Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Brief History of the Dead: Kevin Brockmeier Explores the Afterlife

How we look at life has a lot to do with what we believe will happen when we die. It is an interesting exercise to think about what may happen, and it is instructive to learn what others expect to find. In doing so, we learn a lot about the motivations of others and gain a new perspective on our own assumptions. In his novel, The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier explores the themes of life, death, and afterlife. He paints a vivid picture of the city of the dead, whose inhabitants know as little about the nature of their situation and what lies ahead of them as the living do. As the story alternates between the worlds of the living and the dead, inhabitants of each are shown to depend upon one another for quite a lot. Both struggle to find meaning and to understand their situation, but when the world of the living starts to empty out due to a massive epidemic, they are each lead to some unavoidable conclusions.

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From the prayers and intercessions of Catholics, to the burning of paper money in the Chinese tradition, many cultures share a belief that the fate of the dead depends, in some degree, upon the actions of the living. It is often said at funerals that the dead live on in our memories, and in Brockmeier's novel, this becomes the literal truth as the inhabitants of the afterlife depend upon the memories of the living for their very existence.

death dying book

Beyond this fascinating premise, The Brief History of the Dead includes some very well developed and interesting characters and explores the vastness and power of our memories and dreams. For more about the book, visit the interactive Random House web page devoted to the book and its characters.
Images via Amazon

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Sympathy Note: Advice from the Art of Manliness Blog

death ritual

In previous posts, I have shared some of my own thoughts and the work of others on the very important topic of what to say to the grieving. Yesterday on the consistently useful and interesting "Art of Manliness" website, writers Brett and Kate McKay gave some of the best advice I've read on the subject. In discussing the art of writing a sympathy note, and sharing their own experience in receiving sympathy notes after the loss of a child, they demonstrate the importance of writing these notes and give a great tutorial on how to do it. Most of this advice is just as useful when talking to the bereaved. Here's a taste. For the full text, visit The Art of Manliness.

death ritual

How to Write a Sympathy Note

Use nice stationery. Casual notes can be written on whatever is handy. But the sympathy note requires something nicer. Death is the gravest of matters and your medium should reflect your respect for the weight of the situation.

Keep it short and simple. A lot of men can’t get started writing because they think they have to come up with something deep and philosophical about death, dying, and hope. While the bad news is that there’s nothing you can write to take away a person’s pain, the good news is that the grieving friend knows this just as well as you do. They’re not expecting something profound. They just want to know that you’re thinking of them and feeling for them.

Start off by expressing your sadness at hearing about the death. “I was so sorry to hear about the death of your father.”

Share a memory. There’s not much you can do to alleviate someone’s grief, but sharing a memory of the deceased person comes close. It gives the person a few moments to laugh and remember. And it warms their heart to know that others have special memories of their loved one that they carry with them. Share some of the special qualities and favorite memories about the deceased.

If you didn’t know the person your friend lost, then skip this step. If your friend lost a baby, tell them that you understand that even though your friend never got to meet their child, they’re grieving over the loss of the future they’ve been dreaming about with him or her.

Don’t try to explain the loss. If you’re a religious person, don’t offer platitudes like “This is God’s plan,” or “This is God’s will.” This might be something the person comes to believe in the future, but in the midst of their grief, the idea of God snatching their loved one from the earth is liable to piss them off. I knew a guy who lost his wife in a car accident, leaving him to raise his 5 young children alone. He said to me, “If I hear one more person say, ‘God needed her more in heaven,’ I’m going to knock them out.”

Don’t compare your loss with theirs. This is especially true if you haven’t experienced the exact same thing. If their child has died, don’t tell them how you know what they’re going through because your dog just expired last week. You’ll come off as callous and tick them off. If you have experienced a similar loss, a reference to your ability to truly sympathize is appropriate. But don’t go on and on about how you felt during that time; the focus should remain on the other person.

