Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Funeral Service on his own terms for Harold Pinter

A funeral service can take many forms. Celebrated playwright Harold Pinter chose private funeral services for his family, but following the production of his play 'No Man's Land' this December 26th, the reading of a passage from his play allowed the public to share the burden of their loss and acknowlege the gift that Pinters life and work was for them. following, is an except from an acticle about this funeral service from the UK Press Association.
Harold Pinter directing 'No Man's Land'
A farewell was being said to Nobel prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter in his final production, a funeral service in accordance with his wishes.The influential writer died on Christmas Eve aged 78 after a long battle with cancer.
Sir Michael Gambon read a passage on stage after a charged performance of No Man's Land in the West End - the first time one of Pinter's plays was performed since his death.Many audience members wept as Sir Michael said the lines:
"I might even show you my photograph album. You might even see a face in it
that might remind you of your own of what you once were.You might see faces of
others in shadow or cheeks of others turning or jaws or backs of necks or eyes,
dark under hat, which might remind you of others whom you once knew, whom you
thought long dead but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance if you
can face the good ghost. Allow the love of the good ghost. They possess all that
emotion trapped. Bow to it. "

- for the complete article, visit

Gambon and cast from 'No Man's Land'

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Like Sands Through The Egg Timer....

My father used to joke with my mother that when she died, he would put her ashes in an egg timer. That, he said, would be the first time she ever helped him make breakfast. This was just a joke forty years ago, but today people do many more unusual things with cremated remains.

Here is just a beginning of a list:

  • Shotgun shells...Deer hunters can continue their involvement after death by having their cremated remains placed in shotgun shells and salt licks.
  • Shot into Space...Join Tim Leary and others with a small portion of your cremated remains shot into a low earth orbit ( the flight is wildly expensive, and temporary, as the remains will eventually return to earth.)
  • Jewelry...All kinds of jewelry is available to hold a portion of cremated remains.
  • Ocean Reef...Eternal Reefs will mix your cremated remains with cement, creating a habitat for sea life on the ocean floor.
  • A girl's best friend...LifeGems and others transform the carbon elements in cremated remains into actual jewels.
  • Sculpture...Memory Glass incorporates a portion of cremated remains into blown glass sculptures and pendants.
  • Painting...There are several services that produce paintings with cremated remains mixed into the paint.
  • Keepsake urns...Many families split a loved one's cremated remains into several portions. Some may be buried, some kept, some scattered.
  • Christmas Tree Ornaments...The down-side on this one could be feeling bad about packing the person away after Christmas.

As I mentioned, this is just the beginning. The sky and the ocean floor are literally the limits on what can be done. What is essential is that whatever is done, it is done with respect, love, and in the spirit of the deceased. Also, please remember that sometimes when people scatter cremated remains on a scenic lake, that spot is turned into a shopping mall, or the exact spot is forgotten. Many of us have a need to return to a specific place to visit and remember our loved ones.

Santa Baby..Musical Legend Eartha Kitt Passes Away

Jazz legend and Entertainment Icon, Eartha Kitt, passed away today at age 81. This incredible performer will truly be missed. I am grateful that I had a chance to watch her perform about ten years ago. At 70 years old, she was a show stopper, and incredibly engaging and alluring. Ms. Kitt had personality and talent to spare. It's interesting that the artist who is perhaps best known for the song 'Santa Baby' left us on Christmas.

Here is her obituary from BBCNews
Once described by Orson Welles as the most exciting woman in the world, Kitt's smouldering, feline drawl in memorable hits, such as Santa Baby, Old Fashioned Millionaire and I Wanna Be Evil conveyed a wealth of innuendo.
Ostracized at an early age for her mixed race heritage, international star Eartha Kitt defied criticism of her illegitimate past and conquered the entertainment world with finesse.
Born in 1927, she endured a tough childhood. Kitt's mother, who worked on a cotton plantation, was just 14 when she gave birth, the white father thought to have been the son of the plantation owner.
Kitt's features, neither black nor white, led to her being accepted by neither community. She was given away by her mother at the age of eight to live with an aunt in Harlem, New York City. Little did she know that this would be the start of a long showbiz career.
With a flair for the dramatic, Kitt, aged 15, auditioned for the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe and won a spot as a featured dancer.
The work took her worldwide, and her unique style was enhanced as she became fluent in French during the European tour. It was during a performance in Paris that she caught a certain director's eye, and was cast as Helen of Troy in Orson Welles' production of Dr Faust.
Kitt made her name back in New York in the 'New Faces of 1952' revue. Her show-stopping performances, which ran for a year, led to a national tour and a follow up feature film with the same title.
Other films followed, such as St Louis Blues with Nat King Cole, and she played the title role in Anna Lucasta alongside Sammy Davis.
For her succession of best-selling records Kitt earned a Grammy nomination, she received her first Tony nomination for her acting, and also managed to complete her first volume of autobiography Thursday's Child.
One of Kitt's more recognisable roles was her part as Catwoman, in succession to Julie Newmar, in the late 1960s television series Batman. She excelled in the part, and her trademark growl became a part of pop culture.
In the late sixties, however, Kitt's career encountered a substantial setback after she made her anti-Vietnam war views explicit during a White House luncheon.
The CIA put together a dossier on her and she became professionally exiled from the US. She worked abroad for 11 years, where her reputation remained unscathed, but returned triumphantly to New York in 1974 to star in a Broadway spectacle of Timbuktu!
One-woman show
Kitt became a firm fixture on the Manhattan cabaret scene. Live theatre was always her passion and, in 2001, Broadway critics singled her out for praise for her role in The Wild Party.
More recently, she starred in US tours of The Wizard of Oz, and Cinderella, and appeared as the Fairy Godmother in The New York City Opera production.
Her distinctive voice and great versatility enthralled an entirely new generation of fans when she lent her services to the role of Yzma, the villain, in Disney's animated feature The Emperor's New Groove.
In 1994 she also was part of BBC Radio's adaptation of The Jungle Book, where her role as Kaa the python was performed with a ferocity and bite.
She visited England many times throughout her career, firstly in the early 1950s and, most recently, for Follies in 1988, which she followed with a one-woman show in March 1989.
Eartha Kitt will be remembered as a distinguished and charismatic performer who, up to her death, could boast she had worked in more than 100 countries.
Alongside her cabaret performances, her singing career and her roles in film and television, Kitt was also a prominent jazz singer to which the "sex kitten" in her voice seemed aptly suited.
She appeared at legendary venues, such as The Cafe Carlyle, Detroit's Music Hall and Seattle's Jazz Alley, where she became the epitome of chic. Her strong onscreen independence was mirrored off screen, since Kitt spent most of her life alone.
She was married briefly, from 1960 to 1965, from which a daughter, Kitt McDonald, was born in 1961. She became her mother's manager.
Up to the end of her life, Eartha Kitt was the national spokeswoman for Project On Growing, a programme which teaches homeless families to grow their own food and feed themselves.
Enjoy 'Santa Baby', video courtesy of YouTube

