Click the link below to read/download the June Newsletter (June 2018 Newsletter Vol 1 No. 2 ).
Reprinted with author’s permission from an article previously posted on the professional networking site LinkedIn “Why I Feel It’s Foolish to Advertise on Facebook.”
Anxiety seems to be the most salient message sent by everyone from self-help gurus to marketing. In-your-face Facebook addicts telling professionals with decades of experience that they don’t know what they’re doing and need to change. It seems that when you don’t have a credible tangible product to sell, create an anxiety scenario and sell a service that responds to the anxiety just created. Makes sense, doesn’t it? It apparently works.
While LinkedIn is a professional networking platform intended to provide a forum for professionals to exchange news, views, and ideas and it works quite well if you can get around the religious fanatics proselytizing. But social media such as Facebook was allegedly intended to nurture interpersonal communications and special interest group venues, not to bait suckers looking for a freebie and sharing everything from fake profile photos to personal details and even their genitals. But, defending the arcane and ambiguous “community standards”, Mr. Zuckerberg tells us, it’s all for our own protection. Here today, gone tomorrow, depending on the algorithm Mostly youngish people with a smattering of midlifes and seniors looking to kill some time FB has become a haven for misfits and sociopaths but some entrepreneurs seem to think that it is the most important marketing venue ever created. I strongly disagree. Given the nature of Facebook and its business model, I propose that it is not appropriate for marketing your funeral home or for advertising deathcare services.
The reality is that while the Internet and social media has made it possible to chat and to post images and texts that can be read by anyone with an Internet connection and a Facebook account, the platform falls pitifully short of being a venue for selling anything; people on Facebook just aren’t on Facebook to buy anything. That’s a fact.
Take one example that seems to be popping up more and more on LinkedIn: Ryan Thogmartin and his ConnectingDirectors (Disrupt Media). He appears almost on a daily basis in his signature grunge look and wildly proclaims that funeral homes are doing it all wrong if they’re not using his service and marketing on Facebook. Thogmartin’s message is that even if you are marketing on Facebook and not getting a mind-blowing response you are doing it all wrong, and Thogmartin can fix it for you.
I am in the lifecare and deathcare vocation and because I recognize that Facebook is inherently evil and does nothing whatsoever to serve humanity. I regularly scan FB posts for material or inspiration and I do follow Thogmartin’s posts and messages, and I must admit he does leave me in a state of awe. Awe that he has the arrogance to make his appearances and in the most immature way attempt to convince mature professionals that he has the secret to their success: market funeral services on Facebook.
Apart from being a clown, his whole dog-and-pony act seems to attract some misguided individuals — most likely confederates enlisted to make the impression that anyone takes Thogmartin or his message seriously; after all, that’s marketing, isn’t it? Perception drives reality, right?
So, let’s ask some very simple questions about our professional activities. You see, as a psychospiritual care provider, as a chaplain, a practicing thanatologist, my professional activities are very similar in their general aspects to those of the funeral director and funeral home: we serve a very local community, we offer very “personal” services, we are called by the local community in times of urgency, we have to respond within a very narrow window of time, we rely very heavily on local perceptions of ourselves and our services, we are available on an on-call, at need basis, our work is best done face-to-face.
There’s no profession on earth that has a guaranteed local clientele, unless you consider the funeral director. Human beings have 100% mortality so everyone in the funeral director’s neighborhood and beyond is going to die at some point. Most states and federal laws impose restrictions on who may take custody of human remains and, whatever the provisions of state and federal law, the only professional who has 100% authority to take custody of human remains is the state-licensed funeral director. And the key to the success of this death-custodianship is this: LOCAL VISIBILITY and LOCAL PRESENCE.
Local visibility means that the funeral director is not hidden away amidst tens of thousands of others offering the same services under the same key words and search terms. Local visibility means that you can see the local funeral home each time you drive by. Local visibility means that you shake the funeral director’s hand each time you go to pay respects at a visitation. Local visibility means that you see his product every time you attend a funeral or memorial service. Local visibility means every time you pick up a church bulletin or look at a print calendar, his logo or the name of his funeral home is emblazoned somewhere in or on it. When you open your town or fraternal organization newsletter your local funeral director likely has a display ad somewhere in it. You know your local funeral director by sight and probably by name because you see him planting flowers around his facility, you see him at the car wash, in the local diner, or you worship in the same church, synagogue, mosque or temple. How much more local can it possibly get?
The funeral services profession, like chaplaincy and psychospiritual care, is local. We do not generally provide care to individuals or groups outside of a 25 or 50 mile radius of our main location. In fact, most of our calls come from within 25 miles.
