Category Archives: Suffering

Dissolve and Flush: An Analysis of a New Body Disposal Method, Alkaline Hydrolysis.

Dissolve and Flush: Funeralized Alkaline Hydrolysis.

The Newest Technology for Disposing of Dead Human Beings.

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney, BA, [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist


“All humankind is dust and ashes.” Sirach 12:32

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.

Ancient Flame Cremation.

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.

London Slum – Age of Instustiralization

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.

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Ring out the New; Ring in the Old. Scrap the redefinitions of end-of-life care.

Interfaith Pastoral Care. Just what is it? Interfaith pastoral care is a hard nut to crack when a client actually is interested enough to ask the question., “What is interfaith?”

Is this reality? Even possible? Honestly.[1]

Some have suggested that we change, broaden our terminology to “interbelief” but I don’t really think that changes a thing; in fact, I think it complicates the conversation even more than “interfaith” does. It gets even worse when the innovators come up with a term like “interpath” care. It soon becomes so turbulent that it becomes obfuscating; it becomes an idiotic dialogue of nonsense.

The Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago (RC) defines “the difference between ecumenical, interfaith, and interreligious relations”, as follows:

  • “Ecumenical” as “relations and prayer with other Christians”,
  • “Interfaith” as “relations with members of the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ (Jewish and Muslim traditions),” and
  • “Interreligious” as “relations with other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism”.[2]

[Aside: Some proponents of interfaith whatever have adopted the name “interbelief,” “interpath”; how far do we stretch “interfaith” before it becomes “intercultural”?]

In such places like the Public Religion Research Institute[3], we can examples of the glaring misinformation and mixed messages concocted by “interfaith dialogue” proponents can be found in the short article, “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” [4] Here’s an extract from that article:

“A new study released in the American Journal of Sociology finds that “conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability.” The study’s authors note that by discouraging pre-marital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, conservative religious institutions inadvertently increase the likelihood of divorce. However, Professor Charles Stokes, in reviewing the research, notes that couples who are embedded in religious communities tend to have lower divorce rates regardless of their theology.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that a contradiction? Or a glaring error in the American Journal of Sociology when it reports a misinterpretation of the published data. Isn’t the Am Jour Soc a peer-reviewed journal or at least an edited journal? The same article reports:

“In an effort be more inclusive of atheists, the St. Paul Interfaith Network has changed the name of its monthly community meeting to “Inter-belief Conversation Café.” In the Midwest, 2 percent of people identify as atheists.” [my emphasis]

Inclusivism = Universalism = Sentimentalism

Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith? 

I think that’s pushing the notion of liberal secularism and sentimentalism a.k.a. “inclusivism” right over the edge into oblivion. Forgive me, for I have “ismed” again! In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.” in articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists.” Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics!.[5] Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith?

We have all became amoral meandering idiots!

So even the atheists are claiming a piece of “interfaith,” though on somewhat shakier grounds, and on condition that you change your group’s name. In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, and where we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.”[6] So what? In articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists“—all 2% of them. Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics! Girls using boys’ toilets, boys using girls’ toilets, women clergy, girl boyscouts. Where does it all end? Segregation became diversity; diversity became indiviudalism; we have all became amoral meandering idiots!

And the  St Paul Pioneer Press  while other proponents have proposed the term interpath dialogue. It seems that these groups are making a radical departure from what we know as “faith” to honor impossible inclusiveness while losing all focus and credibility. These groups are making the attempt to include or at least to avoid excluding atheists, agnostics, humanists, and such with no religious faith in traditional terms but who espouse ethical or philosophical credos.

What we now call post-modern or post-Christian might as well be called post-mortem; we can dilute the doctrines and dogmas (Truth) of world faith and belief communities to the point of losing all tradition and with it all sense of identity; we have lost sight of the fact that unity implies otherness and otherness implies identity.

Another example of how the concept of interfaith can derail and alchemically transmutate into a bastard creature of so-called religion-turned-social-program is the  About Interfaith IMPACT of New York State. (We have no idea why the “IMPACT” is uppercase.) According to their website,

“IINYS consists of congregations, clergy and individuals from progressive Protestant, Reform Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other faith traditions. Together we work for the common good through progressive religious advocacy.  The interfaith Impact of New York State Foundation, Inc. is a charitable organization. Its mission is to Inform and encourage progressive faith based participation in public dialogue.”[7]

One of IINYS’s stated missions is to ensure a separation of Church and state but a closer reading of what their activities include is a direct contradiction of any separation and has nothing to do with any faith with which I am familiar. Key to understanding what interfaith in the IINYS is the word “progressive.” What this means is “secularization,” social “justice” programming (socialism), and is deeply imbedded in “state” (= government) activity and operations. Of course, you won’t find any mainstream faith or belief traditions represented on the “Reform” and “Universalist” board membership, because mainstream faith or belief traditions have clear and unambiguous statutes and doctrines, not an agenda of political activity clothed in smoke and mirror deception, and a blurring of the black letter of the Separation Clause. And that’s just one example of how “interfaith” is being marketed.

IINYS succeeds not only in confusing any coherent impression that the term “interfaith” may have implied by conflating “moral values” with “social programs,” a gaffe that distracts significantly, among other things, from the organization’s alleged principles, which should not come as a surprise given the intimate, almost incestuous relationship IINYS has with the profane state government of New York, itself in a state of disinformation and secular humanist and liberal materialism. Interfaith is equated with unabashed sentimentalism.

IINYS’s case gets even worse: the IINYS actually uses a P.O. box at the New York State Capitol to receive mail! Now that’s what I call Church-state separation.