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Silver and Gold

I had an uncle, who when dying, made his children promise to ask the undertaker for his gold dental work back. When he died, none of the kids really wanted to ask about it, but they promised, so one of my my cousins broached the subject with their undertaker. The answer they got is the same thing I tell families. We are not dentists, and have no training in removing dental work. If you have a dentist who is willing to remove the gold (unlikely), we'd be happy to assist him / her. However, the value of dental work lies more in the fact that it is made specifically for you and installed securely in your mouth than the value of the gold. The dentist may well charge you more to remove the dental work than what the gold may be worth (even at today's high gold prices.) Funeral directors are skilled at many things, but I wouldn't know how to begin to safely pry out dental work from the less than flexible jaws of someone's dearly departed.
My cousins decided to let the gold stay in their father's mouth.

The Dentures, 1983 by Odd Nerdrum
Here is a funny Christmas story from Lisa Towers' and Bill Jones' blog 'On Painting' about dental gold!

My mother-in-law is a very frugal person. So was her husband, Hal. He died three years ago. Before he died, he informed her that he had quite a bit of gold in his mouth from dental work over the years. She’s no dumby. Once he was gone and before he was cremated, she told the mortician that she would take that gold, thank you. Now, I myself have a gold crown, and one time it fell out. It just looked like a mangled piece of jewelry, and I assumed that he had the same. I even imagined the mortician using pliers and his knee to pillage the gold from poor Hal’s mouth.

That December, my mother-in-law told us that she would be sending her typical Christmas package of wrapped gifts, and included would be a small box of miscellaneous gold trinkets, as well as the remains of Hal– his dental work. She wanted our son Dylan to cash all of it in for himself. When the package arrived. Dylan tore into it, anxious to behold his treasure trove of gold with delusions of making a down-payment on a Ferrari. We were both peering into the little white box when he slowly opened it half expecting a mysterious golden light to emanate from within. What we saw almost made him drop the box. There was Hal’s full set of upper choppers that we had seen a million times in his ear to ear grin. They weren’t gold on the front, of course, because they had veneers. We stood there and moaned and groaned for quite a while with our hands cupped over our mouths.

It is a holiday tradition with me and Dylan that we go to the Christmas store, and pick out an ornament that in someway relates to the year. As we perused the store that December trying to think of something, we suddenly remembered Hal. We couldn’t get out of that store fast enough once the idea dawned on us that we could just tie a string around Hal’s teeth and hang those babies right on the tree.

We still haven’t had the heart to cash them in. And they probably are worth a small fortune judging by the weight.
Dentures are certainly another story- we don't need a dentist to remove those!-D.U.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Tear Jerker

Kyu Sakamoto

The most powerful part of a service can be a song that starts the tears flowing. This is a cathartic release of emotion and a beautiful mixture of joy and sorrow. When I am making arrangements with a family, I'll try to find out if there is a special song - not necessarily Amazing Grace or In the Garden- that holds special memories. Sometimes families are reluctant to include a song in the service because they know it will start everyone to sobbing, but as an undertaker, I know that that is just what they need. A funeral is a safe place to cry, and if you can deal with those emotions in a safe place right away, you're on the path forward. Music holds so many memories for us, and I've seen it work it's magic many times.
One of the most moving experiences I've had was at my mother-in-law's memorial gathering. There was no formal service planned, just a gathering at a son's house. My wife and I knew how important some structure was to making this gathering a positive experience, so we planned a prayer, a eulogy, time for sharing memories, and finally a special song.
It wasn't easy to get the music for the one US hit by Japanese Artist Kyu Sakamoto, but finally we found the CD on and had it over-nighted. All of Mary's children remembered her playing this when they were kids, and at the end of the service when 'Sukiyaki' played, I was bawling along with the rest of them. It was very sad, but very sweet and meaningful, and a wonderful release of emotion and pain.

Special songs are often best at the end of the service. I remember a young man who died tragically. His family had always referred to him as their sunshine. We found a beautiful acoustic version of 'You are my sunshine' to play as the recessional. It said more for the family that the whole rest of the service and we were all deeply moved.

An uplifting song that is often played at the end of traditional African-American services is 'I'll fly away'. Many times I have watched friends and relatives walk by a loved one's casket at the close of a funeral to this moving song-crying and dancing at the same time.