That having been said, I have to admit that I do get calls and I do travel to locations beyond that 50 mile radius. I’ve had calls to provide services 250 miles away; beyond that, the cost and the time involved become prohibitive for both the client and for me. In those cases, I make a referral or I provide viable recommendations to the client. Here’s the key point, though: Those persons requesting services at such a distance probably (1) received a recommendation from a local client (a family or funeral director) or (2) found me online. Either way, as I have said, beyond the 25 or 50 mile radius, the cost becomes prohibitive so I can’t and don’t feel I can provide the support needed. I refer.
The same would apply to funeral services. First, the smart funeral director makes every effort to become a visible and participating member of his local community. He’s active “on the block”, in religious institutions, educational institutions, community organizations, and fraternal organizations. He maintains very positive relations with local nursing homes and healthcare institutions. But most importantly, he provides sensitive and compassionate care to the families he serves on a day-to-day basis, he proves to his families that he’s competent, caring, honest, and a good listener. The key to his business success is not Facebook marketing, it’s professionalism and trustworthiness, two things you have to demonstrate on a case-by-case, face-to-face, local basis.
The funeral director’s range is similar to my own and he frequently does the same thing I must do when he receives a call beyond that range: he refers or makes helpful recommendations. Like most professions, he has a national directory of colleagues and may even have worked with many of them in the past. He knows his field and his colleagues and doesn’t need Ryan Thogmartin or Facebook to do his intimate professional boots-on-the-ground marketing and networking. He does that locally every day and, given the time and opportunity, does so at regional conferences and meetings. Hands-on, face-to-face.
I find it insulting to have some neophyte insinuating himself into the midst of an ancient profession that has been proven to be essential, local, and necessarily personal, and I find his arrogance an affront and akin to personal ignorance not only of the fundamental nature of the profession but also of its intimate demands and its history.
Thogmartin would not have attracted my attention if he were to have focused say on the repatriation business or mortuary supplies, or the stone quarry business, since these examples would likely benefit from global visibility. But quite frankly, no one needs Thogmartin or Facebook to find those services; they’re readily available through their ads in the professional journals or in the professional directories we all are familiar with. So even those examples wouldn’t require Thogmartin’s services or Facebook.
In fact, I really can’t think of any business that would require Thogmartin’s services or Facebook to succeed. If a business is so big that it’s entered the international vernacular it got that way without Thogmartin or Facebook; if a business is so specialized it will generate its clientele through the professional networking media or the professional journal media or by directly marketing its product to known users. If a business depends on local visibility and presence, Thogmartin and Facebook won’t do very much for the business.
If any professional, especially a funeral director or deathcare services provider, does his or her homework and keeps abreast of the population that spends time on Facebook, it will become abundantly clear that (1) most of the Facebook denizens are way beyond his/her range, (2) a very small number of locals can be identified on Facebook, (3) the interests of the Facebook denizens are definitely not focused on deathcare, (4) a very large percentage of Facebook users are addicted to social media, literally sociopaths, and you can get enough of those right around the corner; you don’t need Thogmartin or Facebook to find them, (5) no-one, not Thogmartin or Facebook, can actually provide viable statistics by locale or region or even by country on how many Facebook users are looking for deathcare services. There are other points I could make here but I think the point is abundantly clear. Thogmartin is attempting to create a marketing opportunity where there is none.
Even better: Ask yourself how many times you have gone to Facebook to find a product or service you needed like a.s.a.p. Enough said.
Moreover, given the choice of alternatives for my promotion and marketing activities, Why? would I choose to become associated with a suspect organization like Facebook? First of all, Facebook has been the subject of myriad investigations for their behind-the-scenes unethical and likely unlawful operations and business model. Secondly, Facebook’s dictatorial, even tyrannical and arcane and ambiguous “community standards” make anything insecure and risky — even if you are paying to use the service (which you don’t need in the first place). Thirdly, assuming you and your staff are operating efficiently and near capacity, and if you know your business and your community, Why? would you even consider global blanket marketing for a primarily local service? Given the nature of the funeral services profession, I think you’d be better off buying a couple of dozen aftercare cards and springing for the postage, and sending them to the families you’ve served in the past year or two. There are literally hundreds of excellent ways to show you care and to create a highly positive image of your funeral home, its staff, its services, and making it the first call a family in need makes. After all is said and done, the funeral director, like the bereavement chaplain, is all about care: precare, compassionate care at need, and aftercare.
If you have any questions regarding any of the above, please contact me at email@example.com or message me here on LinkedIn. You may also find some very helpful information at Funerals, Memorials, and Chaplain Services (a WordPress blog). Sorry, you won’t find me on Facebook.
“We are caregivers for life who also care for the dead.
We share with the living where our life’s calling has led.”
Rev. Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv
Lifecare and Deathcare Service Provider
Call or email me for services, referrals, and recommendations.
