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.

From Perfunctory Transfer to Transformative Experience

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The funeral consumers I meet aren’t excessively distressed by today’s funerals costs. More frequently, they are infuriated by the insensitive way funeral firm personnel, in the presence of family, transfer the dead to the funeral home from the beds they died in. “Then these two men in dark suits walked in, suggested we might want to leave the room, and we heard the zipping of a bag. Then they left. It felt like they were in a hurry to get to an appointment, or something.” You yourself have heard this complaint. Funeral home transfer teams can bow and offer condolences until they’re blue in the face, but if they can’t manage a compassionate, careful collection of a deceased person from the room he or she recently died in with grieving family members looking on, they have botched the funeral, and the funeral home’s owner might spend the next three days trying to redeem the whole firm.

It is hard for such a loaded exchange to look as good or seem as smooth as anyone might desire. But the honesty and transparency of the moment is critical. Detaching medical equipment from the body, quickly reaching to support limbs that might hang down and look a little frightening in order to get the deceased person onto the funeral home’s stretcher–all of those moments in the presence of family can be painfully awkward for the funeral home’s hard-working (sometimes up-all-night) trade service or transfer team. In essence, this is a changing of the guard.

But I think success stems from engaging families more in the moment instead of fearing their reactions and trying to shield them from the transfer’s inevitable imperfections. The relocation of the dead from place of death to the next stop on the journey truly holds the most amazing, ceremonial potential! Some transfer teams see this moment of the funeral as the “worst” part when in fact, they could see it as the best and take greater pride in it. (Dare I say that many of the families wishing to pay less for a casket, would pay more for an improved transfer-from-place-of-death experience?)

We need to adapt to modern families wishing to witness as much as they can, even when what those families are choosing to see is difficult. It is not our job to remove them from an experience in order to “protect” them from it. Let’s face it, the popularity of cremations without any funeral parlor visitation combined with the success of the hospice movement and home funeral have created an environment where the time spent at place of death is the viewing.

At this modern on-the-spot ceremony, family members may have been singing, praying, crying and just exchanging stories at the bedside in the 90-minutes since death occurred. The tributes have commenced before the funeral firm’s arrival! Hospice workers, hospital chaplains, and death midwives are facilitating this new kind of working “wake” immediately after death exquisitely well. And families are navigating the liminal space–the time between death and disposition– as best they can.

Enter the funeral director (or the funeral home’s representatives), fresh from the stresses of the highway. Yow. Not an easy moment.

Addressing my brethren directly, I’d like to demonstrate how funeral directors and funeral home personnel can support, even uplift, a grieving family at point of transfer.

1. Clear your head and fill it with compassion on your way to the hospital, nursing facility or home where the death has occurred. Arrive at the agreed-upon time. Stand at the door of the room, knock softly, then enter. Slowly offer your hand to family members, extend condolences. You’ve been doing that with every job, right? What’s new is what comes next.

2. Ask what the people in the room called the deceased, and if you may use that name for a moment. Walk to the bed, touch the deceased’s shoulder, and introduce yourself to the deceased by name and say you are there to help. This is a leap, I know. But hang in there with me. What is said next is open to personal style and cause of death. Among the possibilities: a moment of silence staring into the face of the deceased (telegraphing nothing but a calm, confident demeanor in death’s presence). A very brief prayer could follow if the family is religious and no clergy is present (“God full of mercy who dwells on high, grant perfect rest on the wings of your divine presence…”). Or you could reflect out loud upon the fact that death is “a labor,” and that the deceased has successfully gotten to that labor’s other side. Death is not a lost battle.

3. Turn to next-of-kin and ask if everyone has said their goodbyes for now. (You must be willing to spend more time here if family members have still not completely collected themselves. You may have arrived too quickly, so be prepared to back off. Chances are good that they are ready, but you have no good reason to rush them if they’re not.) Check, of course, for wedding rings and personal belongings. Remove if necessary, and offer to the next-of-kin. (There are legal papers to sign that declare that person the custodian of the those belongings now that may need to be signed.)