They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

Another example of the perversion of the faith part of “interfaith” would be the Interfaith Medical Center of Brooklyn, New York. The only faith at IMCB would be faith in the idolatry of medical capitalism and market economy. Unfortunately, at this writing IMCB’s mission statement was “under construction.” They’re probably having a real tough time justifying the interfaith part of what appears to be an enterprise healthcare facility attempting to cater to the needs of a multiethnic community. So why not just say so and leave “interfaith” out of the game? Because “interfaith” means nothing but looks really good. Smoke and mirrors. They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

One thing is very clear: there has been no peace between human beings since the Tower of Babel because we all are speaking different languages; even when we’re speaking the same language, we don’t understand one another. There’s no need to imagine the catastrophic confusion that comes about when we attempt to use language to define or to discuss the ineffable, the transcendent like the mysteries of life, death or faith or belief in a transcendent state or spirituality. Imagine that when we have such difficulty distinguishing between religion and spirituality at all!

While I personally reject the alleged definitions of “interfaith” anything, I do understand the thought behind it and the problems of rendering “inter-“ anything intelligible to the point of being useful or implementable. Here are a couple that may help us to get our arms around the notion of what really should have stayed under the rubric of “tolerance.”

As a psychospiritual care provider, I have to confront this problem on a regular basis when I have people telling me, “She wasn’t religious at all.” But then they go on to tell me how she believed in God and in an existence after death; where my conversation partner tells me that she, the deceased, is now in heaven with her beloved spouse. Or “We want a spiritual service, not a religious service.” What do you mean spiritual but not religious? Now the great silence starts and I recognize that my dialogue partner doesn’t know what the difference is; in fact, she’s embarrassed and I have to save her now.

This becomes a particularly acute situation when I am facilitating a family conference for arranging a funeral or memorial service. During this conference I have to chop through suspicion, confusion, defensiveness, family secrecies, and so much more to establish a relationship of trust and authenticity in just a few sentences. I have to learn enough about a person, his or her family relationships, community involvements, likes and dislikes, habits and idiosyncrasies, end-of-life circumstances, and I have to do this without traumatizing my conversation partners or offending sometimes unspoken sensitivities. They didn’t each this sort of thing at my seminary institute, and they didn’t help very much in my many hours of Clinical Pastoral Education in a major trauma center, or in the nursing home or in the parish where I did my pastoral formation. My guess is that most of my instructors and mentors didn’t have a clue outside of what they were able to find in somebody’s book on the subject and what we brought to the table ourselves. At this point in my career-vocation, I can see why it’s something that you can’t just each or get from any textbook, because the lessons to be learned are as diverse as the individuals and families we, as pastoral care providers and psychospiritual guides are called to serve.

In fact, having written the term “pastoral care” I even balk at using that term because not all of the sufferers I companion think of themselves as animals, sheep, who require a pastor, a shepherd. Since we are finding ourselves increasingly faced with practically unlettered clients, clients who don’t read and who never were taught reading and writing skills, who tend to communicated in a few syllables or in emoticons, we, too, have had to develop second language skills, so-to-speak, and I don’t mean only in our liturgical, ritual, and Scriptural language, but in the language we use in the professional milieu and that we use in the care-giving milieu. This distinction does not discriminate between the lower socioeconomic or socioethinic groups but applies equally well to the so-called “educated” and techosavvy groups, who are just as language-challenged as a newly arrived immigrant but less likely to admit the importance of learning the language.

Furthermore, in strict terms, I’m not a pastor at all because I don’t have a fixed parish or congregation, so I’m not providing “pastoral” care as such. In fact, there are very few pastors who are called to do what I do and have to do in my vocation. Normally, a pastor has a congregation with whom he, nowadays also she, is in theory expected to be intimately familiar on an individual basis.  But we all know that today, just about every faith and belief community has succumbed to the post-modern sentimental hypocrisy of the happy-clappy social club, insincere hugging orgies, and idiotic grinning clubs we today call congregations. Or, even worse, the entertainment events in the guise of worship now offered by the megachurches springing up all over the place. Well, they’re cheaper than a ticket to a country western concert and the cappuccino at the java bar is pretty good, too, and cheaper than Starbucks. Music’s pretty cool, too. Maybe God will even show up one of these Sundays! Meanwhile, the show of raised armpits, gibberish cries of ecstasy and the Guinness Book of Records breaker show of hairy armpits will go on…and on. Thank you, Vatican II! Thank you, Facebook! Thank you, Beelzebub!

In recent years, I have found that I am providing a form of psychotherapy as well as spiritual guidance, so I more often than not will use the term psychospiritual care provider. It seems to come closer to what I really do, and doesn’t get the discussion bogged down in a quagmire of denominations, faith communities, belief traditions or spiritual path distinctions. Once we get past the icebreaking and the initial disclosure process, we are in a better position to explore religion and spirituality without treading on eggs.

Meanwhile, back in the conference room, we are sitting with the husband, the three daughters and the two sons of a woman recently dead, and we need to put together a chapel service and a graveside interment service the Saturday morning, two days hence. The funeral director has the easy job of prepping and embalming the body, dressing her, and doing her cosmetics, so that she is Barbie-doll presentable in her lovely imitation mahogany eternity capsule. The FD has the easy part, the dead don’t get defensive; they’re good listeners and don’t talk much.

