Dust to dust

Sunday 20 November — St. Joseph Cemetery, Falmouth — “Totensonntag” (All Souls Day among German Protestants)

During November (the month to prayerfully remember our dead) I have been pondering matters of life and death. This November, as you know, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its instruction on respect for cremated human remains. I’ve seen a lot of cremation funerals. I was curious as to what exactly was involved in the process. I took the time to find out. I wish I hadn’t. 

Before the body can be cremated, jewelry, body piercings, and certain medical devices must be removed. Pacemakers, for example, can explode during the process of cremation. Gold and silver melt.

The body is then placed in a combustible wooden cremation coffin or, more often, a reinforced cardboard box.

The cremation chamber (called a “retort”) must be pre-heated. It has thick brick walls made to withstand temperatures that often reach 2,000 degrees. The process takes about two hours. Cool-down takes 30 minutes.

Then what is left is removed from the retort to a workbench. Artificial joints, surgical pins, and titanium screws and rods, are picked out. Smaller metal scraps are retrieved with a magnet. 

Next the bone fragments are mechanically blended into powder.

The cremains are placed in a plastic bag (or in an urn if provided) and returned to the family for burial, display, storage, or disposal as they see fit. And there’s the rub. 

Seems to me the process itself is brutal. Who knew? One can see why the Church has always preferred interment of a deceased human body. We will all return to ashes soon enough, but what’s the big rush? I think burial is more natural. Nevertheless, in most circumstances, the Church no longer disallows cremation. 

Veterans’ Day was quiet here at St. Patrick. Being on-call for hospital emergencies, I stayed by the phone. There was only one call. It was from a magazine salesman. He wanted to sell me a subscription to Modern Undertakers Trade Magazine. It would keep me informed of cutting-edge trends, he assured me. I replied that he must have the wrong number. This was technically not a lie. I’m a cemetery director, not a funeral director. 

I have, however, some basic knowledge of the history of the undertaker’s craft. It developed during the Civil War around the urgent need for caskets and the necessity for embalming the war dead in preparation for long-distance transport. Embalming, previously quite rare, eventually became culturally normative. Today the need for caskets and embalming is rapidly declining.

By the year 2030, 70 percent of deaths will result in cremation. Back in the year 2000, the funeral industry sold $1.2 billion worth of caskets. By 2020, it is expected to be only $456 million. The writing is on the wall. There’s need to rebrand. 

I’ve heard of a trend to reimagine funeral parlors as “community multi-purpose centers.” Why not rent out the facility for weddings, corporate meetings, or family birthday parties? Some newer funeral homes, I read, have introduced restaurant-grade kitchens, dining rooms, wait staff, lounges, and even bars. It’s full-service and convenient. Forget Victorian-patterned carpeting, maroon velvet drapes, and dim lighting. In with oversized aquariums, comforting hearths, gigantic Palladian windows, and plush lobbies.

Funeral preparations themselves are morphing into something else, with thoughts of the reality of death and the necessity for grieving suppressed. In the future, there will no longer be “wakes,” but “gatherings.” The funeral home of the future will have a large state-of-the art “multi-sensory room” in which pleasant landscapes can be projected on all four walls. How about an ocean scene, or a golf course, or the Cape Cod Canal? Cue the pre-recorded pan pipes. Aromas appropriate to the projections can be concocted and pumped in, just as at Disney World. By the way, I read in the Wall Street Journal that a former top Disney executive now runs funeral homes. He previously oversaw EPCOT theme park. 

Almost everyone these days leaves some sort of technological footprint. Your words and images remain on the web after your death. The words, photos, and films of the deceased can be retrieved, edited, and projected. Think of it as an immersive experience of sound, sight, and smell. How about a hologram of the dearly departed? Think interactive. How about a virtual presentation on the accomplishments of the deceased? How about webcasting for those unable to attend? Now here’s a thought: a kind of genealogical research room dedicated to preserving family ancestry, complete with individual life stories. 

With the ever-growing popularity of cremation, the funeral industry is reinventing itself. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think inside the box.

Now you know the future, dear readers. Knowledge is power. Be sure to write down your funeral plans and pray your wishes are respected.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts