Friday, June 15, 2018

Urns & Outs: Flame of the Everlasting Spirit

In May I had the good fortune to travel to Germany for several days where I enjoyed the fabled culture of good food, beautiful architecture, and friendly German people. As a historian does, I took the opportunity to visit a couple of the oldest crematories in the country, one of which is the second-oldest in Europe. In touring the historic Leipzig and Gotha Crematoriums, I noticed the use of symbols in the architecture and on the various urns in the urnenhalle and urnenhain – a very prominent one of which is die Flamme – the flame.
The early cremationists recognized the purifying power of the flame, but they also often regarded the reduction of the body to its basic elements by the use of flame and heat as the means to which the soul was set free from the body. “Flame dissolves the perishable, freeing the immortal” is inscribed in German above the entrance of the Zurich Crematorium in Switzerland. Vermibus erepti, puro consumimur igni - “Saved from the worms, purified by the consuming flame” was a commonly published and inscribed sentiment in the early cremation movement around the world – and was first quoted by Prof. Ludovico Brunetti when he published his discourse on cremation in 1873.
After the cremation movement in the US shifted its focus from the importance of purifying the remains of the dead to the importance of the memorial, the flame motif became a bit less common. With the exception of several urns created by Gorham Bronze, the flame finial, which is where the idea was most often expressed, became much less popular by the mid-1940s. This was not as true in Germany where even many of the modern crematories there continue to use the flame as part of their logos – not only in homage to their cremationist forebears, but also in recognition of the spiritual element of the flame and its various representations. Additionally, many of the modern urns that are offered in Germany have the flame as part of their decoration.

Another common symbol that often accompanies the flame motif is the powerful image of the legendary phoenix bird rising above the flame. The ancient Greeks believed in the phoenix as a representation of the rising and setting of the sun, and thus, it represented the cycle of life and death. When the phoenix had lived its days it died in a fiery blaze and was reduced to ashes, and then rose again from the ashes to live life anew.
Many early mystic teachings compare the phoenix with the regeneration and enlightenment of man. Igne natura renovatur integra – “By fire, nature is restored in purity” – with fire representing the everlasting spirit. The teaching was that when a person lives entirely in the light or fire of the spirit, the fallible nature is purified and the person becomes a new creation – much like the phoenix. A very similar teaching comes from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible when the Holy Spirit, represented in tongues of fire, came upon those who were gathered. From then on they were filled with the Holy Spirit and it purified them.
In the figurative sense, the flame of the everlasting spirit is the beautiful way in which we are purified while we live, whether it is through enlightenment, the Holy Spirit, or simply by the spirit of our own will. When we die, cremation is the literal purification which prepares the body for the memorial, the spirit for the life eternal, the memory for the hearts and minds of those in the old life. As the memorial is established to commemorate the old life, the new life – purified by the sacred flame, will begin…
That’s my perspective…

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Urns & Outs: History is Us

I enjoy and am humbled at the opportunities I get to travel and share the story of cremation’s history with deathcare professionals across the country. In August, I had the privilege to attend the 99th convention of the Cremation Association of North America to promote the upcoming History of Cremation Exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History. While in New York for the convention I took the time to visit America’s oldest operating crematory just outside the city in Middle Village. Fresh Pond Crematory was built in 1885, the result of the work of the earliest cremation society in the country which was first established in 1874. The massive and beautiful facility is steeped in the history and guidance of the early cremation movement in the country. The columbarium, also one of the first in the country, with its labyrinthine alcoves and rooms contains 16,000 niches which hold more than 40,000 cremated remains.

As I walked through the building viewing the thousands of unique urns displayed in glass-fronted niches, I imagined the story that was being told; the thousands upon thousands of lives that are now memory, manifested in the engravings on the sacred urns throughout the building. I regarded the beauty of each urn and the memorial identity it was for the person who rested within.

Then, in October I had the opportunity to visit New York for the second time in as many months where I spoke to the New York Metropolitan Cemetery Association. While I was in the vicinity, I took an Uber from Yonkers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art – if you have never been to this magnificent jewel of the City, take the time to visit – it is both breathtaking and overwhelming. For my visit, I had a mission: the Greek and Roman Antiquities that are housed in the south wing of the Met.

The Met contains one of the largest collections of Greek Vases in the world. If you have never viewed one of these wonders of the ancient world, their characteristic orange and black scenes are unmistakable. These works of art are one of the most reliable views modern historians have into the ancient Greek stories and legends, as well as the society and culture of those who shared those stories and legends at the time of their creation beginning in the 8th Century BCE. The massive collection of the Met also contains a handful of ancient Roman glass urns and cinerary chests.

