May God make your year a happy one! Not by shielding you from all toil and suffering, But by strengthening you to bear it, as it comes; Not by making your path easy, But by making you confident to walk any path; Not by removing challenges from you, But by taking all fear from your heart; Not by granting you uninterrupted bliss, But by bathing your heart and soul in light even in the darkest of shadows; Not by making your life always delightful, But by making you attentive to when creation and others need you most and by giving you the courage to be there to help.
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.
Interfaith Pastoral Care. Just what is it? Interfaith pastoral care is a hard nut to crack when a client actually is interested enough to ask the question., “What is interfaith?”
Some have suggested that we change, broaden our terminology to “interbelief” but I don’t really think that changes a thing; in fact, I think it complicates the conversation even more than “interfaith” does. It gets even worse when the innovators come up with a term like “interpath” care. It soon becomes so turbulent that it becomes obfuscating; it becomes an idiotic dialogue of nonsense.
The Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago (RC) defines “the difference between ecumenical, interfaith, and interreligious relations”, as follows:
“Ecumenical” as “relations and prayer with other Christians”,
“Interfaith” as “relations with members of the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ (Jewish and Muslim traditions),” and
“Interreligious” as “relations with other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism”.
[Aside: Some proponents of interfaith whatever have adopted the name “interbelief,” “interpath”; how far do we stretch “interfaith” before it becomes “intercultural”?]
In such places like the Public Religion Research Institute, we can examples of the glaring misinformation and mixed messages concocted by “interfaith dialogue” proponents can be found in the short article, “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.”  Here’s an extract from that article:
“A new study released in the American Journal of Sociology finds that “conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability.” The study’s authors note that by discouraging pre-marital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, conservative religious institutions inadvertently increase the likelihood of divorce. However, Professor Charles Stokes, in reviewing the research, notes that couples who are embedded in religious communities tend to have lower divorce rates regardless of their theology.”
Excuse me, but isn’t that a contradiction? Or a glaring error in the American Journal of Sociology when it reports a misinterpretation of the published data. Isn’t the Am Jour Soc a peer-reviewed journal or at least an edited journal? The same article reports:
“In an effort be more inclusive of atheists, the St. Paul Interfaith Network has changed the name of its monthly community meeting to “Inter-belief Conversation Café.” In the Midwest, 2 percent of people identify as atheists.” [my emphasis]
Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith?
I think that’s pushing the notion of liberal secularism and sentimentalism a.k.a. “inclusivism” right over the edge into oblivion. Forgive me, for I have “ismed” again! In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.” in articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists.” Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics!. Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith?
We have all became amoral meandering idiots!
So even the atheists are claiming a piece of “interfaith,” though on somewhat shakier grounds, and on condition that you change your group’s name. In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, and where we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.” So what? In articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists“—all 2% of them. Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics! Girls using boys’ toilets, boys using girls’ toilets, women clergy, girl boyscouts. Where does it all end? Segregation became diversity; diversity became indiviudalism; we have all became amoral meandering idiots!
And the St Paul Pioneer Press while other proponents have proposed the term interpath dialogue. It seems that these groups are making a radical departure from what we know as “faith” to honor impossible inclusiveness while losing all focus and credibility. These groups are making the attempt to include or at least to avoid excluding atheists, agnostics, humanists, and such with no religious faith in traditional terms but who espouse ethical or philosophical credos.
What we now call post-modern or post-Christian might as well be called post-mortem; we can dilute the doctrines and dogmas (Truth) of world faith and belief communities to the point of losing all tradition and with it all sense of identity; we have lost sight of the fact that unity implies otherness and otherness implies identity.
Another example of how the concept of interfaith can derail and alchemically transmutate into a bastard creature of so-called religion-turned-social-program is the About Interfaith IMPACT of New York State. (We have no idea why the “IMPACT” is uppercase.) According to their website,
“IINYS consists of congregations, clergy and individuals from progressive Protestant, Reform Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other faith traditions. Together we work for the common good through progressive religious advocacy. The interfaith Impact of New York State Foundation, Inc. is a charitable organization. Its mission is to Inform and encourage progressive faith based participation in public dialogue.”
One of IINYS’s stated missions is to ensure a separation of Church and state but a closer reading of what their activities include is a direct contradiction of any separation and has nothing to do with any faith with which I am familiar. Key to understanding what interfaith in the IINYS is the word “progressive.” What this means is “secularization,” social “justice” programming (socialism), and is deeply imbedded in “state” (= government) activity and operations. Of course, you won’t find any mainstream faith or belief traditions represented on the “Reform” and “Universalist” board membership, because mainstream faith or belief traditions have clear and unambiguous statutes and doctrines, not an agenda of political activity clothed in smoke and mirror deception, and a blurring of the black letter of the Separation Clause. And that’s just one example of how “interfaith” is being marketed.