4. Again (now, this is key)–address the deceased by name and then say, “Forgive us in the coming minutes if we seem in any way awkward or clumsy as we take you to the funeral home. We are doing our level best, and we promise to continue to do our best as long as we, and the others we work with, are taking care of you.”

I have found that even the most secular families appreciate this. Soul or no soul. People care that you care and that you are announcing your caring intentions. Did you notice how the family just took a huge sigh of relief?

5. At this point, turn to the family, and say, “Listen, it’s fine at this point if you guys stay in the room, but you need to make a little path for our stretcher here. Or– it’s up to you–you might want to wait outside in the hallway.” If you’re a bit inexperienced and worried about being graceful with the body, your dream may come true: the family may tearfully retreat to the hallway and let you and your partner do the lifting in private. I feel grateful when I work for a family that wants to stay in the room. And, if I’ve got a do-it-yourself crowd, I might allow some family help at the feet, in the lift to the rolling cot, at this point. They may not want to do that much, in the tight space allowed, save tuck the sheet under. Either way, the offer to work collaboratively is what counts.

6. Now it’s almost time to zip, but don’t zip yet. Tell the family, “I’m going to cover and close but before I do, is there any music you would like to put on?” Any smart phone in the room on speaker creates this splendid opportunity. Any flowers on the bedside table? Ask the family if they’d wish to have the deceased exit with flowers in hand. Gently tug stems out of the vase, and tuck them in.

7. Start slowly zipping at the feet. Continue to zip at an excruciatingly slow pace. This is just like a witnessed casket close. Stay formal. Be elegant. Go slow. Remember the compassion you brought through the door? Use it now most of all.

8. Stop your zipping at the base of the neck, with face of the deceased still exposed. Look up, and lock your eyes on the faces of the family members, indicating non-verbally: “Is it okay to zip over the face?” Give them a moment to gaze at their loved one’s face one last time. Wait for the nod. If you’re not getting the nod, wait some more. The family eventually will nod when ready. And you’ve been helpful in preparing them for the road ahead.cot cover kingsley black large-1

9. I take my leave with this cot cover from FinalEmbrace.com on top of the stretcher, gliding to music, as we roll down the hall. When the death has occurred in a residence, the exit may be even more effusive and elaborate. A parting poem? Solo sung by a family member? Absolutely. Even more terrific things can occur when the whole funeral was held in the home and you are now on your way straight to the crematory or cemetery. Louder music, rose petals cast as you graciously depart. Children or pets present? Get them involved too. This is it. This is now. No one will ever be quite the same again.


Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director who serves Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Windsor Terrace, Ditmas Park families, helping them create distinctive funerals and memorial services. She specializes in green burials in cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council, simple burials within the NYC- Metropolitan area, home funerals, and cremation services at Green-Wood Cemetery’s gorgeous crematory chapels.

Thanks to Char Barrett, Jerrigrace Lyons, and Olivia Bareham whose trainings have strengthened my resolve to be a family-focused funeral director. Grateful thanks also to Kateyanne Unullisi, the celebrant and genius behind The Emerge Foundation, for her thoughtful notes on an earlier draft of this article.

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!”

Deaths of Prince and David Bowie Demonstrate Two Approaches to Cremation

A-purple-rose-may-mean-enchantment-or-enthrallment-to-convey-love-at-first-sightLike David Bowie, Prince told his family not to fuss over his funeral. But those closest to Bowie and Prince tackled the same request in different ways. David Bowie was cremated privately by a corporate funeral firm with no one but funeral directors and crematory personnel present. By contrast, a group of Prince’s friends and family members met up with Prince’s body at First Memorial Waterston Chapel in Minneapolis. Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson and “another relative spent several quiet minutes with the ‘Purple Rain’ singer before he was cremated.” I am happy they did this. A lot of people don’t fully realize that many crematories have chapels, where one or two family members can sit in silence or where services for 150 people with music and eulogies can also be conducted.