When I returned to my hotel that evening and when I headed back to Houston the following afternoon, I couldn’t help but reflect on the correlation and similarity of both of my visits to New York City. Even more so, I couldn’t help but notice the relationship that the subject of both of my visits exhibited: portals – stepping stones into the past. The significance of the stories that have been told on the sides of the urns, in the niches at Fresh Pond and on the ancient vases at the Met were all the same: this is history, and, as evidenced by the countless visitors in the Met’s galleries, history is us.

And to think, we wouldn’t have any of it if nobody cared about history…

That’s my perspective…

Friday, August 25, 2017

Urns & Outs: It is NOT despair

As published in The Dead Beat, Summer, 2017
I recently had the privilege to speak at a Funeral Directors Association convention in Maryland. Typically when I make presentations to various cremation, funeral, and cemetery associations, I have a cordial response. An hour of facts regarding the history of cremation can perhaps come across as a bit dull even though I find the story of cremation and its history and growth in the US quite fascinating.
Following this particular presentation, I received some of the sweetest compliments from a few of the attendees. They explained the fact that they have heard the instructional presentations from some of the greatest minds in the industry; they've received training on presenting cremation and it's options to the families they serve; they have been warned repeatedly about the despair of the litigious aspects of being sued as a result of cremation; but they told me something about my presentation that they said they had never experienced before. They said that after my presentation they didn't feel the despair of fearing cremation; rather, they felt inspired.
If you have read my column then you know of my penchant for regularly quoting the Lord of the Rings. In a particular part of the story when the fate of the One Ring is being discussed, the plan to overcome the power of the ring comes to light and others rebuke Gandalf calling the idea despair and folly. Gandalf, in his wisdom, replies, “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed…”
Have you seen the latest reports from the Cremation Association of North America? The preliminary numbers for 2016 show a rate of 50.6% of Americans choosing cremation. Wisdom shows us that cremation is not a fad, in fact it is now the predominant method of disposition in our country. “It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed.”
Think back to the reason you entered the deathcare profession. There must have been something along the way that inspired you to pursue funeral service. Shouldn’t there be something that can inspire you about cremation? I am easily inspired by cremation (no surprise there); whether it be the strength and encouragement of the early cremationists, the beauty and form of the cremation urn, the magnificence of the urn memorials in beautiful columbaria across the country, the purifying power of the flame, the multitudinous options we are able to present to families choosing cremation, the freedom of families to elaborate and expand their celebration ceremonies. These are all causes of inspiration for me.
Cremation is not a cause for despair. It is cause for inspiration. Cremation is on a course to your firm. But it isn’t a crash course – it is an opportunity for you to be inspired again and again to care for your families. Be inspired!
That’s my perspective…

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Urns & Outs: Live Your Dreams!

As published in The Dead Beat, Spring, 2017
I often find myself thinking on the past. I guess being a historian can produce that side effect. I often find myself wondering if I have made the right choices in life, taken the right opportunities, made every effort I can to treat others fairly and compassionately. I hope I have at least made a positive difference in the life of my family and friends.
A recent significant life changing move to pursue professional endeavors has brought many feelings and realizations to surface. Taking a new job, moving to a new city, making changes and taking chances in my own life… Even with the downsides those things often make me feel the need to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming.
I remember as a young man wanting to be a funeral director, with daily encouraging phone conversations with my patient mentor Rene Ferrer, and being inspired by the urn wielding manager of the Undertaker, Paul Bearer, I tried with all my might to pursue the dream of a career in funeral service. It was because of Paul Bearer that I first started to have an interest in cremation urns. The particular urn he carried was unique, and I wanted to find one just like it. So I began the search – one that would elude me for more than a decade – but a search that would instill in my memory the importance of cremation memorialization, the make and model of countless urn styles, the drive to learn all I could about cremation and its history.
Years later, I would learn more about the history of cremation. I found it fascinating that this was such a largely ignored topic of the history of deathcare practice. It would be even later that I would be named the historian for the country’s original professional cremation organization, the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). Most recently, I was offered to be the cremation historian for the National Museum of Funeral History where we are working on the world’s first History of Cremation exhibit.
Just a few weeks ago, I was walking through the Funeral History museum with one of my longest-time friends, Keith Kobayashi. Giving him the tour I showed him where the upcoming History of Cremation Exhibit will be located, and where I remember the various exhibits being set up when I was about 14 and my parents took me for a visit. He asked me something I had not considered. “How does it feel, to know that as a 14 year old you had no idea that you would one day be a part of this museum?” It had not dawned on me until then, but he was right. Some 23 years prior, I walked through that very space, though the exhibits have changed and the space has grown considerably, and longed to have a place in funeral service.
To say that I am humbled at the opportunities that have been presented to me, with the encouragement of Barbara Kemmis of CANA, Scott MacKenzie, Nikki Nordeen, Genevieve Keeney, and the legendary Robert Boetticher, Sr., is the understatement of the century.
I have spoken at national events, designed cremation urns, guided up and coming funeral professionals in their endeavors, written articles, published a book, received distinguished service awards, served on boards. I have been featured in the pages of TIME magazine. I have the opportunity to influence the future of cremation memorialization. And it all started with a desire, and an urn.
Now before anyone calls me out for bragging or for seeking adulation, I want to affirm that is not the intent of my writing. A couple of years ago, I was honored to be invited by the New England Cemetery Association to speak at their annual meeting in Rhode Island. As I sat on the long flight to Boston, my large frame having been blessed with upgraded seating, I found myself sitting next to a young man with whom I struck up a conversation. He told me of his recent graduation and his pursuance of his Master’s degree in some scientific field that I don’t understand. I told him as I have told my own son and the apprentices I have had the opportunity to help serve families: follow your dreams, strive to be the very best at whatever you set out to do. Learn all you can and become the expert. Then someday, when you are being flown to share that dream and passion and knowledge with others, you too can have the chance to inspire a person who is facing the great wide world of possibility that they can do great things.
I hope to instill and inspire in all who read my words that, even with rough patches in the road, even when it seems overwhelming, even with blood, sweat, tears, heartache; in the midst of all of these things, success and fulfillment are yours for the taking! You can do great things. You can be somebody. You can make a difference. You too can live your dreams.
That’s my perspective…

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Urns & Outs: The Sacred Urn

As published in The Dead Beat, Early Spring, 2017
I was asked many years ago by my friend and historic crematory photographer Dan Baker about the connection of the shape of cremation urns and, more specifically, why they are traditionally in the vase shape. I admit that, while I can recognize the difference in manufacturers of urns almost instantly, and I know how many twists of the hand open a typical modern brass urn or even an antique bronze urn, and though I have seen almost every urn that was manufactured as an urn since cremation’s modern revival in 1876, I did not have the answer.
Desiring this knowledge, I began to seek avenues to learn the specific answer only to find that I am apparently the only person to have sought this information. While I have still not found any precise answer, I have formed a hypothesis based on knowledge acquired over years of research on the subject.
Firstly, ancient cinerary urns in the traditional vase shape have been discovered in many ancient Asian civilizations, some dating as far as 2000 years BCE. In ancient western culture, Greek customs indicate urns in the vase shape were used to store cremated remains, while the Romans favored highly-sculptured cinerary chests that were placed in columbaria, though they also were known to use the vase shape.

With this information, I arrived at my next realization: the influence of the classic Greek vase on today’s modern cinerary containers. Typically Greek vases were created in terra cotta or bronze, the former often found with images in red and black painted on their surfaces.

Three types of Greek vases are arguably the most common. The Krater, classified in bell, volute, and calyx shapes, is one of the most recognizable of the Grecian vases and was most often used for mixing and diluting wine. The Amphora, most commonly in shapes known as neck and belly, with large vertical handles, a narrow base, and cover, was used for storage of grain and wine. The Stamnos, probably the least-known style of Greek vase, characterized by its narrow footed base, wide mouth, horizontal handles, and cover, was used as a wine vessel. This last vase, the Stamnos, is the most akin to today’s modern cremation urn, and all three styles have been used as cinerary containers.
With all my research, even into the beginning of cremation’s modern revival in western society, it seems that the containers used to hold cremated remains were not always designed for that specific purpose, but were in fact common vessels used in everyday life. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the business of making urns became a business at all – and even then, the mantel of their creation was taken up by companies who created household items.
So it seems that there is no precise answer as to the original idea of form for cinerary urns. It is true, though, that the decorative vases that, even to the present day, represent the sacred vessels used to contain the mortal remains of our loved ones have always been utilized for two common reasons: functionality and inherent beauty.

The poet John Keats concurred with the beauty of the form of an ancient urn in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He ends his well-known poem with the urn’s symbolism that will outlast time, writing “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
I’m inclined to share that perspective.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Urns & Outs: Life is Alchemy

As published in The Dead Beat, Mid-Winter, 2017

Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a phenomenon that pervaded Europe – the understanding that, through applied science, any base metal could be turned to pure gold via the “Philosopher’s Stone.” Along this same idea was that with the right combination of materials one could create the elixir of life – the fountain of youth that would allow the person who drinks it to live and never die. Alchemy, it was called, and was practiced by any number of alchemists in Europe, Asia, and Egypt.
Of course the fact of turning any material into something better was a highly contested practice and was often compared to witchcraft. Yet philosophically many religions taught just that very basic belief: the soul is a sort of alchemy in which, through teaching and wisdom, could become something better than it was; thus elevating the spirit toward godliness and salvation.
Renowned psychologist Carl Jung, the originator of personality typology that many therapists use even in the present, believed that life was alchemical. Jung had a recurring dream that his house contained a separate wing, one that he had not seen, and to which he could find no access. Finally gaining entry to the part of the house that had been concealed, he discovered a secret library with countless volumes, each with symbols emblazoned on their covers and containing alchemical texts and diagrams. Upon waking, he began studying alchemy and eventually came to the conclusion that alchemy didn’t aim to make precious materials in a physical sense, but that its aims were more of a psychological parable – which he called opus magnum. “The opus magnum,” he wrote, “had two aims: the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos.” This was achieved through an alchemical process of the psyche toward individuation, or the evolution of the maturity of the personality.
The truth is that because we are a living and evolving species, then all things are an alchemical reaction that takes us onward and upward toward the betterment of existence. At least, that’s our hope.
Death is likewise alchemy: a transition in which the body goes from innate moving parts to inanimate matter – and more importantly, the soul, as our hope goes, becomes something better than it was. As funeral practitioners we aide the body toward purification, whether by fluid or by fire; scientific processes that promote the health of the living. Additionally, we know the psychological advancement that comes with the grieving process, the healing that we are able to promote through proper services and memorialization.
We face alchemy every day – whether it is in something we do to better society or ourselves. We move forward in our careers and in our dealings with others, constantly striving to be better than we were before. We make dreaded or hopeful changes. We educate, encourage, always moving onward. Upward.
Life is alchemy. When we do our part to promote and encourage the betterment of society and mankind, we are indeed rescuing the human soul. We are aiding in the salvation of the cosmos. We are becoming better human beings.
That’s my perspective…

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Urns & Outs: Music is Moral Law

(As published in the Dead Beat, Fall, 2016)
It is no secret that I love Elton John. His contagious personality and music have always made me smile, and there are so many of his songs that I can’t help but sing along with. Even his deep cuts are enjoyable and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics complete the overall sound that has become the trademark of his classic songs.
As much as I love Elton John, it is tough for me to choose from his repertoire an absolute favorite song. The bubblegum fun of Crocodile Rock, the melancholy of Someone Saved My Life Tonight, or maybe the spacey sound of Rocketman... the complacency of Roy Rogers... the hopefulness of Are You Ready for Love... those are all among his most well-known, and several rank in my favorites. Above all those, though, his hit Levon from his Madman Across the Water album, is probably at the top of the list.
In my interpretation, Levon tells the story of a normal guy; he is proud of who he is, he was born into meager circumstances but he has money. Levon has a son named  Jesus (because he likes the name), who wants to leave the mundane world he lives in and go far away from his father. Some of the story we hear about Levon and Jesus are very parabolic in nature, and much is left to the interpretation of the listener. For instance, “Jesus wants to go to Venus, and leave Levon far behind.” I take those words to mean that Jesus wants to go far away from where he grew up, maybe out from under his father’s watchfulness. But why Venus of all places? Maybe, for those of us who believe in love, it is a representation of that planet’s ancient symbolism and influence in the area of love.
I think that one of the primary reasons that I like the song Levon is that it really speaks to me. Sure the tune is catchy, and the lyrics rhyme well, but even more than that it speaks to the part of me that is so afraid of change but longs so much for the very change I fear. I want to leave and go far away at times, and I often long for sailing away to where love lives.
Have you ever had a song speak to you that way? Maybe it is a hymn that stirs your soul, or a favorite love song. Music can really touch our innermost being, the soul of life.
Think of how music can touch and soothe the soul of the grieving. In the same way that I can hear the thirst for change and new beginnings in the sounds of Levon, the families that we serve can be transformed by music as well. A minister can stand and speak and share goodness and life, but when a song plays, there is something about the combination of words and music that speaks when words cannot penetrate. I cannot remember the exact words that were spoken at my Granny’s remembrance service earlier this year, and I spoke the words. But I can remember the music that was played, the song that I shared.
Recently, I attended a concert by the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra in Northwest Arkansas. The concert was titled “A Night at the Movies” and played various pieces from the compositions of John Williams, well known for his memorable movie scores such as Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Superman, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, among others. Prior to the start of the concert, there was a discussion time with the conductor of the orchestra and he discussed the importance of music in movies. My friend who was with me raised the topic of movie music manipulating the viewer to invoke a certain emotion. Think about how that is true in life in general and not just in movies. Think about how a song can take you back to another place or time, and for that instant you are experiencing the same feelings once more. A song can catapult you into the future where things are maybe different or exciting.
Only music has this power.
Plato wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
That’s my perspective as well!