Sunday, November 30, 2008

Surviving Holiday Grief

Holidays are a difficult time for those of us who are grieving. We all have an expectation of happiness and joy during the holidays that may be difficult to achieve even during the best of times. When we are grieving, this can be complicated even further. Sometimes we don't feel like celebrating with a deep loss in our thoughts. Sometimes we'd like to join in the festivities, but can't enjoy them. Sometimes the absence of our loved one and the void they have left in holiday traditions make these days almost unbearable.

Here are some suggestions for surviving the holidays:

1. Start a new tradition
Take some special time together as a family or group of friends to remember the person you miss. Stories help to keep their memory alive and keep them a part of your holiday traditions. Something wonderful also happens when you share these stories. Because we all know a different part of a person, we have different stories and memories. When we share them we can all learn something new about the person we love- what a wonderful holiday gift!

2. Revive an old tradition

Did mom always make cookies for Christmas? You might not make them as well as she did, but picking up that tradition and carrying it on can be healing and meaningful for you and the rest of the family. The tradition you choose to revive can be small and quirky or more elaborate, but don't try to take too much on at once. The point is to enjoy it and to keep the gift alive. Enlist family and friend to help you and remember your love done together while you do it.

3. Share

Do you wonder what to say to a grieving friend or relative during the holidays? Do you find yourself avoiding the topic of their loss? Here's an idea. Share one of your memories of the deceased, or tell about their impact on your life, or the way they helped someone else. You can't make things okay, and you shouldn't try. What you can do is acknowledge and empathise with your friend's situation. You can't do that if you ignore the loss or treat it like it's something inconsequential. This is something you can do in written form too. Write down your memories for a wonderful and lasting gift.

Parting Gifts

I have a friend who has no interest in funerals. He'd been to his father's funeral, a dreary and depressing affair, and he had no interest in attending another, let alone having one himself. He didn't see the point. I was surprised then, one day, when we were talking about mementos that are sometimes given out to people attending funerals, that he got very excited. He wanted to give out 'party favors' to his friends when he died.
In the Victorian age and earlier, gifts were often given out to mourners (sometimes as an incentive for complete strangers to attend). Gloves, rings, veils and mourning cloaks were often given out, and have been stipulated in people's wills. (I take this information from Phillipe Aries fantastic book on the history of death The Hour of Our Death). While in the past, gifts may have been used to gain increased status by luring a greater number of public mourners, today, gifts are given to honor the memory, interests and personality of the deceased person. I have coordinated the distribution of many items at funerals and I think that 'party favors' can be a great way to personalize a service, and to remind us of the gift that that person was in our life.

Special foods are a popular choice. A man who met his friends at the bakery every morning made his family promise that there would be plenty of doughnuts available at his service (there were dozens and dozens.) Many people spoil their grandchildren with a certain candy and baskets of these candies are laid out at the service. I know that I always associate wintergreen lifesavers with my grandmother.

We did a service for a gentleman at the funeral home who always had a red bandanna in his pocket and always asked for one for Christmas. The bandannas were a running joke in the family and everyone got one at the service. Flower bulbs, golf tees, pine cones, fishing hooks and lures are other items I've seen given to mourners. Each is special and brings back the good memories that help to heal our grief. We take something along with us when we go, and it is a final gift from a dear friend or relative. I don't know what my friend is planning to give out at his service, but I'll be there to find out if I can- I'm sure it's something good.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Navigating Loss

Seattle based artist, Monika Lidman explores her experiences in process of losing of her father in her series 'Navigating Loss'. For the full series, visit

"My earliest memories involve swimming with my father. In this series, ship flags, used to warn other vessels about navigating conditions, provide a metaphor for intergenerational communication at the end of life.

For ten years, I have been painfully aware of my father’s decline. While some held out for the promise of returning health, I did not allow myself that particular luxury that denial affords.

I wanted to stay grateful, keenly aware of this phase of his journey, believing, however erroneously, that my attention and observations would somehow ease, or better prepare me for his inevitable departure.

It was perfectly clear that this last stage of the voyage was lacking in maps and tools for navigation, yet my parents provided an excellent model of grace and patience – with one another as well as with their situation.

In the end, I am no better prepared for death than most. I can say that careful observation and staying very present have provided both insight and a gift.
-Monika Lidman

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Funeral Rites and Condescension

Ugandan Funeral Procession

It is an unfortunate reality that even those who are trying to help others can develop condescending attitude about traditional behaviors. In the case of funerals, it's easy for the affluent to decide that the poor spend too much on funerals. This condescension is certainly something that muckraker Jessica Mitford displayed her book 'The American Way of Death'. However, considering all the very important functions that funerals serve, perhaps many of us in the West could learn from the funeral practices of the Ugandan villagers described in this excerpt from Katine Blog from the Guardian by writer Ben Jones.

