Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Making Cemeteries Relevant: Part 1, Feng Shui in Minnesota

funeral cemetery memorial

Not that long ago, cemeteries were built in the centers of towns and cities. They were visited often by devoted relatives, and weekend picnickers. They were cared for by groundskeepers and relatives alike, and were valued for their park-like settings and interesting monuments. Today, the relevance of cemeteries to the lives of many Americans has decreased markedly. To many, they are seen as a waste of space, or worse, as a depressing reminder of our mortality.

Much of this is due to the denial of death that has taken over our culture. We pretend that death won’t happen, and when it does, we avoid viewing our loved ones and avoid dealing with the difficult reality of the situation by concentrating on celebrations of life and the happy times.

funeral cemetery

For cemeteries, this is only half of the problem. In many cases, only token measures have been taken to address changing tastes and values. Cemeteries are seen by new generations as gloomy, depressing places that don’t reflect the spirit or values of their loved ones. People today want a setting that reminds them of life and happiness, and that reflects their culture and values, not row upon row of uniform markers or the gothic tragedies of elaborate monuments. To see how uncomfortable even the people who bury in cemeteries are with the prevailing mood of the places, just look at the increasing harvest of plastic doo-dads and gew-gaws that cemeteries must harvest from their tidy rows every spring, or the bold modern monuments that look like a granite T-shirt, and feature everything from engraved portraits to farm scenes, to race cars. Look at the memorials people make on the highway for those who die in car accidents. They are full of teddy bears and flags and sparkly pin-wheels. Many skip the cemetery altogether and scatter ashes in mountain lakes or other vacation spots. They have often been told by their loved ones to keep them away from the gloomy cemetery. They want to rest in a place that they would feel comfortable and full of life.

The families who scatter miss out on having a permanent spot to visit, however. Sometimes the mountain path becomes a strip mall, or the spot on the river cannot be found again after old trees fall and new ones grow. As a person who values cemeteries and recognizes the need for permanent memorialization, I’m pleased to say that there are some innovators out there who are making cemeteries relevant to the needs and values of today’s consumers. In this first installment on Cemetery Innovators, the new Chinese section at Sunset Cemetery in Minneapolis is highlighted. The cemetery has used the ancient principles of Feng Shui to make a new section appealing to the area's growing Asian demographic. Chinese cemeteries are certainly nothing new, but they are new to the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. The driving concepts behind the creation of this section apply to any cemetery innovation; one size no longer fits all, find a growing segment of your population, and create an area that appeals to their values.

funeral cemetery

Named the Garden of Eternal Peace, the new section at Sunset Cemetery was the brainchild of Funeral Director, Scot Werkmeister, and designed with the help of Feng Shui expert, Andrew Hong. Following is an excerpt from today’s Minnesota Public Radio story about the Garden of Eternal Peace by Laura Yuen.

The Garden of Eternal Peace is in some ways unremarkable. Not even an acre large, the site's entrance is marked by a simple gate made of two wooden pillars and a modest roof. But this land is slightly higher than the rest of the cemetery, making it an ideal burial spot for followers of feng shui. Consultant Andrew Hong says the space offers a commanding location for both the living and the dead. "You're on higher ground. So imagine the people buried -- they will feel very secure and safe." Safe, Hong says with a smile, from evil spirits. He's placed every object carefully, from the entry gate to a foot bridge, which he says gives negative energy a way out of the burial site.

Sunset Cemetery officials say the garden is the first in the Twin Cities to be designed according to these ancient principles. But Asian families in Minnesota already practice feng shui when scouting for areas across the state for the perfect burial spot. Many Hmong and Vietnamese families have been known to favor a certain Maplewood cemetery because it's surrounded by hills -- the better to protect the deceased.

It may sound strange to segregate the dead by building ethnic "neighborhoods" right into cemeteries, but people in the industry say it's no different than creating special sections for Masons or war veterans. "It's easy for the dead," Hong said. "They can communicate with each other. They don't have to travel. Sometimes it's all in our manmade imagination. But you cannot fight tradition. If tradition believes in that, we better believe in it, too."