IINYS succeeds not only in confusing any coherent impression that the term “interfaith” may have implied by conflating “moral values” with “social programs,” a gaffe that distracts significantly, among other things, from the organization’s alleged principles, which should not come as a surprise given the intimate, almost incestuous relationship IINYShas with the profane state government of New York, itself in a state of disinformation and secular humanist and liberal materialism. Interfaith is equated with unabashed sentimentalism.
IINYS’s case gets even worse: the IINYS actually uses a P.O. box at the New York State Capitol to receive mail! Now that’s what I call Church-state separation.
They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.
Another example of the perversion of the faith part of “interfaith” would be the Interfaith Medical Center of Brooklyn, New York. The only faith at IMCB would be faith in the idolatry of medical capitalism and market economy. Unfortunately, at this writing IMCB’s mission statement was “under construction.” They’re probably having a real tough time justifying the interfaith part of what appears to be an enterprise healthcare facility attempting to cater to the needs of a multiethnic community. So why not just say so and leave “interfaith” out of the game? Because “interfaith” means nothing but looks really good. Smoke and mirrors. They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.
One thing is very clear: there has been no peace between human beings since the Tower of Babel because we all are speaking different languages; even when we’re speaking the same language, we don’t understand one another. There’s no need to imagine the catastrophic confusion that comes about when we attempt to use language to define or to discuss the ineffable, the transcendent like the mysteries of life, death or faith or belief in a transcendent state or spirituality. Imagine that when we have such difficulty distinguishing between religion and spirituality at all!
While I personally reject the alleged definitions of “interfaith” anything, I do understand the thought behind it and the problems of rendering “inter-“ anything intelligible to the point of being useful or implementable. Here are a couple that may help us to get our arms around the notion of what really should have stayed under the rubric of “tolerance.”
As a psychospiritual care provider, I have to confront this problem on a regular basis when I have people telling me, “She wasn’t religious at all.” But then they go on to tell me how she believed in God and in an existence after death; where my conversation partner tells me that she, the deceased, is now in heaven with her beloved spouse. Or “We want a spiritual service, not a religious service.” What do you mean spiritual but not religious? Now the great silence starts and I recognize that my dialogue partner doesn’t know what the difference is; in fact, she’s embarrassed and I have to save her now.
This becomes a particularly acute situation when I am facilitating a family conference for arranging a funeral or memorial service. During this conference I have to chop through suspicion, confusion, defensiveness, family secrecies, and so much more to establish a relationship of trust and authenticity in just a few sentences. I have to learn enough about a person, his or her family relationships, community involvements, likes and dislikes, habits and idiosyncrasies, end-of-life circumstances, and I have to do this without traumatizing my conversation partners or offending sometimes unspoken sensitivities. They didn’t each this sort of thing at my seminary institute, and they didn’t help very much in my many hours of Clinical Pastoral Education in a major trauma center, or in the nursing home or in the parish where I did my pastoral formation. My guess is that most of my instructors and mentors didn’t have a clue outside of what they were able to find in somebody’s book on the subject and what we brought to the table ourselves. At this point in my career-vocation, I can see why it’s something that you can’t just each or get from any textbook, because the lessons to be learned are as diverse as the individuals and families we, as pastoral care providers and psychospiritual guides are called to serve.
In fact, having written the term “pastoral care” I even balk at using that term because not all of the sufferers I companion think of themselves as animals, sheep, who require a pastor, a shepherd. Since we are finding ourselves increasingly faced with practically unlettered clients, clients who don’t read and who never were taught reading and writing skills, who tend to communicated in a few syllables or in emoticons, we, too, have had to develop second language skills, so-to-speak, and I don’t mean only in our liturgical, ritual, and Scriptural language, but in the language we use in the professional milieu and that we use in the care-giving milieu. This distinction does not discriminate between the lower socioeconomic or socioethinic groups but applies equally well to the so-called “educated” and techosavvy groups, who are just as language-challenged as a newly arrived immigrant but less likely to admit the importance of learning the language.
