I afford the new Cadillac SUV? It’s the embalmer’s fault if the head’s turned too far to the right. It’s the hairdresser’s fault if the hair isn’t teased like in the picture. It’s the cosmetologists fault if there’s caked pancake makeup at the hairline. Oops? The lighting’s off and the liner’s too blue. Just lost 6 points on the aftersale survey. Too bad; no bonus this month.
Sound familiar? Sure, to the corporate FD but not to the traditional family-owned funeral home. Things are much, much different there. So what’s the logical choice if you have any self-respect or any respect for the treatment of your loved one?
Seems today everyone has deserted us for the job and has forgotten the profession. Take a step back and look at what has happened to what was once the family doctor. He’s now a corporate employee, working for a healthcare group or a hospital satellite clinic, or is a hospitalist. Numbers, production, rush. You call his “office” and you get a menu only to get his “secretary,” actually a central answering service, who “sees if she can contact the doctor,” only to return to say he’s with another patient but suggests you go to the emergency room or to an urgent care facility and have them call him. You’re half dead but you have to get in the car, drive 20 miles, answer a million questions, show you can pay, and then wait hours to be seen. Well, if you survive you’re one of the lucky ones. If you don’t, let’s hope they don’t call a corporate disposal service.
Two of our most essential services in life, healthcare and deathcare, have seriously dropped the ball and have left us high and dry. It’s no wonder our society, our culture has turned sociopathic, apathetic, callous, paranoid, digital.
It tragic but true that so many people today have become so sociopathic and so misguided that they accept digital algorithms as friends, and are incapable of engaging a flesh-and-blood human being as a friend and confidant; people are, after all, too complicated and it takes too long to develop a trusting relationship. Hell, on Facebook, I can make a “friend” in a mouse-click and pour out my heart to 50,000 listeners at once. Beat that in a real person relationship. Well, guess what, I can.
It’s tragic but true that we are so busy doing nothing that we can’t take proper care of our dead and we need to dispose of the mortal remains as quickly and as neatly as possible; we can hold the funeral or memorial service on a date to be announced. Funeral homes will now bury or burn the body immediately. You’ll save time and money. But your time is still limited and you will some day have to leave all your money and stuff behind when your kids decide that they don’t have the time or the spare cash to treat your mortal remains with dignity and respect. By the way: Who’s getting the house? Let the battles begin!
We live in a world with some very real problems, and many of those problems have their causes at the personal level, that is, they originate in how theindividual human being relates to his or her world, and how they interact with others in the reality they literally create for themselves.
When the individual human being is accosted at every turn, in every moment with a command to rush, hurry, and not to miss something, they miss everything. When the individual is inundated with commands, offers, warnings, alerts, the individual becomes anxious and fearful; that vulnerability is a key to controlling the individual and then the group. When an individual is made dependent and even subordinate to recorded messages, online menus, digital services, and the human element and human contact, especially touch, is removed from the interaction, the individual is dehumanized; they then react and respond as if programmed or as if the program has gone awry. Some will react like sheep, others will react like enraged beasts. No one will take responsibility, everyone will point fingers.
Many of those who are in positions in which they can inaugurate change if they wanted to just sit back and watch the spectacle unfold; our society has become as degenerate and uncaring as the crowds watching gladiators kill each other or wild beasts attack and maim defenseless prisoners. We look back at the Crusades, the massacres of the Native American peoples, the atrocities of the French Revolution, the Cheka purges in Bolshevik Russia, Stalin’s purges, the Turks and the Armenian genocide, the 20th century holocausts in Nazi Germany and in Serbia and the Balkans. We have not changed. Our genocides today are more sterile, more subtle, closer to home; the tyranny and the methods of control are literally our own and at our fingertips; the controllers are not the secret police knocking at our doors in the middle of the night, they are our Facebook friends, they are on Twitter, they are watching on Google. The persecutors don’t have to come to us, we go to them; willingly.
