Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Procession - How Important Is It Really?

Do you realize how much time, effort and money go into a funeral procession? A new Cadillac Hearse costs about one hundred thousand dollars, it needs regular upkeep, and must be replaced regularly (anyone who has ever experienced car trouble during a funeral procession can attest to the importance of reliable equipment.) Gas prices aren't going any lower, and personally, I've spent weeks of my life standing out in the sun, rain and snow, flaging, and lining up cars for processions. Then, there's the inconvenience to others. In Wisconsin, processions have a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour, and though you still see some respectful people stopping or taking off their hats as a procession comes by, more often there's honking or dangerous passing from those who feel that they shouldn't be slowed down by someone else's death.
So why do we bother?
The word funeral actually comes from the latin word for torchlight procession, the traditional ancient rite, the main event, the respectful and cermonious transport of a person to their place of rest. This is the final journey, the last walk a family takes with their loved one, the 'second line' of the Jazz funeral, and it is both symbolic and healing. The procession is a public expression and enactment of the love, respect, loss of a loved one that allows both family and friends to participate. It is an opportunity for the residents of a town to witness this expression of love and respect. The procession says :
This person was important to us.
This day is not like other days.
This journey is not like other journeys.
Our loss is meaningful enough that we take special care in a
special vehicle to solemnly and ceremoniously convey the earthly remains of our
loved one to a special place where their life will be honored and remembered.
At ground zero after 9/11, whenever a part of one of the victims bodies was found, all work stopped, and even if it as the tiniest part of someone's remains, a hearse and escort slowly drove out as all present stood at attention in respectful silence. This is the standard of conduct that should be followed in respect for the passing of any life.
Why a hearse? For many, a Cadillac or Lincoln hearse feels to be the appropriate vehicle to convey the respect on solemnity of the occasion, but this isn't so for everyone. The important thing is that the vehicle is appropriate and intentional. I have witnessed and encouraged processions where the deceased was carried by horse drawn wagon, in a loved truck, in a special motorcycle hearse or on foot, and where cremated remains were carried in a favorite sports car, or by bicycle. I have led proccessions with fire trucks, police cars, motorcycles, an hot rods following, and these were perhaps the most poingnant and meaningful and respectful of all.
A funeral procession is one of the most meaningful and beautiful parts of a funeral service, and it's actually one of the least expensive. Why go to all the bother? Isn't that person important enough, whoever they are, that everyone can slow down a bit and drive slowly with their lights on for their final ride through town?

What Makes up the Cost of a Funeral? part 1, the Basic Service Charge

This photo shows the Olson-Holzhuter-Cress Funeral Home in Stoughton, Wisconsin as it appeared in 1906. This family home was converted to a Funeral Home in the 1940s and has been a place of comfort for generations of Stoughton families
Unit Pricing
Years ago, funeral homes used what is called unit pricing. This meant that the cost of the funeral service was included in the cost of the casket. The family simply selected their casket, and the price listed for that casket included all the professional fees, equipment and facility fees, etc. This was pretty simple and easy for families to understand. In those days, the service costs were pretty much the same from one funeral to the next. The biggest difference was which casket was selected.

The General Price List
Today, it is federally mandated that every merchandise and service item a funeral home charges for is listed in their General Price List. This allows families to decide, based on cost, that they would prefer more minimal, or more complete services, and to pay for only the goods and services they want to select. Depending on the type of service selected, however, some goods and services are required by law, or by cemetery policies. This includes an outer burial container- or vault, required by most cemeteries for burial, and embalming, required for a standard public viewing of the deceased. If a family decides that they do not want these goods and services, they can choose a different type of funeral that does not require them.

The Basic Service Charge
One item that is not optional is the 'Basic Service Charge'. There are some fixed costs that the funeral home encounters that are associated with any service, whether it is a direct cremation, or a full traditional service with a burial. That is why this fixed fee is applied to all services.

