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Ten Things to Hate about Me

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About a week ago I posted “Ten Things We Use When Embalming”.  And just like previous posts that touch the sacred cow of embalming, I was burned (mostly by other funeral directors).  Here’s an example:   CONFESSIONS OF A FUNERAL DIRECTOR » Ten Things We Use When Embalming

Wow.

Okay.

Um …

I get it.  I put myself out on facebook, twitter and my blog and not everyone will like me.

In addition to that remark, this last month has brought some disapproving assessments such as “You’re a disgrace to the funeral industry.”, “You should quit.”,  “(your content) shouts inappropriate and trashy” and that I’m “completely nuts.”   Because the value of the conversation about death and funerals outweighs the negative comments, I’m okay with the criticism.  In fact, I welcome it, knowing that criticism and even hate are all apart of this important conversation.

But, if you’re gonna hate, let me help.  Let me help by attempting to put your feelings into words.  I think we can have a better conversation if you know WHY you hate me.  So, here are ten:

One.  I represent a rather avant-garde approach to death and funerals.

I like tradition.  Most of us do.  Tradition becomes a part of who we are.  And when some young guy like me comes along and starts talking about and questioning a part of your tradition, it’s like I’m questioning and talking about you.  It’s like I’m demeaning you and your tribe.

Two.  I don’t treat death as sacred as you might like me to.

In my opinion, death and the funeral industry aren’t like the sacred Ark of the Covenant … something that can only be talked about and handled by the professionals … something that’s hidden behind layers of veils.  I’ve removed the veil.  I don’t treat it like it’s a distant abstraction.  I think it’s real and near.  I weave humor into it.  I don’t think it’s only for the professionals.  In fact, I think – in one way or another – we all have a right to talk about it.  And yes, even Tweet about it.

Three.  I’m a millennial.  A “young person”.  A part of the “net generation.”  

I just make the millennial cut.

I do not see things in absolutes like you may.  I see the world differently.  I’m not looking for metanarratives; I don’t believe that one size fits all, and so I don’t believe one type of funeral ritual is good for all.  I see multiple stories, many narratives and I realize that each narrative, each community is looking for something different in both life and death.

Four. I’m writing my blog for the “net generation.”

My generation isn’t interested in the funeral business as much as they’re interested in the people of the funeral business.  I – my story, my narrative, my life, my thoughts – will be the foundation of my sustainability as a funeral director.  Not necessarily marketing, the new “personalized” merchandise, the next great package or even an awesome webpage (my website looks as dated as a Nokia clam shell).  My story — good and bad — will shape my future in this industry.  And being able to tell that story in social media is the means to that end.

Five.  I’m willing to be transparent. 

Maybe even too transparent?  Because I think transparency is akin to vulnerability.  And vulnerability is one of the keys to connecting with people who breath the internet.

Six.  I’m a bronie.

Just kidding.  Okay, maybe I like My Little Ponies a tiny, tiny bit.

Seven.  I like Mother Earth.

I don’t think that this world is something we should use and abuse because there’s another, better world in the life beyond.  I don’t think earth is a playground that we can mess up because REAL life starts after this one.  I believe this world is special … that we should treat it as such.  And while I serve, honor and respect people who want embalming, I’m moving towards natural burial as a more environmentally friendly and psychologically healthy method of disposition.

Eight.  I’m a heretic.

Yes, my desire to move away from industrialized funerals, including embalming, is considered heresy for some.  You’re welcome to burn me on social media.  Just don’t use real fire.  Please.  I have skins.  I burns.  It hurts.

Nine.  It’s not just that I’m writing for the younger generation, it’s also that I’m young and I have a platform.

I’m not using my platform to “tell everyone how it SHOULD be done.”   I’m sharing my thoughts and inviting a conversation.  I want the conversation, even if it leads down a path I’m not comfortable with.  Just so we’re clear.  And yes, I’m young.  I’m 33.

Ten.  I like Nickelback, The Twilight Series and … I’m not a big fan of cats.  Sorry.

I Don’t Smile When I Embalm Bodies

***I originally wrote this post last fall***

The other day a contentious discussion brewed on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook page.  And I’d like to address the topic in my blog’s forum.

The discussion was kick-started when I posted this status:

The second comment on the above status was from a fellow embalmer named Allison, who said this:

Allison’s initial comment eventual prompted this comment from a former embalmer named Kristie.

 

First off, let me say it’s possible for an embalmer to be both 100% for tissue/organ donation and not enjoy the process of preparing a donor.  It’s possible for us to be both professionals and human.  I’m one such funeral director.  I am firmly and unequivocally a supporter of those who choose to find life in a tragic death, and yet when a donor body comes through the morgue door, it’s not Christmas morning.

