Burial cremation Death + Humor Death + the Web Funeral Industry

Video Killed the Cremation Star… or So Suggests Casket Company

Aurora Casket Company Trying to Stop Cremations with Video
R. Brian Burkhardt, YourFuneralGuy (January 25, 2010)

YourFuneralGuy just found a gem: it seems the Aurora Casket Company, one of the big three casket manufacturers in the United States, made a video of a mock funeral for direct cremation, the very villain encroaching on and slowly killing their market.

It’s dry, earnest and, well, pretty awful:

The Death of Direct Cremation from Aurora on Vimeo.

I do applaud the intention — I just hope they’re laughing, too. Whatever some marketing blog or fifteen year old told them, the internet will not save the casket industry… this time.

cremation Funeral Industry

Cremating Supersized Dead Bodies

Bath Cemetery Refused to Cremate Man Because He Was Too Heavy
The Bath Chronicle (December 14, 2009)

Every once in a while, a dead body story brings home the following point: all the issues that surround the living world don’t entirely stop when a person dies. Indeed, funeral directors and crematorium operators encounter most aspects of the human condition but out of sight. And most certainly out of mind.

So, it came to pass, that a UK man weighing 40 stone (560 pounds) died and he wanted to be cremated. Once he was in his coffin, his total weight became 50 stone (700 pounds) and the local crematorium said that they couldn’t take his corpse because of his size. The crematorium is in Bath (where I live) and the story was reported by both The Bath Chronicle and the BBC (Obese 40-stone Somerset man ‘too heavy to cremate’).

Correct lifting

You can read either article for the full details. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a new problem, or at least, it has been an ever increasing problem for the last ten years. In 2003, the New York Times ran the following article on Goliath Casket Company: On the Final Journey, One Size Doesn’t Fit All. Here is the gist of the article:

Perhaps nowhere is the issue of obesity in America more vividly illustrated than at Goliath Casket of Lynn, Ind., specialty manufacturers of oversize coffins.

There one can see a triple-wide coffin — 44 inches across, compared with 24 inches for a standard model. With extra bracing, reinforced hinges and handles, the triple-wide is designed to handle 700 pounds without losing what the euphemism-happy funeral industry calls its ”integrity.”

Safety Lifting

When Keith and Julane Davis started Goliath Casket in the late 1980’s, they sold just one triple-wide each year. But times, along with waistlines, have changed; the Davises now ship four or five triple-wide models a month, and sales at the company have been increasing around 20 percent annually. The Davises say they base their design specifications not on demographic studies so much as on simple observations of the world around them.

”It’s just going to local restaurants or walking in a normal Wal-Mart,” Mrs. Davis said. ”People are getting wider and they’re getting thicker.”

And even though the owners of Goliath Casket Company made these observations at the local Wal-Mart, supersized dead bodies are an increasingly common UK phenomena.

In fact, The Guardian newspaper printed the following article in 2006: Obesity is undertakers’ fresh burden.

I totally understand why the crematorium officials at the Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium initially declined to cremate the 40 stone dead body: lifting and transporting XXXL dead bodies is potentially dangerous for the workers. Lifting an object that heavy can cause back injuries. 50 stone weightlifting (remember that that’s 700 pounds) is best left to the gym.

Ferno Maxx Cart

In the end, everything worked out because the funeral home got hold of a special cart built for transporting large dead bodies.

And this is the moral of the story: as human waistlines increase so does the demand for heavy load bearing dead body equipment.

XXXL dead bodies translate into supersized profits for some death industry sectors.

cremation Eco-Death

Putting Death Down the Drain

Dying to Be Green? Try “Bio-Cremation”
Nicole Mordant, Reuters (December 1, 2009)

There’s a shiny new final disposition in town, attempting to gain ground on the green burial bandwagon: Resomation, developed in Scotland in 2007, also known as bio-cremation.

Cremation is consistently flogged for its high energy consumption and resulting pollutants. Bio-cremation, on the other hand, uses “less than a tenth of the amount of natural gas and a third of the electricity,” by means of a chemical process involving alkaline hydrolysis.