As an apprentice, my mentor Scott Whitaker taught me that the small services are just as important as the big ones. One night the staff almost outnumbered the guests as a few gathered to remember a special woman who was challenged by mental illness. Though she had become isolated, there were still those who loved her and travelled long distances to share a few memories and listen together to her favorite song 'The Happy Wanderer'. I never thought of this as a funeral song before, but it really is a very fitting sentiment....

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Note in her Pocket

I was preparing a lady for her burial the other day in the clothes she had set out for that purpose. Her husband had passed away years ago, and she didn't have any children or close relatives. In fact, she was buried without a service beforehand, as was her wish. As I placed her coat on her, I noticed that there was something in the pocket. It was a letter to her husband, written on the back of an old faded black and white photo from their wedding day over 60 years ago. They were dressed as people often dressed for their weddings just after the war, when few could afford a wedding dress or fancy service. Her husband wore a dark suit and she wore a gray one with large flowers in her hair. In a cheerful tone, she told him how she looked forward to seeing him again, to being together to laugh and listen to music together once more. She told him that only God and the two of them knew how deeply they loved one another.
Sometimes I feel very lucky to be an undertaker. The hours are terrible, but I bet rock stars and senators don't get to find notes like that at their jobs.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

How to Bury a Country Man

Here is an excerpt from writer and minister Curt Iles' blog 'Creekbank Blog'. Here Mr. Iles gives some advice to his fellow ministers on conducting funeral services for country folk. I think it's sound advice for a conducting services for any family.
How to Bury a Country Man
“The thing about common sense is that it ain’t common, Son.”
–Erik Pederson (whom we recently buried in his jeans and khaki shirt.)

I’m not an expert on how they conduct funerals in other parts of the country, but I’ve been part of dozens of Southern funerals. Funerals where we lovingly laid to rest country men—and country women.
Most of what I’ve learned on country funerals is from watching and listening.
I firmly believe there is no greater privilege and responsibility than to be called on by a family to help bury their loved one. Here are some tidbits to guide you.

1. Above all, spend time with the family. Nothing replaces being present. You don’t even have to say flowery words. Honestly, they won’t remember many things you say, but will never forget the gift of your presence. This begins with the first viewing by the family. In our part of Louisiana, this is always an hour before public viewing. It is the family’s first viewing of their loved one in a casket. It is an emotional and tender time. Whether the loved one has been ill for months or died suddenly, it is a difficult moment for the family. Get there early and pray with them as a group, then go in and be present. Don’t feel as if you must say a great deal. Honestly, answer their questions even if the answer is “I don’t know.” Let your words be few, yet real. The old Irish always said at their wakes, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ That says a great deal. Telling people “I love you and I’m praying for you” is what they need to hear and feel. During the time of the wake and visitation, spend time with the family. It will provide an opportunity for them to share stories and reminisce.

2. Plan the service. Most of the time, the family will tell you how they’d like the service conducted—what songs and when, who reads the obituary, etc. Part of our job is to write down an outline of the service, if no one else has. Make copies for the musicians, funeral directors, other speakers, pallbearers. Make sure everyone is on the same page. There is nothing more disconcerting than blank stares when no one knows what is next.
3. Before going in to the service, gather the pallbearers and other speakers and pray. The pallbearers are often grandsons, nephews, or close friends. It’s a tender time for them, so gather them in a circle and pray with and for them, as well as the family.
4. Before walking in, make sure your coat is buttoned and your fly is zipped. This may not sound important, but I’ve seen it ignored, and “it ain’t a pretty sight.”
5. If you are reading the obituary, know how to pronounce every name and double check every detail with an informed family member.Country folk will correct you from the pew if you mispronounce “Aunt Minerva’s” name. It is a sign of courtesy to be prepared for this. Also in your sermon notes, write the name of the deceased with a black marker at the top of the page. I’ve seen ministers forget the deceased’s name or mispronounce it, which usually brings a loud correction from the next of kin and kills the spirit of the service.
6. When you walk to the podium to speak, draw a mental box around the immediate family and speak to them. Block out the crowd, the location, the flowers. It is just you, the family, and the body of their loved one.The family is the ones who matter most and by speaking directly to them, you’re ministering to everyone present.
7. Keep the content of your message simple: You’re there to lift up Jesus and remind all present that He is the only way to Heaven. You can never go wrong in lifting Him up. Use scriptures throughout your message—familiar scriptures that the grieving folks have heard all of their life take on a full and new meaning at this time. Also, in the case of every person who has lived, their life has dignity and their funeral is a time to celebrate that life. In the case of country folks, which is done best through stories. That’s why spending time with the family is so essential. I ask, “If you were standing up there tomorrow, what would you say? What story do you think describes your mother the best?”
8. Pray earnestly aloud. Pray from your heart, asking God to comfort these folks.

9. With the end of the service, your job is not finished. In fact, your presence and love during the closing is just as important. The directors open the casket and the gathered mourners, beginning at the back of the building, file by. As a pastor, you’ll stand beside the casket. Many folks will give you a nod as they pass, some will hug you, or offer a word of thanks. Most will respectfully stop at the casket and say goodbye in gestures or words.Usually many of those filing by will hug or speak to the family members on the front pew. This part of the service can take a good amount of time. I always remind myself that this is a very necessary part of getting closure—for everyone present.Then as the last passerby exits, it’s time for the family to say goodbye. Once again, this cannot be rushed and is a sacred time.When I speak at funerals, I’m able to keep my emotions in check. However when the family members come to the casket, I lose all composure. As I watch a teenage granddaughter place her head on PaPaw’s chest weeping on his freshly starched overalls, I weep with her.As two sons steady their old mother and she looks for the last time on this earth at the face of her husband of sixty years, I weep. It’s not a put on or for show. It comes from my heart. I once was ashamed of this, but have come to realize that sharing ‘the gift of tears’ with folks is important.When the last family member has left, your job is to stand there as the directors close the casket, and escort the body to the hearse.
10. Let me be brief on the cemetery service: be brief. This is not the time to preach or say a great deal. Scripture, prayer, and your concern are all that is needed at this time.
11. Finally, don’t rush away from the cemetery. Linger and hug on grandchildren and kiss older ladies on the cheek. They are now your family and you are theirs. When you help a family bury a country man—or country woman—you become linked at the heart. And the years and miles will not diminish the bond you share.I always try to return to John 11 when Jesus visits the tomb of his friend Lazarus. That chapter is so full of Jesus’ wisdom for leading a family or group through grief. The words of Isaiah the coming Savior says it clearly: “. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”As followers of that same Savior named Jesus, we are called to be well acquainted with grief. It allows us to lock hearts with those hurting and grieving.
It's a calling.
It is an honor.
It’s a privilege.
for the full text of this post, and more great Curt Iles writing and stories, visit