 From the poem “We are Caregivers for Life” by MSO (available at https://mysendoff.com/download/we-are-caregivers-for-life.pdf)
Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief when I see some of the things that are going on in the deathcare sector. It’s really unbelievable the types that now claim to be gurus to the deathcare business and who tout themselves as being in the know about what and how funeral directors and funeral services providers should be doing with their businesses.
One such guru is Ryan Thogmartin, a self-proclaimed social media “expert” who runs Disrupt Media and publishes the online journal Connecting Directors. Actually, it’s Thogmartin who seems to be critically disrupted and the only directors he’s connecting have likely been drinking their own embalming chemicals.
For one thing the deathcare industry has taken a turn towards immorality and dehumanization in recent years. I say this because the growth of the funeral services corporations making death a commodity rather than a sacred mystery is doing inestimable damage to the human psyche, culture, tradition, and anything human worth preserving. I’m speaking of the Newcomers, the Service Corporation International, the Dignity Memorials, the StoneMors of the world and their greed and gouging practices.
Even more alarming are the products they are foisting on the bereaved: direct cremation, direct burial, alkaline hydrolysis (dissolving the dead human body in a draino-like solution and sending the remains down the sewer lines); the indignities heaped on the dead and the insensitive treatment of the surviving bereaved are appalling.
I’m no friend of Facebook and feel that it is one of the greatest evils to arrive on Earth since Nazi national socialist movements or Stalinist communism. It’s an insidious agenda of mind control fostering self-destructive addiction on millions of unwary subscribers who, if they had half a brain, are sacrificing it to the anti-Christ Mark Zuckerberg and his army of censoring mind-police minions.
But Thogmartin sees an opportunity here and tries like hell to sell it to Guess whom? Yes! Funeral directors and funeral homes, one of the most conservative groups you’ll find today. One of the groups we would hope would have superhuman gifts of compassion, sincerity, empathy, humanity. Thogmartin is trying to sell them the idea that they need to market their services on Facebook. But I’m completely at a loss Why? they should believe anything the sloppy, uncredible, inarticulate Thogmartin has to say!
Here’s one of Thogmartin’s most recent pitches to the deathcare professionals whom he thinks he’s appealing to. Would you buy a used car from this guy?
Well, I’m not going to beat a dead horse (no pun intended). First of all, for those of us with any powers of discernment Thogmartin’s inarticulate double-talk is enough to turn us completely off. His presentation — I’m looking at his wardrobe, his set, his general appearance and personal hygiene, if I can abuse that concept when referring to Thogmartin — is simply grunge. Who on earth would want their families and clients to know that this is the man from whom your receiving your business advice?!?
Secondly, any funeral home’s business is largely local. Most established funeral homes are generations old and rely on a good reputation built over the decades and generations by providing top-shelf service. Their business comes from word of mouth, not from an idiotic platform calling itself social media, and catering to the lowest of the lowest of intellects. Sure, even the dumbest human being is looking at 100% mortality and someone’s going to have to dispose of those human remains, but seriously, when you receive that first call, it’s likely not to be from Facebook. It’s going to come from a local hospital, hospice, nursing home, or from a local family — unless of course your business is based substantially on repatriation of human remains and you do a lot of business after natural catastrophes but I can’t even say I’ve worked with such an operation in my entire career.
Moreover, most of Disrupt Media’s publications come to the subscriber as republished from other sources; most of it isn’t really of interest to the funeral director or his staff in his day-to-day operations. Besides, in the profession who has the time to sit and read poorly written commentaries hoping to find something worthwhile and of any value to a business that must be very attuned to local culture.
Maybe Thogmartin’s appeal is to the funeral corporations and their employees but on careful scrutiny and analysis, his whole operation is questionable and his advice serves only his interests, Disrupt Media.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney, BA, [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist
In the West, interment, inhumation, entombment have been the traditional methods of disposing of dead human bodies, that is, prior to the late 19th century with the revival of cremation as an alternative. Until about 1880, cremation was anathema, unless, occasionally, at times of extraordinarily large numbers or dead, such as during war time, during epidemics, or following natural disasters, mass graves or incineration of the corpses was preferred to avoid further catastrophe in terms of public health. Fire cremation was revived in the West as a quasi-pagan option attributed to non-Christian freethinkers and masons or simply to anti-social elements but then took a different tack by appealing to the public health and environmentally conscious elements in conventional society. Today, economic concerns both consumer and industrial take precedence. The dominant market economies in the industrialized West, particularly in the USA, UK, and some Western European countries, as well as the insatiable appetite of post-modern, post-Christian cultures for novelty and individualism, have left the door ajar for the entry into the funeralization professions of an industrialized process called alkaline hydrolysis (AH), an industrial process invented in the late 19th century as a way of dissolving in strong chemicals farm animal waste for use as fertilizer.