What makes up the Basic Service Charge?
The most significant factors in the cost of the Basic Service Charge are professional personnel, facilities, equipment, and vehicles. The maintenance of these is unending and must be available 24 hours a day.
A funeral home needs licensed funeral directors and competent and understanding people must be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The service does not cease operations on weekends or holidays. the funeral home workweek is 168 hours, not the 40-hour week which is the usual for most people.
No two families are alike, and therefore, no two services are alike. Traditions, customs, social standing, personal feelings, financial ability, ethnic rituals and a multitude of other influences affect each arrangement. Our services must conform to each individual family's wishes and personal and religious needs. By law, we cannot and do not discriminate. Thus our facilities, equipment, supplies, and staff must be ready to serve everyone, whether they desire 'simple' or detailed services.

  • FIXED OVERHEAD COSTS- These are the costs we incur just by being in business and ready to serve the community's various needs. (Costs incurred for specific services are charged as used.) Each family is charged equally for these costs, regardless of disposition choice and other services selected.

  • COMPLETE ARRANGEMENTS, SUPERVISION, AND FACILITATION OF SERVICES DESIRED- This includes meeting with the family to: explain all options and choices, help develop a meaningful remembrance and memorialization, secure vital statistics information, explain and complete itemized cost agreement, and extend credit.

  • OVERSEE AND IMPLEMENT FAMILY'S WISHES- We contact, coordinate times with and convey the family's wishes as needed to: clergy, musicians, necessary automotive equipment, hair dressers, civic and fraternal organizations, veterans associations, companies providing desired merchandise or services, coroner and physician, type obituary and deliver information and photos to all newspapers requested, crematory and cemetery.

  • COMPLETION OF ALL LEGAL DOCUMENTS, PERMITS, REPORTS AND FORMS- This includes: prepare and deliver death certificate to physician and pick-up when completed, VA and social security forms, cemetery forms and permits, filing completed death certificate and final disposition form with coroner and register of deeds, and obtaining certified copies of the death certificates when they become available.



In part 2 of this series, I will explain some of the costs that derive from specific service choices. If you would like further explanation of any of the items listed above, or have questions about any other aspect of funeral services, you may email me at

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Working Out Grief in Art

Everyone, it seems, must find their own path in working through the grief of losing a loved one. We should never tell a grieving person that we know what they are going through because we can't know -each grief is unique. While it may be essential for one person to return to work right away, for another, taking a long respite may be the best path. The important thing is that we listen to ourselves and feel empowered to do what we feel we must do to work through our grief, and move forward toward acceptance and involvement in life. Artist Cathy Weber of Dillon, Montana found a way to work through what she describes as her own 'paralyzing grief' through her art work.
"In the fall of 1994, when I was 3 months pregnant (having had several earlier miscarriages), my partner of 12 years, Jack, was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma of which he died nearly 2 years later in August of 1996. In the interim we endured the horrors of multiple surgeries and chemotherapeutic assaults and our son, Rio, was born.
In my own experience of paralyzing grief, it has occurred to me that humans love, die and experience profound heartache as a common element of our lives. Although the painful suffering of grief is a very personal and often private process few of us manage to escape it. With the pictures I am making now, I hope to translate my own grieving process into a series of images in which the viewers can recognize and honor themselves.
Upon Jack's death, I began to make notations and sketches for a series of pictures based on my feelings and emotional experiences. For the first 18 months I was unable to face them in my studio but notions continued to present themselves and I continued to take notes. The finished body of work is made up of 20 pieces. Three contain stitched images that I made during endless hours at hospital bedsides."
for the full text, and views of the entire series, visit the site

