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Baffling inconsistency--Are dead bodies important, or are they not?

      
Todd Van Beck's picture
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As I have gotten older I have discovered that in my beloved profession there seem to be some taboo subjects, some baffling issues which have dodged honest dialogue for years.

Can we make a quick list?  The issue of too many funeral homes is out there floating around; the issue of universal licensing has been out there floating around for a century – no solution; the issue of funeral service organizational fracturing is still floating around; the issue of cremation is still floating around. Well is just seems that there are a lot of issues, ancient issues, still floating around.  

However we have survived for years with these issues unresolved and I suspect we will survive for many years to come without any final resolution.  Can’t worry about things you can’t change.

When I do my travels, speaking, learning and talking with other professionals in the cemetery and funeral professions, one glaring issue seems to pop up its ugly head time after time but interestingly I have seen really nothing written per se about it, nor have I seen any seminars devoted to the topic, nor have I seen any study groups formed to address this issue and hence discover solutions. Hauntingly I have come to the conclusion that this one single issue might just be the number one challenge that our beloved profession is already facing – but facing in a cone of silence.

What is this monumental, all consuming, earth shattering issue you ask? Well here it is in a nutshell:  The unmistakable movement of our American culture from being body centered when a death occurs to being experience centered when a death occurs, and not in some isolated incidences, but today with a widening, ever-larger acceptance than ever before in death care history.

With all the talk and activities concerning catering funerals, memorial services at the shore and now green burials, the issue which has propelled these alternatives breaks down to one simple change – instead of being body-centered, many, many, many are embracing being experience centered.  

The consequences of this shift in funeral attitudes and values have been are profound.  Along with this shift, the “C” word, the corpse, has almost taken on pornographic proportions.  The word “corpse” upsets people, but that has not always been the case and we don’t have to return to ancient Egyptian funeral history to see this fact.

Let’s talk the old days for a moment.  There was a time, a not too distant past, when the dead body was at the epicenter of funeral activities.  Equal to the corpse was certainly the bereaved family but the dead body was right up there at the top also.  They seemed unquestionably to go hand in hand.

I remember, and am well aware this still happens today, that we literally spent hours upon hours restoring and beautifying dead people, and we were convinced (and I believe rightfully so) that a major part of the funeral homes reputation centered precisely on our abilities at color and cosmetics, embalming and restorative art.  This still happens, but I am going to make the proposition that it does not happen on the grand scale that it did just a few years ago.

During these years the funeral home had the ability – nay the duty – to tell families not to schedule any funeral times and/or activities until we knew when the dead body would be presentable for private and later public viewing.  It was a matter of course, it was matter of procedure, it was just the way things were done, and few if any questioned the practice.

Have things changed concerning the community's relationship with their dead?  It certainly has.  I have professors of restorative art who are remarkably skilled – artists in fact – tell me sadly that many of them think RA is becoming a lost art out in the field.  Many time I have been told that dead bodies that some years back would have been easy to restore now are behind the thickness of a closed casket lid, and you know my friends the thickest cosmetics you can put on a dead body is a closed casket lid.

This state of affairs has no blame connected with it, but it is a state of affairs which I would humbly suggest requires dialogue and exploration.

If the dead human body is today seen by many in the culture as not being important the fall out for our profession is profound.  Now as never before some terribly difficult questions are presented in light of this cultural kind of anti-corpse stance.  Here are some questions:

Are graves important?

Is the funeral coach important?

Is embalming important?

Are caskets and burial vaults important?

The list could well go on and on, simply because so much of the historical development of this great profession revolved precisely around taking care of the corpse. These are haunting questions, because it calls into question some of the most ancient and cherished precepts of our profession that have been held sacred for decades.

Everywhere I travel, people tell me they are selling fewer graves than ever before. I have friends in the embalming chemical profession tell me that if they had to survive today on selling preservative chemicals alone, they would not make it.

Yes, many thousands of bodies are embalmed, placed in caskets, cremation caskets/containers, urns, etc.  Yes, thousands of dead human bodies are restored and beautified and yes, thousands of embalmers still resource their unique talents and skills and create post-mortem miracles.  However, the numbers of such incidences seem all too clearly to dwindle every year.

I am really baffled by all this.  I understand all the demographic changes, the obsessions with staying young, being really happy and carefree and all that, but I am still baffled by the attitude of the culture toward the dead because it seems so evidently fickle and glaringly inconsistent.

Are dead bodies important or are they not?  I do not mean to imply that everybody who dies should be embalmed, casketed and buried in the earth – I am too old and too seasoned to think that way anymore.  However the growing evidence of abandonment of the corpse in favor of the party concerns me greatly.

As my good friend and famous author Tom Lynch said to me a dinner one night in New York, “we have traded in the funeral essentials for the funeral accessories.”  Well said, my good friend.

What is more authentically essential to wise and careful funeral practices that the essential significance of the dead body.  Without the dead body, there would be absolutely no need for funeral service in the first place, but that is a ridiculous position to take, given that everybody will in time become a corpse.  However the culture can and does fiddle and fiddle and fiddle with this notion and approach.

Interesting is it not that people, intelligent reasonable people, will say "dispose of Dad in the quickest way possible, burn him, or bury him quickly, and we want to remember him the way he was."  On the surface, this sounds so logical, rational, cool and contemporary, but grief is not an emotion that is logical, rational, cool and contemporary. It is raw, it is brutal, it is treacherous, and it has the power to drive people to kill themselves.  This subject goes way beyond cultural fads and contemporary attitudes.  

