Burial Funeral Industry

Funeral Procession, er, I mean Promession

Container by Erik Geschke

“Natural burial is what we have been doing for millennia. People may be leery of this new fandangled technology.”

– Janet McCausland, Executive Director of the Toronto-based Natural Burial Association

Eco-this, eco-that. Seems everybody wants to “go green” these days—even in death. I say, why not? It’s the last good deed you can do for the planet after you shuffle off that mortal coil.

Eco-friendly burial practices are not necessarily a new phenomenon, but they are receiving more attention and interest these days as environmentally friendly practices of all kinds take hold. An article in the NY Times covered the topic about 4 years ago when they profiled the Fernwood Cemetary in northern California.

Take, for example, a recent article in The Walrus, a Canadian general interest publication akin to the U.S.-based Utne Reader. In the latest issue, writer James Glave, writes about the process of “promession”, which is actually a neologism used to describe the process of ecologically inclined disposal of bodies by way of freeze drying. In other words, the term may not have caught on yet, but the concept of freeze drying one’s remains to then be implanted into soil so that life may begin anew, is gaining purchase with the eco-friendly crowd.

On a more personal note, my experiences with freeze drying have primarily been with either Folger’s coffee or the disturbing (at the time) purchase of a freeze dried duckling my parents bought at a flea market back in the 1980s. Literally frozen in time, this little guy had been saved for posterity due to its cute factor—and the fact that it could be suspended in time, fuzz and all, in a perfect non-animated but life-like state—mesmerized and seduced my parents to purchase and display him in our living-room curio cabinet for years, where it remains to this day.

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Funeral Home Moves, Forgets Corpse in Casket

A woman dead for several years traveled with a relocating funeral home around San Antonio, Texas, as the undertaker awaited payment from an indigent family. The last time Forest Park Funeral Home moved, the body was left behind in a shed. New reports suggest she was supposed to be cremated in 2006.


Prone Burials: Mortifying the Dead

Buried Face Down: Prone Burials
Current Archaeology, v.20(231), June 2009
Via National Geographic News

Face-down burial has long been regarded with a knee-jerk, not-right, benefiting-the-doubt reaction. Across cultures and through time, experts and laity alike have assumed prone burials to be accidents or the result of post-interment disturbances.

Following an extensive survey of documented prone burials around the world, however, anthropologist Caroline Arcini of Sweden’s National Heritage Board has concluded that face-down burial was done intentionally to shame the dead: prisoners of war, criminals and those of lower social status, accused as witches or harboring the wrong religion in the wrong place and time.

Death + Technology

John vs. Dead Bodies vs. Brooklyn

Our own esteemed professor of death, John Troyer, expounds on what else, the invention of the modern human corpse, at a lecture near you, if near you happens to be New York.

“Bodies Embalmed by Us NEVER TURN BLACK!”: A Brief History of the Hyperstimulated Human Corpse

Date: Thursday, July 2, 2009
Time: 7:30 PM
Admission: Free
@ the Observatory, No. 543 Union Street, Brooklyn, New York

Funeral Industry

UK National Funeral Exhibition Photos

The biennial NFE — a joy to behold, especially should you appreciate marketing in sheep’s clothing.

Death + the Law

No Next of Kin

A Certain Kind of DeathA Certain Kind of Death
(2003). Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock
New York: Wellspring. DVD / VHS documentary.

WorldCatFind in a library

What happens if you die and there are no friends, no family, no spouse — no one — to dispose of your body, arrange your funeral, attend to your personal effects or take care of any number of the details of your demise? Unknowingly, you kick off a chain of events, procedures and protocols that may or may not be compatible with your “last wishes,” for you enter the status known as “no next of kin.”

shoesA Certain Kind of Death is an amazing piece of documentary filmmaking. Given unprecedented access to the processes that go on behind the scenes when someone with no next of kin dies, the filmmakers present a stark and moving portrait of this “certain kind of death.”

Coincidentally, an article in the Oregonian tackled this exact subject just days after I viewed the film. A video embedded in the article shows an employee of the state medical examiner’s office explaining how he searches for next of kin.

