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


Lenette said...

Very interesting article Pat. Makes me wonder about the growing Muslim community in that part of the country, especially since Muslims don't practice cremation. Numbers are hard to come by, but several years ago it was estimated that 70,000-80,000 Muslims resided in the Twin Cities.

Patrick McNally said...

Thanks for your comment, Lenette. I can't speak for the Twin Cities, but in the Madison, WI area, where I work, Muslims have only one option. One cemetery accommodates them with a section that allows for burial inside a bottomless grave box that is filled with earth, and then topped off with a cement lid (not what they would like, but as close as they can get). Arranging for a burial is very difficult and the hours of operation are not conducive to their traditions, which proscribe burial immediately following the washing ritual, and within 24 hours of death. This is the difference between accommodating and catering to your clients, and in an industry that faces such a grim (sorry) future, this level of customer service is deplorable. I tried to help this community in setting up their own cemetery but it is difficult to convince a town board to allow a new cemetery to be established because they would be responsible for maintaining it if the current owners decide to move away. Businesses that want to stay in business, let alone relevant, must cater to their clients, not just accommodate them.

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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. dailyundertaker@gmail.com