I know that the best donors are usually young and they usually die from tragic (not necessarily violent) circumstances that leave their body in decent condition to be harvested.

I have immense respect for families who — in the midst of incredible tragedy and darkness — find a way to overcome their pain and chose life by allowing for the harvesting of a body they love so dearly.  This act of donation is one of the few genuinely unselfish acts to be found in humanity.

Yet, while I recognize the intense moral beauty and life saving value of organ donation, I’m less than excited to embalm and prepare a donor’s bodies.

Each funeral home and funeral director is different.  Some funeral homes are large enough to have shift work; still others are large enough to employ full-time embalmers, who basically embalm body after body all day.  Some funeral homes have secretaries, prearrangement directors, at-need directors, full-time pick-up people, etc., etc.  But for many of us small firms, we play role of embalmer, secretary, pick-up/livery person, funeral director, at-need director and pre-need director.  We’re on call 24/7 and rarely have an uninterrupted holiday.

Our personal lives are not just blurred with our professional lives, they become one and the same, often resulting in sad endings.  Divorce.  Depression.  Burnout.

Our pay doesn’t always justify what this profession takes from us.  According to the BLS, the average embalmer makes $45,060, which isn’t bad until you consider that the salary often comes at the expense of our souls.  I’ve worked 20 hour days.  I’ve worked 100 hour weeks.  Most months I get two days off.

I was up until 12 midnight writing this post and then at 3:30 AM I was called into work.  I won’t be finished work until roughly 5:30 PM.

Here’s a picture of me at the nursing home at 4:40 this morning.  The smile is real … the nurses were making fun of me for taking the photo.

And although this isn’t about me and the burdens I carry, I will say that my experience isn’t exceptional.  The at-need demand, emotional and long hours take their toll on us as people.

So, when the heart is donated and I have to raise six arteries instead of one, I don’t smile.

When there’s bone donation, I don’t look forward to moving the Styrofoam rods around to make the appendages look natural.

When skin is grafted, I don’t smile when I’m cleaning the seepage off the floor.

When I get various liquids on myself because of the intrinsic messy nature of donor bodies, my face doesn’t crack a grin.

Unless I’m listening to stand-up comedy on the morgue’s radio, I don’t embalm bodies with a smile.

I appreciate Kristie’s assertion that she has never thought about complaining when preparing a body.  And I appreciate that she always sees it as an honor.  I will be the first to admit that Kristie is probably a better person and funeral director than I am.  Maybe her suggestion to Allison (that Allison should find another profession) applies to me as well.

But, I, in contrast to Kristie, think it does us funeral directors well to be honest.  Maybe not in a public forum like I’m doing now, but we need to recognize that we’re both professionals and human.  We love to serve you, but there’s times when we too need to be helped.  We need to fight that perception that to be a professional means being an unfeeling robot.  We need to ask for help, sometimes we need to seek counselling.  If you’re a funeral director and you don’t embalm donor bodies with a smile, it’s okay.

 

 

Alkaline Hydrolysis: Water Cremation and the “Ick Factor”

By Traci Rylands

Today’s guest post is a little graphic in describing how cremation works.

I recently wrote about the history of cremation in America and how it’s becoming more popular every year. However, an alternative form of cremation is gaining attention that’s truly different. Resomation, bio-cremation and flameless cremation are a few of the buzzwords used, but the scientific name for the procedure is alkaline hydrolysis (AH).

So how do you cremate a body without a fire?

DISSOLVING BODIES FIX

This graphic from Resomation, Ltd. explains the alkaline hydrolysis process. The company was founded in 2007 in Glasgow, Scotland by Sandy Sullivan. Ironically, AH is still not legal in the U.K. at this time.

Alkaline hydrolysis is a water-based chemical resolving process using strong alkali in water at temperatures of up to 350F (180C), which quickly reduces the body to bone fragments. Experts say it’s basically a very accelerated version of natural decomposition that occurs to the body over many years after it is buried in the soil.

AH was originally developed in Europe in the 1990s as a method of disposing of cows infected with mad cow disease. In England, AH for humans is not fully legalized yet. It’s usually referred to as resomation there because the commercial process was first introduced and trademarked by Resomation, Ltd. They received the Jupiter Big Idea Award (from actor Colin Firth, no less) at the 2010 Observer Ethical Awards.

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Yes, that’s Colin Firth (aka Mr. Darcy) on the end. He presented the Jupiter Big Idea Award to Resomation, Ltd. at the 2010 The Observer Ethical Awards. The firm’s founder, Sandy Sullivan, is standing to his left. Photo courtesy of The Observer.