Furthermore, in strict terms, I’m not a pastor at all because I don’t have a fixed parish or congregation, so I’m not providing “pastoral” care as such. In fact, there are very few pastors who are called to do what I do and have to do in my vocation. Normally, a pastor has a congregation with whom he, nowadays also she, is in theory expected to be intimately familiar on an individual basis. But we all know that today, just about every faith and belief community has succumbed to the post-modern sentimental hypocrisy of the happy-clappy social club, insincere hugging orgies, and idiotic grinning clubs we today call congregations. Or, even worse, the entertainment events in the guise of worship now offered by the megachurches springing up all over the place. Well, they’re cheaper than a ticket to a country western concert and the cappuccino at the java bar is pretty good, too, and cheaper than Starbucks. Music’s pretty cool, too. Maybe God will even show up one of these Sundays! Meanwhile, the show of raised armpits, gibberish cries of ecstasy and the Guinness Book of Records breaker show of hairy armpits will go on…and on. Thank you, Vatican II! Thank you, Facebook! Thank you, Beelzebub!
In recent years, I have found that I am providing a form of psychotherapy as well as spiritual guidance, so I more often than not will use the term psychospiritual care provider. It seems to come closer to what I really do, and doesn’t get the discussion bogged down in a quagmire of denominations, faith communities, belief traditions or spiritual path distinctions. Once we get past the icebreaking and the initial disclosure process, we are in a better position to explore religion and spirituality without treading on eggs.
Meanwhile, back in the conference room, we are sitting with the husband, the three daughters and the two sons of a woman recently dead, and we need to put together a chapel service and a graveside interment service the Saturday morning, two days hence. The funeral director has the easy job of prepping and embalming the body, dressing her, and doing her cosmetics, so that she is Barbie-doll presentable in her lovely imitation mahogany eternity capsule. The FD has the easy part, the dead don’t get defensive; they’re good listeners and don’t talk much.
“So, tell me a little about your mom,” or so the conversation starts. “Well, I don’t really know where to start. What do you think, dad?” Now dad’s in the hot seat and hasn’t got a clue what the question is. So we start over again, this time I’m trying to recall the scanty information that the FD provided during our initial conversation about the case. And so I move on, now in reverse mode: “What kind of service did you have in mind to celebrate your mom’s, your wife’s life?” Here’s where we get right down to the nitty-gritty: religious, spiritual, non-religious/secular, humanistic (no religion). Mr. FD tells me that your mom’s records show that she declared herself to be Roman Catholic. The daughter-in-charge looks a bit dazed, “She did? Was mom Catholic, dad?” Dad puts on a sheepish look, “Yeah. We
both were. We got married in church and we had you kids baptized, too.” One thought rolls over my mind: “OMG! Just let them talk this one out.” Once they are done doing their own interviews, I can interject with, “It seems your mom did have a religious preference and that she had a faith tradition. You may be surprised but I have had situations like this many times where a parent or a grandparent gets so involved with caring for their family, that there’s just no time on Sundays to pack everyone up and march to church, and so the “religion” moves from the church to the heart. That’s not a bad thing. So I’m not surprised that your mom was busy being a good mom and a loving wife, and managed to keep her religion in her heart and worship there. That’s a beautiful thing. Don’t you think?” In unison: “Yeah. You’re right!”
And so we move past that hurdle, and we have something to hold on to. I have a starting point and the family has a very viable option, the service will be a religious service, but not “too” Catholic, because we don’t go to church and the kids won’t sit still through a lot of prayers. The conversation and sharing goes on beautifully from that point on, once a “major” question has been negotiated.
But what about the non-religious, or the so-called “quilted family system,” in which you have a mix of non-believers, and believers including the odd Buddhist, the Jew, the Presbyterian, the Evangelicals, Baptists and the de rigueur generic “Christians?” Is this interfaith, interbelief, or interpath? My categorical answer is: Yes. But it’s likely to be non-religious if it’s any of these.
You see, it’s hypersimplistic to presume to take any collection of denominations or traditions and call it by any name, let alone be crazy enough to think that you can properly address and avoid offending any or all of the traditions in the assembly. To be very honest, there are today so many flavors of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Episcopalianism, etc. Forgive me! for I have ismed.
The truth is that you can provide a service only along the lines of a single tradition – or no tradition — and, if you are not a listener or not well-trained, you run a risk of adoring adulation from some and condemnation as a heretic by others in the same group. The attempt to please all is doomed to please none.
This is because most institutionalized, mainstream denominations simply do not properly train or supervise their clergy – so as not to offend them or in order to allow the clergy to take the odd doctrinal or dogmatic detours to ensure that he or she keeps the pews filled and the collections abundant – so you can go to one service on one Sunday and hear one teaching and the next Sunday go to another worship service and get another take on the Gospel. Neither do the clergy properly and honestly form and educate their constituents; that’s why Christians are so diverse and so critical of and cruel to one another, while preaching some sort of love. Most tend to go where you have a preacher who says what they want to hear; once-a-week worship becomes a happy-clappy hypocritical quest for affirmation and acknowledgement. Orthodox doctrine is a thing of the past; institutionalized religion, the mainstream religions, like any institution are self-serving and self-preserving; it’s a market economy with hymns and incense. It’s ice-cream religion, vanilla or any flavor you’d like.