Friday, August 29, 2008

Back to theEarth part 2

As mentioned in Back to the Earth part 1, the idea of returning to the earth is a powerful one. Often during committal services, the sign of the cross is traced in sand on the casket, and a powerful ritual in the Jewish faith involves sprinkling dirt into the grave of a loved one. I have seen and facilitated wonderful variants on these rituals. When an elderly woman in my town passed away, her family wanted some of the earth from the family farm to accompany her into her grave. It was important for them to know that she was resting in the same earth that had been such an integral part of her life and family history. They brought a pail of that soil to the committal service, and when it was over, I invited first the family, and then friends to sprinkle some of it on her casket. The family started, some a little shy about it, but after a few people participated, everyone wanted to be a part of this ritual. I'm grateful that the family brought enough for every one to sprinkle in a handful. The lesson I learned from this was just how moving the acknowledgement and engagement of her connection to her earth was, and how healing participation can be for family and for friends.

Tragically, little more than a year later, the woman's son passed away. When I suggested sprinkling the earth on his casket, the family said that he didn't have the same connection to the family farm. The powerful connection this man had was to the local baseball field. He had grown up across the street from it, played there, watched games there, and coached his sons and students in baseball there. We processed out of the church the day of his funeral singing 'Take me out to the ball game' and out into the churchyard where family and friends will always remember that they sprinkled sand from the baseball field into his grave.

Japanese Cemeteries Fill Up While American Cemeteries Become Irrelevant

In Japan, space is at a premium, and funeral and cemetery costs are many times those in North America. Families who cannot afford to purchase graves lease out lockers for the respectful repose of their cremated remains. These costs are not easy to bear, but there is a clear value to funerals and final resting places, and so, a way is found to pay them. This contrasts sharply with many of the families I see, who may even have a family plot where cremated remains could be buried, or certainly have the means to find a permanent resting place for them, but prefer to scatter or choose to decide later what to do with their loved one's cremated remains.

The reasons why an increasing number of Americans have an aversion to burying in a cemetery have little to do with cost. Many families today move all over the country and the world, and their children are often scattered in different places. When this is the case, who will visit the grave? Sometimes it seems easier to bring the cremated remains with you to your next place of residence. And how many people today even visit the graves of their loved ones when they live close by the cemetery?
I believe that the biggest reason that many Americans prefer not to bury in a cemetery, though, is that, just like a funeral in a chapel, that's not where they want to be- that's not where they feel comfortable. The cemetery and the funeral chapel in our society are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as restrictive and gloomy places. People just don't want to remember or bury their loved ones in a place like that. They want to celebrate and bury their loved one's remains in a beautiful, peaceful place that's full of life and good memories that reminds the survivors of what that person was like when they were living.
I have heard so many people tell me that when they die, they don't want a sad funeral, that when they die, they don't want to be buried in the cemetery, that when they die, they just want a big party, and instead of spending money on a cemetery plot, just scatter them in the lake. They don't see a value in the funeral, it's just something they have to do.
This type of comment has been countered by funeral professionals who explain why the funeral service is essential to working through grief in a healthy way. The funeral is for the survivors, we tried to explain. You need to consider the needs of those left behind to say their goodbyes to you, to lay you to rest with the love and dignity that you would want to treat them with, we said. And as far as a big party goes, yes that is desirable, and it's important to laugh, share stories and remember the good times, but it's also important to cry, to make a public expression of respect and sadness at the passing of your loved one, to have an opportunity to get the support of friends and to be comforted by familiar rituals. The value of the cemetery was explained, "People need a permanent place for the remains that they can return to when they want to feel close to a person. You've only to ask a person whose loved one is missing in action, or whose remains were not recoverable after 911, how difficult it is not to have such a place, how difficult it is not to have the return of those remains."
As important as these points are, we weren't hearing their point- they don't want a funeral, they don't want the cemetery. People appreciate the fact that they must cry as well as laugh, that they need to have a ceremony, a ritual, a public expression of loss and an opportunity for friends to support the family and share their sadness and stories, that they need a place to return to. In my experience, even if people don't realize this when they come in to the funeral home, once presented, these ideas make sense to them.
What they don't see the value in is what we've been offering them; the traditional wake, funeral and burial. We need to stop trying to meet their needs with the old formula and find new ways for them to gain the benefits of funeral and burial in a place and style that they feel good about.
How is this done? Funeral homes need to listen to their families and offer them the type of gatherings they want, create the type of rituals they want, and hold the services in the settings that are meaningful to them. Cemeteries need to create places designed to appeal to families, not to the groundskeeper. In future posts I will highlight funeral homes and cemeteries that are offering families what they want, while still giving them what they need.