The University of Florida and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota already use AH to dispose of cadavers. It’s not surprising that both states were among the first to legalize its use. The other states are Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, Kansas, Maine and Maryland.

But why would someone want to do what amounts to liquifying the body with lye instead of traditional cremation? Some people worry about the carbon footprint left behind by traditional cremation. AH is supposed to remove that problem.

In the traditional process that uses fire, cremating one corpse requires two to three hours and more than 1,800 degrees of heat. That’s enough energy to release 573 lbs. of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to environmental analysts. In many cases, dental compounds such as fillings also go up in smoke, sending mercury vapors into the air unless the crematorium has a chimney filter.

During AH, a body is placed in a steel chamber along with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide. Air pressure inside the vessel is increased to about 145 pounds per square inch, and the temperature is raised to about 355F. After two to three hours, the corpse is reduced to bones that are then crushed into a fine, white powder. That dust can be scattered by families or placed in an urn. Dental fillings are separated out for safe disposal.

Anthony A. Lombardi, division manager for Matthews Cremation, demonstrates a bio-cremation (AH) machine. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel.

Anthony A. Lombardi, division manager for Matthews Cremation, demonstrates a bio-cremation (AH) machine. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/The Orlando Sentinel.

AH is purported to use about one-seventh of the energy required for traditional cremation. Some studies indicate that AH could save 30-million board feet of hardwood each year from cremation coffins. That’s very attractive to some people. However, one question remains. What happens to what’s leftover from the process (besides the ashes)?

That’s when the “Ick Factor” comes in.

Leftover liquids – including acids and soaps from body fat – plus the added water and chemicals, are disposed of through a waste water treatment process, according to John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

In other words, it goes down the drain like everything else.

“It’s very similar to the treatment of excess water from any (industrial) facility. In fact, it probably has less of a chemical signature than would you find (in liquids) coming out of most (industrial) plants,” Ross said.

Ryan Cattoni, funeral director at AquaGreen Dispositions LLC, offers the first "flameless cremation" in Illinois. Photo courtesy of  Brian Jackson/The Sun-Times.

Ryan Cattoni, funeral director at AquaGreen Dispositions LLC, offers the first “flameless cremation” in Illinois. Photo courtesy of Brian Jackson/The Sun-Times.

Still, the visual picture that creates is not very attractive. In fact, a 2008 article about AH said the thick coffee-colored liquid left behind resembles motor oil and has a strong ammonia smell. Not exactly something you want to put on a colorful marketing brochure.

AH became legal in Colorado in 2011. Steffani Blackstone, executive director of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, spoke frankly about the “Ick Factor” when legislation to approve AH was being crafted.

“People seem to have objections when they actually think about that too long. They ask: ‘Well what happens? Does (the body) turn to sludge?’ And the thought of grandma being sludge is kind of disgusting to them.”

Some have compared the remaining processed liquid after AH to motor oil. That's not an image most people want to have in their head when remembering a loved on. Photo courtesy of Alf van Beem/Museum terug in de tijd, the Netherlands.

While currently legal in only eight states, the movement to make it so in others is real. In New York, the legislation became known as “Hannibal Lechter’s Bill.” New Hampshire legalized AH in 2006 but banned it a year later. In Ohio, the Catholic Church is a vocal opponent to AH and it has yet to be fully approved there.

Jeff Edwards, an Ohio funeral director who performed several AH procedures before being told to stop, filed a lawsuit in March 2011 against the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors after ODH quit issuing permits for AH body disposals. A judge ruled that ODH and the board had the authority to determine what is an acceptable form of disposition of a human body, as set forth in the Ohio Revised Code.

The cost of an AH machine can range from $200,000 to $400,000, depending on its size and capacity. That hefty price tag did not stop Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, Fla., from becoming the first in the state to purchase one to provide AH to their clients. They refer to AH as “flameless cremation”.

Funeral home president and owner John McQueen said in a 2011 article that he planned to charge clients the same prices for AH cremations as the traditional ones, which can cost from $1,000 to $2,000.

Anderson McQueen became the first funeral home in Florida to offer alkaline hydrolysis to its clients. They call it "flameless cremation".

Anderson McQueen became the first funeral home in Florida to offer alkaline hydrolysis to its clients. They call it “flameless cremation”.

So what do I think? In the end, traditional cremation sends its byproducts up into the air. AH sends them into the water for treatment. Which is better for the environment? I don’t know. I’m not fond of the idea of being burned up or liquified, especially the latter. The “Ick Factor” does give me pause.

A pine box in the cemetery still sounds better to me.

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Todays’ guest post is written by Traci Rylands of Atlanta, Ga.  Traci writes, “I’m a photo volunteer for Findagrave.com, a database of cemeteries around the world. I enjoy learning about the stories of those individuals whose graves I find while educating others about death and dying.”