An African funeral. Photograph: AP/Karel Prinsloo

The issue explained: Death in Katine
Many involved in development work in Africa take a dim view of burial societies, thinking too much money is spent on funerals. But burials are part of the social fabric of village life

One thing that saddens many of my friends in Uganda is the way we, in the west, bury our dead. The idea that you can go along to the crematorium in town and observe a handful of people saying goodbye to a family member seems strange to many in Africa. It is taken as a sign that Europeans are increasingly "lost", part of a lonely society that has little respect for the elderly and a less than compelling interest in anything beyond the here and now.
In Katine, as in the rest of Uganda, funerals are part of a civilised, respectable life. It is important that family members are buried with the participation of the community and with a sense of ceremony. Funerals can be costly affairs and they are organised by institutions known as burial societies. These societies go by the name of akiyo (literally "tears") or amorican ("together in loss"). They are among the most important institutions in the village.
Members pay a joining fee, after which their names are added to the burial book. When a family member dies all the registered members of the akiyo are summoned to a meeting to discuss how the burial is going to be organised. Individuals pay their dues and the money collected is used to pay for the coffin, cloth for wrapping the body and cement for sealing the grave.
The funeral itself typically lasts two to three days. The first day is the burial. Guests gather at the family home, where women busily work in the kitchens, cooking food, preparing beer, or serving and clearing up (women do a lot more work than men). The funeral takes place in the morning or early afternoon. In most cases prayers are said by one of the church leaders in the village. When the burial is over the treasurer reports the income and expenditures of the burial, as well as the remaining balance, which is handed over to the family.
At this point people are given food, and drink the local beer, ajon. This is the highpoint of the day for many of those who turn up. Burials are part of the social fabric of village life.
What I have described above is an idealised version of what actually takes places. The gender, age, economic condition of the household and reputation of the deceased mean that funerals differ. And yet there is also a strong belief that all members of the community should be accorded respect when they die. That is why burial societies exist, they offer people that assurance.
Many in the business of "developing" Africa worry about this, taking a rather negative view of burials and burial societies. They think that too much money is spent on funerals. With so many other pressing concerns, why waste money on those already dead? Funerals distract; they take farmers away from the fields, and mean that government offices, hospitals and schools are often understaffed.
As outsiders looking in on Africa it is important to understand the defining importance of funerals in village life and the level of investment people are prepared to make in burial societies. They have developed without the need for outside assistance or funding, and are more participatory and more democratic than other local level institutions. Ben Jones

Monday, November 24, 2008

Children and Grief

Children experience loss at least as profoundly as adults, but they have more limited abilities to understand death and to communicate their feelings. It is vitally important for children to have the opportunity to talk about death and to participate in the funeral services of their loved ones. One wise grandmother I know made a point of taking her grandchildren to the funerals of people the children knew, but were not very close to, when they were young. She knew that the day would come when the children would experience the loss of a close relative, and she wanted them to be prepared for the realities of the situation at a time when it would be easier for them emotionally.
Following is some good advice for dealing with grieving children from an article on grief counselling for youngsters on

To help a child who is suffering the loss of a loved one:
• Know that children may have trouble putting their feelings into words.
• Know their behavior may "speak" for them. Feelings of anger or fear of abandonment may show up in behavior.
• Explain dying in simple, direct language. For example, to a young child, you might explain that part of the loved one's body does not work well any more, and without that part working, he or she will die.
• When talking with children, use the proper words, such as "cancer" and "died." Euphemisms such as "passed away," or "she is sleeping" can confuse children and lead to misunderstanding.
• Respond to children with warmth, sensitivity and patience. Answer children's questions but don't overload them with information.
• Allow the child to participate in caring for the terminally ill individual in a way that is meaningful for the child.
• Allow for diversion from the intensity of the situation with opportunities for play and recreation.
• Reassure children they are safe. They often worry they will die, too, or another loved one will die.
• A warm hug and a listening ear can be most reassuring.
• When the death occurs, encourage children to participate in mourning rituals, such as the funeral, if they choose. Explain in advance what they can expect.
• By openly expressing their feelings, adults show children it is natural to grieve when a loved one dies and that pain will ease over time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Death in a Monastery

Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo.
Death in a Monastery
In the last 7-8 months we have had two deaths in our monastery, both of whom had been members of our community for many years. About a year or so ago Father Frowin gave a retreat to (the) oblates who were able to attend, based on St. Benedict’s statement in his Rule: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” Or as some translations put it: “Keep death daily before your eyes.”
What is it like when a monk dies in the monastery?
Father Malachy was 94 years old and had lived in our infirmary for about ten years. About a month before he died we could see that his health was deteriorating. He fell a few times when trying to get up from his chair or trying to walk and began to want smaller amounts to eat. Finally he was bedfast and had to be taken care of while in bed. Monks of the community were in and out of his room many times throughout the day. Many of them would pray with him and many times Father Malachy wanted a blessing if it was a priest or he would give others his blessing. Finally the last day or so he was in a coma and could not respond to those who came and went. Father Malachy in his later years always liked to have a Root Beer float. Only about a day before he died he asked for one of these and when we brought it to him he drank the whole thing. When he died there were at least 2-3 monks with him and the prayers for the dying had been prayed. Other monks were in the infirmary. It was a peaceful and happy death with the community present.

