What Most People Don’t Know or Can’t Fathom About Cremation

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Cremation does not replace the funeral. You can still have a funeral with the body present before the cremation, or a memorial service with an urn there afterwards.

If a cremation is planned–and a wake, formal funeral or identification of the body is still anticipated– you needn’t be saddled with the costs of a casket. Ask your funeral home about a ceremonial rental casket with cardboard cremation liner.

The lowest cremation price in the phone book or from a Google search is too low. Trust me. Funeral homes charging bottom dollar may be cutting corners to increase their total sales volume (or annual calls).

If time allows and the family is interested, the cremation box can be creatively decorated. Ask your funeral director to charge you extra to bring the cardboard cremation box to your house so that you and the grandkids (for example) can write, paint and draw on grandma’s casket. Sounds potentially strange and disastrous, I know, but like brides on their wedding day, these home decorated sacred vessels are surprisingly gorgeous and engage the family in an activity that is wildly uplifting.

3523091094_bd41b02530For an additional sum, a short service with closed casket or cremation box can generally be held at crematories that have a chapel attached to them. The box or casket’s entry into the retort (or cremation chamber) can also be personally witnessed or scheduled for a specific time. Witnessing gives some families peace of mind, and a feeling that the deceased person was accompanied “the whole way.” If you’re not up for this, you could ask a friend to witness the casket’s entry into the retort for you.

An unceremonious or “direct” cremation can mean that the deceased will be cremated in a plastic body bag or hospital gown. Most grieving families never think about this in advance and if they did, they’d probably realize that, of course, they’d like the deceased properly dressed.

You can have your deceased relatives bathed and dressed for a quick viewing or just to know they went to the crematory looking as good as they could look. For this, your funeral bill may only go up only $200-$400.

Ash is mostly pulverized bones, inert minerals left in the retort after burning which are then processed by a noisy mill into a grainy powder.

Cremated remains weigh about four pounds and are returned to the family in a boxy, plastic, temporary container. Please don’t let this box sit too long in a hall closet. This is bad Feng Shui, among other things. Buy an urn. Do something with the remains. Move the old energy of loss out as soon as you are ready.

Cremated remains—by themselves when scattered—are not especially good for plants. There’s a product called Let Your Love Grow that, when mixed in, makes the ashes better for growing things.

Cremation takes up less land and might save some money, but here’s the downside with some crematories: it takes a lot of fossil fuel to heat that retort (or oven) to 1800 degrees F and keep it heated for two to three hours. Ask your crematory about how many cremations are performed in the average day since busy crematories are more fuel efficient (as the retort is not constantly being cooled and reheated). Also ask how up-to-date the equipment is (more modern the better). Then perhaps, if you are not satisfied with the answers you’re getting and your family is open to changing plans quite dramatically, consider the new love of my life (sorry Steve)–green burial. Pine box. Or simple shroud. Drive out of the city and convene in a green cemetery. Let your loved one descend into the soil ASAP. This is the way our teachers, Jews and Muslims, have done it all along. And it’s something I’ll post more about later.

Baby Boomers Gravitate Towards Hand-Crafted Caskets by Independent Makers

It's a challenge to blend humility with old world grandeur. Connecticut Casket's Windsor model accomplishes that.

Does it come as a surprise to you that more people are wanting to buy old fashioned, hand-hewn caskets that look like Alexander Hamilton or Abraham Lincoln would have been buried in them? It shouldn’t. Anyone who has spent twenty-minutes in a Whole Foods check-out line holding a carton of kale juice or hemp milk knows that when a death strikes a family that eats carefully and recycles, that family will likely desire a handsome, all-wood vessel without much metal hardware. Some Baby Boomers want simplified boxes so badly, they’ll Google around for them on their own if the funeral director fails to offer them. Good for green, Jewish, Christian, secular simple burial, these usually-unlined wooden boxes are also selected by cremation families when a cardboard box just doesn’t feel like the right thing. In short, it’s official: more funeral directors and planners are befriending independent casket makers–those savvy, committed, business-minded carpenters with a padded hammer in one hand, and an inventory Excel sheet in the other.

So meet (in photo above)“The Windsor” by the Connecticut Casket Company, a 79-inch-long Eastern White Pine and Walnut coffin that blends humility with an old-fashioned grandeur to form what I think is one of the nicest handmade caskets out there right now.