“Cremation is fine,” writes funeral director Thomas Lynch in his book The Good Funeral. “But if you are going to cremate your dead, go to the edge of the fire, in much the same way as those who were going to bury their dead were encouraged to go to the edge of the open ground.”

Memorial services and concerts with eulogies after the fact are glorious, and of course, the funerals of public personalities have their own special security requirements. But when the family is emotionally up to it, there’s nothing as powerful as accompanying the deceased the whole way.

The Fact that MLK Jr. Foresaw His Death Was Acknowledged at His Funeral

As you will likely remember, the Reverend Martin Luther King spoke of his own death and funeral on April 3, 1968, one night before he was assassinated. But I never knew that a recording of his famous oration, now known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” sermon, was replayed at his funeral six days later at Coretta Scott King’s request. Have a listen, and watch the faces.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

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.)

Morbid Poet or Canny Pre-Planner?

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts


It’s inspiring to note that America’s most death-preoccupied poet (known for writing “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me;” and “I was always attached to mud”) died in her own sunny bedroom 129 years ago this week, was then placed in a white casket on a pine bier in the parlor, honored with a 130-line obituary in the local newspaper, and was lovingly buried with two heliotropes in her hands at a gorgeous graveside service that involved other May-blooming flowers she had studiously reared (when in better health) in her own garden. Who gets an end-of-life roll-out like that any more? Mostly only those who think a lot about death in advance.th-7

She’d be pleased with us, sitting here, talking about her funeral. “We do not think enough of the Dead as exhilarants,” she wrote. What a soul, what an intellect. She shocks and enlightens us today with her death-inspired insights. For example, she said any death, all death, reliably comes as a “stupendous” surprise (even when that death is long-awaited and anticipated). This is certainly true to my experience. She wrote, “All other Surprise is at last monotonous, but the death of the Loved is all moments–now.”

For her funeral May 19th, 1886, Dickinson’s pall bearers walked her casket from the parlor to the cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts, as her grave lay just beyond the fence line of the elegant home where she lived all her life. There, her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson read Emily Bronte’s poem “No Coward Soul is Mine,” a piece which could be interpreted as slightly more religious than Dickinson was in her final years, but you can decide for yourself when you read it, and start thinking about what poems you’d like recited when you too are dead, when “subterfuge is done,” and when the temporary and the eternal “Apart–intrinsic–stand.”

No Coward Soul Is Mine
By Emily Bronte

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life – that in me hast rest,
As I – Undying Life- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every Existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou – Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

The Case for Hiring a Professional Funeral Photographer

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

When funeral photographer Duane Knight attended the wake of a childhood friend last December, he was relieved to see a man there taking photographs. But when Knight later learned that the photographer was the father of the deceased, he was devastated. “Oh, I felt so sad that he was taking the photos instead of just being present at his own daughter’s funeral.” Knight believes as a matter of principle that every end-of-life service should be photographed by an empathic but distanced professional with the eye of a photo journalist. If we employ such people to shoot weddings, why not funerals?

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

Yes, immediate family members may be crying and not looking their best, but Knight isn’t interested in capturing images of their faces in that moment. It’s everybody else there in attendance–friends from the office, relatives who’ve traveled long distances–and all the small loving gestures and tender moments going unnoticed that should be documented, he says. “A good funeral photographer has to learn to be invisible. You have to know where to stand. You can’t use a flash. It’s a very delicate thing.” Two to three weeks later, Knight presents the family with an 8X8″ book of photos he has created. “They look at it and thank me through their tears,” Knight says. “I give them a healing record they can keep and browse through forever.”

As a freelancer photographer for “Gospel Today” magazine, Knight photographed the funerals of numerous famous gospel singers including Bishops Walter Hawkins and G.E. Patterson. Upon taking some particularly excellent photos of his own uncle’s funeral in 2008 and turning them into a book, it occurred to Knight that he had a pretty good business concept. Thus, the Brooklyn-based firm Between-the-Dash Photography was born. Knight has package rates; coverage of a simple wake or viewing starts at $750. For more information, write betweenthedashphotography@gmail.com.