“Omnes homines terra et cinis” Sirach 12:32
In a particularly beautiful description of how the pre-Vatican II Church thought of the human being, and in poetry that was possible only in a more sensitive epoch of human history, one reads:
“The old Church holds on to her dead with eternal affection. The dead body is the body of her child. It is sacred flesh. It has been the temple of a regenerated soul. She blessed it in baptism, poured the saving waters on its head, anointed it with holy oil on breast and back, put the blessed salt on its lips, and touched its nose and ears in benediction when it was only the flesh of a babe; and then, in growing youth, reconsecrated it by confirmation; and, before its dissolution in death, she again blessed and sanctified its organs, its hands and its feet, as well as its more important members. Even after death she blesses it with holy water, and incenses it before her altar, amid the solemnity of the great sacrifice of the New Law, and surrounded by mourners who rejoice even in their tears, for they believe in the communion of saints, and are united in prayer with the dead happy in heaven, as well as with those who are temporarily suffering in purgatory. The old Church, the kind old mother of regenerated humanity, follows the dead body of her child into the very grave. She will not throw it into the common ditch, or into unhallowed ground; no, it is the flesh of her son. She sanctifies and jealously guards from desecration the spot where it is to rest until the final resurrection; and day by day, until the end of the world, she thinks of her dead, and prays for them at every Mass that is celebrated; for, even amid the joys of Easter and of Christmas, the memento for the dead is never omitted from the Canon. She even holds annually a solemn feast of the dead, the day after “All Saints,” in November, when the melancholy days are on the wane, the saddest of the year, and the fallen leaves and chilly blasts presage the season of nature’s death.”
The Church of bygone days frequently used prose poetically and quoted liberally from the Church Fathers and even from the ancient philosophers and historiographers like Plato, Seneca, Socrates, Cicero many of whom, though pre-Christian, did not eschew the notion of the immortal soul. St Augustine writes, “We should not despise nor reject the bodies of the dead; especially we should respect the corpses of the just and the faithful, which the Spirit hath piously used as instruments and vessels in the doing of good works…for those bodies are not mere ornaments but pertain to the very nature of humankind.”
Cremation made an occasional appearance in isolated periods of Western history or in outlier regions where Christianity had not yet attained dominance; cremation was largely associated with non-Christian, pagan cultures.
In the East, in places where Hinduism and Buddhism had a firm foothold, cremation was and continues to be the norm. In some geographical areas such as in parts of Tibet, where the ground is unfavorable to interment and wood is a scarce and valuable resource, exposure of the corpse or dismemberment of the corpse and consumption by carrion-eating birds, so-called sky-burial or, in its form where the dismembered corpse is cast into a fiver for consumption by fishes, water burial, is practiced.
A similar practice of exposure is found in Zoroastrian communities in Iran, in the so-called towers of silence or dakhma, where the dead are brought, exposed, and consumed by vultures; the skeletal remains are then later collected for disposal.
While isolated instances of cremation are reported both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, burial or entombment was conspicuously the norm. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, burning of a corpse was a final act of abomination, reserved for only the worst elements of society.
One of the common misapprehensions of the Church’s aversion to or discouragement of incineration of the human body as a routinely available option for final disposal is that it was associated with pagan or freethinker practice, or with attempts to dissuade believers from faith in a bodily resurrection. While this might have some historical substance and may be represented by some early writers, it is but a minor hypothesis.
As Eusebius describes early Christian aversion to flame cremation in a statement that still holds plausible, “” they (the Pagans) did this (cremated) to show that they could conquer God and destroy the resurrection of the bodies, saying, now let us see if they will arise.” In other words, cremation was a challenge to the belief in bodily resurrection as taught and believed in the early Church.
Furthermore, no less a figure than Cicero advances the notion that incineration was of ancient practice in Rome, and suggests that inhumation was a practice that predated the Roman practice of cremation. In fact, some noble Roman families never permitted their bodies to be burned, and Sulla is said to have been the first Roman who ordered his body to be cremated after death, lest his bones should be scattered by his enemies. The pontiffs of pagan Rome would not acknowledge a funeral to be complete unless at least a single bone cut off from the corpse, or rescued from the flames, had been de posited in the earth.
Ancient Greece and Rome did practice cremation at various points in their histories but the ultimate disposal of the remains continued to be burial; either a part not consumed by the flames or the “bones” of the cremated corpse were ultimately buried in the earth. Cremation was by no means consistently the norm or the preferred method of disposal in Greece or in Rome.