While some of you sit back and watch the spectacle unfold, watching your own destruction and annihilation orchestrate before your very eyes, some of us are observing, watching, questioning, writing, wondering why you don’t see what we see.
While they exterminate the soaring eagles, the cockroaches will survive.
Dissolve and Flush: Funeralized Alkaline Hydrolysis.
The Newest Technology for Disposing of Dead Human Beings.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney, BA, [MA], MDiv Interfaith Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist
In the West, interment, inhumation, entombment have been the traditional methods of disposing of dead human bodies, that is, prior to the late 19th century with the revival of cremation as an alternative. Until about 1880, cremation was anathema, unless, occasionally, at times of extraordinarily large numbers or dead, such as during war time, during epidemics, or following natural disasters, mass graves or incineration of the corpses was preferred to avoid further catastrophe in terms of public health. Fire cremation was revived in the West as a quasi-pagan option attributed to non-Christian freethinkers and masons or simply to anti-social elements but then took a different tack by appealing to the public health and environmentally conscious elements in conventional society. Today, economic concerns both consumer and industrial take precedence. The dominant market economies in the industrialized West, particularly in the USA, UK, and some Western European countries, as well as the insatiable appetite of post-modern, post-Christian cultures for novelty and individualism, have left the door ajar for the entry into the funeralization professions of an industrialized process called alkaline hydrolysis (AH), an industrial process invented in the late 19th century as a way of dissolving in strong chemicals farm animal waste for use as fertilizer.
“Omnes homines terra et cinis” Sirach 12:32
In a particularly beautiful description of how the pre-Vatican II Church thought of the human being, and in poetry that was possible only in a more sensitive epoch of human history, one reads:
“The old Church holds on to her dead with eternal affection. The dead body is the body of her child. It is sacred flesh. It has been the temple of a regenerated soul. She blessed it in baptism, poured the saving waters on its head, anointed it with holy oil on breast and back, put the blessed salt on its lips, and touched its nose and ears in benediction when it was only the flesh of a babe; and then, in growing youth, reconsecrated it by confirmation; and, before its dissolution in death, she again blessed and sanctified its organs, its hands and its feet, as well as its more important members. Even after death she blesses it with holy water, and incenses it before her altar, amid the solemnity of the great sacrifice of the New Law, and surrounded by mourners who rejoice even in their tears, for they believe in the communion of saints, and are united in prayer with the dead happy in heaven, as well as with those who are temporarily suffering in purgatory. The old Church, the kind old mother of regenerated humanity, follows the dead body of her child into the very grave. She will not throw it into the common ditch, or into unhallowed ground; no, it is the flesh of her son. She sanctifies and jealously guards from desecration the spot where it is to rest until the final resurrection; and day by day, until the end of the world, she thinks of her dead, and prays for them at every Mass that is celebrated; for, even amid the joys of Easter and of Christmas, the memento for the dead is never omitted from the Canon. She even holds annually a solemn feast of the dead, the day after “All Saints,” in November, when the melancholy days are on the wane, the saddest of the year, and the fallen leaves and chilly blasts presage the season of nature’s death.”
The Church of bygone days frequently used prose poetically and quoted liberally from the Church Fathers and even from the ancient philosophers and historiographers like Plato, Seneca, Socrates, Cicero many of whom, though pre-Christian, did not eschew the notion of the immortal soul. St Augustine writes, “We should not despise nor reject the bodies of the dead; especially we should respect the corpses of the just and the faithful, which the Spirit hath piously used as instruments and vessels in the doing of good works…for those bodies are not mere ornaments but pertain to the very nature of humankind.”
Cremation made an occasional appearance in isolated periods of Western history or in outlier regions where Christianity had not yet attained dominance; cremation was largely associated with non-Christian, pagan cultures.
In the East, in places where Hinduism and Buddhism had a firm foothold, cremation was and continues to be the norm. In some geographical areas such as in parts of Tibet, where the ground is unfavorable to interment and wood is a scarce and valuable resource, exposure of the corpse or dismemberment of the corpse and consumption by carrion-eating birds, so-called sky-burial or, in its form where the dismembered corpse is cast into a fiver for consumption by fishes, water burial, is practiced.