Meanwhile back at the funeral home, we’re just finishing up and have decided on a chapel service that will be based on the Rite of Christian Burial that will include Roman Catholic liturgical elements, even candles, holy water and incense, but will include some secular poetry readings, and a couple of “Protestant” hymns. The graveside service will be prayerful, moving and tearful. The family’s happy, the FD is over the moon, and I have my doubts.
On the way back to my office I’m pondering, “How am I going to pull this off, and still be able to have dinner with myself again?” That may have been a reason for considering self-harm years ago but today it’s just a pro forma start to “designing” a custom and personalized service we now call the “Celebration of Life,” rather than a funeral ritual.
It’s here that years of study, continuing education, lots of extradisciplinary study, interpersonal skills, creativity, and a lot of help from something I refer to as the Holy Spirit gets us all over the hump rather than in the dump.
In ministering to suffering in general and to those confronting an end-of-life process, death, and the rite of passage from ante-mortem to post-mortem life, we are forced to recognize the indisputable fact that suffering if anything, while being a common thread running through all of humankind, is inextricably individual; the pain of bereavement is totally one’s own experience, each individual experiences it differently, and any attempt to provide an “inter-anything” type of psychospiritual care is a deplorable fake.
At some time after our birth we are presented to the community in a rite of passage ritual called “naming;” naming explicitly announces to the cosmos that here we have an individual, an “other,” who, for the purposes of distinction shall be called “Baby Doe.” Different cultures will ascribe different duties and responsibilities and different degrees of separateness of the new member but that new member is almost universally recognized as an “other.” Accordingly, the cookie-cutter funeralization rites and rituals of various faith and belief traditions, while they may at one point or another recognize the individual by mentioning his or her name, the overall presumption is that the departed one has indeed departed the community and, upon final disposition of the mortal remains, is no longer. Thank you, Dr Freud!
But this is as far from health reality as we can get. We have to reach back into our own history and bring back the family involvement, the maintenance of important connections with our dead; we have to learn from other traditions how to continue those bonds and how to grow with them.
A clergyperson who doesn’t hone the importance of acknowledging the “other,” the named one, the uniqueness of the deceased, and who doesn’t include the family to the maximum extent possible in the rites of funeralization, is shortchanging the deceased and the mourners! Continuing bonds with the dead is an intimate, personal necessity and not one in which church or community should be dominant; the annual memorial mass is one example of superficiality and ecclesial control. By far more effective is to light a candle at a holiday gathering or to light a candle on a special occasion, honoring the presence and memory of a dead loved one, or even the community of dead loved ones. Perhaps even observing a moment of silent reflection when the family gathers.
The early Church started in private homes in the family circle; for centuries it continued and evolved in the warmth and intimacy of private homes, the early house churches; this had less to do with persecution than with the Jewish Sabbath tradition and the primordial agapé meal! But then, the early organizers got together to set the rules and to enforce some control over the various “churches” as they were called in the different faith communities. Gradually, faith moved out of the family circle, out of the home, into the community assembly space, out of the core of the individual human being, until today, it has practically moved out completely. The lights are on but nobody’s home. We are the janitors of the soul, the concierges of the refuge; when we get the call, we prepare the place.
Faith, religious belief, spirituality still maintains an address in the human soul and still receives mail there; our job as clergy, ministers, chaplains, psychospiritual care providers have to keep that abode open, accessible and welcoming for the time when the prodigal has to return, open the mail, and pay the bills. All suffering, all grief, all healing, all transformation is addressed personally to the individual; all care has to do the same: it must be individual, or at least the individual must be provided with the tools so that they can do the DIY repair and maintenance.
Creating new labels for negligence or indifference or continuing cookie-cutter rituals is an affront to any concept of ministry, to any concept of community. We need to stop being narcissistically creative and start being humbly serving.
If we are going to allow any notion of “inter” to enter our lives, our praxis, our ministries, and from there into the lives of those who look to us for guidance, we are going to have to recognize and accept the fact that our churches, our faith and belief communities have become institutions and, like any profane or secular institution are governed by self-interest and self-preservation, all else playing a lesser role. As a psychospiritual care provider it is my duty and obligation first to be tolerant and to recognize that it is arrogant to claim and impossible to be “interfaith,” “interreligious,” “interpath,” “interbelief,” and to claim to be any of these is to announce being nothing at all. Best to be wholly tolerant and wholly compliant with the explicit wishes of the deceased but even more so with those of the living, obviously, and to be guided by good and prudent discernment of the content of the sharing during the family conference.