Update: Please visit these posts highlighting innovation in funerals and cemeteries:

Back to the Earth part 1

For many, the idea of returning our bodies to the earth is a sacred and appealing concept. Those of us with a special bond to a particular patch of earth have found ways of making this return even more meaningful. I'll never forget working with a family whose mother was from Lithuania. She raised two boys during WWII, and they travelled as refugees throughout Europe during the war. At one point, they were in Germany, and one of the boys was close to death. In the gray depressing starkness of wartime Germany, the boy's one wish was to have or even see an orange again. The mother was walking to see her young son, for what she thought might be the last time, and a truck full of GI's drove by. One of the soldiers had a bag of oranges and for whatever reason, was compelled to throw one out to her. The boy survived and the family emigrated to the US. At the Hospice Center in Wisconsin where she died, the mother's things were all set out for her funeral and burial. Along with her clothing was a jar of earth. It was labeled in an old fashioned shaky hand that this was earth from the graveyard where her father and all of her brothers were buried, and it was to be buried with her.

Follow the link for Part 2

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Salute

Minutes after her husband's casket arrived at the Reno airport, Katherine Cathey fell onto the flag. When 2nd Lt. James Cathey left for Iraq, he wrote a letter to Katherine that read, in part, "there are no words to describe how much I love you, and will miss you. I will also promise you one thing: I will be home. I have a wife and a new baby to take care of, and you guys are my world."

The night before the burial of her husband's body, Katherine Cathey refused to leave the casket, asking to sleep next to his body for the last time. The Marines made a bed for her, tucking in the sheets below the flag. Before she fell asleep, she opened her laptop computer and played songs that reminded her of "Cat," and one of the Marines asked if she wanted them to continue standing watch as she slept. "I think it would be kind of nice if you kept doing it," she said. "I think that's what he would have wanted."

Exerpts from an incredible series of photos by Todd Heisler 'Final Salute'

Follow the link to see the whole series, and get some tissues out.

Celebrants Help Create Meaningful Services

Doug Manning
Many people today have no church affiliation and find that they need someone to conduct the funeral or memorial services for their loved ones. Doug Manning of In-sight Books has found a solution for these people. Whether a family desires a service involving spirituality, religion or a purely secular service, Celebrants are trained to create meaningful and personalized services.
Five years ago, I went through the training and became a certified Celebrant. I have helped families to create services that are meaningful and personalized to their needs. Though my other duties preclude me from being very active in Celebrant work, I would recommend the training to any funeral director because it teaches you many ways to connect better with families and craft services to fit them.

An In-Sight Institute Certified Celebrant is a person who has been trained and certified through the In-Sight Institute to meet the needs of families during their time of loss. A Funeral Celebrant serves by providing a funeral service, memorial service or tribute that is personalized and individualized to reflect the personality and life-style of the deceased after consultation with the family and loved ones and coordination with the funeral home.
The Celebrant meets with the family to offer guidance and consulting while planning a personalized and meaningful funeral to honor the loved one. Whenever possible, the Celebrant will also have a Family Time for sharing of stories and memories. A Celebrant has a wide library of resources for readings, music and other special ceremonies to help the family design a service that honors the life.
-from the Celebrant website. for more information, or to find a Celebrant in your area visit

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cemetery in Romania vividly reflects the lives of it's residents

In the remote little village of Sapanta near Romania's border with Ukraine, the Merry Cemetery draws more paying visitors than mourners. Busloads of tourists pay about 40 cents each to meander the narrow paths among the 600 wooden crosses that capture the wit, work and daily life of a rugged and traditional peasantry. Everyone from the local barber, lumberjack, shepherd and gamekeeper to the village drunk are kept alive through carved and brightly painted pictures and earthy, sometimes witty, epitaphs.
The crosses were created by a carpenter, Ion Stan Patras, who, in 1935, began personalizing his simple monuments. After attending the traditional three-day-long funerary vigils where Romanians gather to down plum brandy and tell stories about the deceased, he started composing brief poems to accompany his carvings.