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight


Funeral and post-mordem photos
were vitally important to the American grieving process from around 1840 through the Victorian period until the late 1920s. Knight strongly feels he is modernizing a tradition that deserves greater respect. Let me know how you feel about this, and what your experiences with funeral photography have been.
Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

An Unforgettable Home Funeral

1947397_607967775963306_499716301_nLos Angeles certified death midwife Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings gives grieving families the necessary support to conduct funerals and vigils in their living rooms, just as they were held a century ago. Yes, that’s right. The deceased never “steps foot” in a funeral home prep room or chapel, and has either died at home or been carefully conveyed there from hospice or hospital. Home funerals can last from just a few hours to several days. The deceased is generally placed on a massage table or bed (decorated with colorful fabrics) or even a hand-decorated cremation casket, and dry ice is sometimes used to keep the body cool.

Bareham is a former board member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a group with which I am also affiliated. She and other guides in almost every state now are reviving the old-fashioned wake, home vigil or viewing thought by many to endow death–be it sudden or expected– with greater meaning. You see, when death is brought into a residence, the home becomes a memorable venue for this highly sacred undertaking, a savoring of liminal time and space. Wakes like this are slower paced and highly participatory with family members bathing and dressing the deceased, annointing the body with fragrant essential oils, then sitting with the dead all day or night, witnessing, comforting and grieving in a waving natural rhythm until the vigil concludes.

When baby Darrius was born still, Sacred Crossings helped the family bring him home for a vigil and celebration of his ‘life in the womb’ with a loving community of friends and relations. His mother Emma later said “It helped me so much to be able to hold and bathe and dress my baby and show him to all the wonderful people who were looking forward to meeting him. It helped me to come back to reality after a very bad dream.”

Words cannot convey the beauty of these funerals, so I best be quiet for a moment and let you watch. I have to warn you, however, that this gorgeous video may well stir strong emotion and perhaps should not be viewed by anyone who has been close to an infant death in recent weeks.

Bareham was trained by renowned home funeral guide Jerrigrace Lyons, friend, mentor and loving sister of anyone engaged in this beautiful work. I completed Lyons’ Level III last September and now supervise these perfectly legal home funerals in New York. (Video courtesy of Sacred Crossings.)

For Couples Who Wish to Spend Eternity Together

Well, we said “‘Til death do us part” until we realized that death doesn’t have to separate two people who long to spend eternity together.

The "Cameo Portrait" urn from the Mathews catalog.

The “Cameo Portrait” urn available at most funeral homes through the Mathews catalog.

Indeed, the funeral industry is able to provide mostly lovely, always fascinating ways to keep love alive. I’ve known elderly lovebirds who’ve retained the cremated remains of the partner who died first, requesting that all ashes get co-mingled when the inevitable eventually occurs. Other families are better pleased by placing Mom’s and Dad’s remains in a large urn sized for couples that has two tidy, separate compartments.

Companion urn for a committed couple, bronze front, zinc body, priced well at $990, Memorials.com.

Companion urn for a committed couple, priced well at $990, Memorials.com.

This can be a powerful statement from couples who’ve worked hard to keep their ardor and commitment alive, and want to stay together forever. (Reminder: nearly all cemeteries accept “companion” cremation urns for burial or niche placement just as they have always buried deceased married couples beside each other. Just let the staff know the urn’s dimensions.)

The ultimate valentine: a "Loving Heart" companion bronze urn with two compartments for cremated remains, $2,374 on Memorials.com.

A “Loving Heart” companion bronze urn with two compartments for cremated remains, weighing 26 pounds and costing $2,374 on Memorials.com.

If you’re holding the cremated remains of your dearly departed parents on a hall closet shelf, you might consider buying something this Valentine’s Day or on their anniversary that could sweetly house them together. Also, a plaque on a park bench is a splendid way to honor them, or an actual bench for two in the cemetery beside their graves would be an incredibly generous gesture.

