Saturday, December 10, 2011

If you thought the gift shops at Disneyland were bad

An elderly relative died this past Monday; the funeral was yesterday. In most ways, it was a pretty typical event. The decedent was quite old, she'd been in declining health for a number of years, and her demise was not unexpected. People were understandably sad, tears were shed, and life goes on. The funeral itself was what one would expect -- the minister talked about the wonderful characteristics of the decedent (a woman he had  met one time, and then only briefly) while those of us in the pews did our own mental editing/reality check. (If the dearly departed were even half as wonderful as eulogies always make the deceased sound, it would be a lot harder to let go.) The only surprising thing was that the church was not as full as I had thought it would be given how active the woman had been in the community in her younger days, but then I realized that the decedent had simply managed to outlive most of her contemporaries.

Visitation at the funeral home the night before held a few surprises, though. I've always been intrigued about customs and practices surrounding death, the various attitudes and rituals and their evolution over time. Americans have always struck me as being a tad squeamish about the subject. After all, the culture has abdicated personal responsibility by allowing professional funeral directors to take over what were once intimate family tasks: preparing the body for burial, for example, and digging the grave. For centuries, too, western culture has isolated the dead from the living: unlike some cultures where the bones of revered ancestors become part of the household (e.g., skulls up on the ceiling beams or bones buried in the floor), western European societies planted the dead in graveyards. That's changed a little with the advent of cremation -- during the 20th century it became acceptable, if not widely common, to have the cremains of a loved one residing in a tasteful urn on the credenza in the living room.

I've got to admire the funeral industry for managing to take that tasteful urn and move it to a whole new level. While sitting around sipping coffee at the funeral home, I realized I'd inadvertently wandered into the world's creepiest gift shop. The built-in bookcases and various other surfaces were full of display models of different items grieving families can purchase. You can now get individual urns:
Instead of the deceased's ashes residing in one large urn for all eternity, you can divide him or her among the family members. Personally, I find this a little creepy, but I know not everyone feels that way -- my older grandson was the recipient of such an urn after his other grandmother died a few years ago, and he seems quite happy to have it.

Individual urns not quite your thing? Or there are so many family members (and the decedent was a frail little thing who's not going to provide much ash to work with) that even the small urns are too large? How about some cremation jewelry? You can have ashes compressed into fake diamonds, or you can go for something a little less intense, like a heart you can wear as a necklace or on a charm bracelet:
What about the men, you ask? After all, guys aren't likely to want to wear a heart-shaped pendant no matter how much they loved their mother. Got them covered. Keychains, with a wide variety of designs to pick from:
I can see it now -- "I'll take the one with the gecko on it. Mom always loved those GEICO ads."

The options for stuff you can do with cremains don't stop with urns and jewelry, of course. You can take those ashes and have them made into stained glass. You can buy various pieces of innocuous looking household items that have compartments for cremains: desk lamps, for example. You can get urns that look like bookends (and can be used the same way) if you want to be subtle, or you can get urns that look like miniature caskets or sarcophagi if you want the urn to be a blatant piece of memento mori.

But what about families who don't opt for cremation? Aren't they kind of S.O.L. when it comes to death memorabilia? Not really. There are now these nifty little pieces of jewelry, which get sold by companies such as Thumbies:
You can have your loved one's fingerprints permanently embedded in a piece of (not cheap) jewelry that you can treasure forever. Holy crap. First they guilt you into the Cadillac casket, and then they swing into full up-sell mode by peddling tchotchkes to help guarantee that whatever estate the decedent had is thoroughly eviscerated. I'd love to hear the sales pitch for this stuff. What can they possibly say? Your mother's last wish was to be fingerprinted? She never had a chance to do one of those plaster-of-paris wall plaques in kindergarten; here's your opportunity to make it up to her?

Bottom line: prearrangements are looking better and better. Signing up with a burial society, making damn sure everyone knows the one and only thing I want is the absolute cheapest cremation done as quickly as possible, ashes in a milk carton or coffee can because they're going to get scattered, and no money whatsoever being spent in the world's creepiest gift shop.

[cross posted at All the Good Names Were Taken]

Saturday, April 9, 2011

So tempting

Would the ghostwriter question the client's veracity? Or simply go along with some individual revisionist history? It might kind of nice to have the grandkids thinking I won a Pulitzer or climbed Everest. . . Considering the service costs $100 an hour, with a typical fee of $250 to $500, you'd hope a little creative license would be fine.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Barnes Hecker

I came across this photo of the rather odd Ely Township Centennial/Barnes Hecker mine disaster memorial while scanning my dad's slide collection.  He took the photo shortly after the marker was erected. The marker has since been moved to the grounds of the Michigan Mining Industry Museum in Negaunee Township -- I'm not sure why. The marker was not at the actual mine site to begin with, so it wouldn't seem to make much sense to move it from one township to another.  The marker used to be next to US-41 a few miles west of Ishpeming.

It always struck me as an odd memorial -- the combination of commemorating the township centennial with remembering what is still considered one of the worst mining disasters in US history is a bit strange.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Four Sabine County, Texas, cemeteries

The Mt. Sinai Cemetery is a relatively old cemetery, with its first interment dating back to 1894, and is located in the community of Fairmount close to the Beechwood subdivision on the Toledo Bend reservoir.  The cemetery does include graves with older markers; these are reinterments necessitated when three local cemeteries located closer to the Sabine River were inundated following construction of the Toledo Bend dam in the mid-1960s.   The cemetery includes a number of interesting markers, as well as this poignant tableau:  

The swing faces this marker:
One can only assume that Gerald's parents spent quite a few hours in the swing while visiting with their deceased son. 

Mt. Sinai also includes this amazing stainless steel marker:

The photos don't do it justice.
 The Fairmount Cemetery is located on Texas Highway 87.

Like the Mt. Sinai Cemetery, it is relatively old and has a Texas Historical Commission book on a stick providing a brief history:

I was actually more intrigued by the sign instructing people not to bury pets in the cemetery (enlarge the first photo to see; it's the smaller sign on the fence) -- is that a common problem?  Most markers in the cemetery were standard, 20th century commercial stones, although there were a few graves marked only with fieldstones:
There was also one vernacular marker that was a little unusual in having a replacement gravestone placed adjacent to it.  Usually the vernacular stones are discarded when a commercial stone replaces them.
 The Ener Cemetery near Yellowpine is a traditional pioneer family cemetery. 

A few of the older stones have weathered to the point of being difficult to read, but most are still quite legible, and are standard commercial markers.
The Yellowpine Cemetery is a relatively new community cemetery.  Like the other three, it is well maintained.
I'm always intrigued when cemeteries located close to each other geographically exhibit different customs or practices, and Yellowpine does have a few characteristics not seen at Mt. Sinai or Fairmount.  Putting an edging around the family plot and keeping it neat with sand or crushed white rock is a popular practice:
This plot with its carefully raked sand is reminiscent of a Zen garden:
I was also quite frankly stunned by this:
I'm hoping this has some meaning for the family that isn't obvious to an outsider, because "Ho! Ho! Ho!" feels like a rather odd sentiment to place on a grave.