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The workroom at Connecticut Caskets

Bill Covey, the casket’s designer, who’ll only sell to funeral homes, says: “The Windsor is one of those products I just can’t stop touching. The smooth finish of the tung oil on clear pine sends a tingle down my arm that causes me to spend a lot of time inspecting each one before it goes out to a funeral home. It’s my favorite casket and the only one we have used within our own family since its creation. It’s what I want to be buried in.” Almost 40 man hours of work go into it, he says. Retail price is surprisingly reasonable and depends upon funeral home mark-up.

img_4350Another casket maker near New York City who I’ve met numerous times and whose work impresses me is David Campbell, of TheWoodSmyth.com. David goes on long walks in the Pennsylvania woods to find fallen trunks, then makes custom boxes for clients–some of whom have just been released to hospice. Farther afield, Donald Byrne of Piedmont Pine Coffins in Bear Creek, NC, was an early activist in the green burial movement, and has been instrumental and totally supportive ever since. His simple, handmade caskets are beautiful.

Here’s a list of other hand-made casket-makers whose work I feel stands out: Aldergrove Caskets in North Carolina, Green Man Caskets serving North and South Carolina, North Woods Casket in Wisconsin, Nature’s Casket in Colorado (which has a cedar model made of shingles), Bert and Bud’s Vintage Coffins in Kentucky, Victory Coffin Company in Central Illinois, and The Old Pine Box in New Mexico. My favorite Trappist Casket maker is in Iowa (though the Trappists in Louisiana fought admirably against a shameless funeral directors’ lobby to win the legal right to sell simple boxes down there).

Here’s the Green Burial Council’s list of certified funeral products, including handmade caskets. And here’s an excellent little documentary about the classic, pegged Jewish pine box that you can watch if you’d like to know more about the belief that a simple box at the funeral is the ultimate statement of respect and humility.

The End of the Line for Formaldehyde

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I used to associate the National Funeral Director’s Association (NFDA) with Brooks-Brothers-clad lobbyists who never questioned the utility of highly toxic embalming fluids. So imagine my delight last week–it really felt like Christmas–when I opened my May 2016 copy of “The Director” magazine (the NFDA’s glossy trade journal) and found a remarkable article called “Excising a Health Risk: The time to look into formaldehyde-free products is now” by the NDFA’s environmental compliance counsel of twenty-five years, Carol Lynn Green.

Among Green’s talking points:

1. Formaldehyde-free embalming products serve an important risk-reduction function in embalming.”

2. “OSHA will change how it limits formaldehyde exposure, setting more stringent standards and/or imposing restrictive work practices.”

3. “Today’s memorialization practices, the shorter period between death and memorialization, and consumer interest in green products and practices, create a niche market for formaldehyde-free embalming products.”

My translation: just as we wisely stopped using poisonous arsenic to embalm in the decades after the Civil War, so too we should seek alternatives (in both funeral practice and products) to formaldehyde-reliant end-of-life rituals. Might we learn something from traditions that eschew chemically preserved corpses? After all, it’s been five years since the U.S Department of Health and Human Services labeled formaldehyde a human carcinogen potentially dangerous to the people working around it.

Lest you suspect from my tone that I am “anti-funeral industry,” allow me to recount a conversation I had some years ago, when I was a mortuary school graduate in search of the required year-long residency. I quickly realized I was interviewing in the wrong funeral establishment when my prospective boss stated that all his residents spent the first three months in full-day, five-day-a-week, embalming practice. Line them up, and move them out! But as we continued to chat about the merits of strong fluids and wax reconstruction, he told me a moving story that illustrated the sacrifices he personally was willing to make. He described the day he collected from the Kings County Medical Examiner’s office the body of a heroic police officer, who’d been shot and killed in the line of duty, and written up in all the newspapers.

“I wanted to make this great cop look good again so badly,” he said with real sincerity. “that I managed the whole ‘post’ by myself.”

A “post” is jargon for a post-autopsied person cut open in a Y incision from shoulder joint to mid-chest to pubis by a pathologist to determine cause of death, then stitched back together with the plastic bag of cut-up, weighed, and analyzed viscera wedged into the abdominal cavity. It takes a long time and significant chemical exposure–with the deceased’s chest cavity open like that, formaldehyde pooling–even with the best ventilation, to make such a body wholly presentable. My new buddy inhaled so much toxic formaldehyde that day to get the officer’s body right, that he was faint and dizzy as he staggered out of the prep room, and had to be supported just outside the door frame by two employees.