“So, tell me a little about your mom,” or so the conversation starts.  “Well, I don’t really know where to start. What do you think, dad?” Now dad’s in the hot seat and hasn’t got a clue what the question is. So we start over again, this time I’m trying to recall the scanty information that the FD provided during our initial conversation about the case. And so I move on, now in reverse mode: “What kind of service did you have in mind to celebrate your mom’s, your wife’s life?” Here’s where we get right down to the nitty-gritty: religious, spiritual, non-religious/secular, humanistic (no religion). Mr. FD tells me that your mom’s records show that she declared herself to be Roman Catholic. The daughter-in-charge looks a bit dazed, “She did? Was mom Catholic, dad?” Dad puts on a sheepish look, “Yeah. We

both were. We got married in church and we had you kids baptized, too.” One thought rolls over my mind: “OMG! Just let them talk this one out.” Once they are done doing their own interviews, I can interject with, “It seems your mom did have a religious preference and that she had a faith tradition. You may be surprised but I have had situations like this many times where a parent or a grandparent gets so involved with caring for their family, that there’s just no time on Sundays to pack everyone up and march to church, and so the “religion” moves from the church to the heart. That’s not a bad thing. So I’m not surprised that your mom was busy being a good mom and a loving wife, and managed to keep her religion in her heart and worship there. That’s a beautiful thing. Don’t you think?” In unison: “Yeah. You’re right!”

And so we move past that hurdle, and we have something to hold on to. I have a starting point and the family has a very viable option, the service will be a religious service, but not “too” Catholic, because we don’t go to church and the kids won’t sit still through a lot of prayers. The conversation and sharing goes on beautifully from that point on, once a “major” question has been negotiated.

But what about the non-religious, or the so-called “quilted family system,” in which you have a mix of non-believers, and believers including the odd Buddhist, the Jew, the Presbyterian, the Evangelicals, Baptists and the de rigueur generic “Christians?” Is this interfaith, interbelief, or interpath? My categorical answer is: Yes. But it’s likely to be non-religious if it’s any of these.

You see, it’s hypersimplistic to presume to take any collection of denominations or traditions and call it by any name, let alone be crazy enough to think that you can properly address and avoid offending any or all of the traditions in the assembly. To be very honest, there are today so many flavors of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Episcopalianism, etc.  Forgive me! for I have ismed.

The truth is that you can provide a service only along the lines of a single tradition – or no tradition — and, if you are not a listener or not well-trained, you run a risk of adoring adulation from some and condemnation as a heretic by others in the same group. The attempt to please all is doomed to please none.

This is because most institutionalized, mainstream denominations simply do not properly train or supervise their clergy – so as not to offend them or in order to allow the clergy to take the odd doctrinal or dogmatic detours to ensure that he or she keeps the pews filled and the collections abundant – so you can go to one service on one Sunday and hear one teaching and the next Sunday go to another worship service and get another take on the Gospel. Neither do the clergy properly and honestly form and educate their constituents; that’s why Christians are so diverse and so critical of and cruel to one another, while preaching some sort of love. Most tend to go where you have a preacher who says what they want to hear; once-a-week worship becomes a happy-clappy hypocritical quest for affirmation and acknowledgement. Orthodox doctrine is a thing of the past; institutionalized religion, the mainstream religions, like any institution are self-serving and self-preserving; it’s a market economy with hymns and incense. It’s ice-cream religion, vanilla or any flavor you’d like.

Meanwhile back at the funeral home, we’re just finishing up and have decided on a chapel service that will be based on the Rite of Christian Burial that will include Roman Catholic liturgical elements, even candles, holy water and incense, but will include some secular poetry readings, and a couple of “Protestant” hymns. The graveside service will be prayerful, moving and tearful. The family’s happy, the FD is over the moon, and I have my doubts.

On the way back to my office I’m pondering, “How am I going to pull this off, and still be able to have dinner with myself again?” That may have been a reason for considering self-harm years ago but today it’s just a pro forma start to “designing” a custom and personalized service we now call the “Celebration of Life,” rather than a funeral ritual.

It’s here that years of study, continuing education, lots of extradisciplinary study, interpersonal skills, creativity, and a lot of help from something I refer to as the Holy Spirit gets us all over the hump rather than in the dump.

In ministering to suffering in general and to those confronting an end-of-life process, death, and the rite of passage from ante-mortem to post-mortem life, we are forced to recognize the indisputable fact that suffering if anything,  while being a common thread running through all of humankind, is inextricably individual; the pain of bereavement is totally one’s own experience, each individual experiences it differently, and any attempt to provide an “inter-anything” type of psychospiritual care is a deplorable fake.

At some time after our birth we are presented to the community in a rite of passage ritual called “naming;” naming explicitly announces to the cosmos that here we have an individual, an “other,” who, for the purposes of distinction shall be called “Baby Doe.” Different cultures will ascribe different duties and responsibilities and different degrees of separateness of the new member but that new member is almost universally recognized as an “other.” Accordingly, the cookie-cutter funeralization rites and rituals of various faith and belief traditions, while they may at one point or another recognize the individual by mentioning his or her name, the overall presumption is that the departed one has indeed departed the community and, upon final disposition of the mortal remains, is no longer. Thank you, Dr Freud!

But this is as far from health reality as we can get. We have to reach back into our own history and bring back the family involvement, the maintenance of important connections with our dead; we have to learn from other traditions how to continue those bonds and how to grow with them.

A clergyperson who doesn’t hone the importance of acknowledging the “other,” the named one, the uniqueness of the deceased, and who doesn’t include the family to the maximum extent possible in the rites of funeralization, is shortchanging the deceased and the mourners! Continuing bonds with the dead is an intimate, personal necessity and not one in which church or community should be dominant; the annual memorial mass is one example of superficiality and ecclesial control. By far more effective is to light a candle at a holiday gathering or to light a candle on a special occasion, honoring the presence and memory of a dead loved one, or even the community of dead loved ones. Perhaps even observing a moment of silent reflection when the family gathers.