Pope Boniface VIII forbade all violent modes of disposing of the dead as savoring of barbarism. “The respect due to the human body requires that it should be allowed to decay naturally, without having recourse to any violent system;” so says Grandclaude. A forcible argument against cremation is also found in the Catholic custom of preserving and honoring the relics of the Saints and putting their bodies or portions of them in the altar. It would be no longer possible to have the most important relics of future Saints if their flesh were to be consumed by fire.
That brief sampling of ancient teachings and beliefs regarding the question of incineration of human remains, arguably a “violent system” of disposing of human remains, should suffice to provide a background for the remainder of this discussion. For a more detailed discussion, I refer the reader to the Reverend Bann’s article cited above.
It was only in the late 19th century that a cremation movement came into being, and then only owing to the deplorable conditions in the cities which were rapidly outgrowing their boundaries due to immigration from rural areas, and the resulting encroachments on the previously outlying churchyards and, with population growth and densification, poor sanitation, and high mortality rates, consequent overfilling of existing cemeteries literally to the point of overflowing.
Such were the conditions that gave rise to the public health concerns of reformers who claimed that the dead in the cemeteries were evil, that their miasmas leached out into the water and the spaces of the living, causing disease, suffering, and death. It was the evil dead rotting in the earth and their juices that were public health enemy No. 1. The open sewers and living conditions of the larger cities, and the putrid waters of the rivers flowing through them, of course, were not to blame.
And so, an alternative method of disposal of the dangerous and filthy dead had to be found, one that did not threaten to gobble up valuable real estate, and one that could be justified in the face of Church and religious objections. Cremation was the most obvious answer for purifying the unclean corpses. After all, since time immemorial fire was the great purifier.
In the beginning, therefore, the initial impetus was the miasma theory of pestilence, and corpses were to blame. Then, around 1880, the germ theory of disease was born. It debunked the established miasma theory of disease, and stated that disease was caused by specific organisms, germs. No problem for the cremationists, who were quite agile in dropping the miasma theory and accepting the germ theory but corpses were not yet off the hook, so to speak.
If germs were the cause of many of the diseases afflicting the population, wouldn’t the putrid rotting corpse be germ heaven? And if you have all those corpses lying about doing nothing but what corpses do, that is, rotting and defiling the air with the aromas of putrecine and cadaverine. Those same rotting corpses were breeding grounds for pestilence and a simple hole in the ground was not very likely to contain the little vermin. Cremation, the great sterilizer, would be the cremationists’ next slogan. But it didn’t last long.
The interests of the economic-minded would carry the day both in terms of the environment and the economy, and that campaign agenda is with us to this day. Basically, the dirge goes: “Why allocate so much valuable land to the dead when the living can profit by it?” Land for the living! After all, as corporations like StoneMor can confirm, cemetery real estate and the real estate occupied by the cemeteries represents a vast fortune. Someone has to tap into it.
The countries of Europe afflicted with the spirit of rationalism had no problem dealing with cemeteries; they just overruled the Church and legislated that the state had ultimate control of the citizen in life and in death. The Church could fall back on canon law but ultimately had to acquiesce to the state’s overwhelming power, and so the cemeteries were secularized. Once secularized they were emptied and their occupants relegated to ossuaries or catacombs en masse, and anonymous in their tens, even hundreds of thousands. In many instances, their eviction from the cemeteries and relocation to the quarries was done under cover of night, in order not to offend the living or present an obstacle to commerce.
In countries where the Church, Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant dominated, the faithful were expected under established sanctions, to obey the doctrines of their faith. For most mainstream Christians, and for all Orthodox Jews and Muslims, cremation was an abomination, and burial in the earth or entombment were the only acceptable methods of sepulture. And so it remained until 1963, when the Roman Catholic Church relieved it’s ban on cremation and, while not encouraging cremation, did not censure those who opted for incineration as their preferred method of disposal. Upto then, those choosing cremation were pro forma classified as apostates, atheists, pagans, free-thinkers, or Masons.
The 1960’s was a decade of revolutionary reform in practically every aspect of life: politics, religion, morals, education, all of which ultimately found expression in attitudes towards life, death, dying and after-death.
Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) , aquamation , resomation , biocremation , call it whatever you like it all literally boils down [no pun intended] to taking a dead human body, placing it into a pressure cooker, adding water and chemicals, heating, cooking, draining, rinsing. The dissolved flesh and organic matter is then flushing into the sewer system. What is left is bones and any metallic or synthetic material in the body (artificial joints, pacemakers, sutures, etc.). The metal such as artificial joints etc. will be recycled or “repurposed.” The bones will be dried and ground up into a sandlike powder and returned to the family or otherwise disposed of.