This story touched me deeply. The sense of civic responsibility, this man’s devotion to making the funeral right, his willingness to endure a horrendous experience–all of that stirred me. But his resignation regarding “the hit” he had to take, inhaling a chemical in a quantity that could lead to health consequences (stats show increased risk for myeloid leukemia and ALS in career embalming room workers) still puzzles me. Some embalmers are just that selfless. But others aren’t in a dialogue with their bodies. They still smoke cigarettes. One I know used to work in asbestos. All, of course, need the job, otherwise, who’d do it?

So I was impressed, but perplexed by my prospective employer’s belief that formaldehyde toxicity can’t be avoided in the funeral biz, and that other employees should suffer as much as he has suffered. My heart goes out to this man’s wife and family. And to his staff, quite frankly.

The upshot of Carol Lynn Green’s article is not to halt embalming entirely for those funeral consumers who expect it, know what it is, and still want it. It’s to find methods and chemicals that won’t threaten the health of dutiful funeral workers, and get funeral home owners curious about what they might add to their menu of funeral options. Funeral firms must get ready for Baby Boom customers who feel that death can be managed naturally with no toxic chemicals at all (look at those long lines at Whole Foods, people). When strong preservative is required–due to air travel, warm climates, delays in service scheduling–funeral directors will still use formaldehyde. One might hope that, now, with the NFDA’s straight forward encouragement,  funeral directors will embrace formaldehyde-free fluids and stop tarnishing their legacy in the effort to celebrate someone else’s.

I wrote Carol Lynn Green right away and told her she was a “change agent.” She certainly is courageous.

I’m reminded of a moment I savored years ago when my younger son Gordon shouted across a grocery store aisle: “Hey Mom, it says here on this package: ‘no dyes and no artificial preservatives!’ Your team is winning!”

Shrouds Seize the Limelight

The rule of simplicity, which works so well in life, works great in death also.

Which brings us to the shroud–one of the most significant items rising over the retail horizon of the 12-billion dollar funeral business. Jesus was wrapped in one. Here’s a little snippet of Charlemagne’s shroud (and I think Oscar de la Renta would approve).

Devout Jews and Muslims have much to teach about simple, earth-friendly burial, and they stick with the simplest and purest of shrouds. Here are some pretty fabulous shrouds currently on the market. It is lovely to be bathed, dried, shrouded then casketed in a biodegradable box. Then of course, some people prefer to be dressed in nice street clothes–a suit, tie, etc., dress and shawl for women–but you can still be wrapped in a family quilt or shroud after that, and then casketed if you prefer. It’s all about simpler, greener, family-focused options today, and my new motto is, “It’s all good.”

Child's shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Child’s shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Urns of Endearment

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Dreams of flight and thoughts of freedom surround nearly every death, so bird imagery on urns for cremated remains makes sense to me. I’ve also been craving more toppers or finials on natural basket urns, and find these feathered friends optimistic and comforting.

Jemima Fisher created her first, simpler fabric urn (without ornament) to hold the cremated remains of her mother who was, like Jemima, a British textile artist and doll maker. Influenced by a fabric bowl her mother had given to her and after a lot of practice, Jemima incorporated her mother’s favorite colors and materials into the whole endeavor, and was pleased with the organic, natural feel. After all that work, the urn was filled with her mom’s cremated remains and buried under a tree.

Would you work a long time to create something beautiful, and then bury it? That’s what I love about this. Some people think that only the simplest wooden cube-shaped urns are suitable for burial, but there’s a strong argument for burying vessels that are not only biodegradeable, but also elegant, rare and precious. “My mother would have loved it, I’m sure,” Jemima says.

Making the first urn “was a cathartic process, but also emotionally draining, and although I wanted to continue creating beautiful biodegradable and ornamental urns for others, it was not the right time to begin,” Jemima writes on her website. So she took a break and has only recently started selling fabric urns to customers.

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Placing removable birds on top of the vessels is a newer concept, and Jemima advises families to retain them as keepsakes after the burial (if there is one). The idea for a bird came from the Mouse Man Furniture based in North Yorkshire, England, where every piece of hand-made furniture had a little mouse carved into it. With the birds came new urn shapes, which I think you’ll agree are wonderful.

Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.

Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.