Monday, December 15, 2008

In The Weeds

Is it just me, or does l'homme Michelin look like he needs to eat a sandwich?

Wearing mourning dress, or 'widow's weeds' is a custom that is still going strong today.

F.D.R. wore an arm band for a year in mourning for his mother.

When we think of people being 'in mourning' we often picture the Victorians. Certainly Queen Victoria and those of her time, made an art, an obsession, even a lifestyle out of mourning. They developed an evolving set of rules regarding how long the mourning should last (forever!) depending upon one's relation to the deceased, the colors to be worn for each period of mourning (black and white, and later gray and purple), which activities were allowed, and which were prohibited.

Because everyone mourns in their own way, these rules didn't work well for everyone. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the tradition of being 'in mourning' altogether because many of us do find meaning and comfort by showing the world in some physical way that we are grieving, that we are saddened, that we are remembering and that we are changed because of the loss of someone special and loved. Fortunately, our culture has kept some of the traditions of mourning from the past, and transformed them, in some cases, very imaginatively, keeping the positive aspects and making them more relevant to how we live today.

You might be hard pressed to think of anyone farther removed from the propriety and constrictions associated with the Victorian era than the late Jerry Garcia. Yet, being 'in mourning' was something meaningful to him. He famously wore only black t-shirts following his mother's death. Incidentally, the name of the band 'The Grateful Dead' comes from a folk tale cycle revolving around variations on a theme of a traveller burying or providing funds for the proper burial of a stranger whose body would otherwise be left to the elements. The generous person is then rewarded by the ghost of the 'grateful dead'.

Like musicians, athletes are in the public eye, and are well known for the expressions of mourning displayed on their uniforms. Athletes have been quite innovative in developing patches and insignia in addition to wearing black arm bands as pictured above and below.

Courtesy of ESPN Uniform Watcher, Paul Lucas, here are some links to some wonderful patches, decals and caps worn in mourning by sports teams:
A Sleeve patch worn by the Anaheim Angels following the 1999 passing of owner and Singing Cowboy Gene Autry. Another Sleeve patch , this one worn by the Colorado Rockies in1999 in remembrance of the Columbine High School shooting victims.
First responder caps were worn by the New York Mets in 2001, and each year on Sept. 11 in memory of Policemen, firemen, EMS workers, and others who died while responding to the World Trade Center attacks. This Helmet decal was worn by the Texas A&M Aggies in1999
for the students killed by the collapse of the 1999 Aggie Bonfire . For a great article on this subject and a bewildering array of mourning items incorporated into athletic uniforms, visit Lucas' article on the ESPN site at

Members of a team are united in their mourning

Widow's Weeds, 19th Century
Sometimes the elements of mourning clothing are appropriated into street fashion to express feelings of sadness and longing that may not be tied to a specific loss- or maybe just to look cool.

Looking cool always seemed easy for the late Johnny Cash, 'The Man in Black', but that was just part of the story. Here, courtesy of YouTube, Johnny explains why he wore his 'weeds'

"'til things are brighter, I'm the man in black"- Johnny Cash

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What to Say to the Grieving

When someone you care about is grieving, it can be a challenge to find the right words to say in a note, or when you see them. I have posted some ideas about what not to say, here are some things to consider saying. Please remember though, that it's about them, not you. Truly listening and responding with empathy is more important than any sympathetic statement or gesture you can think up beforehand.

  • 'You are in my thoughts'... Let them know that you appreciate the significance of their loss, and that you are concerned about them. If you have included them in your prayers, let them know that too.

  • 'I remember'... Share a special memory of the deceased. There is no greater gift than learning something new and wonderful about a person we've lost. Reminding a grieving person of an old favorite story can be wonderful gift as well.

  • 'I will miss'... Even though your focus should be on the grieving person, and not on yourself, let them know that you too will miss this special person, and that you share in their loss.

  • 'I would like to'....It's certainly nice to say "We're here for you, let us know if we can help with anything", but take it one step further by offering help with something specific. 'We'd like to bring over meals for you on Wednesdays' or 'we'd like to take care of your snow shovelling this year' or 'I can take you to the grocery store'. You don't have to insist, but being specific about what you could help with makes it easier for them to take you up on your offer.

