The ways that we memorialize the departed are changing — and fast. Commemorating a loved one has never been so open to interpretation.
After gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, his buddy, film star Johnny Depp, arranged what he considered an appropriate send-off. Depp commissioned the erection of a 150-foot tower mounted with a cannon that blasted Thompson’s remains into the Colorado stratosphere while a band, accompanied by a shower of fireworks, played the journalist’s favorite songs.
Thompson was an iconoclast in death as in life, but he wasn’t the only one to shuffle off this mortal coil in a memorable way. An ice cream vendor in Massachusetts requested that his old truck lead his funeral procession, and all the mourners got popsicles at the end. A real estate mogul in California funded a $75,000, 20-minute tribute video of his life while he was still living for his heirs to screen at his funeral. A volunteer fireman in Pittsburgh had his casket placed on a fire truck and taken to the cemetery with sirens blaring. Tupac Shakur’s friends mixed the murdered rapper’s ashes with pot and smoked him into oblivion. Estée Lauder had waiters serve chocolate-covered marshmallows on silver trays at her funeral reception. Choreographer Benjamin Harkarvy, who did a stint at the Pennsylvania Ballet, left $10,000 in his will for a memorial program featuring a selection of his works to be performed at the Juilliard School, where he’d taught.
Even the scattering of ashes after cremation has become too pedestrian. Taking the theme “a diamond is forever” into a new realm, a company called LifeGem will extract the carbon from your loved one’s ashes to create a man-made diamond pendant of your choice ranging in price from $2,500 to $14,000. Or Companion Star Crystal will take a small amount of a beloved’s ashes and blow them into a piece of glass sculpture. Eternal Reefs will mix your scuba-loving deceased’s remains into a concrete memorial reef that’s placed in the ocean as part of a marine habitat. One of its artificial reefs is in Ocean City. N.J. Creative Cremains will pack ashes into anything from custom-made musical instruments to fishing rods and golf clubs.
The sounds of a marching band, a jazz trio or a Dixieland quartet at your service, your funeral or memorial service broadcast on the Internet — you name it, you can have it as part of your goodbye. You can even hire a trained end-of-life death doula to assist with dying the way birth doulas take charge at the beginning of life to help out new moms. To the growing list of “nothing’s sacred anymore,” you can add the sanctity of the traditional funeral. In an industry designed to sanitize and professionalize death, the buzzword these days is personalization. People today, especially narcissistic baby boomers, want to replace a painful farewell with one that doesn’t conform to a time-honored script.
If you think about it, our society has been altering ironclad traditions in just about every aspect of the life cycle. My friend, former Daily News columnist Jill Porter, got ordained online so she could perform the marriage ceremony of her beloved niece. So long, clergy! My granddaughter orchestrated her entire Bat Mitzvah in the backyard of her home where she wrote the service, designed the prayer book and played the guitar (in addition to reading the Torah). So long, synagogue! And don’t forget the bat simcha, a ceremony for families who want to celebrate the birth of a daughter. So long, male dominance!
A New Beginning for End-of-Life Celebrations
After Michelle Cromer lost her infant daughter, she wanted to encourage more people to engage in conversations about grief. She ended up writing an oddly delightful book, Exit Strategies, based on her travels around the country interviewing people like the potter near Santa Fe who incorporates cremains (the proper term for cremation ashes) into the clay she uses to make custom ceramic pieces for her clients; or the company that will shoot your remains into space in a rocket or release them in a helium balloon. “My book is about celebration,” says Cromer. “These unusual ‘exit strategies’ are a different way of embracing death, not a way to shortcut or avoid grief. If you love, you must grieve — but there are many ways to honor a life.”
That’s the philosophy of Kyle Devlin, a Philadelphia graphic designer, who started a company called Fun Funerals. “I’d been to a series of cookie-cutter funerals,” she says, “and I wondered why they all had to be the same. Then I heard about some of these outrageous funerals and thought, what an opportunity to celebrate a life. I believe every funeral should be tied to the deceased and reflect their soul and spirit — infused with their personality.” Her workshops are for those interested in planning their own funerals. “Talking about dying helps lessen the fear of the participants,” she says, “and it gives people a chance to examine their lives. You write a living will; why not think about how you’d like your death to be?” For those less inclined to group activities, The Conversation Project, initiated by writer Ellen Goodman, offers a toolkit for initiating end-of-life conversations on a variety of topics from estate planning to funeral directives.