The rites and rituals of funeralization should transform the dead into fonts of meaningful legacy and provide the living with psychospiritual nourishment and the opportunity for growth; this requires deep listening, sensitivity, creativity, humility, compassion, and patience. Ours is a vocation, not a job, that’s why the FD or some funeral home dilettante should not, must not be put in the position of providing psychospiritual care as a funeral or memorial officiant. Doing so simply makes the statement either that the funeral director or the funeral home does not know its limitations or boundaries, or that they simply are indifferent to the harm they can do by providing care outside of their competence, or both. Offering quick fixes like direct burial or direct cremation are careless and insensitive alternatives to providing the care and attention necessary for healing grief work and transformational mourning; even direct disposition services should offer, promote and encourage the services of a professional bereavement chaplain, even if it’s only to meet with the survivors in an informal environment and simply chat; the chaplain will know how to steer the sharing.
It’s astounding how few FDs actually make it a point to offer or even mention chaplain services. It’s even more disappointing to have to admit that most clergy never have a pre-funeral or pre-memorial meeting with the family to discuss the rites and rituals and why things are being done a certain way. Even fewer enlist the family’s participation in the actual service. This is a travesty of deathcare services both by the FD and by so called clergy. We owe the dead, the bereaved, mourners in general better treatment than this, especially if we are receiving a fee or a stipend to provide psychospiritual care!
In this article I have used the word sentimental and its derivatives but have not really defined it as I am using it. I owe you, my patient reader, the fairness of a definition. Sentimentality is fooling yourself into thinking there are easy answers. Sentimentality gives free rein to rank simplification, excessive feeling, particularly emotions, that have no place in actuality Sentimentality is a form of defense, a self-deception just like denial, and is used in order to avoid acknowledging more painful emotions, particularly anger, shame or guilt. So what would I propose to you as the opposite of sentimentality? My reasoned suggestion of an antonym for the term “sentimentality” would be “mature realism.” Mature realism Mature realism steering clear of cheap idealization just as we would steer clear of cheap grace; such realism requires the courage to examine the good and bad of everything, and further demands that we to search beyond the superficiality of our own emotions, motives and those of others that mislead us to think that there are easy answers to complex problems.
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney MDiv Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist
 The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) describes itself as “”… a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life…PRRI’s mission is to help journalists, opinion leaders, scholars, clergy, and the general public better understand debates on public policy issues and the role of religion and values in American public life by conducting high quality public opinion surveys and qualitative research”
 I would strongly recommend the book Faking It by Digby Anderson. In that 1998 book Anderson and contributors present a scathing assessment of sentimentality in most of today’s institutions of modern culture. (Anderson, D., P. Mullen, Faking it: (1998) The sentimentalization of modern society. London: St Edmundsbury Press.)
Republished with permission from the Smalbany Blog.
Editor’s Comment: This article does not necessarily represent the fundamental opinions of the Spirituality and Bereavement Care group but is important. Some of our readers may have had or will have experience with sudden unexplained death of a loved one, which will involve the coroner or the medical examiner. We recognize that our readers are extremely vulnerable under such circumstances and should be aware of the facts about the so-called medicolegal death investigator and the office of the coroner. We need to ensure that these people are competent in terms of their death scene skills and their people skills. Too many mistakes are made and too much harm done in these situations by people who are elected but not necessarily qualified. This article has not been edited for this blog; we recommend caution if you are recently bereft or mourning. Links are left intact to allow you to read the background articles.
We published an article “Politics, Power, Patronage and Conflicts of Interest: The Albany County Coroners Office” on September 13, 2017, about the office of the Albany County Coroners, and how the office is obsolete, tainted, and chock full of local funeral directors. The politics of the coroners’ office is as corrupt as it can get, and is a product of the nepotism and favoritism that has plagued Albany politics from within the mayor’s office to the police department to the office of the county coroner.
In the preparation phase of the article, we did extensive research both on the history of the office of coroner in general, including scholarly articles discussing the office of the coroner, and published professional journal articles comparing and critiquing the office of the coroner and the office of medical director. In addition to our research of public information and education material and the scholarly and professional journals, we also filed demands for the production of documents and information with Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer and Green Counties for information on their respective coroners or medical examiners.