Of marriage and coupledom, the poet Robert Frost once wrote, “Two such as you with such a master speed, cannot be parted nor be swept away from one another once you are agreed, that life is only life forevermore, together wing to wing and oar to oar.” And apparently, that summed committed romantic relationship up so well for him that he used that last line under his wife’s name on their shared grave stone.

Beautifully-crafted companion urn by Jaime Miller of WoodMillerUrns.com, only $380.

Beautifully-crafted companion urn by Jaime Miller of WoodMillerUrns.com, only $380.

Celestial Orb Raku-stye companion urn is large enough to hold the cremated remains of two people. Costs $469 at the marvelous website Artisurns.com, where other handmade pieces for two can be commissioned.

“Celestial Orb” Raku-stye companion urn is large enough to hold the cremated remains of two people. Costs $469 at the marvelous website Artisurn.com, where other handmade pieces for two can be commissioned.

"Seated Couple" bronze companion urn for the depressed mom who married a stand-up guy, $1418 at Memorials.com

“Seated Couple” bronze companion urn apparently (by the looks of things) for the mom who married a stand-up guy, $1418 at Memorials.com

Simple, practical and solid cedar wood urn holds two. From MemorialsForever.com, $355.

Simple, practical and solid cedar wood urn holds two. From MemorialsForever.com, $355.

Two-chamber pendant keeps Ma and Pa entwined and hanging on your neck! In gold vermeil, $130 at IntheLightUrns.com.

Two-chamber pendant can keep a tiny bit of your parents’ cremated remains entwined. Nice, in gold vermeil, $130 at IntheLightUrns.com.

Blue Dolphin urn that holds cremated remains for two, by artist Steven Forbes-deSoule, available for $770 at ShineonBrightly.com

Blue Dolphin urn that holds cremated remains for two, by artist Steven Forbes-deSoule, available for $770 at ShineonBrightly.com

Batesville's Companion Urn Clock keeps any married couple together for all time, $775 at UrnsforCremation.com.

Batesville’s Companion Urn Clock keeps any married couple together for all time, $775 at UrnsforCremation.com.

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

A Fitting Frame for the Humble Prayer Card

Prayer Card Keepsake Booklet

Prayer Card Keepsake Booklet

Of all the gorgeous paper products developed by Forget-Me-Not Memorials, I’ve used the “in memoriam” card holders the most. I give them to my prayer-card-using families as gifts, and they always express their gratitude and delight, asking for more every time (usually to mail to relatives unable to attend services).

In truth, I never understood how vitally important ordinary prayer cards were to some people (Roman Catholics in particular). Prayer cards assume the role of the memorial gift to those in attentance, something small to take home, prop up in the kitchen window sill as a reminder of the person no longer with us. I have started to suggest memorial cards to those who’ve never heard of them since the cards need not be religious, can have a nature scene on them with name, birth/death dates and poem on flip side. The prayer card keepsake booklet shown here ties in a brown silk bow, and keeps the card protected for years. They are inexpensive enough to be given to everyone at the funeral, if desired.

A History of the Holy Card

A history of the holy card is available on Amazon.com


Each card holder measures 4 3/4” x 3“ and is sold for $50 retail in a storage box that holds 25.
Closed card holder on top of its box holding 25

Closed card holder on top of its keepsake box

The Walk Out

bfe03Mourners generally struggle to disengage and leave the cemetery after a graveside service. As a funeral director, I too labor to tie everything up. Last week, a wonderful rabbi introduced me to a graveside service conclusion ritual, common to Jewish funerals, that can wrap up any graveside gathering. At the end of the readings, prayers, or final remarks, when soil has been shoveled a little, all the way, or not, friends and more distant family can be asked to line themselves up in two rows extending from the graveside to the road where the cars usually are. It’s the same sort of double line with long aisle down the middle used when wedding guests throw rice at the bride and groom, only in this case, it’s the chief mourners who walk down the friend-lined path, looking tearfully into the loving gaze of what is now a support system, their funeral witnesses or pillars, reliable comrades shouldering the grief. When the immediate family reaches the lower end of the line, the folks at the top loop down through the aisle they created. Soon, everyone is where they need to be–on the way out of the cemetery–feeling perhaps less empty and less sad than they did coming in.