Jewish funerals tend to be somber and rest on two pillars: to honor the dead and comfort the bereaved. But increasingly, the rabbinical community varies in how rigidly they interpret these dicta. “I recognize that people have their own ideas, and it behooves rabbis to be with” the bereaved and to offer them “whatever they need in their darkest hour,” says Reconstructionist Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann. “At the same time, I believe our traditions have great merit and I like to tell people what they are.” According to halachah, Jewish rituals around death are tightly scripted. There is a huge body of law outlining every step of burial and mourning: how to prepare the body; when to bury (as soon as possible); what kind of casket (simple wood, always closed); who can be a pallbearer (never the immediate family) and much more.
The Evolution of Commemoration
Over millennia, Jewish traditions surrounding death have provided a helpful behavioral guide to mourning, The mitzvah of comforting the bereaved is incumbent upon the whole community, and nowhere is that more brilliantly fulfilled than through shivah, the ritual designed to protect and comfort the bereaved at their most vulnerable time. The Hebrew word “shivah” means “seven” and refers to the seven days Joseph mourned the death of his father Jacob. Many contemporary shivot last only three days, but Herrmann encourages people to do more if they can. “Our society is not great about mourning,” she says, “and having more time to be with your grief is a gift.”
The evolution in Jewish funeral traditions can be partly explained by the shift in religious attitudes. Today, according to Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, the largest segment of Jews in the United States identifies as unaffiliated (the second-largest belongs to the Reform movement). Neither of these cohorts is very tightly bound to the old ways. “In my version of Reform Judaism, we can be both adaptive and creative,” Sussman says. “Judaism and culture can go hand in hand. My goal is to bring comfort to mourners in the way they choose.” That’s why cremation, while not encouraged, is now permitted. “As our belief in physical resurrection weakens,” Sussman says, “we are less inclined to have the need to preserve the body.”
Gradually, strict adherence to ritual has morphed into flexible interpretation. When Sussman’s father died, the family had a progressive shivah: The first took place in Baltimore where his parents lived, followed by one in Philadelphia for his friends and then one in Long Island where his sister resided. Other changes he’s noticed are the importance of music and speakers at the service; grandchildren requesting to wear the cut black ribbon typically reserved for the spouse, children and siblings; and, occasionally, a eulogy written by the deceased himself. (One began, “Just like you, I didn’t want to be here today.”)
Even more involved than rabbis in the changing culture of death are Jewish funeral directors, whose services have expanded in ways they never imagined. Joseph Levine has been part of his family’s 150-year-old mortuary business since 1945. “Thirty years ago, it would have been unheard of to have a mariachi band at a funeral here,” he says, “but we had one recently. Whatever people want, it’s no problem — a musical quartet, a harpist, bagpipes — we’ve done it all.” Levine’s now offers webcasts of funeral services (which are especially popular with Russians who have relatives in Ukraine), as well as audio broadcasts so distant relatives can listen to the service and CDs for mourners who want keepsakes. Levine has also seen a large increase in services held graveside instead of in the chapel and a marked decrease in the participation of rabbis. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “you typically had families living in the same state. Today, families are scattered all over, they don’t belong to a synagogue and they don’t want some strange rabbi who didn’t know their loved one talking about them. They’d rather speak themselves.”
Transforming the Universal Into the Sui Generis
Bernie Platt, who operates Platt Memorial Chapels in Cherry Hill along with his son Harry, first sensed something happening 10 years ago when a family tied balloons and exotic flowers to the ends of the pews in the chapel. “It was surprising and unique,” he recalls. “But the guests seemed to understand that this was fitting for the person who’d died.” Harry Platt adds, “Today, people are less formal and more casual about what’s allowed at a funeral. They ask a lot more questions — ‘can I do this or that?’ Our answer is, ‘Whatever you’re comfortable with is OK.’ No desire is looked upon as unusual.” Even the funeral of a rabid sports fan whose family asked attendees to wear red for the Phillies or green for the Eagles and pasted a Philly Phanatic decal on his coffin. What has become a rather common practice is placing mementos inside the coffin, which, in Bernie Platt’s view, “leavens the sadness and helps the mourning process.” Golf clubs and tees are particularly popular, but the Platts have seen families bury loved ones with a remote control, a cellphone, a good bottle of Scotch, casino chips and expensive cigars. I can understand this predilection to personalize: We buried my father with The New York Times Sunday crossword and a pencil with an eraser.