Fr. Regis Probstfield

On November 4th Father Regis Probstfield went to his eternal reward. He too had taken up residence in the infirmary even though he was only 77 years old. His heart was failing and he was becoming weaker and weaker. On the afternoon of November 4th he had a doctor appointment in St. Joseph. The doctor thought he should probably be admitted to the hospital but Father Regis wanted to return home. He came home very tired and sat in his recliner to relax and rest. He asked the nurse that evening to bring supper to him in his room. She brought it and then left for a while. When she returned he was lying across the bed and having a great deal of difficulty trying to get his breath. She immediately called me as director of the infirmary. I went over and saw that he was dying and immediately called the Abbot out of the refectory. He was dead by the time the Abbot arrived but we prayed the prayers for the dying. He too was ready for death, as he mentioned a number of times and had a peaceful death. None of the community was with him when he actually died but we were soon there to pray for him.
Certainly we mourn and miss our confreres who pass on to eternity. We have known them for many years and have been their friends and brothers. But, with our faith we try to express our belief that the confrere has gone on to where we are all hoping to go – the kingdom of heaven.
Our Funerals Are Simple
Our funerals are simple. We make our own wooden coffins in our carpenter shop and the monks are buried in their monastic habit and cuculla. Those who are priests also have a stole put on them. The funeral director picks up the body after we clean it and he embalms and clothes the body. He brings it back to the Abbey where we keep vigil until the time of the funeral. The funeral director does not come for the actual funeral as we lead the body in procession to the cemetery for burial. Very briefly this is our procedure for the death and burial of one of our confreres. Let us pray for all our monks who have died and also for our oblates who have gone to their eternal reward

Dear God....

Monday, November 17, 2008

Together Forever

When I was an apprentice, the directors told me a story that has shaped the way I view funerals and family requests to this day.
Sometimes it happens that two people who are very close die at nearly the same time. Maybe it's just the odds, like an adoptive couple concieving a child, or maybe once one dies, the other loses the will to continue. Whatever the case, we've all heard of times when one spouse dies and a week or month later, the other passes away too.In this case, a mother and child passed away within a day of each other. The child was an adult with a profoud developmental disability, and had been cared for lovingly for many years by her mother. The two were inseperable and their survivors wished to have the two buried as they had lived- together. Not only did the family want them in the same grave, but in the same casket. They asked their funeral director to help them with this and were told that it was illegal, and the funeral home could not assist them with their request.

Undeterred, the family called upon another funeral home and encountered a different attitude. Our funeral director told them that he would investigate, and that if it was possible they would follow the family's wishes.

As it turned out, the request was unusual, but did not violate any laws or regulations, and as long as the family members approved (they did,) mother and daughter could be together.

The directors embalmed the mother with her arm out so that she could hug her daughter close to her, and they were placed together in an oversize casket for their service and burial.

What was the difference between the two funeral directors? One saw a problem that wasn't worth pursuing, and the other saw the beauty and love behind this unusual request. They couldn't promise at first that it would be possible, but it was certainly worth trying. That mother and daughter were worth it and that family with the unusual request was worth it too.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Roadside Memorials

November 2008

Photo: Stephen Chalmer

HOCKESSIN, Del. — Once a week, Lyn Forester gets down on her knees, clears the cigarette butts, candy wrappers and beer cans away from the base of a stark wooden cross and holds a quiet vigil for her daughter, who was killed here in a car accident eight years ago.
Her ankles dangling from the curb as tractor-trailers hurtle past just feet away, Mrs. Forester says she knows it is both dangerous and illegal to visit this three-foot-wide median along Highway 141 near Wilmington, Del. But she cannot stay away.
"This is where my daughter's spirit was last," Mrs. Forester said, straightening up the plastic flowers and Christmas tree cuttings potted at the base of the shrine for her daughter, Jenni. "I'm more drawn to this spot than I am even to the cemetery where we keep her remains."
Roadside memorials like Mrs. Forester's have become so numerous, and so distracting and dangerous, highway officials say, that more and more states are trying to regulate them. Some, like Montana and California, allow the memorials, but only if alcohol was a factor in the crash. Others, like Wisconsin and New Jersey, limit how long the memorials can remain in place.
Now, in a move that is being watched by other states, Delaware is taking a different approach, establishing a memorial park near a highway exit in hopes of discouraging the roadside shrines. The park will include a reflection pool and red bricks — provided free to the loved ones of highway accident victims — with names inscripted to honor the dead.
Often called "descansos," a Spanish word for "resting places," roadside memorials are most common in the American Southwest. Most researchers believe they descend from a Spanish tradition in which pallbearers left stones or crosses to mark where they rested as they carried a coffin by foot from the church to the cemetery. Because of this heritage, the memorials are protected in New Mexico as "traditional cultural properties" by the state's Historic Preservation Division.
Sylvia Grider, a folklorist and anthropologist at Texas A&M University who has studied the history of the memorials, said their rising popularity in the United States was part of a growing acceptance of public mourning.
"Something happened in American culture when the Vietnam Wall went up and there was an outpouring of offerings in front of it that no one was expecting," Ms. Grider said. "It became more acceptable to express personal grief in these public areas."