Show your solidarity. Let them know that you’re thinking and praying for them. If you or your friend or family member is not religious and a reference to prayer would not be appropriate, simply say, “My heart and thoughts go out to you during this difficult time.”

Close by offering your help. Let the person know that if there is anything you can do for them or if they ever want to talk or hang out, to please let you know.

Photos: The Art of Manliness, Books do Furnish a Room

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fireman’s Urn is a Work of Love: The Final Honor

fireman funeral death ritual
Edward D. Hamilton, Jr. was a special guy. When he died, his family and friends held a wonderful and meaningful service for him. After he was cremated, his wife Nancie wanted to place his remains in a wonderful and meaningful urn. She couldn’t find the right one, so she made it herself.
Ed was a volunteer fireman for 32 years in Nutley, New Jersey. Although he would have liked to work full time as a firefighter, the demands of supporting his family lead him to work in other fields during his time with the department. While working in Nutley, it was easy for him to respond to fires as they broke out, but later, even when working out of town, he still found ways to help out when the department really needed him. He would leave his radio at home with Nancie. When a demanding fire broke out in Nutley, she would call him, and Ed would drive the 45 minutes back to home to help. Ed was a civic minded man who gave a great deal of help and support to his community, his department, his family, and friends. Although he was usually a white collar worker, he would often ‘turn his collar around’ to listen and help with the concerns of his co-workers.
death ceremony cremation
Ed's sons, Dave and Chris with Chief Tom Peters

One of the many places Ed worked over the years was at Irvine Cozzarelli Memorial Home in Belleville for high school buddy, Jimmy Cozzarelli. When he died in September of 2003, Nancie arranged for services with Mr. Cozzarelli. She was grateful for the caring and personalized services her family received from their old friend, the stories they shared, and the incredible outpouring of support shown to them from their community during the day and a half of visitation when the line of guests ran out the door.

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The fire truck carrying Ed pulls out from the Irvine Cozzarelli Memorial Home in Belleville
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Dave and Chris on the back of the engine carrying their father
The Nutley firefighters provided a color guard two fire trucks for the procession. Ed and Nancie’s sons, firefighters themselves, rode on the truck for their father’s last ride. The meaning and symbolism of this procession continues to be a powerful and emotional memory for Nancie, who can still picture her sons in their uniforms riding on the fire truck with their father.
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The Fire Department Salutes Ed. His turnout and helmet stand before them

Nancie was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from friends and even people she never expected to see at the service, but she was in a fog and busy looking after others instead of accepting support for herself. She suggests that grieving families allow others to help them and refrain from telling callers that they are ‘all right’ when they really just need someone to talk with.
Following services, Ed was cremated, and though she was offered many choices for Ed’s urn, Nancie felt that none would reflect his personality well enough. Eventually, she brought Ed home in a temporary container and experienced a fear of opening up Ed’s temporary urn. She knew her fear was irrational, but it was there nonetheless. I think that many people in her situation experience the same thing. They do not know what they will find, and that unknown can be intimidating. Before long, Nancie overcame her fear and was relieved to find that no disembodied ‘Addams family hand’ popped out. Now she needed to find a place for Ed and it had to be the right place. She wanted the urn to fit the person Ed was, something that would pay tribute to him and ‘do him justice’.
fireman funeral death ritual
Driving past Nutley Headquarters