Jemima’s urns generally sell for 250-300 British pounds, which comes to $460-$550 dollars including postage. Fabulous urn vendor Adrienne Crowther also stocks and sells fabric urns domestically off the brilliant website Shine on Brightly.

Best Green Cemeteries For Eco-Friendly Burial Near New York City

-4Some people think cremation is “greener” than burial because cremation generally requires no cemetery space. Actually, when you are speaking of one of the green conservation cemeteries within three hours of New York City or upstate, you can be protecting rural property by burying yourself in it. Cemetery laws prohibit highways or shopping malls from coming to land that has deceased people in it, so in using a green cemetery, you are helping to keep gorgeously-wooded, rural properties safe from development. (It may take a moment to bend your mind around this concept.) You can also be buried in a shroud (without a casket) in a green cemetery, something most conventional cemeteries don’t yet allow. No herbicides are used on the grass, as a rule, and the setting of a registered green burial ground is kept much as it was found: wild, natural, frequented by birds, squirrels, and deer. Folks who bury a family member in a green cemetery are sad a death has occurred, but elated by their participation in an end-of-life ritual that signals a return to the simpler burial practices of 200 years ago. Grave prep is more natural and aesthetically pleasing: no phony Astroturf covers the displaced soil, and evergreen boughs are available to help decorate or fill. Cemetery workers go out of their way to let family members lower the casket and shovel soil if that is their desire. You’ll also never see a grave-worker look harried or check his wristwatch at a green ground. The space is yours and you’ll be given ample graveside time. Some of my closest friends still exclaim, “Oh God, just cremate me.” But for those who love nature, history, and old-fashioned ritual, and for those whose custom has always been simple and green (Jews, Muslims among others), it’s a no brainer: Green burial in a natural burial ground–without an embalming, metal casket or vault–is a gracious, gorgeous, uplifting way to “go.” Here is my most complete accounting of every green cemetery and every hybrid ground attached to a conventional cemetery in or near NY state. There are shades of green at play here (two asterisks ** denote a completed registration with The Green Burial Council), but all plots listed here are priced well below the remaining graves in New York City. Some of these cemeteries are a little far afield, but I include them because they may make sense to New York families connected to those necks of the woods. FULTONVILLE NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, Upper Mohonk Street, Fultonville, NY 518-265-3136. Single plot $500 residents, $700 non-residents. GREEN MEADOW CEMETERY, 1121 Graham Street, Fountain Hill, PA, 18015. info@greenmeadowpa.org 610-868-4840. Plot $1500, open fee $650. **GREENSPRINGS NATURAL CEMETERY 293 Irish Hill Road, Newfield, NY 14867 (near Rochester) 607 564 7577. Standard lot $1,300; cremains lot $350. Opening fee for standard burial $1,000. Opening fee for cremains burial $225. Antique horse-drawn sleigh available to carry casket in winter. -6 HARLEMVILLE RURAL CEMETERY, near Spring Valley Rudolf Steiner School and Hudson, NY. Hybrid green ground attached to conventional country cemetery. Please call Jonitha Hasse at 518-325-7454 to obtain latest, extremely reasonable prices. **HOLY SEPULCHRE CEMETERY (Trinity Section) – Natural Burial Ground, 2461 Lake Avenue, Rochester NY 14612. 585-458-4110. $1600 single plot, $600 open. MARYREST CEMETERY 25 Seminary Road, Mahwah, NJ 07430, 201-327-7011. Single grave $1,400. Opening fee $1,750. Note: the purchaser should be a Catholic (but no one will “card” you). And the decedent need not be Catholic. This is, however, a Catholic cemetery. MOST HOLY REDEEMER CEMETERY 2501 Troy Schenectady Road, Schenectady, NY 518-374-5319. Single grave $1,500. Opening fee $715. Note: Decedent must be related to a Catholic. **MT. HOPE CEMETERY’S “GARDEN OF RENEWAL” (Hybrid), 1133 Mt. Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620, 585-428-7999. Single grave $3,300, $800 open fee, $400 maintenance. ROSENDALE PLAINS CEMETERY, P.O. Box 85 793 Springtown Road, Tillson, NY 12486, not far from New Paltz. 845-658-9042. Single graves $550, opening fee for burial $575, required flat grave marker usually costs about $250. Plots available for cremated remains also at same price. Scattering garden in development.