The actual patented process, alkaline hydrolysis (AH) is a process developed for waste disposal. “Waste disposal” is the actual term used in the patents. AH was developed for disposal of infectious or hazardous waste by dissolving it into a “safe and sanitary” end-product. In fact, the actual wording of one of the patents is: “it is an object of this invention to provide a system and method for safely treating and disposing of waste matter containing undesirable elements, such as infectious, biohazardous, hazardous, or radioactive elements or agents.”
AH was developed for dissolving, liquefying organic matter into a disposable liquid that can be recycled as a fertilizer or simply flushed down the drain. It’s actually a technology that was developed in the late 19th century for disposing of animal waste, and which was developed in the mid-20th century for disposal of farm slaughter waste and for elimination of medical school cadavers, is now being promoted as the new eco-friendly take on cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis a.k.a. water cremation a.k.a. biocremation — in reality just using a Draino®-like chemical to dissolve the dead human body and flush the remaining human sludge down the drain into the public sewer system — is the new rage in technology. Some funeral homes in about 14 states, where the process is now legal in the United States are now offering it as an alternative to cremation. It’s disgusting and will be a hard sell, since it will be acceptable only to the really bizarre element out there. I hope to clarify some of the issues in this article.
Republished with permission from Spirituality and Griefcare.
Death does not respect age; any death is a loss whether it be an 18-month old infant, an 18-year old youth, or an 81 year old matron. They are all significant losses to someone and each instance has its own pattern of grief responses and challenges to overcome. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status or any other feature, each death is unique and special, like no other death ever or anywhere, because with each death we lose an entire world, an entire package of experiences that may have just been in the process of unwrapping.
We hardly ever speak of a beforelife but tend to be overly concerned with the afterlife. It may be comforting for some of us to reflect on who and where we were before we became who we are when we were born. It’s interesting to ponder that question because we can either trust that we were in fact somewhere, existing, before we were physically conceived. But where was that? The alternative is to believe that once a random sperm entered a waiting egg, a cascade of events was triggered that became the infant you and developed into the you you are today. Quite honestly, neither of the two hypotheses can really be resolved, because we have no real idea what constitutes “you.” Perhaps that’s why we prefer to occupy ourselves with an afterlife, since in that discussion we at least have a tangible quantity to work with: a physical person with all sorts of attributes has died, and we ask the many questions associated with a death, most often Why? and Where?
We are terribly uncomfortable with being so vulnerably human and can’t bear to think that we will someday, somewhere, somehow die. We will physically stop working and some rather disgusting changes will take place in our physical bodies. Like the proverbial ostrich, most of us wander aimlessly and with minimum purpose along the myriad possible paths through the time and space we call life. We greedily seek one diversion or entertainment after the other, never getting enough, and yet demanding and getting more and more distraction from the reality of ourselves and the world around us. We become a shell of what we potentially can be.
When death finally arrives to claim a loved one or a friend, we are shocked, confused, angry, and demanding. How could this have happened? Why did it have to happen? If only…! Reality is really hard to take and when you are so arrogant that you think you can handle all the answers or can control what happens, reality gets even harder on you. You attempt to quench your anxiety with denial but it doesn’t seem to work for you – or anyone else. Death visits and seldom knocks. Death rarely makes an appointment to come around when it’s convenient. Death just drops by and takes what is his.
When a death occurs it almost always ushers in a psychospiritual process we commonly refer to as grief, and a psychosocial process we generally refer to as mourning. Both grief and mourning have their sociocultural patterns we call ritual on the “micro” level and ceremony on the “macro” or public arena. Within these we have social norms, including how grief is politicized, acknowledged, and cultural dictates, bundled together into what we call practice or on a more substantial scale, tradition. Religion / spirituality of one form or another, or one of the philosophies seeking religion, frequently provide a foundation upon which these behaviors can establish and legitimize themselves. The psychospiritual and the psychosocial environments provide the contexts in which the bereaved engage in their grief work, find meaning in their loss, incorporate the transformed deceased into their lives, continue their bonds with the deceased, and transcend the bereavement experience as transfigured persons. It’s a complex process that requires time and permission to proceed. Although the social / public process of mourning may have temporal waypoints and a particular culture may set an end time for the public display of bereavement, grief does not have such an amenity. In fact, grief may be experienced for many years after a loss even without being classified as “pathological,” or complicated, and grief is unique to each griever, it’s a personal experience and must be accommodated by each griever in his or her own way. Grief cannot be rushed nor can it be stereotyped.