Inside the cemetery offices, Scot Werkmeister, a funeral director who oversees Sunset Cemetery and several others owned by Dignity Memorial, flips through a catalog of custom granite markers that Sunset has begun to offer. They're meant to appeal to Asian consumers. Some of the headstones come in the shape of little pagodas. Most are upright, and come with a mantle that where offerings of incense or bowls of food can rest.

Werkmeister says he wanted to build the garden at Sunset after a trip to California, where cemeteries have developed special areas where Asian families could show their heritage and traditions.

For the full article, visit Minnesota Public Radio

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ribbons of Iron: Charleston Remembers Blacksmith Philip Simmons

Renown blacksmith, Philip Simmons, whose iron work graces windows, gardens and gates througout the city of Charleston, South Carolina, passed away on Monday. The city will place white ribbons on all the Simmons ironwork in Charleston parks, and encourages citizens to place white ribbons on all the iron work in the city in memory of Mr. Simmons.

memorial art ritual

memorial art ritual

Philip Simmons

Following is an excerpt from the Charleston Channel 2 obituary by Octavia Mitchell:
97-year-old Philip Simmons, hailed as America’s premiere blacksmith died surrounded by family. His first cousin Joseph Pringle worked in this blacksmith shop in downtown Charleston for more than 50 years. Pringle says, “It is a big loss for the whole family.“
Rev. Ron Satterfield is pastor of St. John’s reformed episcopal church where Simmons was a member. A garden is named in his honor here. Satterfield says, “I just loved the man. He was a giving person and just loved people. Satterfield say Simmons was a simple man, who did not boast about his many accomplishments. He says, “He was the same Philip from day one to the end. When you met Philip Simmons, you knew you had met him. He’s irreplaceable.“

memorial art ritual

Philip Simmons created more than 500 wrought iron gates, fences, balconies and window grills. His masterful work grace the streets of Charleston from end to end. Mayor Joe Riley says, “We are very saddened at the loss of our wonderful friend Philip Simmons. His beautiful artistic creations grace the Holy City of Charleston throughout the downtown and beyond. It’s all around you. The monument to Philip Simmons is throughout our city and always will be.“
As a special tribute to Philip Simmons, the City of Charleston will place white ribbons on all Philip Simmons ironwork in its parks, and they invite everyone to place white ribbons on their wrought iron gates or railings, whether or not they are Philip Simmons’s piece. for the full obituary, visit Channel 2

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Last Word on Funeral Clothing; Courtesy of Charles Cowling

This blog has seen a lot of discussion concerning appropriate clothing lately. In the Weeds looked at the tradition of mourning clothing, and explored some modern day expressions of it. In The Shrouded Way, the dehumanizing effect requiring shrouds for cremation was discussed. The ways in which clothing can be an expression of the deceased was the subject of Don't Bury Me in a Suit.

funeral etiquette

However, I think that this post, borrowed from Charles Cowling's Good Funeral Guide puts it all in the right perspective. The purpose of funeral regulations and etiquette should be to show respect for the dead and provide comfort for the grieving. Rules should serve us, and not the other way around. Here, with pleasure is Stanley Holloway's 'Brahn Boots', along with printed lyrics for those of us who have difficulty understanding English. Thanks for this gem, Charles!

Our Aunt Hanna's passed away,
We 'ad her funeral today,
And it was a posh affair,
Had to have two p'licemen there!

The 'earse was luv'ly, all plate glass,
And wot a corfin!... oak and brass!
We'd fah-sands weepin', flahers galore,
But Jim, our cousin... what d'yer fink 'e wore?

Why, brahn boots!
I ask yer... brahn boots!
Fancy coming to a funeral
In brahn boots!

I will admit 'e 'ad a nice black tie,
Black fingernails and a nice black eye;
But yer can't see people orf when they die,
In brahn boots!

And Aunt 'ad been so very good to 'im,
Done all that any muvver could for 'im,
And Jim, her son, to show his clars...
Rolls up to make it all a farce,

In brahn boots...
I ask yer... brahn boots!
While all the rest,
Wore decent black and mourning suits.