WINNIPEG - For those grieving the death of a loved one, usually in a traffic accident, a roadside memorial is more than a collection of teddy bears and candles. It's sacred ground. But for many others, the make-shift shrines are eyesores and dangerous distractions that need an expiration date.
The emotional issue of whether time limits should be imposed on public grieving has landed squarely at the door of Canadian municipalities. The Toronto-area suburb of Vaughan has proposed keeping an inventory of memorials and requiring that they be taken down after a year.
Calgary has commissioned an academic study to determine how people feel about the shrines and whether they affect driver behaviour. Officials in Prince Albert, Sask., were criticized this summer for considering a policy that would require a memorial be taken down three months after a person's death.
Now Winnipeg is reviewing the rules about how long remembrances of a departed friend or family member should stay in place. Community discussion boards are abuzz with debates about whether it's appropriate to put candles, crosses and flowers by the side of roads. One blogger has argued that such memorials are a good reminder to drive carefully. Another finds them "distasteful to the max."
The person with the latter view wrote: "I have asked my loved ones to ensure that no such memorial goes up in the event that I die an untimely death. A tombstone in a cemetery somewhere will suffice for me."
Still another voice: "People grieve in their own ways, and it doesn't really hurt me to let them. I'm willing to overlook an eyesore if it's helping someone get over the loss. How selfish is it not to?" -from The Candaian Press. for the full text, visit-
Wyoming's State Sponsored Roadside Memorials

LARAMIE, Wyoming: In a small storage shed tucked behind a highway maintenance facility in Wyoming, dozens of monuments to the state's dead motorists lie stacked against one another like discarded props from an old movie set waiting to be used again.
Some are made from wood, others from steel bars or wire, but all the memorials are vestiges of a new statewide effort to remove them from public roads.
"I think they would make a remarkable art exhibit," said Ross Doman, a public liaison officer for the State Department of Transportation, running his hands over a large wooden cross bearing the name of Monte Robbins, who was killed nearly a decade ago on an interstate highway east of Laramie.
Wyoming started enforcing a ban on roadside memorials more than five years ago, after they began appearing so often that transportation officials felt they could distract and obstruct drivers in a dangerous way.
Bob Jaure, a maintenance area supervisor, remembers the midsummer night two years ago when he was called to a gruesome scene along an interstate highway east of the town of Sinclair, in the south-central part of the state. A trucker, Slavik Gutsuliak, had drifted off the road and skidded down an embankment. The truck caught fire and was incinerated before Gutsuliak could escape. A few months later, a charcoal-hued headstone appeared in the median near where Gutsuliak had died. It bore a painting of a youthful face and the words, "We love, we remember, we grieve," inscribed in Russian.
Under the removal policy, the headstone was taken down and has been sitting in the back of a nearby transportation station ever since. A victim's family, in claiming a monument, can then ask the Transportation Department to affix near the crash site a wooden post attached to a small sign of a broken heart and a white dove. The department has offered to put up these public memorials without cost and leave them up for five years, at which point a family can choose to have a new sign erected for a one-time fee of $50.
So far, there have been 282 requests for public memorials, but not everyone agrees that they suffice. Kerry Shatto's son Shane died at the age of 19 in one of the state's most notorious accidents. He and seven other University of Wyoming cross-country runners were killed after a drunken driver plowed into their Jeep Wagoneer on a two-lane highway 17 miles, or 28 kilometers, south of here in 2001. A week later, Shatto built a cross six feet, or more than one meter and 80 centimeters, tall, with the eight runners' first names inscribed. He planted the sign at the site of the accident. Fellow runners strung their sneakers around the cross, others left medals they had won at meets, and the memorial was featured in Sports Illustrated.
Last month, the Transportation Department told Shatto it would be taken down. "I wanted to keep these boys alive in people's minds whenever they went by that spot," Shatto said. "It feels like they're being killed all over again." Shatto, who has since picked up the memorial, said he planned to ask about replanting the cross on private property that abuts the accident site.
Doman, the Transportation Department liaison, said he understood Shatto's grief. He helped pry the cross from the ground. At first, the department had planned to keep the memorials for only six months. Now, it will try to hold on to them until they are picked up, as long as that may be.
"It would be pretty difficult to throw these away," Doman said.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