The Agape Meal

The early Church started in private homes in the family circle; for centuries it continued and evolved in the warmth and intimacy of private homes, the early house churches; this had less to do with persecution than with the Jewish Sabbath tradition and the primordial agapé meal! But then, the early organizers got together to set the rules and to enforce some control over the various “churches” as they were called in the different faith communities. Gradually, faith moved out of the family circle, out of the home, into the community assembly space, out of the core of the individual human being, until today, it has practically moved out completely. The lights are on but nobody’s home. We are the janitors of the soul, the concierges of the refuge; when we get the call, we prepare the place.

Faith, religious belief, spirituality still maintains an address in the human soul and still receives mail there; our job as clergy, ministers, chaplains, psychospiritual care providers have to keep that abode open, accessible and welcoming for the time when the prodigal has to return, open the mail, and pay the bills. All suffering, all grief, all healing, all transformation is addressed personally to the individual; all care has to do the same: it must be individual, or at least the individual must be provided with the tools so that they can do the DIY repair and maintenance.

Creating new labels for negligence or indifference or continuing cookie-cutter rituals is an affront to any concept of ministry, to any concept of community. We need to stop being narcissistically creative and start being humbly serving.

If we are going to allow any notion of “inter” to enter our lives, our praxis, our ministries, and from there into the lives of those who look to us for guidance, we are going to have to recognize and accept the fact that our churches, our faith and belief communities have become institutions and, like any profane or secular institution are governed by self-interest and self-preservation, all else playing a lesser role.  As a psychospiritual care provider it is my duty and obligation first to be tolerant and to recognize that it is arrogant to claim and impossible to be “interfaith,” “interreligious,” “interpath,” “interbelief,” and to claim to be any of these is to announce being nothing at all. Best to be wholly tolerant and wholly compliant with the explicit wishes of the deceased but even more so with those of the living, obviously, and to be guided by good and prudent discernment of the content of the sharing during the family conference.

The rites and rituals of funeralization should transform the dead into fonts of meaningful legacy and provide the living with psychospiritual nourishment and the opportunity for growth; this requires deep listening, sensitivity, creativity, humility, compassion, and patience. Ours is a vocation, not a job, that’s why the FD or some funeral home dilettante should not, must not be put in the position of providing psychospiritual care as a funeral or memorial officiant. Doing so simply makes the statement either that the funeral director or the funeral home does not know its limitations or boundaries, or that they simply are indifferent to the harm they can do by providing care outside of their competence, or both. Offering quick fixes like direct burial or direct cremation are careless and insensitive alternatives to providing the care and attention necessary for healing grief work and transformational mourning; even direct disposition services should offer, promote and encourage the services of a professional bereavement chaplain, even if it’s only to meet with the survivors in an informal environment and simply chat; the chaplain will know how to steer the sharing.

Epilogue

It’s astounding how few FDs actually make it a point to offer or even mention chaplain services. It’s even more disappointing to have to admit that most clergy never have a pre-funeral or pre-memorial meeting with the family to discuss the rites and rituals and why things are being done a certain way. Even fewer enlist the family’s participation in the actual service. This is a travesty of deathcare services both by the FD and by so called clergy. We owe the dead, the bereaved, mourners in general better treatment than this, especially if we are receiving a fee or a stipend to provide psychospiritual care!

In this article I have used the word sentimental and its derivatives but have not really defined it as I am using it. I owe you, my patient reader, the fairness of a definition. Sentimentality is fooling yourself into thinking there are easy answers. Sentimentality gives free rein to rank simplification, excessive feeling, particularly emotions, that have no place in actuality Sentimentality is a form of defense, a self-deception just like denial, and is used in order to avoid acknowledging more painful emotions, particularly anger, shame or guilt. So what would I propose to you as the opposite of sentimentality? My reasoned suggestion of an antonym for the term “sentimentality” would be “mature realism.” Mature realism Mature realism steering clear of cheap idealization just as we would steer clear of cheap grace; such realism requires the courage to examine the good and bad of everything, and further demands that we to search beyond the superficiality of our own emotions, motives and those of others that mislead us to think that there are easy answers to complex problems.[8]

Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney MDiv
Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist

 


[1]DAVOS-KLOSTERS/SWITZERLAND, 30JAN09 – Lord Carey of Clifton (VLTR), Archbishop of Canterbury (1991-2002), United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, United Kingdom, Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Executive Officer, Sojournes, USA, , captured at the press conference ‘Religious leaders call for the peace in the middle east’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009. ©World Economic Forum. swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler.
[2] Source: Archdiocese of Chicago (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 22, 2017)

[3] The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) describes itself as “”… a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life…PRRI’s mission is to help journalists, opinion leaders, scholars, clergy, and the general public better understand debates on public policy issues and the role of religion and values in American public life by conducting high quality public opinion surveys and qualitative research”

[4] “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160202185558/http://publicreligion.org/2014/07/the-morning-buzz-how-religious-affiliation-and-attendance-influence-likelihood-of-divorce/ last accessed on October 24, 2017)

[5] “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists” (

[6] “St. Paul’s atheists are coming out of the closet” (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[7] Interfaith IMPACT of New York State (www.interfaithimpactnys.org, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[8] I would strongly recommend the book Faking It by Digby Anderson. In that 1998 book Anderson and contributors present a scathing assessment of sentimentality in most of today’s institutions of modern culture. (Anderson, D., P. Mullen, Faking it:  (1998) The sentimentalization of modern society. London: St Edmundsbury Press.)

Rediscovering Spirituality. With or without religion.

Some General Information About
The Companions of St Silouan Athonite

First of all and from the outset: This is not a religious group nor a denominational outreach. It is not a cult-in-the-making.


One nagging question that I have frequently posed is this: Why do most people think of spiritual care at the last minute, when someone is at Death’s door or when you are facing the dying process of a loved one? It’s like exercising and eating a healthy diet after the heart attack, isn’t it? Why not get started now.