Overall, personal contacts with the Albany County Office of the Coroner were very open and informative. The demands served on the counties of Schenectady (medical examiner), Rensselaer (medical examiner), and Greene (coroners) under the NYS Freedom of Information Law were less than open and honest. Rensselaer is in violation of the law by not having responded at all; Schenectady and Greene county, while responding, were evasive and off base. Why all the defensiveness? They’re not so defensive when asking for funding but then, in our culture of death denial, who really keeps tabs on them anyway? WE DO!
We received an interesting comment from Lorin Marra, who is somehow associated with the Marra Funeral Home and with Paul Marra, the “owner/operator” of Mara Funeral home in Cohoes and an Albany County Coroner. When we received Lorin’s comment we were a bit taken by its defensiveness and it only later occurred to us that it’s an election year and Paul Marra is running for re-election as an Albany County Coroner. Having made that connection, it was not surprising that a Marra family member would come out and defend Paul Marra, the candidate.
But wasn’t it a bit cowardly, a clear lack of integrity for someone running for public office not to personally respond in a comment and have his daughter respond for him. Maybe Paul left his cojones in the autopsy room, at one of the allegedly “1000” autopsies he claims to have attended (but no one in official circles knows about). Did anyone see that pig flying by just now? Wanna buy a bridge?
.It should be noted that Ms Lorin Marradoesn’t comment on any of the many facts and figures given in the “Politics, Power, Patronage and Conflicts of Interest” article but hones in only on the name “Marra,” which is mentioned in only the most neutral of terms: strictly factually. But, as we state in our response, “Where there’s smoke (or “defensiveness”) there’s gotta be fire.” What do you think?
For those of you who have read our article “Politics, Power, Patronage and Conflicts of Interest: The Albany County Coroners Office,” you’ll certainly have to ask yourself Why? is Lorin Marra so upset. Have we touched a nerve? The fact is, Paul Marra is barely mentioned in the article, and not negatively in any sense of the word. Maybe one of our readers can help us out with this one. We’re republishing Lorin Marra’s confused comment together with our responses. [In the following text “Ed.”: is a note inserted by the Editor]
In reply to Lorin Marra:
We have approved your rant only to illustrate the fact that where a commenter becomes as defensive as you have, there must be something going on that needs further attention. As the saying goes: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
We’d like to make it quite clear from the outset that the article is not about Paul Marra nor about the Marra Funeral Home operation; the article is about the office of the coroner both in Albany County and in general. Mr Marra is mentioned, along with others, in the article because he has voluntarily stepped forward and has received the approval and support of the Albany county Democrats and their political machine to have been elected to be an Albany County Coroner. Mr Marra, his office, his associations, and his keepers, therefore, have made Mr Marra a public figure and that visibility is open to comment. Mr Marra, his interests, his associations, his performance and all other aspects of Mr Marra are subject to comment because of his status as a public figure. Period.
Lorin Marra writes:
This article is completely false…
That having been said, we can respond to your diatribe by saying that the information we provided in the article came either from official sources and based on what those sources, that is, the Office of the Albany County Coroner, provided in response to our demand for documents and information under the NY Public Officers Law. If any of our information were incorrect, it is because it was provided by the custodians of that information as public officers and public employees. So let’s put that part of your comment to rest and redirect your misdirected hissy fit to the proper target: the County of Albany.
You are terribly clouded in your perspective of reality if you represent, as you in fact write in your comment, which, as written is a bit unclear, “[M]ost coroners are in fact funeral directors nor [sic] for a political agenda but…” (the rest of that sentence does not contribute to a better understanding of your rather strained thought process). We do not propose in any way that funeral directors are funeral directors for a political agenda. Where you pulled that one out of is beyond us but if you take the time to actually read the article with your eyes open, you’ll actually see what we’ve written. To deny, particularly in Albany County, that the office of the County Coroner is politically tainted is tantamount to claiming that a 3-dollar bank note is legal currency in the US. How naïve? can you possibly be or How devious? might be a better question.
Lorin Marra writes:
…a coroner does not get paid enough by the state [Ed.: Paul L Marra is an Albany County official but is civil service, and gets his check from NY state. Currently he gets $$20,836 a year.] to actually make a living off of just being a coroner. Most coroners are in fact funeral directors not for a political agenda but because they have the knowledge and experience dealing with the deceased. Marra funeral home is in fact OWNED by Paul Marra.
We don’t give a whit whether Paul Marra “OWNS” (your caps!) Marra Funeral Home. But that confirmation by you certainly bolsters our statements about conflicts of interest.