According to the Reuters article, all that remains is “some bone residue and a syrupy brown liquid that is flushed down the drain. The bones can be crushed and returned to the family as with cremation.”

This last bit seems to be the only real relation to cremation: loved ones receive a packet of bone fragments which people may bury, memorialize on the mantle, put into tattoos, shoot into space, fire into diamonds, et cetera.

Human remains inside the resomation chamber at the Mayo Clinic, by Finn O'Hara Photography.

Wait, did that say the syrupy brown liquid of death is flushed down the drain? Indeed it does. Resomated bodies are as natural as any other human waste we routinely put through the pipes. Predictably, this makes some people uncomfortable, such as Catholics, who thwarted a move to introduce bio-cremation in New York a couple years ago, citing it “not a respectful way to dispose of human remains.”

Fair enough, though just as arguably, cremation or burial are not respectful ways of treating the earth. Given the significant energy savings and pollution avoidance, environmentalism may very well prevail — plus, you can retrieve and recycle metal parts, like hip and knee replacements. I just hope they can settle on a name that isn’t obtuse, misleading or trademarked.

cremation Death + Technology

Japan Goes… Library Tech? with Urn Storage and Retrieval

Japan’s New Hi-Tech ‘Graveyards’
Jason Rhodes, Reuters (October 13, 2009)

via Treehugger, “Japan’s High Tech Graveyard Solution as Burial Space Grows Scarce” (Jaymi Heimbuch, October 15, 2009)

Due to scarcity and high cost — sometimes more than $100,000 — for urn burial plots in Japan, storing cremation urns in space-saving warehouses is growing in popularity. Such buildings contain special mourning areas where loved ones can swipe a card with the deceased’s location; a robotic arm will retrieve the urn from the vault and deliver it the mourning area, complete with somber music, flowers and video screens showing photos of the deceased.

The video above is in Japanese; whether or not you understand it, you still get the gist. I can’t get over how much this is like high-tech library deep storage, such as UBC’s Automated Storage and Retrieval System. Yes, it’s seen as cost-effective, and even has the ever-popular green slant and humorous old man approval: from the BBC article,

“One of the things to consider is the price, it’s reasonable,” said Toshio Ishii, who at 82 years old was looking for his own grave. “And I think it will be nice to be stored with other people. It’s more fun, there’ll be company.”

cremation Death Ethics Eco-Death

Death That Chills

Public Funeral Parlor Recycles Energy from Cremations for Air Conditioners
Mo Yan-chih, Taipei Times (October 7, 2009)

Last August John wrote about crematoriums in England capturing the heat generated during cremations and recycling it to warm the building. The Taipei Second Funeral Parlor in Taiwan is taking a similar approach, this time transforming the heat into electricity and using it to run its newly installed air conditioners.

These kinds of stories can’t help but be quirky (I’m looking at you, cow dung cremations). We’ve got death and its taboos with understandable, squeamish backlash — or as Taipei City Councilor Chuang Ruei-hsiung remarks, “I admire the city government for having such a creative idea, but for family members, it is just creepy to have air conditioning generated from burning bodies.”

Thank you, Mr. Chuang.

But here we also have wonderfully inventive ideas that challenge our cultural norms and promote environmentally sound solutions. …Or is that all a bunch of greenwash hogwash, an eco-spin meant to shut up opposition and all their silly, impractical emotions in favor of efficiency and science? Though the article doesn’t say, I wonder whether recycled cremation heat is cheaper than other sources. While you wouldn’t think offending, much less traumatizing, the already bereaved would be a line crossed lightly, when that line is the bottom line, people are definitely willing to go there.

Personally I find it a little weird, but I’m not opposed to it, either. I just question the real motivation behind these developments — not to mention where such things lead. Need I remind that Soylent Green is people?