In response to requests for video presentations, the Platts installed a large screen TV in the lobby to show photomontages of the deceased as attendants arrive — just like the ones typically on display at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and birthday parties. Rare is the funeral that doesn’t display an array of framed pictures or posterboards plastered with photos of the deceased and their friends and family. “Funerals today focus increasingly on life,” Harry Platt notes. “You see this especially in the content of eulogies, which are likely to be full of wonderful stories. Twenty years ago, you never heard laughter in the chapel. Now it’s routine.” Both Platts advise that if you have a hankering for a particular kind of funeral, write down your wishes and leave them with a family member so they know what you want. It will make the process much easier.
Of all the transformations in Jewish funerals, the most radical has been the rise in cremations. Your grandparents would have been horrified at the idea; your grandchildren are likely to be surprised that it was once verboten. Statistics project that by 2025 nearly half of all funerals in the United States will be cremations. Currently the nationwide rate is 43 percent; in Philadelphia it’s slightly lower at 38 percent. Although Jews lag far behind those averages, the numbers are growing. The Platts have seen a slight increase in cremations and Joseph Levine pegs their cremation rate at about 14 percent. Cost is one factor. Cremations are much cheaper than burial plots. Another is the wide dispersal of family members who can’t get together quickly for a funeral and have no ties to the community where the deceased died.
Honoring a Death, Celebrating a Life
“Families today are seeking uplifting experiences,” says Rabbi Carole Gould. With the increase in cremations, that has come to mean something other than a traditional funeral. Last spring, Philadelphians Fran and Stuart Gerstein lost their 28-year-old son, Daniel, a few days after he was in a bike accident. Neither of them believed in the template of a typical rabbinical funeral so they chose cremation, partly because “we just couldn’t see putting Dan in the ground,” Fran says. “It wasn’t who he was.” While an ad hoc shivah evolved over the first several days after Dan’s death, with friends coming by and bringing food and solace, what became clear to the family was that they needed some public way to honor Dan and share their grief. Fran, a therapist, called her rabbi friend, Gould, seeking guidance. Her specific words were, “We don’t want a funeral or a memorial service. We want a celebration of Dan’s life.” Frankly, Gould wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. As it turned out, neither were the Gersteins, so they simply plunged into the uncharted process of capturing a life not fully lived — a process that turned out to be immensely successful in lightening their grief. “Dan was eccentric,” Fran says, “and as we thought about how he would want to be remembered, we all got very excited — ‘what if so and so sang and this or that one spoke. Oh, Dan would love that or this would be perfect for him.’ ” Friends started coming around and asking to be included. Dan’s sister went on his Facebook page requesting photographs — and got 300 responses with an hour.
“We all went into creativity mode,” Fran recalls. “Stuart created an opening video montage and designed a guest book with reproductions of Dan’s artwork. We did have moments of concern that we’d be seen as crazy or disrespectful but, ultimately, planning the ceremony helped us from being catatonic those first few weeks. It gave us purpose and focus. It helped us grieve. In remembering him, we had huge reliefs of emotion. I laughed as hard as I cried. Why do we think that the only way to be cathartic is to be sad? Why can’t we mourn a death by celebrating a life? I truly think it’s possible to grieve joyously and that belief and the planning we immersed ourselves in was an immense help getting us through this tragedy.”
I was privileged to be invited to Dan’s life celebration, which turned out to be an eclectic mix of songs, stories, poems, remembrances and music that concluded with everyone going outdoors and releasing balloons into the heavens. While I did not know Dan, I left his life celebration profoundly wishing that I had. In a way, I was inspired to be a better person, to live my life with some of the zaniness, joy and generous spirit that Dan brought to his. I felt his family had given me a gift in the way they chose to remember him. And for Fran and Stuart, having a community share their grief was its own gift. “We were able to receive overwhelming support by being willing to share our vulnerability,” Fran said.
Amy Cunningham, a Brooklyn-based funeral director, told me that a good funeral — or memorial or life celebration or whatever you want to call it — should have the goal of sending everyone out the door with a slightly altered life philosophy. I don’t often feel this at funerals, but I do at many of the memorial services I’ve witnessed, which may be why they have become so popular. A life joyfully recalled even in sadness has a powerful impact.
Years ago, I told my children that for my send-off, I want Mummers strutting and playing at my grave, followed by a party with my favorite foods — chocolate in every variation, a gelato bar with lots of flavors, something made with peanut butter and oodles of Champagne. They thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t. And given the way goodbyes are changing, I now fully expect my wishes to be carried out. Too bad I can’t attend.
Carol Saline is dead serious about that, by the way. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.