You Can Take it With You

Paper house for burning

They say that you can't take it with you when you die. Well, I'm here to tell you that you can. Many times, families ask me if they can place some special item in the casket along with their loved one. I tell them that not only can they, I encourage people to place something special in the casket- especially children. Children feel loss just as we do, but they are often not as skilled at expressing their feelings. It can mean a lot for a child to place a special toy, or photo, a drawing or a letter in grandma's casket. If there are several grandchildren who'd like to do this, we can even make a moving ceremony out of placing the special items. This helps children acknowlege and work through their grief, and it helps adults too.

Joss money for the afterlife (yes that's LBJ on the front)

I have assisted families in placing many things in caskets; fishing poles, photos, cigarettes and beer, jewelry and handkerchiefs, masonic aprons, blankets, candy and playing cards, even the cremated remains of pets and spouses. Sometimes it's a private thing that no one else knows about, sometimes it's a public ritual, but it always makes the family feel better. They feel that they have done one last thing for their loved one, and that somehow, in some way that person knows it and is smiling.

I know how they feel, because during my work, I feel that I am doing something for the deceased- that I am giving them one last gift of caring. It makes me feel good, and I think that somehow, somewhere, that person knows that they were treated with reverence.

This tradition of sending gifts along with the deceased has probably taken place as long as people were people. The earliest graves that have been found bear traces of tools, flowers, and other items intended for the next world. Certainly the Ancient Egyptians are well known for the lavish gifts entombed with their pharohs. The ancient Greeks placed a coin in the mouth of the deceased to pay for their soul to be ferried across the river Styx.

An ancient tradition that exists to this day is the burning of Joss money or

'Hell Bank Notes'

These are notes used in traditional Asian ancestor veneration to ensure that spirits have lots of good things in the afterlife. These bank notes are well known for their outrageously large denominations and most feature an image of the Jade Emperor, and his Western signature (Yu Wong, or Yuk Wong) countersigned by Yan luo, King of Hell (Yen Loo). The back of each bill usually features an image of the bank of Hell. Some bills will depict famous or mythological people instead.
In Chinese mythology, the name of hell does not carry a negative connotation. The hell they refer to is Di Yu (underground hold/court). Di Yu is a maze of underground levels and chambers where souls are taken to atone for their earthly sins. The popular story is that the word hell was introduced to China by Christian missionaries, who preached that all non-Christian Chinese people would "go to hell" when they died. It was then believed that the word "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife. Some notes omit the word "hell" and sometimes will replace it with "heaven" or "paradise".
These notes often depict different images for decoration or to convey symbolic information. There are several ways to send Spirit Money to one's departed relatives -- it can be thrown to the winds during the funeral procession, left on a grave at any time, or burned in ceremonial fires. -from

Burning paper models - from Mercedes-Benz cars to houses - is a common practice at funerals in Taiwan. As many Taiwanese people believe the world spirits go to in the afterlife is a mirror of the human world, they also believe that the departed require a place to live, food to eat and money. Burning an object at a funeral in the human world transports it to the spirit world, which keeps the ghost of the departed happy and brings luck to the living.
"The tradition can be traced back to the Tang dynasty," says Tseng Kuang-hsing (曾光興), owner of Jixing Paper Art Co (吉興紙藝有限公司).

Beer is an item that is often placed in caskets by loved ones in Wisconsin

My wife has a very specific list of things that she wants to go with her. She wants her purse, a note pad, pencil, pen, Chanel No. 5 powder, compact, lipstick, handkerchief, gum, her pillow, a bottle of water, the New York Times, her shoes, the key to the casket, a small shovel, and a copy of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past- as she will finally have a chance to read it.

Of all the things people send along, and sometimes they are a bit sheepish and ask me if their items seem unusual, the only thing that has surprised me is how many people put mashmallow Peeps in the casket. I never knew anyone actually ate those things, much less loved them enough to take them along to the bosom of Abraham. One thing is for sure, they'll last for a long long time.

Indian Village Funeral Car

As I wrote in my post on funeral processions, you don't need a Cadillac or Lincoln Hearse for a proper funeral procession. What is important is that the vehicle is special and chosen for a reason. This vehicle being prepared to transport a beloved South Indian Village woman to her cremation certainly qualifies.

After the wood frame is built and attached to the car, bamboo sticks covered with flowers are bent and inserted into the frame.