Okay, kidding. Sort of. Maybe, hope so. Nonetheless, if any death studies students out there are looking for a thesis topic, this would be an interesting area to explore.

cremation Death Ethics Eco-Death

Save a Mango Tree: Incinerate Amma in Cow Dung

Cow Dung Cremations Catch On in Bihar
Amarnath Tewary, BBC News (September 27, 2009)

Ongoing floods and a subsequent depletion of mango trees, the traditional cremation fuel for the people of Bihar, India, has led to the use of cow dung in funeral pyres. Readily available and culturally acceptable (coming from a sacred animal, and all), the practice is gaining social acceptance and is even touted as environmentally friendly — no more laying to waste swaths of scarce mango groves only to light them afire.

The cow dung process takes an hour and a half compared to the usual 3–4 hours and is also considerably cheaper. A cow dung cremation will run you $6–$8, compared to the traditional mango tree sendoff at $62–$83. (Average cremation cost in the US: about $1500–$4000.)

Come to think of it, this is so obvious and sensible the fact that cow dung has entered into the cremation equation hardly seems worth mentioning at all. In other words, is this really that shocking and gross? I don’t know — I don’t think so. I do wonder, though, the real extent to which the practice has been embraced — and not just seen as a necessity or an option bright-sided (it’s efficient! it’s green!) out of desperation.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials



People are crazy about their pets. Diamond tiaras, cat condos, doggie daycares serving gourmet kibble, anti-depressants and acupuncture for the unstable pet in your life — all this and more is available for Mr. Wiggles or Li’l Boots. After all, they’re not simply a dog or a cat — they’re family. Current statistics, trend analysis, and the recurring crazy stories bear this out.

Considering that pets replace children for many, it follows that we treat these family members with the same kind of concern we normally reserve for our human brethren. But our animal companions are mortal too and so it follows that an end-of-life plan is just one of the many ways we can show how much we care for that beloved pet.

The pet cemetery industry — like the human one — fulfills our need to remember the dearly departed. According to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, there are 600 active pet cemeteries in the United States. And let’s not forget the related satellite industries such as pet funerals, pet urns/memorials and pet insurance which are also big business. Although there is some contention as to the oldest, the Hartsdale (NY) Cemetery and Crematory was established in 1896 and calls itself “America’s First and Most Prestigious Pet Burial Grounds.”

I remember seeing the captivating Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, years ago. As many reviewers have suggested, this isn’t just a documentary about pet cemeteries; it’s about the human condition. By turns funny, tragic and bizarre, the film captures and distills emotional truth in a compelling narrative. Roger Ebert named it one of the 10 best films of all-time.

On a personal note, Squeakers, my own feline companion of seventeen years, died last year. I chose cremation over burial or any other number of ways I could have memorialized my pet. Call me dispassionate or cheap, but I just couldn’t see forking over a small fortune to memorialize my cat for eternity.

Thinking I would receive a bag of ashes and a bill, I was actually taken aback when I got the call from the vet to come and pick her up. Instead of the ziplock bag I was expecting, I received a small box, covered in hand-made paper, embedded with pressed flowers. Attached to the box was a card and an envelope. The card was signed by the entire veterinary staff, with wishes of condolence flowing out. And the most unexpected of all? A tiny plastic bag (like the kind that comes with an extra button for a new blouse) containing a chunk of her fur and a small piece of card-stock paper with her inked paw-print — her inked paw print! What the? These intimate and personal touches took me by surprise. I guess it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t authorize the cutting of fur and the inking of paws. But I guess that’s how things are done when no specifications are given.

Not that I was angry — if anything, I was a little miffed that the box containing the ashes was hot-glued shut. I guess they thought viewing the ashes would be too much too bear. So being the curious sort, I took a knife and opened it up. I had to see what was left of old Squeaks. As expected, they pretty much looked like all the other cremains I’ve seen. Call me cold, but they are now sitting unceremoniously in a box in my storage unit on the outskirts of Portland. But really, is that pile of dust Squeakers anyhow? Doesn’t she live on in my memory and more gloriously in the photo above? I’d like to think so.