  • 'We love you'...This is what is most important, and it encompasses all the previous ideas. When we lose someone, we need to know that we are loved and cared for. If you can communicate this by your presence, thoughfulness, words or actions, you have made a difference.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Green Burials in British Columbia

Stephen Olson of Royal Oak Burial Park
There is a growing interest in Green burials, but a lack of Green Cemeteries in many areas currently prevents people from choosing this option. Most cemeteries require outer burial containers to prevent the ground from settling after burial. Without these containers, deep furrows would develop on the grounds as caskets break down and the soil settles. These depressions prevent problems for groundskeeping at traditional cemeteries, but are not an issue for green cemeteries where a much less manicured look is desired.
For those who choose to be buried without embalming, casket, or vault, the expediture of fossil fuels to transport one's remains hundreds of miles to a green cemetery can be seen as an inadequate solution.
Residents of Victoria, BC will soon have a green burial option as Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich opens a green section to the cemetery there. This area of BC is one of the most beautiful and scenic in the world, and so, it makes perfect sense that residents will appreciate the opportunity to be buried in ways that they feel are harmonious with nature. Here is an excerpt from the Victoria Times Colonist about the green option in Saanich.

"As far as I know, we are the first in Canada in terms of being operational," said Stephen Olson, manager of the 55-hectare non-profit cemetery.
Royal Oak has set aside about one-eighth of a hectare on a pie-shaped site for green burial, a practice increasingly popular in Europe and offered at some U.S. cemeteries. Human remains are buried without embalming and decompose naturally. Biodegradable shrouds and caskets are used.
Spiritual beliefs, environmental concerns and lower costs all influence the choice for a green burial, Olson said. Green burial is not only considered an alternative to traditional burials but to cremations, because of concerns about climate change.
The idea of adding a green burial service at Royal Oak was sparked by two Nanaimo women, who approached cemetery officials in 1999, Olson said. When a new master plan was later drawn up, it incorporated green burial plans and provincial approval was obtained.
Phones ring steadily from citizens asking about the service and the funeral industry is watching, Olson said. "We are fully prepared to share our expertise with other operators."
The first green burial at Royal Oak took place Nov. 6, for a woman who was a dedicated environmentalist and who chose the green option, he said. A second interment took place yesterday afternoon.
By planting native trees, shrubs and wildflowers over the graves, the site will eventually return to its natural state. About 28 hectares remain to be developed at the burial park and more green burial sites are planned, Olson said.
No grave markers are allowed. Instead, space is allotted on several basalt boulders with flattened surfaces. "The memorials for people will be the tree or shrub that they plant on the grave, so the whole site will be a living memorial," Olson said.

-for the full article from the Victoria Times Colonist, visit

Friday, December 12, 2008

Superman's Funeral

There is a reason why funerals are so often a part of fictional works such as books, films, and even cartoons. The rituals of a funeral - the sermon, the procession, the burial- are meaningful and they communicate to us the reality and gravity of the situation. It doesn't seem real without these elements. Accepting the reality of death is vitally important to being able to move forward after it. We cannot avoid death by avoiding funeral services. Our loss and grief are real.

Repast perfect

Sometimes, the most important part of a funeral service doesn't happen until it's over. The funeral lunch or Repast is an important tradition in many parts of the country. In the Upper Midwest where I work, the lunches consist of ham sandwiches, hot dishes, black coffee and a lot of gelatin 'salads' and desserts. The farther into farming country we get, the better the lunches are, as the church ladies and funeral attendees bring their homemade funeral lunch specialties in hungry farm-hand quantities. My wife calls these meals 'Lunches of a Thousand Kitchens', and you can take that as a positive or a negative, but I always look forward to a funeral lunch. There are quite a few churches that I've never left hungry from, and even though the seventy-eight year old director I work with has had more 'ham on buns' than he could count over the years, he still gets excited over a good lemon bar or a well put-together potato salad. In rural Wisconsin, we still have enough church ladies volunteering, that the cost of a lunch for 150 people can be as low as 150 dollars including groceries. We all know that these days are limited though, and as more families must rely upon two incomes, and as fewer people volunteer at churches, one day we will all go the way of the big city catered lunch, where a meal for 150 could cost $10 or more a head. My colleagues in Madison, don't even attend the lunches because the family pays by the plate, and they miss out on all the great food and stories that are shared at funeral lunches.

As much as I love the food and know that food itself helps us to deal with grief, the really important part of the lunch is the fellowship. Sharing stories and support in a relaxed environment can be the most therapeutic part of a funeral for a grieving family. It also seems to be one of the most desirable parts of a service. Many funeral homes are offering community rooms and some are building their own kitchens with full time staff. Other funeral homes have transformed chapel space into reception rooms because the lunch gathering has becoming more important than the service.
In Australia, and New Zealand, funeral homes are increasingly incorporating beer gardens in their facilities. Alcohol and grief are not necessarily as good a combination as food and grief, but depending upon the local traditions, a toast to the deceased can be a powerful and meaningful part of the repast. I have been honored by Greek families to share in toasts in memory their departed. In the litigious society of the United States, caterers are more likely than funeral homes to hold the liquor licenses at funeral repasts.
Whether a reception takes place at the VFW Hall, Church Basement, at home or at the funeral home, gathering together with food and friends in memory of a loved one can help us remember the joy and laughter of the past, and help us move in a positive way to the future. It is a comforting, reassuring and life affirming tradition.

I couldn't resist passing on some favorite funeral lunch recipies I've found:
For 'Funeral Potatoes' in the LDS tradition, and a nice story to go along with them, visit 'Tales of an Ordinary Housewife' at
If your tastes run more toward Vegan, here's a transformation of 'Funeral Hotdish' at 'Vegan for the People' at
In the German Mennonite Tradition, sink your teeth into baked eggs in a bun at 'Everyone Likes Sandwiches' at
Finally, here is a heartfelt little piece about funeral lunches, written by Church Lady and blogger 'Mrs. H'

There is a funeral lunch going on in our fellowship hall. I think this is something that only rural churches do on a regular basis any more. The gentleman whose family is gathering was not a member of our church (to my knowledge). And our ladies still prepared and served the best that country cooks can offer: ham, potato salad, assorted peas and beans, corn and casseroles and desserts galore.Working here at the church, this is something that I take for granted. I remember when my father died, someone brought a loaf of bread and a tray of deli meat to my mom's house. I understand that it's the thought that counts. Someone did think of us. But the time and care that I see these ladies pour into these efforts astounds me. And it's not that they don't work and have more time to prepare. Most of the dishes were dropped off this morning before these ladies went to work at their jobs.I am so glad that some old traditions are still kept alive in places like Agricola. The world will be a much colder place when we stop helping with our own hands.