Funeral Industry

I will be (attempting) to blog from the UK’s National Funeral Exhibition…

Death + the Web

Death’s Not Dead! Leastwise Not Online

Dying is no reason to give up online social life
Richard Mullins, Tampa Tribune (May 26, 2009)

In this AP article, Mullins gives a snapshot of some of the online memorializing and alert services available from or through funeral homes or independent providers. Want your loved ones emailed reminders about your death anniversary for all eternity? No problem. Get swept up by the Rapture and need to pass on some last minute instructions, warnings and/or neener-neeners to all the heathens in your life? You’re covered.

It makes sense that our desire to express ourselves in life carries over into death—and web tech being the medium du jour, why not a virtual cemetery? Nor is it surprising that creative (and often, *ahem*, exploitative) minds look to make a buck on new trends and technology, especially when selling—or better, collecting rent on—essentially nothing for someone who doesn’t even realize it’s happening.

But it is interesting that we look to the web—a rapidly, constantly changing beast—for permanence and perpetuity. It is no small irony that the site (profiled in the article), where you can pimp your loved one’s virtual Zen Garden memorial with golf clubs and other swag (for additional fees, of course), is no longer operational.

Death + Technology Defying Death

Better Living Through Not Dying: Cryonic / Belief Suspension

This American Life: Mistakes Were Made
originally aired April 18, 2008.

This American Life does it again. “Mistakes Were Made” looks at the rise and fall of cryonics—the freezing of people at the moment of death with the hope and belief that death in the future will be merely a disease: curable if not entirely preventable. Interviewing Bob Nelson, president of the Cryonics Society of California in the ’60s, this podcast superbly captures the optimism, naivete and undeniably quirky drama of the cryonics movement.

Hard science and religion tend to dominate discourses of death; cryonics goes to show that imaginative, techno-magical thinking—that technology and the future will save us from biology—makes an equally fascinating contribution to our ideas about the natures of both life and death.

Death + Art / Architecture Funeral Industry

Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home


I spent Memorial Day not so much remembering the dead as being introduced to the dead. You see, I spent the day at Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home, the first and oldest crematory west of the Mississippi. Located in Portland, Oregon, Wilhelm’s is a funeral home, mausoleum and crematory — a large operation and one that’s been in business for over 100 years. Portland Memorial Funeral Home merged just last year with Wilhelm’s Funeral Home. And, in an interesting turn of events, there are plans to convert the former Portland Memorial Funeral Home into a folk music venue serving wine and beer as reported by the local neighborhood newspaper, The Bee.

Each year on Memorial Day, for one day only, the buildings and grounds are open to the public. There was an article in the Oregonian that profiled one of the private and most elaborate family tombs containing the Rae family sarcophagi — which is only opened for 90 minutes each year, on Memorial Day. The Rae’s were a prominent family in turn of the century Portland that made their money from the timber industry. The “Rae Room”, as it is known, is the most elaborate of the tombs on the grounds. It has its own private entrance, ornate wrought iron gates, imported Italian marble and solid bronze sarcophagi.

I spent a few hours on the grounds and in the vast network of buildings exploring the labyrinthine levels and myriad, never-ending corridors. It’s really quite impressive and the blend of old and new makes it an especially interesting place to explore. New construction blends well with original architecture, although there is certainly a feeling of distinct and discreet change in tone and style as one enters a new section. One of the highlights of my visit was seeing the various urns in their “niches” as they are called. The variety is pretty astounding — from humble and plain to ornate and fancy, with the standing of Portland’s wealthiest and middle-class in evidence. In death, it seems, we are all still not equal. As a librarian, I was especially taken with the urns that take the form of books on a shelf. Whole families have been memorialized in this way with mother, father, son, daughter “bound” together and held upright by bookends on either side. Since I forgot my camera that day, I was only able to take pictures with the camera on my phone — and they unfortunately didn’t turn out very well. Plus, I think you had to get the permision of management to take photos anyway. Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about. It’s an image from the Oakland Columbarium.

I highly recommend visiting this unique Portland landmark if you get the chance — and as a member of the living if you can.

Defying Death

RadioLab: Unconventional Ways to Stay Alive

RadioLab: Stayin’ Alive
originally aired June 2, 2009.

Robert and Jad explore keeping on keeping on.

Funeral Industry

TAL: Business of Death

This American Life: Business of Death
originally aired April 18, 1997.

This American Life delves into the death business, with readings from Thomas Lynch (The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade), Michael Lesy (Wisconsin Death Trip, Forbidden Zone), David Sedaris and more. An oldie but a goodie. 🙂