Lorin Marra writes:
Coroners are NOT allowed to use their position to gain business in their personal funeral homes [Ed.: “Not allowed…” is true; what you seem to glance over is that they DO abuse their positions! It’s a human weakness.] Do you realize how many calls a coroner must go on during their respective shift? If they actually claimed all those funerals [Ed.: They don’t have to claim “all” the funerals, just some.] they would be a multi-millionaire which is not the case for any coroners [Ed.: But may be true for some funeral directors.]. The funeral home business tends to be a hereditary business, most people do not wake up in the morning and decide HEY I’M GOING TO WORK WITH DEAD PEOPLE FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, they [Who do?] tend to go into the business because a previous family member has and so on.
We agree, though, that ethically “Coroners are NOT [again your caps!] allowed to use their position to gain business in their personal funeral homes.” What we don’t quite get is your point. Whether they are “allowed” has no practical or real effect on whether they do misuse their positions. One point you seem to have missed [again!] is that they can garner political and professional capital even if they don’s use their own “personal” funeral home. Think about that for a minute and if you don’t get it, please let us know and we’ll walk you through it.
Again, we agree with you that many funeral homes may be what we properly call “family funeral homes,” or funeral homes that stay in a single family’s hands for a couple of generations. That is changing and, if you read our articles with the intent to understand what is actually written rather than what the voices in your head are telling you to see, you will find that we are ardent champions of the family-owned, local funeral home as opposed to the multi-state factory funeral service corporations. But you likely would have missed that point. [Ed.: You may want to see our articles: “Birds of a Feather? Lying down with dogs? The Politics of Funeral Corporations….” and “Bring Out Your Dead! A Monty Python Prophesy“.]
Lorin Marra writes:
The fact that coroners can’t make a living off of just being a coroner (less than $30,000 a year) should prove that this article was a waste of time.
You have failed to disguise your arrogance, though, when you state that “coroners can’t make a living off of just being a coroner” [Oh! Your grammar is painful!] No, I wouldn’t think that they’d be able to do anything by just “being a coronoer,” I’d expect they’d have to actually do something besides just being an anything. But the City of Albany and the County of Albany have literally dozens of “employees” and “appointees” who make good money by just “being” a something and not necessarily doing anything. Besides, many people, perhaps not in your privileged group, have to make a living and even support a family on “less than $30,000 a year”. Get a grip, Lorin, and join the real world. (Your Mercedes is showing!).
Lorin Marra writes:
Also, Paul Marra has been a coroner for 29 years and has been a board cerified medi legal death investigator for over 15 tears. He has take n charge of over 5000 death investigations and attended well over 1000 autopsies. He also has trained for over 600 hours with the State association of County Coroners. [Ed.: Lorin Marra seems to keep better records and statistics than the County of Albany. Wonder where she got her figures?]
The fact that “Paul Marra has been a coroner for 29 years and has been a board-certified medi [sic] legal death investicator for over 15 years” again supports everything we have written in the article you appear to be disputing. While we are struggling to identify what a “board[-]certified medi legal [Ed.: The word Lorin is struggling to get right twice (!) is “medicolegal.” Is she really a Siena graduate?] death investigator” might be, we would like to ask the glaring question that emerges from your statement: If he has been a coroner for 29 years but certified to investigate deaths for only 15 of those 29 years, how many mistakes did he make in the 14 years when he was not “certified?” The fact that he has been a coroner for 29 years, elected every 4 years, simply proves that too little scrutiny goes into the office of coroner and further supports the fact that in Albany County, once you’re in you’re in for life.
You state that Paul Marra has “trained for over 600 with the State [A]ssociation of County Coroners.” We’re not in the least impressed by that statement. Here’s an example: In one summer, a contributor of ours trained in a major hospital for over 500 hours to earn just one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education credit towards his qualifications. I repeat, that was 500 hours in one summer for one credit! We assume that you’re referring to 600 hours for Mr Marra’s training over a number of years. That’s not impressive in the least, especially when you consider the years of training that a real medicolegal death investigator must do to qualify and then the continuing education required just to keep the pathologist’s licence! Please, don’t talk to us about Mr Marra’s paltry training record!
Lorin Marra writes:
Please do your research next time.
The article, dear Lorin, clearly states the facts as provided by official sources, in particular the Albany County Coroner’s Office, and information from public access sources and published articles. Our facts are true, complete and correct, which is more than we can say about your subjective and clearly biased remarks about your relative, Paul Marra.
Furthermore, the professional and scientific literature abounds with one single conspicuous observation: The office of the coroner is obsolete and, since its very beginning in the 12th century, has been political and corrupt.Nothing has changed since then. Furthermore, until very recently, with the deployment of the Electronic Death Registry system in New York State, recordkeeping documenting coroners’ activities and cases was deplorable.
Lorin Marra writes:
Also legislation has just passed that requires coroners to have more training.