Amen to that, Mrs. H, Amen to that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dad's Hands

When we lose someone, especially when we are young, each memory that remains is precious. I lost my own father when I was eight years old, and many of the memories I have are a bit fuzzy. What we as grieving people need to remember most is that the feelings of love will never be forgotten, no matter how many of the details are lost. During the holidays, I often recommend that families take time to share memories of their deceased, to keep those memories alive, and so that young ones can remember that special person too. Here is a beautiful memory from 'Balou' shared on her blog 'born a girl'

Van Gogh, studies of hands

Hands and Mourning Doves
My Dad would've celebrated his 80th birthday last week. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him. I've been feeling guilty because I can't remember the exact date of his birthday. I couldn't bring myself to ask's something I should never forget. And I have. Hanging on to the too few memories and it hurts that even one little piece went missing. I was nine years old when Dad died from a heart attack at the age of 44. Little things will trigger memories of him. Yesterday it was hearing the coos of a pair of mourning doves. I always think of Dad when I hear mourning doves. I'll imagine that it's his voice and he's reminding me that he's not too far away. Who knows? Maybe it is him. And maybe it's just the little girl inside needing to be comforted. She's never very far from the surface.One of my most vivid memories of Dad is from church on Sunday mornings. Being the youngest of five, I think it was his job to keep me occupied and quiet during the Sunday morning sermons in our little Methodist church. I would sit in his lap and he would hold my hand in his big, tanned, calloused farmer hands. Ever so gently with his fingernail, he would push the cuticles back on each of my small fingernails. I can picture this so clearly. We always sat in the pews on the north side of church. Often the windows would be open. There were trees outside the windows and the mourning doves would be coo-coo-cooing outside. If all the other memories slowly disappear, this memory of touching hands and mourning dove songs will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

You Can Go Home Again

This delightful story by Rick Hummell, the editor of 'Your Family Magazine' (published by Unified Newspaper Group) illustrates many of the functions of funerals, and how good funerals can help us to reconnect, remember and move forward in a positive way. Enjoy...

You can go home again
I said goodbye to one of my best friends a few weeks back. How sad and ironic, but also a reflection of the selfless individual he was, that in dying my friend Tubby Grenon would help me reconnect to an important part of the past that had drifted away, as well as afford me a measure of redemption.
One of my prized possessions is a photo taken in the summer of 1980 of myself and the six buddies I hung around with back then in my native Canada, a motley assortment of characters who provided with me with the kinds of deep friendships I’ve never known since and never will know again. Seated in front left to right are Tubby, Jakes, Gary and Frank; behind them are Murray, Dan and myself. The photo was taken at one of the summer pig roasts hosted annually by Murray’s parents at their cottage, not far from our hometown. Through my high school and college years and the next few years that followed, the seven of us were as tight as could be. After college, the Group of Seven stayed close as we started or looked for jobs, stood up for each other when one or another got married, started families and forged new lives. My life-changing first "break" from the group occurred in 1981 when I had an opportunity to take an extended vacation in Texas. I asked Tubby, who, like myself, was unemployed, if he’d like to take a few weeks to kick back in Texas – certainly a new and exciting adventure for two young lads from the forested and lake-pocked mining country of Northern Ontario. Purely by luck, I was offered a job at a newspaper in Texas within a couple weeks of arriving there and I took it, not really expecting or intending to live in the United States from that day forth. Like myself, Tubby had grown quite fond of Texas, but shortly after I started working he received a phone call from Canada, a job offer as a telephone repairman back in the hometown. I stayed, and although reluctant at the time, Tubby went home. Knowing of the kind of husband and father he became, I’m glad he did. My mother still lived back home, so for many years I would return to Canada for annual vacations, which usually included a whirlwind series of visits with the old gang. Everything started to change, however, when my mother died in the winter of 1996. Yes, I did return a couple times over the next few years after her death, even bringing my son, born in 1993, to introduce him to everyone. I always "planned" to return more often, but, as the saying goes, life happens while you’re making plans. As the years went by, my return visits grew more infrequent, the last time in 1999 or 2000. After that last visit, I simply fell out of touch with everybody. No phone calls, no visits, nothing. "Why" I did so is a mystery. There was no reason. I know it has something to do with I got busy. A poor excuse. How strange it is then that after a few years of not contacting anybody, the guilt you feel over not contacting them should impede you from contacting them anew.