Forever Uplifted, Solid and Safe

Urn by Chris Parow

Buckley’s Urn by Chris Parow


You can see that the urn above is 1.) different and 2.) flat-out gorgeous. It was made for a beloved pet dog, but to my mind, it could work for almost anybody. Made of walnut and gathered drift wood by artist/woodworker Christopher Parow, it now houses the cremated remains of Buckley, a close friend’s Boxer-mix who quite sadly had a fatal heart attack this past Thanksgiving at the age of three. It was only last summer that Buckley had enthusiastically helped to collect this driftwood on a beach in Maine as Parow and Buckley’s owner Emerson (Em) walked alongside him.
Buckley's urn, as seen from the top

Buckley’s urn, as seen from above


Parow writes, “I spent most of my time trying to make the drift wood actually hug and embrace Buckley’s new home…After several hours of working everything together just right, it was complete. It now represented some of the most precious memories of Em and Buckley’s time together.

“Death is never easy,” Parow goes on to say, “With this piece, I aimed to create a truly positive resting place, a comfy nest, where [Buckley] can have little barky doggy dreams of scouring the beach for drift wood. RIP Buckley.”

Buckley on the beach

Buckley on the beach

You can find more of Parow’s amazing woodwork and wood sculptures on his website Trees and Nails.

Good Irish Funeral Music: “Be Thou My Vision”

I sat up until two forty a.m. this St. Patrick’s Day morn, seeking to find the best in Irish funeral music, but twice the song I thought I’d feature proved to be Scottish.

Irish village funeral

Irish village funeral

This was the case with “The Parting Glass” and “Flowers of the Forest,” both amazing songs to absorb in sad times.

I’ll leave you with “Be Thou My Vision,” a favorite in many churches, said to be adapted from a sixth century Irish monastic text and merged with an Irish folk melody called “Slane” much more recently. I like the following three versions of “Be Thou My Vision” for funeral centering and settling, maybe to be played before the service actually starts. Listen to it this way on piano and cello, and this way, as sung by folk singer Andy Hull. Want it to reverberate throughout the sanctuary? Listen to this interpretation through four-part harmonized flutes. Gorgeous. Have a blessed and safe St. Patrick’s Day, and welcome to the many new readers brought to me by the write-up in the NYTimes. Post a comment if you know of an Irish funeral song I’ve missed.

I know, I know. “Danny Boy” of course. Here are my thoughts on how to make “Danny Boy” sound new again.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true Word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, and I thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Good Funeral Music: Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile”

Chamber music at the beginning of a funeral or memorial service doesn’t get any better than this: Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile movement from the String Quartet #1 in D Major, Opus 11. “Play this at my funeral,” I always say to my husband. Nothing recorded is as successful at capturing life’s sweetness, the delicacy of our attachments to one another. The piece opens the doors of the heart, exposing its protected corridors. Can’t fail. It’s exquisite. Apparently, Tchaikovsky overheard the sorrowful folk melody being whistled by a house painter at his sister’s home in Kamenka, Russia. When performed for Leo Tolstoy, the mighty, bearded author is said to have wept like a baby. Thanks to savvy reader Susannah Brooks who suggested I also post Bobby McFerrin’s interpretation, which stirs the heart and imagination.

A Mentor’s Farewell to Marilyn

Monroe's crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Monroe’s crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Our study of the eulogy brings us to this short piece of perfection delivered by Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg at actress Marilyn Monroe’s funeral in 1962. We are lucky to be able to hear a full recording here.

Strasberg barely got through his own closing paragraphs, which makes them all the more moving. Here’s what he said:
…I am truly sorry that the public who loved her did not have the opportunity to see her as we did, in many of the roles that foreshadowed what she would have become. Without a doubt she would have been one of the really great actresses of the stage. Now it is at an end. I hope her death will stir sympathy and understanding for a sensitive artist and a woman who brought joy and pleasure to the world.