I'll own he didn't seem so gay,
In fact he cried most part the way,
But straight, he reg'lar spoilt our day,
Wiv 'is brahn boots.

In the graveyard we left Jim,
None of us said much to him,
Yus, we all gave 'im the bird,
Then by accident we 'eard ...

'E'd given 'is black boots to Jim Small,
A bloke wot 'ad no boots at all,
So p'raps Aunt Hanna doesn't mind,
She did like people who was good and kind.

But brahn boots!
I ask yer... brahn boots!
Fancy coming to a funeral,
In brahn boots!

And we could 'ear the neighbours all remark
"What, 'im chief mourner? Wot a blooming lark!
"Why 'e looks more like a Bookmaker's clerk...
In brahn boots!"

That's why we 'ad to be so rude to 'im,
That's why we never said "Ow do!" to 'im,
We didn't know... he didn't say,
He'd give 'is other boots away.

But brahn boots!
I ask yer... brahn boots!
While all the rest,
Wore decent black and mourning suits!

But some day up at Heavens gate,
Poor Jim, all nerves, will stand and wait,
'til an angel whispers... "Come in, Mate,
"Where's yer brahn boots?"

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Clown Funeral

A meaningful funeral is a combination of ritual and personalization. When the loss of a loved one turns our world and lives upside down, going through the familiar rituals of our culture and faith is reassuring to us.

death ritual

Photo Credit: Marshall Gorby

Participating in funeral rituals helps to reinforce the reality of the death, and reminds us that we are a part of a community that shares our grief. Personalization involves a recognition of who our loved one was, the impact their life has had on ours, and a celebration of the unique gifts that this personality has brought to our lives.

death ceremony

Photo Credit: Marshall Gorby

On Friday, May 29, 2009, at the funeral services for Norman ‘Boppo’ Thompson, fellow clowns from the Antioch Funster Clown unit honored his memory and service. The comforting and reinforcing rituals of passing by the casket to offer respects, and carrying one of own to their place of rest, were made even more meaningful with the personalization and participation of his fellow clowns.

death ritual memorial

Photo Credit: Marshall Gorby

Looking at the pictures, we can tell right away that this was a special and meaningful part of Mr. Thompson’s service. The participation of his fellow clowns reminded all present of Mr. Thompson’s spirit and of the impact he had on others.

death ceremony

Photo Credit: Marshall Gorby

Special thanks to blogger, Christine Quigley for finding this story. To view her post on this subject, visit: http://quigleyscabinet.blogspot.com/2009/05/clowns-funeral.html

funeral ritual ceremony

Photo Credit: Marshall Gorby

This story was first reported by Bridgette Outten in the Springfield News Sun. For the original news story, a video and more great photos by Marshall Gorby, visit: http://www.springfieldnewssun.com/news/springfield-news/clown-laid-to-rest-with-highest-honor-from-peers-139855.html

burial ritual ceremony

For more posts about personalized funerals, follow the links:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Shrouded Way, Updated

cremation ritual

The Telegraph published a story yesterday describing council regulations in West Yorkshire, UK, forbidding the combustion of regular street clothing during the cremation process. Apparently, the deceased are now required to be clothed in council approved shrouds. According to the story, reported by Matthew Moore, even colored cotton clothing and soft toys in children's caskets are said to be prohibited in the interests of cleaner emissions.

These regulations are more than heavy handed; they are incredibly out of touch and dehumanising. Certainly cleaner emissions are a laudable goal, and people everywhere can benefit from knowing how to improve them, but a person's clothing and the items that travel with them to the retort are very meaningful and should not be tampered with.

The clothing of the living is an integral part of a person's identity, and removing that layer is dehumanising. For this reason, military recruits are given identical uniforms and haircuts. Their identities must be broken down before they are rebuilt in a new way. This stripping of identity is also a common practice in prisons.