When I arrived home from work on a Thursday evening a few weeks ago, there was a message on my answering machine saying I needed to call Canada. I knew instantly one of the guys in the photo was gone. I didn’t know
which one. There was a time when I assumed I’d be the first to go. Phone calls were made and I learned Tubby had died two days before. Apparently, he’d fallen from a telephone pole that was rotted at the base and had started to topple over. I was told it was not the fall that killed him, but he’d suffered a heart attack and died while en route to the hospital. Dead at 51. Within a couple of hours, my fiancee Bonita and I had packed the car and were on the road for the long drive to Northern Ontario.
The showing of the body was on a Friday, with the funeral Saturday morning. After driving nearly 650 miles, Bonita and I arrived at the funeral home with only about an hour to spare. As we drove into the parking lot I didn’t know what to expect. I felt like the prodigal son returning home. I wanted Bonita to stay close to me. My fears were quickly put to rest, however, when walking across the parking lot were about a half-dozen guys out from the funeral home for a cigarette break, including one of my best old friends, one of Tubby’s brothers, and several of his in-laws and friends. Basically they were overjoyed to see me and I them, and in a matter of seconds the years melted away. The same thing happened as we stepped into the funeral home, which was literally packed wall to wall with people there to pay their respects to a great man and his family. There were literally enough flowers surrounding Tubby to fill a greenhouse.
Over the next hour or so – the funeral home stayed open late because there were so many present – I was able to reconnect with dozens of long lost friends, most of whom treated me like I’d never been gone. After a short while I finally found Tubby’s widow, Rachel, in the crowd, and she honored me more than my words can ever say by asking me to be a pallbearer.
As Bonita and I eventually made our way to the back of the funeral home, there on one of the photo tribute boards was a blown-up reproduction of the photo of long ago of the seven dudes. I knew it would be there. After the funeral the next day, scores of family and friends gathered for the wake. The libations flowed freely and there were a lot of shared memories and laughs. Kind of like old times, and I had the honor of introducing my fiancee to the whole group. Many of my old friends now have children who are teenagers themselves and it was bittersweet to see a whole new generation of the gang coming into their own. At one point they even grabbed one
of the young lads and tossed him fully-clothed into the swimming pool. Yes, just like old times.
The most touching moments for me occurred when several of Rachel’s brothers approached me one after the other and tearfully told me I had no idea how much it meant to Rachel that I was able to be present. If they only knew, how humbled I was to be in the comfort of that circle again. Later in the afternoon, a few cameras appeared and people started to take pictures. Then someone had the brilliant idea of recreating the fabled photo of the Group of Seven, minus Tubby. So, chairs were arranged and the remaining six of us got together in the same positions as the original photo. Like a sort of Missing Man formation, we left an empty chair for Tubby. Then we persuaded Rachel to sit in Tubby’s empty chair. More photos were taken and there was not a dry eye anywhere.

As I’ve said many times over the years to many people, Francis "Tubby" Grenon was truly one of the finest people I’ve ever met. He was a big guy – hello, he wasn’t called Tubby for nothing – but he truly was a teddy bear. He was shy, sincere, honest, and most of all, well-meaning. He also had a tendency to walk around the house in his underwear, no matter who was present. And while I saw him in his underwear plenty of times, I never really saw him get mad. After returning home from Texas, Tubby did in fact have a long career with the telephone company. After marrying Rachel, the Grenons built a beautiful house on the shores of Rock Lake, the same lake where many of our old friends have cottages. And although they did not have children of their own, Tubby and Rachel took in foster children and later adopted three young girls when the girls were toddlers. They’re all fine young ladies now, all the better for having Tubby and Rachel as role models and parents. At the reception following the funeral, Tubby’s future son-in-law Lance told a story that sums up Tubby. One winter day, Tubby and Lance were out on the ice hitting golf balls at Tubby’s lakeside home, when, as they were returning, Tubby started hitting balls toward the yard. As they got closer, Tubby hit a golf ball that got away from him, with the golf ball sailing right toward and through an upstairs window and into the house. As they approached the house, Rachel was waiting, hands on her hips and with a few choice words to say about the broken window. Tubby skirted past her with the golf club in his hand and headed down a hallway where the golf ball lay on the floor. Rachel was right behind him, repeating a few choice words. Tubby turned around and stood over the ball and put
his hand up like a policeman stopping traffic, and said, "Sshhh. I’m putting."
Rest you well, buddy. ●

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Laughter and Tears

Irish Wake in the 2007 film No Regrets, No Remorse

Laughter and tears are both natural and neccesary parts of grieving. If we deny ourselves or others of the opportunity to do either, we are hindering, rather than helping the grieving process. Laughter does not mean that we are not in pain, that we do not wish our loved one back, or that we don't understand the gravity of death. Rather, it is an acknowlegement of the gift that our loved one's life was. Laughter cannot change the situation, but it can make the situation easier to bear.
Many of us tell our families that we don't want them to be sad when we die. This doesn't help anymore than telling them not to laugh. We need to do both, and one way to facilitate this is to hold a wake, or visitation and funeral or memorial service where we can share the sadness as well as the laughter in a safe and appropriate time and place.

Jackie Gleason and the cast of The Honeymooners

Here is an excerpt from a post from blogger and humorist Linda Lou, recalling her father, and the healing laughter at his funeral service.

Today would have been my father's 75th birthday. He died in 1999 at the age of 65. He and his girlfriend, Pat, were on vacation--every year they went down to Florida to watch the Yankees in spring training--and Daddy had a massive heart attack one night in their hotel room. When Pat returned to Albany, everyone along the way commented that she sure had a lot of luggage for just one person. "My companion died on the trip," she explained. I'm sure they didn't expect that one. Daddy was a colorful character, a bus driver who absolutely loved his job. “I don’t work,” he’d brag, “I drive other people to work.”
I remember when I was in labor for my first child, I called my parents to say I was heading to the hospital. My father offered a tender bit of advice, words that remain with me to this day: “Good luck,” he said, “and don’t go home empty-handed.”
His sudden death was both a shock and a blessing. Soon before he died, Daddy had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The heart attack spared him what have would undoubtedly been a much more painful and trying way to go. We gave him an awesome wake and funeral; he was laid out next to a billboard of himself that had been part of the bus company's promotional campaign a few years earlier. (Daddy prided himself in being a "male model.") The funeral began with a bugle playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and my aunt, who's a pastor (!), performed the service. Afterward the funeral director said he never heard so much laughter coming out of that room. Daddy would have loved it. When I think of my father's sense of humor and how several years after his death I began to perform stand-up comedy, I'm reminded of a passage in Natalie Goldberg's book, Long Quiet Highway."Whether we know it or not, we transmit the presence of everyone we have ever known, as though by being in each other's presence we exchange our cells, pass on some of our life force, and then we go carrying that other person in our body, not unlike springtime when certain plants in fields we walk through attach their seeds in the form of small burrs to our socks, our pants, our caps, as it to say, 'Go on, take us with you, carry us to root in another place.' This is how we survive long after we are dead. This is why it's important who we become, because we pass it on."Thanks, Dad, for everything you passed on to me. Except for the crappy hair gene--that's something you really could have kept. for the full text and more Linda Lou, visit

Friday, December 5, 2008

World Mourns on Facebook

Our world has gotten even smaller.