This is an ecumenical, interfaith, non-denominations, judgement-free community of persons who are solely interested in companioning each other on their spiritual pilgrimages.

The inspiration for forming a wider group of spiritual companions came from my association with a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Northeast New York. The monks decided to resurrect a concept of a group of lay persons who would live some of the monastic values while in the secular world. These so-called companions of the monastery would apply, be considered as aspirants and then admitted to the so-called companions. They would subscribe to a rule of life, establish for themselves a prayer discipline, support the monastery in time and treasure, and make regular pilgrimages, either to the parent monastery or to some other monastery or retreat venue. It was a great idea but poorly organized. It was open to all faiths and, while it had an insignia identifying the companions, a small stylized cross, it still had the flavor of a very distinct Christian denomination. I couldn’t imagine a Buddhist, a Jew or a Moslem wanting to become a companion and having a cross as their insignia.

My patron saint is St Silouan of Mount Athos, St Silouan Athonite for short. I chose Silouan because of his humility and simplicity, his dedication to love and forgiveness, his compassion. Although Silouan was highly advanced in monastic ascetic spirituality and reached the height of monastic hierarchy as a Staretz or elder, a schemamonk, his humility and simplicity were legendary. Silouan, a Russian Orthodox Christian elder monk, who lived on the exclusive Greek peninsula known as Hagios Oros, the “Holy Mountain”, or Mount Athos, he lived values that transcended the Christian model and are the common threads of all the great world spiritual traditions.

As a professional theologian and thanatologist, a scholar of religion and psychospiritual care, I find that the vast majority of persons who call themselves members of a particular faith or belief community don’t have a clue about what their denomination teaches. Most ministers have no clue about what’s going on in interreligious dialogue, much less about their particulars. Most institutionalized religion has been caught with their pants around their ankles when it comes to credibility.

In recent decades we have all too often heard the ambiguous and practically meaningless phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Even the “spiritual” professional literature from the healthcare, deathcare and spiritual care disciplines can’t even agree on an across-the-board commonly held definition of what spirituality is! In fact, one publication did a review of the literature and found more than 90 different “definitions” of  spirituality!

In my professional practice I deal with end-of-life, death, dying, and survivors. I know the value of religion and I know the value of spirituality; I think I know where the one stops and where the other starts. Every time I think I’m sure, a situation arises that sets me back to square one.

One thing is certain: every human being is spiritual. There’s no doubt about it. Once you can admit you recognize that there’s something greater than yourself, that transcends your understanding, you have become spiritual. Now how you use that evolutionary revelation to best advantage and how you ease into it to make meaning of difficult moments, suffering, challenges is another story. To get the most out of your spirituality, you need companioning, guidance, others willing to talk about their spirituality and to share their insights.

That’s what this group, the Companions of St Silouan Athonite, is all about.

It’s an open group meaning that anyone inclined to explore the group can freely do so. What you receive from the group and what you give to the group is purely a matter of what you have at any given time in your journey. The pilgrimmage is self-paced. The requirements are your own.

The only formal hierarchy is me, the self-styled “Principal Companion,” actually the monitor of the group and the main person doing most of the work on this site.

In the near future, once the group shows signs of stability and growth, I will offer two levels of formal membership: Aspirant and Companion. The Aspirant is a candidate who has identified a sincere calling to companion others in developing their spirituality. The Companion is the person who has achieved a certain level of competence in companioning through personal discipline and involvement.

Initially, there is no commitment other than the personal commitment you make to yourself and to those with whom you have a relationship to follow the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan Athonite. As the Companion community matures, we may ask for volunteer support or offer specific products for generating funds. Those products will be subject to the Community’s approval, basically all full Companions will have a say in what is offered and what is done.

At some point in time, again as the Community grows and matures, it would be great if we could have a Companions retreat once a year at locations offering retreat accommodations and meeting facilities.

The organization will be very loosely structured: Most of the site will be public access. That means that announcements, reflections, etc. will be public access.

Anyone interested in more intense involvement will be asked to “Follow” the site by signing up with their real name and their email. This means only that the moderator, I, will see who you are and know our email. You will receive an email automatically notifying you whenever a new item is posted. You can do the same for comments.

At some time in the near future, I will post an application form on this site. If anyone wishes to become an Aspirant they will fill out the form and email it to me.

To become a full Companion, you will fill out the same form but only after 6 months of Aspirancy, include an essay about your spirituality and the importance of being a Companion, and you will document your spiritual activities, retreats, spiritual direction, etc.

A full Companion will receive a letter of good standing and a Certificate of Companionship, both of which will have only sentimental value.

Very soon I will create a suitable “habit” for Companions. The habit will be a small item identifying the wearer as a Companion. It will likely be a lapel pin or similar item. Cost will be kept low, since the value of the habit is to be kept intrinsic and the habit itself is to be kept very humble.

Since most everything will be done digitally and the material for reflections etc. will come directly from my own resources or from material I’m reviewing at the time and find suitable for the Companions, no real overheads will be generated. As for the habit, the Companion will purchase that directly from the manufacturer.

I may from time to time suggest certain devotional items such as prayer ropes and the like or items to enhance sensual aspects of the spiritual practice. If I do so, I will also provide links to suppliers of such items. I do not have any financial interest in any of these suppliers but if one were to come about, I would announce that fact publicly to the Community.

Aspirants and Companions are accountable to themselves. If you misrepresent something you do your conscience is your judge, no one else.

Finally, all I ask is if you are seriously interested in becoming a participating member of the group that you contribute to the reflections or to the feedback about reflections. The only requirements are that you remain on topic, leave egos outside, and don’t bring any personal baggage on board. No proselytizing and not judgmentalism.