If you want to learn more about pets and death, search your local library catalogue under such terms as pet death, pet loss, pets and grief, pets and bereavement, etc.

cremation Death + Technology Death Ethics Eco-Death

Reduce – Reuse – Recycle – the Dead…

Body Heat
The Economist (August 6, 2009)

Let us all say it together: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle. Now add: Dead bodies. It’s true. Shocking, but true.

A strong case can be made that organ donation, for example, is the noblest form of cadaveric recycling and that the reuse of human organs and tissues to extend life is a huge social good. That said, the dead human body offers up numerous recycling possibilities and many local and/or national governments have turned those postmortem opportunities into actual policies.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

These particular recycling plans focus on transforming the by-products produced through the final disposition of human remains (say from cremation) into new goods. That is a wordy way of saying that the various kinds of Green Technologies running rampant across the globe can also be used on dead bodies.

I am all for it.

The short Economist article at the top is about two different kinds of postmortem recycling. The first section explores the recycling of artificial joint implants (hips, knees, etc.), which can then be re-used in other industries. The left-over metal is melted down and sold to companies that use the different alloys in their own products. These companies often include ones that make joint implants. It’s all a bit circular (…just like the reduce reuse recycle arrows…) but it works. And many of the metal recyclers donate portions of their sales to designated charities.

Artificial Hip Joint

In about three years Denmark’s crematorium association has earned $15,000 from salvaged parts. America is a bit behind both Europe and the UK when it comes to implant recycling but at least one US company in Detroit, MI is making a go of it: Implant Recycling. I like to imagine that Detroit’s economic re-birth will start because of postmortem recycling.

Author Mark Harris, whose book Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial is a good primer on eco-friendly burial, has one of the best photos that I have ever seen of a hip replacement post-cremation. Note how the metal hip replacement glows red amongst the remains:

Hip Replacement in the Crematorium

The second section of the Economist article discusses a topic that I am actually working on: recycling crematorium heat. Regulations require crematoriums to filter toxic substances from waste gases by cooling them from around 800°C to 180°C. Crematoriums capture the excess energy from this process and send the “waste heat” into building heating systems.

I remember explaining this concept a few years ago to a group of American college students. A few of them were aghast, to say the least. In early January 2008, officials at the Dukinfield Crematorium near Manchester, England announced that they would, indeed, begin capturing the crematorium’s exhaust, filter it, and then re-use it to heat the building. The always excitable Daily Mail ran a predictably over-the-top article on the plan: Crematorium to keep mourners warm by burning bodies of loved ones.

But, as even the Mail admits, not one person in the surrounding community (or in the Anglican Church for that matter) complained about the plan.

So here is the big lesson (and I learned it with the aforementioned students): when people understand that the heat being captured and re-used is already being produced vis-a-vis cremation, and that the same excess, potentially useful heat would otherwise go to waste, they are agreeable to the whole concept.

Indeed, the Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium on the southern edge of Bath (near the University of Bath where I work) has a state-of-the-art facility capable of heat recycling. Haycombe’s Manager, the always good humored Rosemary Tiley, will gladly give a tour of the facility and/or the public can visit during one of the crematorium’s Open Days.

The larger question to ask about crematorium heat recycling, however, is how any surplus energy (after the local needs are met) could/can be channeled to the national grid? That is the next leap. Cremation rates in the UK are high: 72% nationally (the US cremation rate is currently at about 33% but growing) so making use of the crematoriums in this way makes sense.

Everything that I am writing today may seem a bit crass and bit too Soylent Green but a good public education plan goes a long way in explaining why these programs are socially useful.

In fact, cemetery planners in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, Spain (near Barcelona) have installed solar panels on the mausoleums to collect energy. It’s a great plan to help produce electricity for local homes and since most cities (large, medium, and small) have cemeteries in their vicinity, this might just work in other places. The Spanish authorities effectively explained the merits of the program and the public got behind it.

Not everyone is a fan of these Green burial initiatives. Evangelical Christian leader Chuck Colson, he of Nixon Administration infamy, lambasted an early 2009 article on Green Burial technologies. Colson offered a special commentary in his BreakPoint Ministries column on the absurdity of eco-burial concerns. I firmly believe that Colson missed the entire point of the Slate article but so it goes.