Great interest in the tragic passings of strangers is nothing new. However, when much of the world is separated by only a few degrees of friendship on social networking sites like Facebook, we become aware in a more personal sense of the loss of someone half the world away. My hope is that in focusing online, we don't lose touch or forget to support the grieving person who lives across the street.

SINGAPORE: The tragic and untimely death in Mumbai of Singaporean hostage Lo Hwei Yen
They may be strangers from all walks of life, but the death of the 28—year—old Singaporean lawyer has brought the nation together in a common outpouring of sympathy.
Sympathies have been pouring in from Internet users as well.
A memorial group page on social networking site Facebook has seen its number of members swell into the hundreds since it was set up early Saturday morning.
Many blogs and forum entries saw users describing their shock, grief and even anger at the news.

Some 200 people followed the hearse carrying Ms Lo Hwei Yen's coffin as it left for Mandai Crematorium after a service at St Teresa's Church. Thousands more mourn her online.

In respose to the family's request, mourners at the wake wear 'fabulous black' in memory of the stylish Ms. Lo Hweih Yen

Profile Photo from Ms. Lo Hweih Yen's Memorial Facebook Page

As of Friday there were 11,062 members of this open group and 1,319 wall posts/ condolences. Here is a quote from the page:

"May her passing, as the first Singaporean to have lost her life to terrorism, serve as a reminder to everyone, Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike, to treasure life and the loved ones around us.Yen lived her life with passion and she treasured her friends & family dearly. Let us cherish the zest for life and through us, she lives on. Yen, thank you for your smiles and for touching our lives. We miss you dearly."

Betty Goodwin, Artist of Mourning

Vest Two 1970
Artist Betty Goodwin dies

Alan Hustak
The Gazette
Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Success as an artist didn't come to Betty Goodwin until relatively late in her life, but when she died in Montreal Monday, her reputation as one of the country's pre-eminent painters and sculptures had been secure for a long time.
Her images of floating bodies, her scarred tarpaulin installations and her solemn steel sculptures were infused with melancholy. Because of her unique style, Goodwin was sometimes described as the artist of mourning.
"You can't understand Canadian art without coming to terms with her achievements," said Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses the largest collection of her work. "There was in her work an expressiveness about the quality of living and the emotion of life realized on a grand scale. One of her great achievements was to produce intimacy and grandeur at the same time. She was the ranking woman of her generation, who depicted fragility and triumph in the same breath. There is an affirmation of survival in her work, the bodies in her paintings work through and around obstacles."

Nest 1973

Betty Roodish, the daughter of Rumanian immigrants who owned a clothing business was born in Montreal on March 19, 1923, Her father died when she was 9. As a child, she didn't fare well in school.
"The only thing I was good at was making art, and back then that meant drawing geraniums," she once told a reporter. She studied graphic design at the Valentine Commercial School of Art and her first job was to design chocolate boxes for the Steinberg chain of grocery stores.
Except for one year when she took a printmaking course from Yves Gaucher at Sir George Williams University, Goodwin had no formal training as an artist.
"The strange part is that I never said I am going to become an artist," she told a biographer, "I just kept going and persevered ... I have said it many times, you push and push and push, and there is a moment when the work begins to pull you."

Sleeping / Dying Woman 1963

Her early works were strictly representational, vaguely Cubist. It wasn't until 1960 when the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibited 30 of her still lifes and gloomy portraits that her art making started to attract critical attention. In 1972, her textural studies of men's vests and her enormous hanging works made out of battered tarpaulins earned her the Arts Council of Great Britain's major prize at the Third International Print Biennale in Bradford, England.
Handsome, elegant and intense, Goodwin was a tenacious artist. Her confidence in her work never flagged, and when success came, she accepted it without compromise. Her shows were planned thematically – there was the Vest series, The Swimmers, Icons and Diary of a Human Hand. In 1979, she and her assistant, Marcel Lemyre, turned an apartment at 4005 Mentana St. into a environmental sculpture.

Swimmers 1975-1985

In 1986, Goodwin was the first English-speaking Quebec artist to receive the Prix Paul Emile Borduas from the provincial government.
"She was a giant, one of the first women to achive such stature in the contemporary Canadian art world," said the Montreal dealer René Blouin, who represented her work.
"Her stature was so great, that she had a following even among people who didn't pay much attention to art. She was a very private person, and while her work was rooted in autobiography, her work was a reflection of the temper of our times.
"She wasn't only lamenting the death of her son, Paul, (who died of a drug overdose in 1976) but the cruelty of the human condition that we see every day when we turn on the television."
Goodwin was made an officer of the Order of Canada five years ago. Among her many other honours are doctorates from the Université de Montréal, The University of Guelph, and The University of Waterloo, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Artist Betty Goodwin

In 1996 Goodwin donated 150 of her works to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which has the largest collection of her work. The Gallery staged a major retrospective that year, and the same year she was awarded the Harold Town Prize.
Her husband, Martin Goodwin, a civil engineer whom she married in 1945, died Oct. 15.
In keeping with her wishes, there will be no funeral.
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