I cannot say goodbye. Marilyn never liked goodbyes, but in the peculiar way she had of turning things around so that they faced reality – I will say au revoire. For the country to which she has gone, we must all someday visit.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
was played as well as a portion of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (scroll to minute seven of this link to hear it). Tchaikovsky’s melodic lament (said to be be a cry of love for his nephew back in 1893) seems an appropriate farewell to a screen goddess, and had been repositioned as a doo-wop tune in 1960 by Little Anthony and the Imperials, placing it in the social atmosphere at the time of Monroe’s death. She was viewable in an open heavy bronze casket, wearing this green Pucci dress, hands grasping pink tea roses from Joe Dimaggio who planned the entire service and didn’t allow any Hollywood stars or hangers-on to attend.

Lutheran Pastor Recalls Productive Life Stolen by Mental Illness

Ned Vizzini

Ned Vizzini


A Funeral Mass and Service of Holy Communion was held in Brooklyn’s St. John-St. Matthew-Emanuel Lutheran Church two days before Christmas for the brilliant, NYC-born writer Ned Vizzini, who tragically leapt to his death last Thursday at age 32. Foremost on the mind of every speaker at the gorgeous tribute attended by perhaps four hundred people was the welfare of Vizzini’s devoted teenaged readers, many of whom, like Vizzini himself, have struggled or been hospitalized with depression and mental illness. Reverend David Parsons was quick to clarify: “Ned didn’t commit suicide. Mental illness took his life from him.”

Vizzini’s sister emphasized that it was important to Ned that his fans never lose hope. Ned was able to turn “demons into muses,” she said, when he wrote the critically-acclaimed books “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and “Be More Chill.” She praised him for his humor and his “emotional honesty.” Vizzini’s brother told charming, funny stories of childhood, described how Vizzini had been loving his Los Angeles screenwriting job, and expressed gratitude for his sibling’s most important legacies–his ability to write about depression with grace and humor, and a toddler son, who didn’t yet know what death was (which is as it should be, he said). Vizzini’s god-mother also spoke, saying “Life is way bigger than any story we can tell about it.” Most moving perhaps was the reading of the following passage (Matthew 6:25-29), which Vizzini once stated was of comfort to him in hard times.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Also read: This passage from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Psalm 77 and Romans 8:31-35, 37-39.
Hymns selected: Shall We Gather at the River? and Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.

Good Funeral Music: “What’ll I Do?”

The funeral for highly-prized, much-beloved journalist Peter Kaplan was held Tuesday in Larchmont, New York. “For a master of words, well crafted and conceived, for the artful literary visionary, the ultimate life editor, what else do we owe but words?” said presiding Rabbi Jeffrey J. Sirkman. Crisp, artful eulogies were delivered, then Kaplan’s daughter Caroline sang Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” which she and her dad had previously agreed was the “best song ever.” Here’s Julie London’s rendition of “What’ll I Do?” (sans video). Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole also recorded it. Harry Nilsson, and Rufus Wainwright did well by it too.

Kaplan's favorite park, where mourners walked  after the service.

Kaplan’s favorite park, where mourners walked after the memorable service.


What’ll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do?

What’ll I do?
When I am wond’ring who
Is kissing you
What’ll I do?

What’ll I do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to?

When I’m alone
With only dreams of you
That won’t come true
What’ll I do?

Sacred Music Composer John Tavener Is Dead

The greatest contemporary composer of sacred music Sir John Tavener died in Southern England yesterday, November 12th. He was best known in the US for writing “Song for Athene,” which was played as a recessional at Lady Diana’s 1997 funeral (see video above). Tavener had amicable relationships with each one of the Beatles and recorded for Apple Records. “The Protecting Veil” for cello and orchestra ranks among his most sorrowful but hope-filled pieces, and is music you might recommend to someone in a state of grief. A student of sacred scales, world religious chants, choral and organ music, Tavener spent many years in delicate health, which he said assisted his creative processs. “I live with the thought of death very much in front of me, and this may well have a bearing on the way I think generally.” Here’s another nice quote from today’s NYTimes obit: “I used to fret over manuscripts and think, ‘What am I going to do?’ Now it’s a question of going very quiet, emptying my mind of preconceived ideas and seeing what happens.” Here’s a lovely, short documentary on this most visionary composer and artist.