Many firefighters are collectors of objects that remind them of their passion, and Nancie found inspiration in an antique copper fire extinguisher that had been converted into a lamp. Being a firefighter had been such an important part of his life that it seemed fitting. After disassembling the lamp and experiencing a few hurdles in the task of inurnment, Ed’s cremated remains were placed inside the two foot tall extinguisher. Having finally found the right place for Ed’s cremated remains, Nancie experienced a sense of peace. She also found a new purpose; to help the families of other firefighters by providing them with similar urns.
It was no easy task for a novice to find a fabricator for her design, a scaled-down version of the antique extinguisher, but Nancy persevered, and after many trials, was able to produce the ‘Final Honor’ urn. Ed’s cremated remains have since been transferred to the new model, which, at 13 ½” high and 5 ¾” in diameter is a more appropriate size for cremated remains than the original antique. This urn also has considerable heft, weighing 9.6 lbs. empty. Nancie has found comfort in the presence of Ed’s urn, next to the hearth in her living room. She knows that wherever she moves, she can take Ed with her.
fireman funeral cremation ritual
Carefully lifting the casket off the engine
In talking with Nancie, I found that I had a great deal of respect for her. Her husband’s cremated remains are very precious to her, and she would not settle with putting them just anywhere, it had to be right. She held out until she could find the right place, and then went about the long and difficult process of making it available for others. I wonder how many people told her she was crazy or it wouldn’t sell, or it couldn’t be made for a reasonable price anywhere. Nonetheless, she believed in herself and what she was doing, and, after almost 6 years, has succeeded in creating a wonderful urn. What I like most about this piece is that it isn’t some designer’s idea of what might sell, it’s an expression of a woman’s love for her husband, and it shows.

fireman funeral death ceremony

The Final Honor Urn

When I meet with families who choose cremation, I try to impress upon them what a great variety of different urns there are to choose from. A funeral home cannot possibly keep an example of each on hand, but we have catalogues full of different designs; from scattering urns to memory chests to urns that celebrate many different passions and interests. I try to keep some interesting pieces like the ‘Final Honor’ on hand to stretch the imaginations of family members. Their loved one may not have been a firefighter, but if they see something like this, they understand that there will be something out there for them too. Some want a bell jar, and some want a one of a kind sculpture. What’s important is that the urn is a meaningful container for the person whose remains rest there. Rest in Peace, Ed.
For more information on the Final Honor Urn, visit Nancie’s web site
Service Photo credit - Joyce Frese

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Parking Lot: Dedication to Larry Burman

death ritual
On August 30th, we held a ceremony dedicating the new parking lot at the Olson-Holzhuter-Cress Funeral Home in Stoughton, in the memory of a beloved employee and friend, Larry Burman. A parking lot may seem like an odd thing to dedicate, but as Pastor Richard Halom noted in his opening address, a well constructed parking lot may not be a glamorous thing like a bridge or an ocean liner, but it makes life nicer for everyone, and welcomes them in to where they are going. Larry was like that. He wasn't flashy and didn't need to be the center of attention, but his smile, wit and gentle helpfulness made difficult days easier for his co-workers and the families we serve.
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The Rev. Richard Halom addresses the gathering of Larry's friends and family

In this business, there are many stressful deadlines and concerns, but nothing like that ever seemed to phase Larry. He was always smiling and in a good mood, and usually had some choice wise-cracks along the way. He took care of everything that needed to be done even before any of us thought to do it. We knew that if Larry was on the job, everything would go well, and we’d have a good time too. Larry wasn’t a funeral director, but he could certainly run a funeral better than most of the funeral directors out there. What always amazed me about Larry was how fast he moved - even though he suffered from arthritis. When he came to work in the morning it seemed like he was hopping out of his car and ready to go - even before the car came to a full stop. The only time I ever saw Larry upset was when he came in one day to tell us about the seriousness of his illness. He wanted so much to be around long enough to hold his new grandchild.
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Following Pastor, I shared some memories of Larry and performed the dedication

Larry had a wonderful and humorous take on everything, and he referred to everything as a ‘doo-hinkus’. Larry had a sharp wit- he didn’t suffer foolishness, and you always knew how he felt about something, but it was always good natured, and he was willing to laugh at himself as well. One night, we were working a visitation, standing to the side and visiting, and Larry looked down towards the floor and started laughing. It seems that when he got up in the morning it must have still been dark, and he put on one brown shoe and one black one. He laughed about that for a long time and he even made a point to tell the family about it –which I know brightened up the evening for them.