This shift from looking away from the dead instead of honestly confronting the reality of death, the visual, tactical reality of death, has already had unbelievable consequences for our profession.  The good suppliers and vendors in our profession have stepped up to this issue in a big way to come up with this and that product to help replace some of the lost memorialization accoutrements that for years were standard in community death rituals, but even these noble attempts appear to not be keeping up with the ever shifting attitudes of the culture that silently but by action proclaim that the dead are not important anymore.

Now, my friends, for the kicker, and if anyone can explain this to me, please let me know.

Today I picked up this month’s issue of the Smithsonian Magazine and on the front cover was this headline: “The Search for Herod’s Tomb.”  I have a 300 page book documenting the massive effort to locate the burial place and body of Alexander the Great, which has been lost for centuries but the search goes on. We all are well aware of how many dollars, time and expertise the Vatican spent digging under the Basilica of St. Peter’s for the actual true tomb of St. Peter.

Am I the lone ranger who finds this baffling, inconsistent and downright exasperating?

I am sure that the people/governments/religious bodies who are funding all these ancient digs are scholars of the first rank, or they also might be opportunists like some of the “Titanic” investigators who, when they hit pay dirt with artifacts, went on the world–wide tour and made millions.  I understand the entrepreneurial aspect of digging for dead people.

However this inconsistency cannot simply be explained away by the almighty dollar.  In the end, whose corpse is more important, that of my son who is dead in my own community, or that of Alexander the Great, wherever it may be?  This inconsistency worries me, because when one examines and explores this issue, the conclusions are somewhat unsettling, are they not?

Years ago I had good friends who lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where I was working – this was years ago.  One night after dinner my friend announced that he was going to cremate his mother upon her death, and try to remember her as she was alive.  He went on a diatribe, saying that funerals were a waste of time and money and that all this fuss and feathers over dead people was a waste of time.

I asked him, “Would it have been alright to cremate President Kennedy when he died and have his cremains immediately disposed of without any leaving-taking, ceremony or allowing people to express their feelings?”  My good friend responded immediately: “Of course not, he was the president of the United States, he was our president.”  I then asked, “Did you know President Kennedy better than your mother? Is President Kennedy’s body more important than your mother's? Why is a funeral OK for someone you only know from the newspapers, but not for someone you has been with you a lifetime?”

My friend looked at me and said “You are right. What am I thinking of; how could I make such a statement about my mother?”  

Cremation or any other method of disposing of a body is not the message and lesson of this case study involving my friend, but coming to grips with the reality and value of what any corpse represents to the living is, and I believe that it is still a major responsibility of every funeral professional to enter into these type of discussions and share the value and benefit of taking leave of the corpse.  

I know that I sound like an old, out-of-touch undertaker with this position, but I believe this with all my heart, and the absolute inconsistency people have about whether a corpse has value or not, I believe validates my thoughts.  

I am of the thinking, because I saw it happen, that when the corpse retained authentic significance, the experience for the bereaved was more thorough and complete.  As difficult as it was many times to confront the reality of death by viewing the restored and beautified corpse, in the end, in time good things happened to many bereaved people.

Today I worry that people are almost conditioned to think that not seeing the corpse means an easier time of it, that not having a funeral means lessening one’s grief.  My friends in funeral service, that is not true.

Could it be that replacing the essential role of the corpse with wind chimes, or the party, or you and I not taking time to explain the value and purposes of embalming, not attempting monumental restorative art challenges, could it be that if this continues the entire fabric, the thread, which has held our great profession together for centuries could well unwind?

Could it already be happening?

I have one last odd and unusual question to poise.  Why is it when a grave is robbed or disturbed or plundered say a day or week or month after the burial is it called the crime of grave robbing and there are legal consequences, an investigation and possibly a fine and jail time?  However when a grave is robbed or disturbed or plundered say 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 years after the original burial took place, the activity is called archaeology, is given departmental status on university campuses, makes the cover of the Smithsonian Magazine and the academic archaeologist get financially sponsored by the National Geographic Society, then gets a television special on PBS and later in the year wins an honorary doctorate from, say, Harvard University?  

I know this is a ridiculous question, but I was just wondering.

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.  TVB

TVB article

Todd, you and Tom Lynch are the best advocates and spokesmen the industry has these days for traditional funeral practices. Bless you both.

I don't have any answer or solution to the problems of body vs. experience as relates to funeral service today---and being at a funeral home in a coastal town in southern California I see plenty of it. Our chapel sits unused sometimes for 2-3 weeks. I personally think much of it has to do with the turning away from religion, to be exact fundamental Christianity. And many services we do have in our chapel, I never hear the word God once.

I am just so thankful I have worked in the funeral profession for enough years that I can recall and recollect on "the old days", when, as you say in your article "the dead body was at the epicenter of funeral activities". Through working in some fine establishments I learned how to lay out a pretty nice body if I might say so myself, and my skills are rarely being used anymore. So when a family appreciates good direction of a service and a body well presented, I am glad I have pride, technique and the proper objective to provide a beautiful memory. All the experiences of today's funerals can be obtained or provided through people, facilities and items that don't necessarily have to come through a funeral home. The only part we can provide exclusively is the embalming and preparation of the remains. There is a lack of talent and concern in this department today too. So the problem is intrinsic and extrinsic. People see bad direction of a funeral or a poorly presented corpse and wonder what they are spending their money for.

People in our industry like you and Tom Lynch inspire me and make me proud to be associated professionally. I don't know if we will ever see this trend reverse itself, but one day maybe can we form the The Rocking Chair Funeral Directors Brigade? We will reminesce like Jerome Burke did in The Dodge Magazine articles. I love those and have bought all 3 issues. Though mainly fiction I believe, they capture the heart of the greatness of what the funeral business represented in times past.