In closing, I do sincerely welcome your comments, recommendations, suggestions, even criticisms of me and only me. Comments should be made using the comments form on each post; they will be moderated and then published. If you don’t want what you write to be public please email me your thoughts to st.silouan.companions@gmail.com. Your email communications will be confidential and I now notify anyone concerned that I invoke clergy privilege should any law enforcement agency request insight into the emails. When I say confidential, I mean confidential.

As always, I am available at st.silouan.companions@gmail.com should you have any questions or concerns.

To view the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan click here.

Looking forward to exploring the beauty and mystery of spirituality with you,

Peace and joy!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
Principal Companion

Death Bereavement and Be-ing

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.

Shells of former selves.

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.

The Penzabene Crash Site.

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

Hear the flow. See the light. Enter the silence.

“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 & GriefcareNo Empty Chair

Read a related article at Tragedy or Failure?

Peace and blessings,
Rev.  Ch. Harold

Further reading:
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.

Internet Pundits and Their Mixed Messages Cause Psychospiritual Stress

The Internet is literally crawling with people who have reinvented themselves from pitiful loners to supreme gurus of life, death and everything in and around those two great mysteries. On the one hand you have to admire them for their capacity to make real their fantasies and virtual lifestyles but on the other hand you have to take two steps back to get the whole pitiful picture. These maladjusted spirits are out there posing as leaders and innovators — fabricators would be a more accurate description — and many readers are so naïve as to accept the rubbish they publish as Gospel truth.

It's not about revenues or stats, it's about bereavement and grief!

It’s not about revenues or stats, it’s about bereavement and grief!


Their readers are unable to separate truth from fiction, originality from plagiarism, or fact from flatulence.

What’s worse, those readers actually fuel the smoldering information-dump fire these pseudo-pundits have ignited, actually giving them unearned credibility. Most of this is due to their attractive web presences with sophisticated websites all shiny and colorful but even more is due to the inability of readers to separate truth from fiction, originality from plagiarism, and fact from flatulence.

We have such entities as the Funeral Commander (Death with a military macho twist complete with camouflage fatigues and cigar! A real comedy flair.), Death and the Maiden (bringing sexism, feminism to death; we doubt that the author is anything close to a “maiden”), Natural Death Center (provides funeral advice from of all places the UK!), Funeralwise (a fairly worthwhile site, general information), Funeral Insider (touts itself as “the nation’s No. 1 newsletter for funeral service professionals”), Final Passages (“the first organization in the United States with the mission to inform and educate the public about their rights to care for their own dead.” How to bury your own dead? as if bereavement weren’t confusing enough), Everplans (a complete archive of everything your loved ones will need should something happen to you, that is, if you should die), and the list could go on ad nauseum. While some of these entities are there just to indoctrinate and to infect the reader with misinformation or information that is self-serving or simply to titillate the reading public’s fascination with the great denial, death, others do, in a good moment, provide some reliable information. But those moments are few and far between. You have to have some basis for assessing the information as reliable; that’s the hitch. It’s not reliable just because it’s on a colorful Internet website or blog.

The Gordian Knot of Grief

The Gordian Knot of Grief

Then there are the (psycho)spiritual guides, the ones who know all you need to know and more about the mystery of death and dying. They’ve discovered the Rosetta stone for unraveling the Gordian knot of the great crossing over. What most of these people are doing is broadcasting their own doubts, fears, speculations in the vain hope of having them validated by a following, which is what happens. So you have small communities forming around these very human and very vulnerable seekers. Very frequently I have to ask myself when surveying these sites, “Have they ever reached in to themselves? Is the problem that they have always been looking outside of themselves for the answers and, not finding them in their immediate space, now they are looking in cyberspace. How sad that they are reaching out ever farther from the real answer within themselves!

One of the most visible, not necessarily the biggest nor the most widely read violators of Internet trust is ConnectingDirectors, an online publication that touts itself as being God’s unique gift to the the funeral industry, and the one source for all the information a funeral director needs in order to crush the competition. Well, it’s like the story of the coconut-eating rats:

coconut-eating-rats

“Once upon a time there was an island on which the islanders depended for their very existence their coconuts. Then, somewhere out at sea, a ship was wrecked and its wreckage floated onto the island’s shores with a very special manifest of passengers: rats. Well the rats loved the island and loved its coconuts even more, and soon their population grew and grew and grew, until it threatened the very survival of the islanders. One very wise elder came forward with an idea: Let’s capture a number of these creatures, place them in a pit with some coconuts, when they devour the coconuts and become hungry again, they’ll start devouring each other. And so it happened. Once the rats had consumed the coconuts in the pit, they started devouring each other. Once the captive rats were released on the island, the islanders no longer had a problem with coconut-eating rats…because now they had rat-eating rats. The rat population soon disappeared once the last rat-eating rat starved to death for lack of rats.”

There’s little or no originality to these myriad sites sharing their instabilities and vulnerability cloaked in illusory intelligence; they are beta-testing their own speculations or are literally re-publishing information, frequently not vetted, from other sources, acting like a sort of unauthorized information clearing house with no authentic credentials.

oracleTrue sages never give a clear answer. The great Oracles always left the seeker wondering what the answer meant. Any parable worth the telling never provided true peace of mind. What they all do was make the recipient of the message think. Think!
Whether the sage’s metaphors were vague or the Oracle’s message cryptic or the parable disruptive of one’s world view, the one thing they all do is make one think, reflect, contemplate. You see, the problem today is that we no longer know how to think, to reflect, to contemplate. We have lost touch with the depth and all of its healing power and its risks, its paradox of opportunity and risk.