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Larry's Plaque and Monument sit in a garden planter in the parking lot

Larry had a great love for his family. He was always talking about them, and you could tell that he cared deeply for them. Larry’s wife Pat, and their children and grandchildren are wonderful people just like Larry. When Larry died, I can only imagine what his family was going through, but when we got out to his house, I’m not sure if I was helping the family through things, or if they were helping me, because that’s the kind of gracious giving people they are. I know that Larry loved them very much.

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Gathering in the funeral home to share memories after the dedication

Because Larry was so good at so many things, he was always in great demand for all sorts of projects at all of the Cress locations. So, it was natural that he took the lead when we needed a new parking lot. We took a lot of bids to resurface in asphalt, but Larry was smart enough to realize when D.W. Nelson Concrete of Stoughton gave us a great bid for doing it in concrete, that this was the best choice in terms of quality and cost effectiveness for the long term. On Larry’s recommendation, we went with Nelson’s bid, and I know that Larry would have been very pleased with the work they did for us.

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Larry's wife Pat, stands with me at the close of the service

And so, we found it fitting to dedicate our parking lot in the loving memory of our friend Larry Burman. The plaque that now rests in the garden planter area of the lot, generously donated by Wisconsin Monument of Stoughton, will be a reminder to us of Larry’s wonderful spirit; cheering us up as we go out to services, reminding us as we come back in the afternoon why we do this work, warming us with his memory as we stand out parking cars on the cold winter days, and in a special way, we know that Larry will still be the first one here in the morning.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Skip Johnson: Former Boy Wonder, and All Around Good Guy

art death

C.R. Skip Johnson, a wonderfully unique, sweet, witty and irreverent man, passed away on Wednesday morning. Skip was a world renowned woodworker and a respected and beloved educator. In January, I posted a story by Doug Moe, about the cemetery Skip built on his farm. It consists of styrofoam monuments that mark the passing of things like 2 cent library fines, 5 cent beers, and Skip's neckties. And now I am saying goodbye to him.

art death ritual
Stoughton- C.R. Skip Johnson, former boy wonder, passed away at HospiceCare in Fitchburg at age 81, on Wednesday, September 9, 2009. He was born in Painted Post, NY on June 14, 1928, a son of Murray and Wilma (Reynolds) Johnson. Skip served his country in the Navy, where he met his wife, Joan Lage. Skip and Joan were united in marriage on December 15, 1951. Skip was one of the first three graduates of the Wood Program at RIT, and continued his education at many places, including the UW Madison, where he was a professor of woodworking from 1967 until his retirement. Even after retirement, Skip continued his role as an educator in all aspects of his life. He was a wonderfully creative man with a great sense of humor, and was loved by all who knew him. In addition to being a world renowned master woodworker and a master of hi-jinks, Skip enjoyed horse shoes, gardening, travel, curling, and beer. He is survived by his son, Christofer (Michelle) Johnson; daughter, Kari Jo (Tim) Radl; sister-in-law, JoAnn Johnson; and nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his son, Eric; wife, Joan; and brother, Don. A celebration of Skip’s life will be held on Saturday, September 12, 2009 from 3:00 to 6:00 pm at the Johnson Homestead. Memorials in Skip’s name may be made to Penland School of Crafts, or to public radio station WORT.

art death ceremony
A funny thing happened on the way to Skip's obituary. His family gave me the choice of the three photos shown here to use in the newspaper. It took me about 30 seconds to decide that opening the newspaper to the obituary section and seeing Skip with his tongue sticking out, would bring a smile to his many many friends. Unfortunately, a hour after the deadline, I got a frantic call from the newspaper.
"My editor is having a heart attack over this picture! He says it's sacrilegious and disrespectful, and he will not run it under any circumstances. Could you please send us a different picture?"

So, Skipper, I'm sorry, but we wouldn't want to give a newspaper editor a heart attack would we? Instead, I sent in the handsome picture at the top of this post. I must say, though, that no one ever wants to be seen on the obituary page, no matter how handsome the picture is. I know that Skip didn't want to die, and none of us wanted him to die either. Quite simply, death and dying suck. And while sticking your tongue out at death won't stop it from coming, it can still make you feel a little better.