Finally, the vehicle is complete and ready to transport this woman ceremoniously to the place of her cremation- Beautiful!
-the photos and information used in this post come from a very intersting blog on South Indian Village Life. For more information on this funeral visit the blog at

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Natural Burials in South Australia

South Australia has joined NSW, Victoria and Tasmania in offering a site for natural burials.
Urban Development Minister Paul Holloway said the state's first natural burial ground would be established at Enfield Memorial Park in Adelaide's northern suburbs later this year.
It allows for bodies to be prepared without chemical preservatives and then buried in a biodegradable casket or a shroud.
The grave is marked with a native tree or shrub rather than a headstone or monument.
"Over time the bushland created by the new burial ground will become a living and lasting natural memorial," Mr Holloway Natural burials were first introduced in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s.
-from The Age .Com

Link to Obama in Everett, WA Cemetery

EVERETT, Wash- Spend a few minutes talking with Jim Shipman and it's obvious that he is passionate about history So, when he retired five years ago he started to research Civil War veterans buried here at Evergreen Cemetery He easily points out markers for those who fought in the war, and other local historical figures such as Emma Yule, the first school principal in Everett Then a fellow researcher gave him a name: Rachel Wolfley "I had a name, I looked it up and I found her buried here," Shipman said. The simple grave marker is spelled incorrectly as "Walfley""How that happened nobody knows," Shipman said of the spelling error "But in 1911, this is just another person "But now, nearly a century later, she's not just another person And it's not her name that makes her famous -- it's that of her great-great-great grandson "I pulled up Barack Obama's genealogy and there she was, floating around in the sixth generation back," Shipman said Wolfley lived in Everett for four years with her daughter and son-in-law and, in the nearly 100 years since her burial, the concrete marker has been here, tucked away and unnoticed "This marker had sunk down and it was covered with grass we had to dig down to find it," Shipman said When he found it, Shipman said his first reaction was one of surprise: "I thought, 'Wow!' The odds are like a needle in a large haystack."Everett Public Library Historian David Dilgard said it was exciting to find a new local historical connection."We always describe this cemetery as being sort of a biographical encyclopedia of the community, and so anytime someone noteworthy comes to our attention, we're always excited about it," Dilgard said.Shipman is raising money to replace the grave marker with a more permanent one that spells Wolfley's name correctly.
-from KOMO News, Seattle

Sunday, November 9, 2008

They Bury Horses, Don't They?

It is a well known fact that some people are more attached to their animal friends than to human members of their families. Horses, and especially Race Horses, engender some very deep attachments with their owners, jockeys, and fans. Recently, racehorse Princess Rooney, was offered a burial place of honor at the Kentucky Horse Park. She will join the many other celebrated horses that are memorialized there. The first horse to get this treatment was Man 'O' War.

Known as "Big Red," this legendary chestnut Thoroughbred was born in 1917 and raced in 1919 and 1920. Man O' War passed away on November 1, 1947 after suffering a heart attack. More than two thousand people attended the funeral, which was broadcast by radio. The great stallion was the first horse to be embalmed and he lay in state for several days in a specially made casket lined with his racing colors (black and gold), the first horse ever buried this way.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Case of the Catholic Casket

Giottino's Pietà of San Remigio. ca. 1365, Tempera on wood, 195 x 134 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
"In the winter of '95, my bedridden father was preparing for his impending death. As the town's longtime independent Baptist minister, he had helped countless families in their grief. In his mind, by taking care of his own funeral arrangements, his family wouldn't have to do a thing. So he worked it all out with his friend, Neil, the longtime mortician from the funeral home across the river. One of my seven siblings lived in town, so Dad sent John over to Neil's place to select the casket, knowing that he's also friends with Neil and his younger partner. A couple of weeks later, I was in town, and Dad asked me, the eldest, to go approve John's choice.The casket was adorned on opposite corners with exquisite wood relief carvings of da Vinci's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Pieta, one pair at each end. I reported back that John had made a wonderful choice, as I described these iconic carvings. Having seen the Pieta in Rome's St. Peter's Basilica, Dad was immensely pleased, and so was I. At Eastertime, still at home, in his last lucid moments, Dad started to tell us a funny story about kicking the bucket. Laughing with him, we asked whether he was finished with the story, but its punch line slipped away with him. Later that evening we called Neil, wanting him to pick Dad up. That he had lost a dear friend was plain for all of us to see.The next afternoon brought fireworks. A longtime member of the church Dad had served rang the doorbell, and before she was through the door, burst out, I don't understand why Carl would have Neil do his funeral. Why is Carl going across the river to the Catholic funeral home? What's wrong with the Protestant one on this side? I just don't understand! We were all startled, as Dad's choice had seemed most natural, given his long friendship with Neil. Her outrage switched on a light bulb in my mind, and only then did I catch a glimpse of the significance of what had been chosen. It was a Catholic casket. Yes, an unadorned cross had replaced the crucifix, but the casket's imagery was unmistakably traditional, very catholic, if you will. At the visitation the next day, Neil pulled me aside, wanting us to know how his friendship with Dad had started. Years ago, he had purchased a very old funeral business that had been run into the ground. That first year, he did only six funerals, but Dad knew of his plight. Neil's words to me were, If it weren't for your dad, I wouldn't have succeeded in this business. Dad had directed business his way, helping him gain the footing he so desperately needed. We children had no idea of this basis of their friendship. Then John told his story about choosing the casket. It had caught his eye immediately, as the most prominently displayed piece there. After wondering what people would think and viewing other caskets, it dawned on him that this casket would not even have been there for anyone else. Neil had specifically ordered this coffin for Dad. Surely it symbolized their beautiful friendship, and we suspect that Dad knew. The next day, with grateful hearts, we proudly followed that Catholic casket up the aisle of the Baptist church. Dad's ministry had bridged many rivers, serving non-Baptists and the unchurched, helping persons who lived on society's margins. In Neil, he had found a soulmate."