The clothing of the dead is often carefully chosen, sometimes even years in advance. Whether the dead are dressed in overalls, a track suit, a special suit or dress, or even a special T-shirt, that clothing is an expression of who that person was. When the survivors are missing that person, the clothing is an important reminder of the personality they are trying to remember.

A few years ago, the directors at our funeral home worked with the family of a teenage girl who died tragically. Her clothing was very important to her and who she was, and at the request of the family, this young lady wore casual youthful clothing during the evening visitation, and then was changed into more formal clothing for the funeral service the following day. I can't imagine the reaction of family and friends if this girl had been required to wear a utilitarian shroud.

In my experience, every family who loses a child places a special toy, often a stuffed animal made with artificial fibers, into the casket with their baby. Their emotions are complicated and volatile, and one very positive way for them to express their love is by placing these meaningful objects in the casket. The grief experienced by these parents is palpable and overwhelming. If the council prohibits these items, they should be required to tell the parents themselves, face to face, that this baby can't have a comforting toy for the sake of a few fumes.

There are many ways to reduce green house gases and toxins that should be explored before stripping the dead of their indentities and individuality. There are many steps that would have a greater impact on our environment than eliminating stuffed animals and other meaningful gifts from the caskets of children. It is my hope that this council slips out of their own shroud and repeals their ridiculous regulations.

Update, 17 June, 2009

The Daily Mail reported on this situation today. Here is an excerpt from the article. For the full text, visit www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1193306/

Grieving relatives have been left distraught after a council banned them from dressing loved ones in their favourite outfits in a crackdown on pollution. It means an end to people being cremated wearing their football shirts, or parents placing soft toys in children's coffins. Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire is the only authority in the country to adopt the approach, according to a national cremation body.

One man, who did not want to be named, was shocked to find his relative could not wear the 100 per cent cotton outfit she had chosen before she died. He said: 'We knew it had to be natural fibres so she chose a top and slip that was 100 per cent cotton. 'But when the funeral director came we were told she would have to wear a special shroud. He pulled out a swatch of different colours to choose from. 'We didn't know what it looked like and when we went to see her in the chapel of rest, we couldn't believe it. 'It was all fluffy and frilly. The deceased would not have wanted to have been seen dead in it - unfortunately she was.' The council set out the guidelines on cremation in a letter to funeral directors.

The document refers to rules in a charter by the Institute of Cemeteries and Crematoria Management (ICCM) which states: 'Clothing the deceased in clothes made of natural fibres/materials is acceptable whereas plastic, nylon and other synthetic materials are not acceptable due to the impact on the environment via emissions.' But Kirklees Council goes on to argue that even natural fibre clothing could contain man-made dyes or fibres that will impact on emissions.

I welcome my UK readers to post any updates on this matter in the comments section.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Voices and Memories : Paul Haney, Voice of Mission Control, Dies at 80

Paul Haney

A voice can carry with it so much more than the message it's speaker wishes to convey. It brings with it memories and feelings, and images of places and times. Whether they are melodious and easy on the ear, raspy or shrill, the voices of those we love are a sound that we enjoy more than any other.

When my father lay dying in his hospital room, many people came to visit him, and say their goodbyes, as he lay barely conscious during the last weeks. When my aunt, who has a very distinct nasal tone to her voice travelled across the country to see him, he knew her by her voice at once, opening his eyes and calling out her name. His memories, and love for her were inseparable from that voice that would never be on the nightly news, but would always be in his heart.
The tone, accent, and cadence of a voice can frame and qualify the message it delivers, it can frighten or incite us. It can challenge us and inspire us. During the early years of the space program both the voice of mission control, and the information it shared was shaped by Paul Haney.

Here is an excerpt from Mr. Haney's New York Times Obituary by Kenneth Chang

Paul Haney, who was known as the voice of NASA’s mission control for his live commentary during the Gemini and Apollo space flights in the 1960s, died Thursday in Alamogordo, N.M. He was 80.It was Mr. Haney’s voice as director of public affairs that broadcast audiences heard live from the Houston control room, explaining what was going on. The calmness that the public heard from 1965 to 1969, as Mr. Haney announced tense events like launchings and difficult recoveries, contrasted with some behind-the scenes conflict.