New Wisconsin law allows final wishes to be honored
Wisconsin residents will now have the right to appoint a person to carry out their final wishes. In the past, a consensus of a deceased person's next of kin was required to determine choices such as cremation, burial, viewing and services, even if it was despite the wishes of the decedent. Cress Funeral service is offering free seminars to help people to appoint a person to make decisions their final disposition. Seminars will feature explanation of new law and form, and help in completing and notarizing the form. Help with the new form is also available at all Cress Funeral Homes, call 608-238-3434 for appointments. Follow the link to view the new form and the new statutes.

Welcome Home Sgt. Fischer

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Richard W. Fischer was recently identified, after being listed missing in action in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He was brought home to Madison for Funeral and Burial. This video, produced by Frogman Productions, has been the recipient of international awards.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Holy Holy Holy!: Holy cards

Growing up Catholic, I have a special place in my heart for Holy Cards. These cards feature old timey and somewhat surrealistic religious images on one side, and a prayer for the deceased on the other. They are saved, collected, and given out as rewards for good behaviour. The older ones were the best with their rounded corners and gold leaf on the edges. Now with in house printing, holy cards come in sheets with micro-perforations and are easier to make, but thinner and with less gold leaf. With a few years of handling, though, the new ones will acquire the worn patina that makes them treasures.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gypsy graves have a life of their own in Portland, Oregon

In Portland Oregon's beautiful Rose City Cemetery, there is a section of Gypsy graves. The monuments on these graves are interesting enough during most of the year because of the photographs of men in big hats smoking cigars, and ladies in scarves toasting us with wine glasses that are displayed on many of the large monuments. During Christmas and Easter, though, the graves take on a life of their own as they are decorated with an unbelievable amount of baskets, candy, cigars, bunnies, full sized artificial Christmas trees and toys. This always looks odd next to the quiet graves nearby, but think about it, and it makes a lot of sense. Even though our dead are gone, they live on in our minds and memories. They are still in our thoughts and in our lives, just as they were when alive. Our dead are in our thoughts especially during the holidays. Maybe if more of us had a ritual that kept our dead as a part of our holiday traditions, the holidays wouldn't be so difficult to enjoy without them.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Le cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges

I recently had the pleasure of touring the beautiful Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal. This is a beautiful and historic cemetery that gives lie to the notion that cemeteries are wasted space, or that we've run out of room for cemeteries. It is all about priorities. We always have room for a new strip mall or industrial park- what legacy of history and beauty do those things leave? Because this cemetery is here in the middle of Montreal, the city has a park of unrivaled beauty, with innumerable poignant works of art in many styles. Many thanks to the Executive Director Yoland Tremblay and his staff for their gracious hospitality. Follow the first link for a look at their beautiful website.

Jazz Funeral 'Just a Closer Walk with Thee'

New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James from onenawlins via YouTube

As a funeral director, watching this makes me cringe at the possiblility of the casket being dropped, but the beauty of this ritual and love expressed by it are inspiring. The video is a bit long, but I think you'll find yourself watching it over and over as I did.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Coming soon to a funeral home near you?

Promessa Organic of Sweden developed a new form of disposition called promation. This is most likely the greenest of green funeral options to come along, truly returning a body to the earth in an ecologically positive manner. Look for an interview with the woman behind this process, Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, here in the coming weeks.

visit her site at .

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.


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