A similar practice of exposure is found in Zoroastrian communities in Iran, in the so-called towers of silence or dakhma, where the dead are brought, exposed, and consumed by vultures; the skeletal remains are then later collected for disposal.
While isolated instances of cremation are reported both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, burial or entombment was conspicuously the norm. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, burning of a corpse was a final act of abomination, reserved for only the worst elements of society.
One of the common misapprehensions of the Church’s aversion to or discouragement of incineration of the human body as a routinely available option for final disposal is that it was associated with pagan or freethinker practice, or with attempts to dissuade believers from faith in a bodily resurrection. While this might have some historical substance and may be represented by some early writers, it is but a minor hypothesis.
As Eusebius describes early Christian aversion to flame cremation in a statement that still holds plausible, “” they (the Pagans) did this (cremated) to show that they could conquer God and destroy the resurrection of the bodies, saying, now let us see if they will arise.” In other words, cremation was a challenge to the belief in bodily resurrection as taught and believed in the early Church.
Furthermore, no less a figure than Cicero advances the notion that incineration was of ancient practice in Rome, and suggests that inhumation was a practice that predated the Roman practice of cremation. In fact, some noble Roman families never permitted their bodies to be burned, and Sulla is said to have been the first Roman who ordered his body to be cremated after death, lest his bones should be scattered by his enemies. The pontiffs of pagan Rome would not acknowledge a funeral to be complete unless at least a single bone cut off from the corpse, or rescued from the flames, had been de posited in the earth.
Ancient Greece and Rome did practice cremation at various points in their histories but the ultimate disposal of the remains continued to be burial; either a part not consumed by the flames or the “bones” of the cremated corpse were ultimately buried in the earth. Cremation was by no means consistently the norm or the preferred method of disposal in Greece or in Rome.
Pope Boniface VIII forbade all violent modes of disposing of the dead as savoring of barbarism. “The respect due to the human body requires that it should be allowed to decay naturally, without having recourse to any violent system;” so says Grandclaude. A forcible argument against cremation is also found in the Catholic custom of preserving and honoring the relics of the Saints and putting their bodies or portions of them in the altar. It would be no longer possible to have the most important relics of future Saints if their flesh were to be consumed by fire.
That brief sampling of ancient teachings and beliefs regarding the question of incineration of human remains, arguably a “violent system” of disposing of human remains, should suffice to provide a background for the remainder of this discussion. For a more detailed discussion, I refer the reader to the Reverend Bann’s article cited above.
It was only in the late 19th century that a cremation movement came into being, and then only owing to the deplorable conditions in the cities which were rapidly outgrowing their boundaries due to immigration from rural areas, and the resulting encroachments on the previously outlying churchyards and, with population growth and densification, poor sanitation, and high mortality rates, consequent overfilling of existing cemeteries literally to the point of overflowing.
Such were the conditions that gave rise to the public health concerns of reformers who claimed that the dead in the cemeteries were evil, that their miasmas leached out into the water and the spaces of the living, causing disease, suffering, and death. It was the evil dead rotting in the earth and their juices that were public health enemy No. 1. The open sewers and living conditions of the larger cities, and the putrid waters of the rivers flowing through them, of course, were not to blame.
And so, an alternative method of disposal of the dangerous and filthy dead had to be found, one that did not threaten to gobble up valuable real estate, and one that could be justified in the face of Church and religious objections. Cremation was the most obvious answer for purifying the unclean corpses. After all, since time immemorial fire was the great purifier.
In the beginning, therefore, the initial impetus was the miasma theory of pestilence, and corpses were to blame. Then, around 1880, the germ theory of disease was born. It debunked the established miasma theory of disease, and stated that disease was caused by specific organisms, germs. No problem for the cremationists, who were quite agile in dropping the miasma theory and accepting the germ theory but corpses were not yet off the hook, so to speak.