Today, in the early 21st century, we are deluged with information and stimuli of indescribable variety and in asphyxiating volumes. Some of the deluge tends to shape our very physiology and repattern our nervous systems, especially our brains and the way we think. The information and stimuli enveloping us at every instant of every day is insidiously evil in that it is directed at transforming human beings endowed with free will into means to unhealthy ends. The media bombarding every single human being today is dehumanizing us and transforming our very existence from beings to doers. We are no longer mindful of the gift of the moment we are living in and we are unable to enjoy the moment in silent reflection We have no peace. Television, radio, emails invade every moment of our lives with commands to “Hurry!” “Don’t wait!” “Do it now!” “Last Chance.” Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging have all replaced real personal relationships with virtual personal relationships. The once sentient being we called human has become a mere reflection in a smartphone screen. We don’t even take the opportunity to speeddial a significant other and would rather spend the time texting rather than talking. Even “chatting” which was once a form of informal oral communication and stimulus sharing has become realtime texting and responding but there’s nothing real about it.
All of these intrusions and incursions into our humanity and their tragic effects on who and what we are can be seen in our death practices. Digital death is a term that once described online practices centering on death-related communications; today, digital death is the counterpart of a person’s physical death. Our dehumanization is almost complete now because we have moved away from metaphysical, spiritual trust in an afterlife and are now even concerned about what happens to our Facebook page or our Twitter account after we physically die; we are now concerned with a digital afterlife! How pitiful can it get?
Materialist consumerism has decided that your death-related experience, your bereavement, your grief should be limited to three days and then you need to get back to work, get over your loss, and become productive again. It’s called bereavement leave. But it’s not leave to grieve; it’s merely time to get the necessary paperwork done to dispose of whoever it was who died. Three days, people! You’ve lived with an individual for decades, sharing almost every moment and you have three days to get over his death. You’ve raised a child to young man or womanhood, watched a helpless infant become a strapping happy young adult and you have 3 days to get over the car crash that killed him. What have we become?
On April 25, 2017, at 9:20 a.m. two young men, Logan Penzabene and Matthew Hamilton, each 18 years old, were traveling down a main road near their homes, a road they had probably traveled dozens if not hundreds of times on their way to school or once they qualified for their drivers licenses. But today was going to be different, very different. Today was going to be so different that at about 9:20, one would be dead and the other, Matthew Hamilton, in a coma, and hundreds of lives would be forever changed. One would be dead, Logan Penzabene, and the other in a coma. Two families would be plunged into the darkness of despairing grief; a whole community would be plunged into disbelief. An entire school district would be offered grief counseling. Why?
Well, on that fateful morning, the two young men were driving along and for some reason we may never know – perhaps they were texting, perhaps making a call, perhaps responding to some electronic notification – the driver crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and hit a flatbed tractor trailer head-on, killing the young driver and causing critical head injuries to his passenger. Were they texting, making a call, responding to an electronic notification? Does it really matter? Yes, it does matter! One young man is DEAD, another is in a COMA, a whole community is thrown into disarray. Yes! It does matter!
The appalling part of the story is not that the event was preventable – I cannot support the belief that anything is truly preventable and must dispose of that notion of preventability as just more arrogance believing that we can control events. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of those arrogant, self-important political figures who believes that if he announces to a so-called program, “No Empty Chair”, Teen Safe Driving Campaign, which is heralded on the Campaign website as: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today launched the “No Empty Chair” teen driving safety education and enforcement campaign to raise awareness of highway dangers during prom and graduation season.” Apparently, Cuomo believes that if he announces a campaign the problem is solved. Cuomo’s campaign was announced on April 15, 2017, the fatal accident occurred on April 25, 2017.
What we have to come to understand is that inflated programs and bombastic political rhetoric or police efforts during a so-called “campaign” do little or nothing to fundamentally change what government and corporations have worked so hard to create: producers to produce goods and services, consumers to consume goods and services, and sheeple to hear and obey (and to consume). The hypocrisy is conspicuous, it’s glaring, but if you’re constantly gazing into your smartphone screen, constantly receiving the indoctrination (in the past called “brainwashing”) and loving every digital minute of it, you won’t notice.
The churches and deathcare providers are elated. The churches because you may never have set foot in church for Sunday worship but they’ll wheel you in one last time and the church and pastor can get 30 minutes of exposure and a check. The deathcare industry doesn’t care one way or the other; the funeral director will get each and every one of us sooner or later, but sooner is better for the bottom line, and even better if it’s a sensational death that will attract multitudes of mourners! Visibility for both. Revenues for both. Rescue and paramedical personnel get to flaunt themselves and their equipment, which is good stuff for budget negotiations. Local political hacks, including everyone from the coroner / medical examiner, to law enforcement responders, to local elected stumpers ever eager for that special moment to appear and look devastated and share “Our prayers are with you today” canned expressions for the cameras. Even the public mourners and their makeshift shrines erected at the accident site. Everyone wants to be seen meditatively and reflectively, even prayerfully standing at the roadside memorial, “paying their respects,” showing solidarity for the momentary grief of a community. It’s really difficult to tell the real from the virtual.