The only legislation that we are interested in is legislation to eliminate the office of the coroner and replace it with a competitive system that would employ specially trained medicolegal personnel for death investigations. Those professional death investigators may be assisted by a subordinate assistant with appropriate training. The current coroner system is inadequate, unqualified, ignorant, and obsolete. If that’s not enough reason to eliminate it, please add to that list the fact that it is politically tainted and corrupt.
Lorin Marra writes:
Please do your research next time.
We did extensive research for the article and stand by our facts as written and represented. We do suggest, however, that you be tested for dyslexia as soon as possible by a qualified professional. Your reading comprehension or your cognitive processing appears to be severely impaired.
If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a bit of humor and entertainment. Here’s one of our favorite scenes from Monty Python’s In Search of the Holy Grail. Enjoy!
Obviously, Ms Marra was not interested in the facts and figures we very conscientiously researched and published in our article; instead, she was more interested in demonstrating her inability to read the English language. If her dyslexia is shared by Paul Marra, Albany County Coroner, it’s no wonder that their records and available information is so scanty and incomplete. The fact that Ms Marra came up with figures that the Albany County Coroner’s Office couldn’t produce does shed some light on the fact that either Ms Marra’s figures are phoney or the Albany County Coroner’s Office doesn’t want to share some embarrassing information with the public, or the information is simply unavailable because of the Albany County coroners’ poor record keeping practices. Maybe the answer is “all of the above.”
The fact is, our information is good as 24 karat gold.All of it comes from reliable sources. The fact that Albany County has poor record keeping practices and the County doesn’t consider it important enough to update their software is a problem voters might want to address. The fact that Schenectady County (medical examiner’s office) and Greene County (coroners) dragged their feet for months and only produced a fistful of information or no information at all, or just excuses made by the county attorney, is at the very least a black eye for those counties. The Rensselaer county attorney should be brought up on charges for refusing to provide any information on the Rensselaer County Medical Examiner’s office. If that’s democracy at work and freedom of information…
P.s. If you’re interested in the current candidates for coroner this time around, don’t be surprised that they’re all Democrats, you can go to the Vote411 site. Click here.
Here’s some additional information on medicolegal death investigators. According to the ABMDI, The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, FAQs page, the medicolegal death investigator doesn’t need any special training or education.
What is a Medicolegal Death Investigator?
The role of the medicolegal death investigator is to investigate any death that falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner or coroner, including all suspicious, violent, unexplained and unexpected deaths. The medicolegal death investigator is responsible for the dead person, whereas the local law enforcement jurisdiction is responsible for the scene. The medicolegal death investigator performs scene investigations emphasizing information developed from the decedent and determines the extent to which further investigation is necessary. Medicolegal death investigators should have a combination of education and skills encompassing areas of medicine and law.
Who can become a Medicolegal Death Investigator? There are no formal requirements to become a medicolegal death investigator. Each coroner and medical examiner office has different hiring practices. A medicolegal death investigator must be knowledgeable of local, state and federal laws. In addition, a medicolegal death investigator must be the most medically knowledgeable person at the scene of the crime to determine if further investigation is necessary.
Do I have to have a degree? There are no formal educational requirements specifically for medicolegal death investigation. Any degree program dealing with Forensic Science, Natural science, Anthropology, Nursing, or any other medically related field would be useful. There are several established training courses available throughout the country that teach the basic information needed in order to perform a thorough, competent medicolegal death investigation.
How much money will I make as a Medicolegal Death Investigator?
An investigator’s salary will be determined by the jurisdiction and amount of experience the medicolegal death investigator has. Salaries and benefits vary throughout the United States.
Bottom Line: There are no special education requirements or degree requirements to be a so-called “medicolegal death investigator.” But the fact that “a medicolegal death investigator must be the most medically knowledgeable person at the scene of the crime” is very disturbing because most funeral directors have only a two-year degree in mortuary science, and that degree has very little to do with any “medical knowledge.” Furthermore, a degree in mortuary science or, more accurately, in funeral home operations, is not generally considered a medically related field. In fact, some of the more recent graduates from local mortuary science programs (Hudson Valley Community College), don’t come out with any notion of ethics or good character development(see our articles, “Birds of a Feather? Lying down with dogs? The Politics of Funeral Corporations….” and “Our Editor’s Response to the Newcomer-Facci Exposé“). We’re not resurrecting old dirt; the facts are the facts and the events cannot be changed, only recognized for what they are. Professionals and public figures must be held accountable, and they will be!
Now doesn’t that information make you feel more comfortable about who is making decisions about a human being’s death at a possible crime scene?