If germs were the cause of many of the diseases afflicting the population, wouldn’t the putrid rotting corpse be germ heaven? And if you have all those corpses lying about doing nothing but what corpses do, that is, rotting and defiling the air with the aromas of putrecine and cadaverine. Those same rotting corpses were breeding grounds for pestilence and a simple hole in the ground was not very likely to contain the little vermin. Cremation, the great sterilizer, would be the cremationists’ next slogan. But it didn’t last long.
The interests of the economic-minded would carry the day both in terms of the environment and the economy, and that campaign agenda is with us to this day. Basically, the dirge goes: “Why allocate so much valuable land to the dead when the living can profit by it?” Land for the living! After all, as corporations like StoneMor can confirm, cemetery real estate and the real estate occupied by the cemeteries represents a vast fortune. Someone has to tap into it.
The countries of Europe afflicted with the spirit of rationalism had no problem dealing with cemeteries; they just overruled the Church and legislated that the state had ultimate control of the citizen in life and in death. The Church could fall back on canon law but ultimately had to acquiesce to the state’s overwhelming power, and so the cemeteries were secularized. Once secularized they were emptied and their occupants relegated to ossuaries or catacombs en masse, and anonymous in their tens, even hundreds of thousands. In many instances, their eviction from the cemeteries and relocation to the quarries was done under cover of night, in order not to offend the living or present an obstacle to commerce.
In countries where the Church, Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant dominated, the faithful were expected under established sanctions, to obey the doctrines of their faith. For most mainstream Christians, and for all Orthodox Jews and Muslims, cremation was an abomination, and burial in the earth or entombment were the only acceptable methods of sepulture. And so it remained until 1963, when the Roman Catholic Church relieved it’s ban on cremation and, while not encouraging cremation, did not censure those who opted for incineration as their preferred method of disposal. Upto then, those choosing cremation were pro forma classified as apostates, atheists, pagans, free-thinkers, or Masons.
The 1960’s was a decade of revolutionary reform in practically every aspect of life: politics, religion, morals, education, all of which ultimately found expression in attitudes towards life, death, dying and after-death.
Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) , aquamation , resomation , biocremation , call it whatever you like it all literally boils down [no pun intended] to taking a dead human body, placing it into a pressure cooker, adding water and chemicals, heating, cooking, draining, rinsing. The dissolved flesh and organic matter is then flushing into the sewer system. What is left is bones and any metallic or synthetic material in the body (artificial joints, pacemakers, sutures, etc.). The metal such as artificial joints etc. will be recycled or “repurposed.” The bones will be dried and ground up into a sandlike powder and returned to the family or otherwise disposed of.
The actual patented process, alkaline hydrolysis (AH) is a process developed for waste disposal. “Waste disposal” is the actual term used in the patents. AH was developed for disposal of infectious or hazardous waste by dissolving it into a “safe and sanitary” end-product. In fact, the actual wording of one of the patents is: “it is an object of this invention to provide a system and method for safely treating and disposing of waste matter containing undesirable elements, such as infectious, biohazardous, hazardous, or radioactive elements or agents.”
AH was developed for dissolving, liquefying organic matter into a disposable liquid that can be recycled as a fertilizer or simply flushed down the drain. It’s actually a technology that was developed in the late 19th century for disposing of animal waste, and which was developed in the mid-20th century for disposal of farm slaughter waste and for elimination of medical school cadavers, is now being promoted as the new eco-friendly take on cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis a.k.a. water cremation a.k.a. biocremation — in reality just using a Draino®-like chemical to dissolve the dead human body and flush the remaining human sludge down the drain into the public sewer system — is the new rage in technology. Some funeral homes in about 14 states, where the process is now legal in the United States are now offering it as an alternative to cremation. It’s disgusting and will be a hard sell, since it will be acceptable only to the really bizarre element out there. I hope to clarify some of the issues in this article.