Bagpipes, Brahms, and a Single Poem Complete Heaney Funeral

images-3

The funeral for Nobel poet laureate Seamus Heaney was held Tuesday at Dublin’s Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. Wildly affectionate eulogies were delivered (one referring to Heaney’s fondness for stating “Blessed are the pacemakers” after he received the device). Heaney’s friend and recording collaborator Liam O’Flynn then played Port na bPucai on the bagpipes. The only poem read at the service, written by the deceased, was The Given Note. The gathering concluded with Johannes Braham’s famous lullaby on cello as Heaney’s two sons and others shouldered the wood and brass casket. Here’s the whole report from Associated Press; thanks to Koshin Paley Ellison for alerting me to it. Heaney’s last words on his deathbed, written to his wife in Latin were “Noli timere” or “Do not be afraid.”

Today “Taps” is Mostly Lip-Synced

images-7Here’s a wonderful history of the playing of “Taps,” tracing its roots way back to before 1862 when it became the official final bugle call of every active-duty soldier’s evening. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh. At most American military cemeteries today, where scores of vets might be buried daily, “Taps” is–believe it or not–automated. Yes, it is faked by a uniformed player holding the bugle to his lips (something akin to Beyonce’s excellent lip-syncing at Barack Obama’s second inauguration.). This isn’t as awful or as disappointing as it would seem. The sound quality is decent, and most of the mourners are staring at the flag-drapped casket anyway as they ponder this awe-inspiring soldier’s lullaby, now recognized as every American soldier’s ballad all around the world.

One tip: Ask all elderly vets in your family where their military discharge papers are because you don’t want to be searching through file cabinets in the hours after their deaths, or having phone conversations with military cemetery personnel that sound like this: “I don’t know his entry date. I’ve looked everywhere. He served in Korea…” Even if you consider yourself a non-militaristic sort of person, do not deprive yourself and your family of the beauty and the substantial savings of military burial. Here’s the official explanation of which vets are eligible. Those who have served since 1980, must have stayed in for at least 24 continuous months.

The Passion of a Musical Farewell

Be kind to musicians. Or just be one. Because musicians can alter their surroundings, and turn pain into inspiration. They also tend to have the most inspired funerals. When Irish music pianist and retired IBM executive Felix Dolan, the father of my friend Phelim, died April 9, 2013, in Scarsdale, NY, at the age of 76, his friends in the Irish music world lamented his passing, and articulated his contributions–online at first, and then at the funeral, two days later, as you’ll see here. As more musicians strode to the front of the sanctuary, tugged off their coats, and sat down to play, the monsignor whispered to the altar boys, “This is one funeral you’ll never forget.”

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!

My Painted Stairs

I started to paint while the kids were at sleep-away camp.

I started to paint while the kids were at sleep-away camp.

We all try to leave a mark in this world. And while these photographs of my first floor staircase have nothing to do with funerals or funeral planning, they do say a little about me, so I thought I’d include them here.

I am an enormous admirer of Vanessa Bell’s country house, Charleston. She was the writer Virginia Woolf’s sister, of course, and she painted the walls and doorways of her home with her lifelong friend Duncan Grant. Gosh, I always thought, I’d like to be that uninhibited, that free. Then, as I approached the age of fifty, I thought, to hell with this, it’s now or never. I’m just going to start! So I started. And I painted these stairs that lead upstairs from my narrow 1911 home’s first floor.

Here’s a larger view. I stenciled the checkerboard part, and painted the rest freehand with Benjamin Moore sample jars. Are you leaving a mark on your world? Share it with me.
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