But the bottom-line, naked reality is that one young man is dead; another is critically injured. The bottom-line, naked reality is that one family is grieving the loss of a vibrant and vital part of that unit called family; a limb has been amputated and just like in the case of amputation of a physical limb, it is acutely painful, and there will be phantom pain even when the limb is no longer there.
Three days of bereavement leave is not going to work. Empty political actions like “No Empty Chair” or whatever they’re calling that stupidity is not going to work. Law enforcement “efforts” – as yet ineffectual and unrevealed – don’t seem to be doing very much. People are still killing each other, and people are getting dead regardless of whether the killing is intentional or unintentional. Sorry but dead is dead.
We can’t change what has happened and there’s no way we can justify any attempt to rationalize what has happened. That’s what makes Gov. Cuomo’s “No Empty Chair” campaign so political and so scurrilous. That’s what makes Bethlehem Police Commander Hornick’s statements like “it’s a tragic loss” and “our feelings to out to the families” so pro forma and empty. Incidents like this one are not “tragic” and they’re probably not “preventable” by inaugurating campaigns with political undertones like “No Empty Chair.” Most people would probably disagree with what I just wrote. Not tragic!?! How heartless! Not, preventable? How fatalistic, how pessimistic! But those people would be wrong and misguided, victims of their own delusions, denial, and despair.
What I will say is that incidents like these, while not tragic and not preventable, are important teaching moments. Are important opportunities for everyone concerned to re-evaluate themselves and decide what they have become. It’s a time to become reflective and for self-examination. It’s a time to honestly admit that we are all contributing to our own psychospiritual demise, some of you willingly others inadvertently, but the vast majority are all part of the “preventable tragedies” of our post-modern, post-Christian, dehumanized world.
So what’s the final take-home message? Dead is dead. Loss is loss. Grief is unavoidable. The living will bury their dead and go on living. But is it that simple? Not really.
In my thinking, grief is a unique opportunity for personal and community growth. What you can’t change you have to take good advantage of. We do this by extending ourselves in compassion and love. We have to allow ourselves to stop for a moment so that we can catch up with ourselves. In other words, we have to take a moment and sit on a rock and become lost in time watching the brook flow around the obstacles. We need to shut out the white noise in our lives, and listen to the music of the brook and the birds. We need to raise our eyes from the illuminated screen and allow our souls to be illuminated by the sunlight playing off the ripples and the leaves. We need to stop feeling guilty about caring for ourselves and for others. We need to take time off from being busy to being just be-ing. This is essential to reclaiming our humanness, our spirituality.
I recall as a child the silent dying of a favorite apple tree. Of course, as a child I had the time for be-ing and for listening, for seeing; where there is no time for be-ing there’s no time for seeing or for listening. If we slow down we can hear what the Spirit is telling us about the dying of trees, the planet, of people, and what these deaths mean to us as beings capable of creating meaning and reflecting on love and how all of these things came into being, how a Spirit of love brought us into being.
The questions that we ask about death and dying are basically questions about the meaning of being, of be-ing. These are the questions that go into the stories once told around tribal campfires, and which now become part of the narratives that are told about our dead. These stories were the subject matter of the drawings on cave walls long ago, of the poetry of love and loss, and the emotions associated with the death of green in autumn. The Spirit is very generous in using any opportunity or event to make a point to us arrogant, uncertain, hesitant creatures.
We as educators, spiritual care providers, thanatologists, human beings, need to get back to basics and enter the world of the deep soul.
No condolences, no campaigns, no law enforcement efforts, no roadside memorials, no funeralization service will every have the desired, the needed effect unless we learn to appreciate silence. Our institutions from the family to church to government have taken a wrong turn. We live in an “increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness…” [McGilchrist, p. 6]
Our institutions cannot help but have a stake in blunting our maturity even if it means they must destroy the original versions and insights on which those very institutions were founded. We can easily identify that fragmentation in our education system, our government, our churches, and even in our families. [Aside: Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a fascinating work of literature in many ways, but the story about the Grand Inquisitor is probably the best illustration of the perverse change in institution over time. Here’s a link to a brilliant portrayal by Sir John Gielgud. The Grand Inquisitor ]
I’ll close with a quote taken from Maggie Ross’ fascinating book, Silence: A User’s Guide, in which she cites a passage from Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, noting that Holloway’s use of “religion” should be thought of in broad terms, in the sense of any pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance
“All institutions overclaim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights in them. They seque from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging.” [italics mine]
Download the final article from Spirituality & Griefcare: No Empty Chair
Read a related article at Tragedy or Failure?
Peace and blessings,
Rev. Ch. Harold
Holloway, Richard. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, 2016. Print.
Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide, 2014. Print.
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