So let us all say it together one more time: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle…

cremation Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology

Urn Design Comes to a Head

Death masks are so eighteenth century. Cremation Solutions – purveyor of creative cremains transformations—offer urns that look like the noggin of the dearly departed, or whoever’s head it is you want to be stored in.

Personal Urn from Cremation Solutions

I am suspicious of company names that boast “solutions,” as that implies the industry in question has all sorts of unnamed problems. But I suppose cremation does have problems, if your problem is wanting to be buried in a replica of your favorite celebrity’s head. Dilemma solved!

Working from ordinary photographs, modeling software and 3D printing can reconstruct objects—in this case, creepy heads with hollowed centers to hold ashes. From the photos on the site, it looks like the skullcap slides right off—convenient, sure, but this is an urn, not a cookie jar, and the overall product could stand looking less lobotomized. Hair is also a hindrance; it can be added digitally upon request or you can throw on a wig yourself for extra realism and remembrance.

The full-sized option at $2600 will store all the ashes of a person while the $600 keepsake urn holds only a portion of ashes. It is unclear whether the keepsake size results in a smaller compartment for cremains or in an entirely shrunken head. Either way, it is a more affordable option for those who wish to purchase multiple heads for multiple mantles for maximum soulless gazes following everyone in the room simultaneously no matter how hard one tries to hide.

I suppose in this weird world, there is a market for this product. But from the vague photos and the lack of explanation—the process more thoroughly explained, along with a description of the materials—the personal urns don’t seem particularly high quality, especially for the price. One could likely recognize an urn head as being a certain person, but it’s not terribly realistic. The question is, would you want it more realistic.

If you’d want this thing at all, probably yes. So I wouldn’t amend that preneed just yet. There’s bound to be something better soon as 3D rendering technology improves.

cremation Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Death and the Economy: Unclaimed Corpses Accumulate at the LA County Morgue

More bodies go unclaimed as families can’t afford funeral costs
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (July 21, 2009)

This LA Times article (sent to me by my friend Karyn) is a sad and predictable explanation of how the American economic recession is affecting the poor. In a nutshell, next of kin do not have the available funds to collect either a dead body and/or the postmortem cremated remains.

In yesterday’s Death Ref commentary on the New York Times home burial article, I mentioned that unclaimed bodies in county morgues are a much better gauge of economic stress than people choosing to bury a deceased loved one at home. The LA Times piece explains this point in much more detail than the short article I posted on Ohio county morgues dealing with the same situation.

Albert Gaskin, LA cemetery caretaker, examines cremated remains of unclaimed bodies

Inevitably, the unclaimed cremated remains accumulate and over time cemeteries, crematoriums, and funeral homes become inadvertent store houses for the remains. It is worth noting that this photo (taken by Anne Cusack and which I grabbed from the LA Times article) shows Evergreen Cemetery caretaker Albert Gaskin sorting through massive shelves of unclaimed cremated remains.

Those boxes are all unclaimed, cremated bodies.

And given enough time, many institutions that store the remains change owners, close down, and/or simply disappear. Unless there is a mass burial at some point, those unclaimed human remains sit on the shelves and in the worst case scenarios are forgotten about and then re-discovered.

Death Ref co-founder Kim found a remarkable photography series by David Maisel and it explores one of these lost-then-rediscovered sites. It is a collection of photos of unclaimed created remains, stored in copper canisters, at a (now) shut down Oregon psychiatric hospital. Maisel calls the images the Library of Dust.

Library of Dust, indeed.

cremation Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Mixing Death: Cremated Remains in the Ink of Memorial Tattoos

Olympia Resident Has Ink, Cremated Ashes Under His Skin
Christian Hill, The Olympian (July 10, 2009)

Memorial Tattoo with Cremated Remains This is a wonderful article on Memorial Tattooing, or a tattoo that an individual chooses after a person or pet dies. The article also explains an old tattooing practice, namely the putting of cremated remains in the ink used for the tattoo. After my parents die I plan on having their cremated remains mixed into ink for new memorial tattoos.