Thogmartin is using a shotgun technique

So, then, taking the Internet entrepreneur ConnectingDirectors as an example of what confronts us, what amounts to outright attempts to disabuse us of our natural answer-finding capabilities, one operator in the cyberuniverse of virtual consultants, let’s take a closer look at what ConnectingDirectors is actually providing. Sometimes, when reading CD, we get the impression Thogmartin is using a shotgun technique to hit everything on the target: out of the one side of his mouth he’s touting how to pay “thousands less for a funeral” while out of the other side of his mouth he’s telling funeral service professionals how to sell top-of-the-line products and maximize their revenues. While addressing the interests of the small to medium funeral home or funeral home group, he’s glorifying the factory-funeral providers and all their clever machinations to gobble up the small to medium funeral home operators to provide “personalized” cookie-cutter funeral products! We have to ask which team Thogmartin is playing on because his messages are very, very mixed.

What Mr Thogmartin and the funeral corporations seem to have missed is that it’s not about merchandising, or selling services, or about statistics or revenues; it’s about a respected and honorable profession compassionately caring for human beings in death and their survivors in coping with death. That’s why it’s called deathCARE. It’s about providing competent care to human beings faced with loss and existential crisis, human beings who desperately need companioning and real warmth, support, and a guide for the arduous trek towards healing and transformation. Something ConnectingDirectors, the funeral corporations and social media do not and cannot provide; they, in fact, have the potential to do more damage than good.

Quiz: What does this man need? Compassion or a cheap funeral?

Quiz: What does this man need? Compassion or a cheap funeral?

First of all, CD is the invention of one Ryan Thogmartin, who describes his two cyberprogeny, Connecting Directors and Disrupt Media, both LLCs, as “the premier progressive online publication for funeral professionals…is a thriving global publication with a reader base of over 15,000 of the most elite and forward-thinking professionals in the industry,” fairly read that’s a pretty hyperbolic claim and one Mr Thogmartin might have trouble substantiating, if called upon to do so. And there’s Thogmartin’s social media marketing solutions firm, Disrupt MG, which according to Mr T., “focuses on proficiently assisting small businesses in creating engaging social media marketing strategies,” but according to what standards of performance is our question. What Thogmartin is doing, actually, is inventing an online persona to sell his skills as a virtual person and his attempt to infect a vulnerable minority of funeral service professionals with the suicidal idea that social media is the only way to survive. What Thogmartin seems to have lost is his humanity and his sensitivity to the real essential element of funeralization: compassion and ritual.

Ever feel like you've been baited, trapped and ... ?

Ever feel like you’ve been
baited, trapped and … ?

What Thogmartin is in effect preaching — for his own interests, ego and profit — is that funeral professionals should (1) become rat-eating rats, and (2) distance themselves even further from the real needs of the bereaved. It’s a perversion offered by the factory funeral industries, a $15 billion industry like Service Corporation International a huge corporation providing burial and cremation services, which reported more than $533 million in revenues in one quarter alone! Then there’s the Dignity funeral network of more than 2000 funeral homes, or even the factory-funeral provider Newcomer Funeral Homes where you can get the latest in cookie-cutter, nickle-and-dime-me funerals. Those are just a couple of examples.

For an interesting survey of the 10 corporations that control the funeral service sector, see the Wall Street Journal article, “The Ten Companies That Control The Death Industry”  and think to yourself: How much is it worth to you to sell your peace of mind, your humanity to save a couple of dollars, the cost of a flat-screen TV that will be obsolete as soon as you cart it out of the store. Your peace of mind, your humanity has to last you a lifetime; so does your guilt if you don’t do things right the first time, because you can’t redo the funeral or fix the unfuneral. Question: Are you going to become, like the funeral service industry is trending, one of the rat-eating rats?

In 2014, Forbes published an article “Death Of The Death Care Industry And Eternal Life Online.” It’s another eye-opener if you have a moment to read it.  While the article is a bit dated in its information, and poorly written — but if you’ve visited any of the sites above, you’ll find poor writing the new standard —, and although the information in the Forbes article is not 100% reliable — we hope that the author’s references to Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death are tongue in cheek—, it will provide you, the reader, with some different perspectives to consider. After all, you do need an awareness base in order to evaluate what you find.

technology-has-exceeded-humanity

Few of our readers are old enough to remember when people were not walking around talking to themselves, or if you do remember you also remember that people doing that usually ended up in a padded cell. Or old enough to remember when people actually conversed over a meal rather than fondling something on their laps, or if you do remember when someone was fondling something on their laps during a meal, they got a slap across the back of the head. Or old enough to remember when we read out of a thick object filled with word-filled pieces of paper that you had to use your fingers to turn, some can remember the fragrance of the paper and the ink, some will remember how the object made your hands and sometimes your heart warm, it was heavy and you knew you had something substantial in your hand; it was called a book. Now you hold a piece of back-lighted or LED illuminated plastic in your hand and can use a head or eye movement to change screens. How human do you feel now? You may feel fascinated, asking yourself, “How does it know that?” But deep inside you must feel threatened? Just like the mouse who’s fascinated by the tasty morsel in the trap, and can’t help itself, until SNAP! Can’t undo that bad decision! It’s no wonder that people are frantically searching for meaning but they’re searching in all the wrong places.

Thogmartin and Co-conspirators at work.

The Great Search for Meaning:
Thogmartin (center, of course)  and his Minions.