Working as a newspaper reporter before and after his time at NASA, Mr. Haney pushed the space agency to share more information with reporters and often clashed with engineers and astronauts who sought to avoid disclosures that might be embarrassing.

“He believed it should all be open,” said Bill Johnson, who worked for Mr. Haney at NASA. “That was his conflict with the other branches of NASA. Eventually that was what got him fired.” That was only a few months before the historic moon landing.

Mr. Haney went to London, where he provided NASA commentary for the Independent Television News in Britain and wrote for The Economist. He also worked for newspapers in Houston, Charleston, S.C., and St. Petersburg, Fla.

for the full text, and more audio, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/02/science/space/02haney.html?_r=1&ref=obit...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ask the Undertaker: Advice to DIY

DIY Casket by Joe Scanlan

Dear Undertaker - 

Being a rabid-do-it-yourselfer, I was wondering what issues there are (if any) with making my own casket? I have seen plans online and think it would be the ultimate personalization of the experience. Also, Are there any issues or tips for doing my own headstone (other than adding my expiration date)?

-Handyman in Houston

DIY Casket by Joe Scanlan

Dear Handyman,

Making your own casket can be a rewarding and challenging project for a do-it-yourselfer.  The rewards would be, as you said, the ultimate personalization.  You'd have the opportunity to make your final resting place an expression of your own taste, handiwork and artistic vision.  For some inspirational ideas for creative caskets (which would unfortunately not meet any of the specifications normally required in the states), visit my post on Ghanaian caskets 'Art and Death intersect in Ghana'.  There are some real challenges and restrictions to be aware of before you start your project.  The casket must be made within the dimensions that would allow it to fit into a standard burial vault (which are required at most cemeteries).  It must also fit inside the hearse with the handles in an open position.   A flat bed truck could be used to transport your casket if you have one available and desire this mode of transportation, but it would be very difficult for pallbearers to safely load and unload with such a vehicle.  Your casket should have handles that provide a good grip for your pallbearers (Rope handles don't work very well), and be light enough and strong enough to easily carry.  The homemade caskets I have seen usually are not strong enough to be supported by the handles, are too heavy to carry, or are too large in at least one dimension.  On the other side of the size issue, if you make your casket a tight fit for yourself now, and then gain weight before you die, your casket may be too small for you to fit into, or to look comfortable in, when the time comes.

If you desire a viewing, it's important to realize that the caskets available at the funeral home feature adjustable mattresses, pillows, and fabric that drapes over the edges. This allows the funeral director to make adjustments to the positioning of the deceased, allowing them to look comfortable while in state.  I posted a piece on the stagecraft involved in viewings in April  'Embalming Part 3: Stagecraft'.   If you are still interested and confident after reading this, pay a visit to your local undertaker and ask to take a close careful look at the features and dimensions that standard caskets have, and decide if you have the skills to incorporate them into your own casket.

In any case, at the time of death, your undertaker will ask your family to sign a waiver releasing the funeral home from liability should your handiwork fall apart on the way to the grave, or fail to fit inside the vault.


This weekend, I was at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's 'Return to Function' exhibit which, along with some other witty pieces, featured an Ikea style casket, by artist Joe Scanlan, that looked just like the Swedish furniture that many of us have had to put together at one time or another.  Anyone who has had to move this furniture will attest to the fact that it falls apart even without one hundred or more pounds of cargo inside.   For more of Mr. Scanlan's work visit the site of his gallery, Galerie Chez Valentin.

Making your own headstone is not quite my department, but here are some basic issues to consider:

  • What kind of materials , dimensions and footings are acceptable at the cemetery?
  • Will anyone be able to engrave information on the marker without ruining it after it's installed?
  • Who will the cemetery allow to install the marker?

Many people have their markers installed before death, and if you are making your own, I would recommend installing it and enjoying it right away.  A neighbor of mine had a boulder that she loved and was able to get the local monument company to engrave and set it for her.  It looks great.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Contact Me

My photo
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. dailyundertaker@gmail.com