SLEEPY HOLLOW CEMETERY just outside Tarrytown, NY 10591, 914-631-0081. (Historic cemetery with hybrid green burial ground by side of cemetery road, shrouds accepted, cremains accepted). Single grave $3,200. Opening fee for grave $1,797. Cremation grave (fits two urns) $1,500. Opening fee for cremated remains $536. **STEELMANTOWN CEMETERY 101 Steelmantown Road, Steelmantown, NJ (outside Cape May). 609-628-2297. Single or double plot $2,000. Grave opening fee $1,500. Eight-member family plot $7,000. Opportunities for wooded burial or placement in old Quaker cemetery. One hundred-year-old casket cart meets hearse and family at the gate.

Shovels at graveside

Shovels at graveside

TOWN OF RHINEBECK CEMETERY’S NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, 3 Mill Road, Rhinebeck, NY 12572, 845-876-3961. Single plot $1300, $900 to open. Plot for cremains $450, $600 to open. UNION CEMETERY AT MAYS LANDING, 195 Route 50, Mays Landing. NJ, 08330. 609-625-7571. Adult interment $850, interment of cremains $275. One-time regrading fee: $200. **WHITE HAVEN MEMORIAL PARK 210 Marsh Road, Pittsford, NY (near Rochester) 585-586-5259. Has Jewish area, Islamic area, all-green hybrid ground. $2150 grave, $675 open fee. Cremains in woods $2150, by water $2800, cremains open fee $395. **WOOSTER CEMETERY, 20 Ellsworth Avenue, Danbury, CT, 06810. 203-748-8529. Lovely historic grounds with green area priced lower than the conventional. $2700 adult plot, $900 open fee. Call office for foundation and maintenance costs. Marker and foundation fees vary. Most green cemeteries allow engraved, flat, native stones. For a complete listing of green burial grounds in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, follow this link to download a pdf list. Esmerelda Kent of Kinkaraco burial shrouds also maintains a green cemetery list. (Note: All photos are mine, taken last time I brought a family to Steelmantown.)

Last Woolen Testament

images-6In 1667, British wool manufacturers were so fearful of the popularity of imported linen that they pushed Parliament for a law requiring every deceased person to be buried in a woolen shroud. Common folk complied with these strict requirements for more than seventy years. Perhaps it seemed like a cozy deal. Who doesn’t like a soft wool blanket? Capitalizing upon the well-publicized natural burial movement in England today, the Hainsworth Company, most famous for dressing Buckingham Palace guards, decided to sell people on the idea of wool burial again. images-5This handsome, biodegradable wool casket with jute handles is fortified with recycled cardboard and can support several hundred pounds. When you see it in person, as I did at the ICCFA convention, you long to crawl into it. (Of course I was tired, since the exposition hall was enormous.) Choose chocolate brown or a eggshell ivory. Casket retail price would be approximately $2400. Hainsworth makes pet caskets and lovely woolen boxes for cremated remains. Ask your funeral director about these products all available through Elliot Urn & Supply.woolen-casket-3_1296065546

The Family-Decorated Cremation Box

Photos courtesy of Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings in Los Angeles
Photo courtesy of Olivia Bareham

People struggle with how to personalize cremation. Death occurs. The funeral director arrives. The deceased is lifted, covered, and rolled away. Then a smooth plastic box containing cremated remains is presented two or three days later. Of course a service is possible with the body before cremation, or with an urn afterwards, but did you know that you could pay your funeral director (or a home funeral guide) to bring the cremation casket to your home so that you and your family members could decorate it? Check out Olivia Bareham’s Sacred Crossings website and see what one California death guide is helping families do in and around Los Angeles. The photographs of children at work with their designs and notes are gorgeous. You’d think a family’s amateur efforts might not be consistently excellent, but miraculously, these home decorated boxes are always terrific and families feel like they’re healing themselves by partaking in efforts so artistic and different. Thanks to Olivia, Char Barrett, Jerrigrace Lyons, Beth Knox, Lee Webster, and Peggy Quinn–all stalwart members of the The National Home Funeral Alliance for directing me to this remarkable concept. In the past six months, I’ve introduced the idea of decorating the box to several families who’ve written ardent messages of farewell on simple cremation caskets in the chapels of Green-Wood Cemetery’s crematory in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Olivia Bareham

Photo by Olivia Bareham

There Is No Death in Nature

“It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not
die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the
window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not
dead; he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor
Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could
easily tell the names under which they go.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photo by Kevin Russ

Photo by Kevin Russ (P.S. Happy Earth Day!