Nelson Hart for The Holland, MI Sentinel

Friday, November 7, 2008

Eulogy by Charles Bukowski
Eulogy To A Hell Of A Dame

By Charles Bukowski

some dogs who sleep At night
must dream of bones
and I remember your bones
in flesh
and best
in that dark green dress
and those high-heeled bright
black shoes,
you always cursed when you drank,
your hair coming down
wanted to explode out of
what was holding you:
rotten memories of a
past, and
you finally got
by dying,
leaving me with the
you’ve been dead
28 years
yet I remember you
better than any of
the rest;
you were the only one
who understood
the futility of the
arrangement of
all the others were only
displeased with
trivial segments,
nonsensically about
Jane, you were
killed by
knowing too much.
here’s a drink
to your bones
this dog
dreams about.
-from Heck of a Guy Blog , thanks!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Green Street Mortuary Band

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a poem about them. Novelist Amy Tan's mother was serenaded by them as she lay in state. Muckraker Jessica Mitford's memorial procession was led by them. And more than 300 Chinese families a year hire the Green Street Mortuary Band to give their loved ones a proper and musical send-off through the streets of Chinatown.The band traces its roots back to 1911 and the Cathay Chinese Boys Band, the first marching group in Chinatown. For more than 50 years, this band performed for its community at nearly every big event: Chinese New Year's, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, Confucius' Birthday, the 1939 World's Fair and many elaborate funeral processions.In the 1940s, the San Francisco musicians' Local 6 pressed the mortuaries to hire union musicians for the steady work the funeral processions provided. At the same time, the mortuaries of Chinatown began to close and the neighborhood began to take its funerals to Green Street, the Italian funeral parlor in North Beach. The Green Street Mortuary Band was born. Today, the legendary Green Street Band continues to accompany the ritual funeral processions that snake through Chinatown, honoring the dead with Christian hymns, dirges and marches, scaring off evil spirits along the route with crashing cymbals and loud drums, helping families give their loved ones a noisy farewell.

With trumpets and trombones, the Green Street Mortuary Band upholds anancient Chinese tradition in the streets of San Francisco
It is one of the oldest and most visible traditions in San Francisco: a funeral procession right through the heart of Chinatown, led by a brass band playing hymns and dirges.
The band is followed by a Cadillac convertible displaying a large picture of the deceased, by a hearse, by a limousine for the family, then by cars filled with friends, following an honored citizen on his last journey.
A motorcycle escort makes sure all traffic halts. The life of the busiest streets in the city stops for a moment; death is passing by.
The roll of the drums and the music -- hymns set to march time -- echo back from the buildings: ``Remembrance,'' ``Fallen Heroes,'' ``The St. Jude Funeral March.''
The Green Street
Mortuary Band is perhaps the only professional band in the country that does this sort of work. Its members marched at 240 funerals last year, sometimes as many as six a week.
``More than half of the funerals we have ask for the band,'' said Clifford Yee, manager of the Green Street Mortuary, San Francisco's largest Chinese funeral parlor.
All the activity slows for the Chinese ceremony. As the coffin is placed in the hearse, there is a roll of drums, Pollard gives a signal and the band plays ``Amazing Grace'' and then a Chinese popular song called ``Wishing You Happiness.'' The band forms up, and the procession begins. It is formal and stylized.
As the cortege moves around the corner and down Stockton, attendants burn incense and throw paper ``spirit money'' from the funeral vehicles. Sometimes the cortege will stop at the deceased's home or favorite restaurant, so that the dead person's spirit can pay a last visit; similar practices took place in Europe until recent times.
Sometimes the processions are very elaborate and include Chinese music. Sometimes Pollard hires more bands. Sometimes there are professional mourners. Usually though, the cortege is not large, but it always conveys a single message: respect and dignity for one's ancestors.
The Chinese funeral bands are sometimes compared with the jazz bands that play for funerals in the south, but there is no connection.
``Music,'' said Julian Dixon, who plays with Green Street, ``is universal.''
-from the San Francisco Chronicle- for the full text visit