Please visit Traci’s blog, “Adventures in Cemetery Hopping.”

You can also like her blog on Facebook.  And follow her on Twitter.

When Embalming is Beautiful

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THIS IS A STOCK PHOTO TAKEN FROM A FLOWER ARRANGEMENT WEBSITE.

Death sits in paradox.  In it we find impossible co-mixtures of intrinsic opposites.  Perhaps, this is why death is the muse of so many philosophers and theologians.

For example, in death we find the cohabitation of utter darkness and blinding light.  The darkness of separation, of grief, of powerlessness; and yet the light of community, of togetherness and the power of love.

In death we find the conflicting desire for both words and silence.  There’s everything to be said and yet nothing to be spoken.

We find the mixture of both the sacred and the profane.  We curse, we fight within ourselves and without.  Within the same breath, we both curse deity and praise the divine.  In death, we find our most earthly reality and yet our most transcendent thoughts all jumbled together.

And in death, we find both the repulsive and the beautiful.  This tension of paradox in death is perhaps nowhere more apparent in the gruesome and yet beautiful art of embalming.

The needles, the scalpels, the trocar, the rending of human flesh, the blood, the visceral fanning, the embalming fluid (I recently documented some of this process in this blog post, “Ten Things We Use When Embalming”).  Even without embalming, death is repulsive to our daily sensibilities: the skin skip, the defecation, the bloating, the decomposition.

****

I don’t like embalming children.  I suppose no embalmer enjoys it.  Although some embalmers, because of years of building up an immunity to the sight, tolerate it more than others.  I can’t tolerate it.  The fact that my wife and I are infertile has — for some reason — made me extra sensitive to the sight of dead children … or at least that’s the reason I give for the sickness I feel when seeing a child’s corpse.

He was three years old.  An all too young victim of cancer.  I returned from the Children’s Hospital with his withered corpse and found my grandfather — dressed in his embalming gear — awaiting me in the morgue.  That day we had a couple death calls and I had other work to do, so I left my grandfather alone to embalm this young body that had been emaciated by the cancer and the chemo.  In fact, I didn’t even offer to assist my grandfather because I knew the embalming experience would put me in a horrible mood for the rest of the week.

Two hours later I stuck my head in the morgue to peak at my grandfather’s results.  And what I saw was nothing like the boy I had brought back from the hospital.  His skin, which had been a greenish tone, was now a healthy looking flesh tone.  All the indentations on his face from the breathing machines, all the tube and machine imprints that had marked his body had been worked out by my grandfather’s expert work.  Even the boy’s weight looked more natural, as the embalming filled out the weight the cancer had taken.

“It’s the good Lord!”, my grandfather responded when I complimented the embalming job.  “He always helps me through the tough ones”, he exclaimed.

**** 

The day of the service came.  The boy was dressed in a freshly bought suit and laid out in his small, white casket.  Flowers from his family flanked either side.  My grandfather had worked tirelessly getting the clothes and makeup just right.  And I could tell, by the tired look on his face, that this had pushed him to his physical and emotional limits.

An hour before the public viewing started, the paternal and maternal grandparents and boy’s mom and dad all came into our funeral home’s little chapel together to have their small private viewing.  The tears started flowing.  My grandfather stood — as is his custom — right in the middle of the family, with his arms around the shoulders of whoever is closest to him.  Today, his arms were around the boy’s father and mother.

After a minute of staring in silent tears, the boy’s father embraced my grandfather.  Laying his head on my grandfather’s shoulder, he started sobbing and choking out the words, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you ….”

It’s a paradox, you see, how something so repulsive as embalming can create something so beautiful.

 

The Suicide Song I Wrote Back in 2004

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This song is not meant to condone suicide.  Rather, it is an attempt to empathize with those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, feeling and actions. 

I wrote and sang this song back in 2004 for a class project in my funeral service program. There’s a video that goes along with it (and was a rad amateur vid for 2004), but the video is rather violent. Be forewarned that it not only contains violence, but it also has a number of heavy curse words.  If you wish to bypass the video, you can just play the audio via SoundCloud.

The idea of the song is that some people’s lives are so messed up that they hope there’s a place where there is no existence.  It was inspired by a friend of mine in high school, who was abused as a child and used drugs to blunt the pain.  He was also raised in a Christian family and believed that his actions warranted hell.

His hope was that he could die and there would be neither heaven or hell, but simply nothing … a place where he can’t feel pain, hurt or even happiness.

The song itself starts at the 1 minute, 51 second mark.

Non-existence by Caleb Wilde

Suicide Video from Caleb Wilde on Vimeo.

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