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Keeping funeral history alive

      
Todd Van Beck's picture
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Well, I suspect by now that everyone in funeral service has heard the sad news about the funeral museum (the Museum of Funeral Customs) in Illinois. I have been trying to keep up with the difficult events that are happening in the Illinois Funeral Directors Association because I know so many funeral directors in that great state. I first want to express my feelings of concern for what they are experiencing. There are very many really great funeral directors in Illinois.

It appears that one of the temporary casualtities of the association's turmoil has been the closing of their museum, although tours still can be arranged by appointment. Yes, to be sure, this is not good news. Any closing of anything which helps people understand better what funeral service is all about is always a sad thing, and this museum did help people better understand funeral service. I will hope that in time a new life will emerge for the museum of funeral customs.

However, right now, this whole issue of history and funeral service history in particular has really captured my thought processes. The care of the dead has a history which is basically as long as is the experience of life on earth. Everything, everywhere has died, and anything that is so connected with the life story has to have a tremendously rich history. And to be sure, funeral service has a rich history, which as far as I can see is only represented by a smattering of funeral home exhibits and the museum in Houston and the one in Springifield.

I have always loved history and am reminded of Winston Churchill's quote: "Study history, study history, study history." Why? Because anyone who does not know and understand history is basically vulnerable to repeat past mistakes and errors which in these days can easily be catastrophic.

I am concerned, however, that history is not looming high on the priority list, and I will give you an example. I looked at the seminar list for the upcoming ICCFA convention in Vegas next month and I was immediately struck as to what a white elephant I was in the programing. This is not a complaint, but just look at the list of seminars (http://www.iccfa.com/convention/sessions.htm). Almost without exception (the exception being my seminar) the topics are high tech, infomercials, electronic arrangements, funerals on the Web, etc. Really good information for anyone looking into the future of funeral/cemetery work.

Then here comes my seminar: "The Funeral and Assassination of Abraham Lincoln." The other seminars are looking 144 years into the future, and I am looking 144 years in the past. However, because of what has happened to the Illinois museum, I am concerned about preserving our funeral/cemetery past as much as I am concerned about looking into the future. Don't you think they ought to go hand in hand? Possibly what is why the wise people who planned out the convention choose to put this old undertaker on the program. Maybe our history was calling out to them also?

My friends in funeral and cemetery service, think about this with me for a moment: When I was a student in Boston, I walked past the J.S. Waterman & Sons Funeral Home on Commonwealth Avenue everyday. Waterman's opened in 1838, when, guess what, Martin Van Buren was president of the United States! What other business in Boston or any other city could claim that history, and Waterman's is still doing funerals.

Yes, my friends, there is a story to tell and a good one, so let's all keep our fingers crossed that somehow, some way, the good folks in Illinois can resurrect their museum.

Anyway, that is one old undertaker's opinion.