Here is San Francisco poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem about the Green Street Band

The Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
marches right down Green Street
and turns into Columbus Avenue
where all the café sitters at
the sidewalk café tables
sit talking and laughing
and looking right through it
as if it happened every day in
little old wooden North Beach San Francisco
but at the same time feeling thrilled
by the stirring sound of the gallant marching band
as if it were celebrating life and
never heard of death
And right behind it comes the open hearse
with the closed casket and the
big framed picture under glass propped up
showing the patriarch who
has just croaked
And now all seven members of
the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
with the faded gold braid on their
beat-up captains' hats
raise their bent axes and
start blowing all more or less
together and
out comes this Onward Christian Soldiers like
you heard it once upon a time only
much slower with a dead beat
And now you see all the relatives behind the
closed glass windows of the long black cars and
their faces are all shiny like they
been weeping with washcloths and
all super serious
like as if the bottom has just dropped out of
their private markets and
there's the widow all in weeds, and the sister with the
bent frame and the mad brother who never got through school
and Uncle Louie with the wig and there they all are assembled
together and facing each other maybe for the first time in a long
time but their masks and public faces are all in place as they face
outward behind the traveling corpse up ahead and oompah oompah
goes the band very slow with the trombones and the tuba
and the trumpets and the big bass drum and the corpse hears
nothing or everything and it's a glorious autumn day in old
North Beach if only he could have lived to see it Only we
wouldn't have had the band who half an hour later can be seen
straggling back silent along the sidewalks looking like hungover
brokendown Irish bartenders dying for a drink or a last hurrah....

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Needs of the Grieving

Inconsolable Grief (1884)Ivan Kramskoy
In an article about Grief support in Sudbury, Ontario, funeral director, Gerry M. Lougheed, Jr. describes very clearly the needs of those in grief through his own experience.

"As a funeral director for the past 33 years, I have a lot of head knowledge. I believe I am a good and empathetic professional whose efforts are, at best, a catalyst to the grieving process. At worst, I am an event planner.
But it was when my mother died I discovered what I really needed to be -- an advocate of matters of the heart. I need to amplify the little voice in each of us, which sometimes is deafened at death by circumstances or well-meaning but over-controlling family and friends.
When mom died, I cried. I needed to express my hurt,
When Mom died, I needed to do things, tasks empowered me,
When Mom died, I needed you to be there with your expressions of care and friendship,
When Mom died, I needed to tell my stories and hear your stories about her.
When Mom died, I needed a gathering to speak, to sing to sorrow and to celebrate.
Her death was a natural experience. She died of a blood clot from her cancer drugs.
I was normal in my needs. I needed hands to hug me. I needed heads that would listen to my stories about me and my mom without judgment or hurry. I needed hearts that felt my hurt by letting me confront, not avoid, the hard work of mourning.
It is these hands, heads and hearts that help us journey through the valley of the shadow of death, realizing we are not breaking trail but following the well-trodden path of being a person who loves and is loved."

for the full text visit

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dia de los Muertos / Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead, or El Día de los Muertos, is a Mexican celebration of the deceased. The tradition has been practiced by indigenous people for at least 3,000 years. When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they tried to stamp it out, changing the date to coincide with the Catholic holy days – All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2). But the Aztec and Meso-American tradition survived, incorporating Catholic theology.
Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America. People don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives, and place wooden skulls on altars dedicated to the dead. In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their relatives are buried to decorate the gravesites, give gifts—toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults—and picnic, eating the favorite food of their loved ones.
-from New America Media, for full text and photos, visit

Cover Photo from Defibaugh's book
In his 2007 book, The Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos, Denis Defibaugh, photography professor in RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, documents his photographic vision through the people and their rituals as they honor family members who have died.
Defibaugh’s interest in the Day of the Dead began in 1993 when he received a Fulbright/Hayes Fellowship for Mexico and met author/historian Ward Albro. Over the past decade, Defibaugh and Albro, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, have been welcomed into people’s homes and taken part in the public festivals. The Day of the Dead holiday, All Soul’s Day, coincides with the Catholic tradition of All Saint’s Day and resembles the United States’ more commercial Halloween. The hardbound book features street photography and intimate portraits. Along with Defibaugh’s photography, Albro writes an essay about the background of the beliefs and practices of the Dia de los Muertos observance. “The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Defibaugh. “I’m very proud of it. Some of the people of Oaxaca were initially hesitant about me photographing them, especially at the festival in the cemetery. On my subsequent visits, I would give each person a copy of their photograph, and it would change the entire situation. People would line up to have me photograph them. The whole idea of giving photos back to people opens up a dialogue because they feel they are part of the whole experience. That’s reflected in the book.” -from RIT University News
- for the full article visit .
-to purchase book through, visit the Library section of this blog
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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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