Their purpose is apparently to advance dehumanization in the most human of professions …

We’re not picking on Ryan Thogmartin and his ilk. Thogmartin and his creations are just a product of a culture of control, a symptom of an epidemic cultural illness, and the people that follow him are like lemmings; they follow into oblivion. The Thogmartins of the world are narcissistic opportunists who need an audience with as little substance and humanity as the Internet medium they use to spread their messages; their purpose is apparently to advance dehumanization in the most human of professions, not the physician’s realm of healthcare — that’s already irretrievably gone down the tubes —, but the funeral director and competent deathcare. The funeral, the ritual, the human element of compassion and companioning that we get only through community, is the only way we can navigate the stormy dips and swells of the work of grief, and come out of it psychologically and spiritually healed. We mustn’t lose sight of that truth or we’re doomed to become what we apparently are so awed by and so love, those dehumanized, soulless, virtual social media creatures called avatars. Remember, an avatar has no mind or spirit of its own; it’s an icon controlled by something outside of itself, a controller.

Take back your humanity!

Recover Your Humanity! The Editor

Recover Your Humanity!
The Editor

New Blog Feature: Articles and Essays

Death Awareness & Education

Death Awareness & Education

Check out the new feature called Articles & Essays. I’m posting my articles and essays for readers who want to read them online or download them.

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold

“Passing on” is not just about death; it’s about a cherished legacy

The Ethical Will, A Written Legacy:

A Gift for Generations to Come

Rev. Chaplain Harold W. Vadney M.Div.
Principal Facilitator

“Several months ago I tackled the chore of going through a box of old papers and mementos — we all go through the routine sooner or later and for different reasons — and I came across a greeting card that my grandmother had written to me on high school graduation day, which just so happened to be my 18th birthday; it was an exciting and scary time and a real rite of passage for me. It was the sixties, a time of social and political turmoil; a time of upheaval in society, morals, church and politics and I was going to be right in the thick of it. But was I ready psychologically, spiritually, at all? Now, some 40 plus years later, as I sat cradling the card in my hands and regressing to that day, I read the sacred words inscribed in elegant, careful cursive, now 15 years after my grandmother’s passing, and I realized that she had written me a testament that transmitted her values, her wishes for me, and her tender love. It was in that handwriting and as I read the words I imagined hearing her voice speaking the words to me softly, gently. It was a powerful emotional moment, and I almost choked up recalling my grief at her death. I placed that card in a special place with my most valuable mementos of my life, ensuring that it will never be lost to those coming after me. But for now, it is a special resource, a legacy that I go back to read from time to time, and is something that I will leave to my loved ones as a part of our family’s ethical history. I find myself wondering if my grandmother knew that she was leaving me a gift of such immense value, but the reflections in this rediscovered card is a treasured gift that keeps on giving, especially now she is no longer here to share her wisdom with me.” [Anonymous]

 

The word legacy by definition is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It comes from the Latin word legare which means to gather, bring together, collect, and that’s pretty much what we do in a legacy or ethical will: we gather, bring together and collect our thoughts on what is most important to us in our lives. While we might tend to think of our legacy as the property that we’ll some day leave to our loved ones, a legacy goes far beyond the mere material. Like any gift, these legacies should be planned because what they contain and transmit is really timeless; you are transmitting values in this form of legacy, and that fact should not be forgotten. That’s actually the purpose of this legacy: to be remembered for our values. I advocate very vocally for the ongoing process of communicating— orally and in writing, better still through our actions — values and wishes throughout our lives, but once we are gone the written legacy, our ethical will becomes one of the most important heirlooms we can leave behind, a treasured endowment that we can bequeath to our loved ones and to generations to come. As in our story above, a written legacy is something, like the graduation card, that loved ones can return to again and again.imes of transition such as the birth of a child or grandchild, marriages, or the death of a loved one become reflective times and opportunities to review one’s views on the meaning and purpose of life, one’s values and what makes life sacred. These rites of passage are opportunities to enter into dialogue about your faith, beliefs and values and can become a unique legacy to generations to come.

Death is a threatening word. Most everyone reacts to a death with some measure of anxiety and sense of loss no matter what the circumstances, whether sudden and unanticipated, traumatic and violent, or peaceful after a long life lived well, what we call a “good death”. Sometimes the myriad emotions accosting us resolve more quickly and healing sets in, but more often the case that they hang on for some time and persist in some form as we, the bereaved, make the pilgrimage through the uncharted territory of grief, transformation, healing, and transcendence that inevitably sequels death.

Our anxiety is so uncomfortable because it is the sign of hyperawareness, we’ve been ripped from the comfort of our little nest of denial and avoidance. We are forced into awareness and must acknowledge a dread mystery, and inevitability we’d had previously contented ourselves with hiding under wraps; that camouflage of denial that cruelly allowed us to skip through life thinking that there is always time and many more opportunities ahead is finally lifted. When the veil is suddenly raised we become aware that life is fleeting, delicate, relatively brief or “too short”, and that awareness demands our fullest attention and reflection. At those difficult times we may well reflect on the meaning of that life, our own lives, and what remains and what will be remembered. As mortal beings, we have the ability to picture a world, in which we are no longer physically present, and we feel the pain of being sidelined, even forgotten. There’s a saying that goes like this: “We die three times: once when we take our last breath, a second time when our bodies are no longer, a third time when our name is no longer spoken.” It’s that final annihilation, the final erasure that comes when we or our legacy is forgotten. It’s this awesome thought that compels us to find opportunities leave something durable and valuable to those who survive us.

Now the big question is: Whether we will seize this existential opportunity to take advantage the time left to us and to create a thoughtful, valuable, meaningful endowment fashioned with our memories, values, hearts, or will we allow our roots, our lives, our values to become just dust in the winds of time?

To read, download or print the complete essay, click this link: The Ethical Will_a written legacy

"Passing on" doesn't just mean dying; it means leaving a cherished legacy.

“Passing on” doesn’t just mean dying; it means leaving a cherished legacy.