It is a difficult thing for an undertaker to care for a friend, but it is also a great honor, and a wonderful opportunity to perform one last act of kindness for someone you love.
Skip, I am grateful for your friendship, for your many gifts to this world, and for the opportunity to take you back home one last time.
October 14 update: Here is another article
about Skip by Doug Moe - "A toast to the man who kept a beer bottle in his back

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Making Cemeteries Relevant: Part 2, Innovation in Toronto

In recent years, more and more families have chosen to scatter their cremated remains in scenic or meaningful spots because a cemetery was not the kind of place they wanted to place them or visit them. The gothic rows of markers and monuments are no longer relevant to many families.They have become reminders of death when families want reminders of life. Even those who still make use of the traditional cemetery don’t often spend much time there after the burial.
funeral cemeteries
Unfortunately, something very important has been lost in this transition, and most of us don’t even realize what we’re missing. We need a place to come to for comfort during difficult times, to mark special occasions, to feel a connection, and often, to maintain a relationship and dialogue with our loved ones. When that place is accessible, and comfortable for us, we develop a connection with the place that strengthens the connection we have with our loved one. The challenge for cemeteries today, is to provide the kind of environment and features that will not only meet the needs of families when death occurs, but bring them back again and again to maintain the connection with their loved one.
This is what Norris Zucchet and his team have accomplished at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. When Mr. Zucchet came on board as CEO of this Cemetery organization, he faced two serious challenges, his flagship cemetery was running out of room (it was projected that there was only room enough for a few more years of burials), and the cemetery was not a place that interested the fastest growing segment of his market. Similar challenges are faced by many funeral homes and cemeteries, but unlike most, the Mount Pleasant team did their homework. They conducted extensive research to determine what options and features would appeal to their customer base, and brought in new ideas and techniques from other industries. By truly listening to families and finding ways to serve them better, they were able to make their cemetery relevant. They created the kind of environment that reminds families of life, nature and the spirit of their loved ones. Not only that, they were able to extend the lifespan of their cemeteries and transform underutilized space into highly sought after areas for the burial, interment and scattering of cremated remains.

funeral cemeteries
Cremation Garden
The cremation garden at Mount Pleasant incorporates many features that were researched and market tested by Mr. Zucchet's team. It offers many different options for interment and memorialization. Research showed that the families in Toronto want this kind of variation, serenity and liveliness. Landscape architects and contractors used ideas and techniques from residential projects and other disciplines in creating this inviting space. The water features, natural beauty, and intimate areas are a sharp contrast to the traditional cemetery design. This is the kind of environment that brings families to the cemetery and encourages them to come back again.
funeral cemeteriesMemorial plaques are incorporated into the railing.
The Mount Pleasant team remained flexible as they implemented their designs. A code mandated bridge railing was transformed by the addition of memorial plaques. Many families, who have scattered cremated remains in a distant place, find that they need a setting like this where they can visit and connect with their loved one. The plaques are a response to this need.
funeral cemeteries
Market research determined that families wanted indoor and outdoor options throughout the seasons. This conservatory incorporates columbarium niches into the pillars that support the vented glass roof. Even during the harsh Ontario winters, it is a place filled with warmth, light and life.
While many of the options, such as the conservatory, are unique to Mount Pleasant, similar ideas are taking root other leading cemeteries. In fact, the Mount Pleasant team visited many innovative cemeteries all over North America before putting their plan together. What I find most noteworthy, though, is that they didn't just see some great ideas and incorporate them into a design - they gave their community choices and asked them what they wanted. This is the approach that is often missing from funeral service and cemeteries; listening.
Tastes and customs change. One family will have different ideas from the next. One region will follow different traditions than another. However, when we make the effort to listen and respond with creativity and compassion, we will always remain relevant to the families we serve.
To read Part 1 of this series, visit
For more information on the Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries, visit
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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.