Goodbye and Good Journey

Buddhist funeral traditions around the world help both the dead and their loved ones let go and move on.

Funeral ceremony at Jigenji Soto Zen temple in Yamanashi, Japan.

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Final Ordination

At the heart of a Zen funeral is ordination. In the ceremony, the deceased is ritually ordained in the same way that living monks and nuns are. This is done because total dedication to spiritual life, of the kind undertaken by monastics, is seen as the natural endpoint of life, even if that wasn’t the case when the person was alive. Ordination is also seen as increasing the probability of a favorable rebirth.

To begin the funeral ceremony, a vigil is maintained by relatives for a day and a night while Zen priests chant from scripture and an altar is prepared in the household. Attending mourners offer okoden, or “condolence money,” to the family of the deceased. The centerpiece of the altar is a portrait of the deceased, alongside candles and offerings of flowers and fruit.

The dead’s ordination is the same as a living nun’s or monk’s. The precept master asks the body three times if the deceased will observe and embody the five precepts. Where a living monk or nun would offer their vow, the corpse’s silence is interpreted as acceptance.

The deceased is then given a Buddhist name and presented with a lineage chart connecting them with enlightened masters stretching all the way back to the Buddha himself. The family of the newly ordained is provided with their own tablet with the deceased’s Buddhist name on it, and the tablets are either kept in the local temple or displayed in the family’s household altar afterward.

Some Zen funerals also feature a shout which is meant to sever the deceased’s bond to the earthly plane. Those who have attended such ceremonies say this also provides a moment of catharsis for the mourners. The funeral concludes with the cremation of the deceased’s body.

What, then, are Zen funerals like for those who are already ordained? The funeral of a monk or nun can take different forms, both long (involving a procession including the deceased’s robes and lineage papers) or very short. The funeral for the founder of the Soto Zen, Dogen, is famously said to have consisted of just a short moment of chanting by his most senior disciple.

Sharing Merit with the Dead

White cloth, a symbol of virtue, marks a Theravadan funeral in the Sri Lankan tradition. Fringed palm fronds and white banners, often with a picture of the deceased, mark the way to the home of the deceased. A white banner declares in large writing: “All conditioned things have the nature of decay.” In the house, mourners in white are greeted by relatives of the dead, the men dressed in sarongs of white cloth and white shirts, the women in white saris. Having been washed by family members, the body of the dead is also attired in white.

The wake, during which the deceased’s family greets and feeds the guests, lasts for several days, which allows those traveling to reach the funeral house. Guests sometimes bring gifts of food for the family.

The funeral ceremony truly begins with the arrival of the monks. They enter the front room of the funeral house, where their feet are washed by a male member of the household. The monastics are guided to chairs draped in white cloth and the deceased’s family kneels before them in respect.

Then the coffin is brought to the front room, or remains in a tent in the front yard if there isn’t room in the house, and a salutation chant to the Buddha is offered, followed by the chants of the three refuges and the five precepts. Parcels of white cloth are presented to the monks, and the mourners chant, “We offer the ‘cloth of the dead’ to the community of monks.” This gift of cloth has a practical origin. Monks in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in Theravadan societies, rely on the community to feed and clothe them. Payment for presiding over the ceremony comes in the form of white cloth.

In this merit-sharing culture, the Theravadan funeral also features a bowl filled with water by the deceased’s family until it overflows, representing giving merit to the dead so their rebirth will be a promising one. As the water is being poured, the monks chant: “Just as rivers full of water fill the ocean full / Even so does what is given here benefit the dead.”

After a sermon based on Pali scripture is delivered by the senior monk, the mourners chant “Sadhu!” three times, an expression of gratitude connected to the attainment of arahatship. Speeches by family and neighbors follow and then the coffin is conveyed to the burial ground or crematorium under a white umbrella.

Two important dates continue the remembrance ceremonies after the day of the funeral: Mataka-bana, when a monk returns a week later to deliver a sermon to the family and other mourners, and Thun masa-dana, an alms-giving three months after the funeral to support the monastics who officiate at funerals and other ceremonies in the community.

Guiding the Dead Through the Bardo

A Tibetan thangka painting of the pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha, known as Amida in Japanese.

The Tibetan approach to death and dying is guided by the teachings of the Bardo Thodol, popularly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text describes what happens to us in the bardo, an intermediate period or gap between death and rebirth. During this time, it is possible to advise and help the deceased so they can achieve enlightenment or at least a favorable rebirth.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are a number of meditations and rituals that can be performed after someone dies or during their dying process. These include reading them the Book of the Dead over a forty-nine-day period to guide them through the various stages of the bardo journey, and powa practice, in which an accomplished master can help the dying person transfer their consciousness directly into an enlightened state.

The sukhavati ceremony is traditionally performed shortly after a person’s death. In this ceremony, their loved ones, friends, and fellow practitioners, guided by a Buddhist teacher, pray they will be reborn in Sukhavati, the Western Paradise or Land of Ultimate Bliss. This is the enlightened pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha in which they are free of all karma, defilements, and suffering.

In this ceremony, the congregation generates loving-kindness and compassion toward the deceased, who may be suffering confusion and fear in the bardo. They urge the deceased to let completely go of their previous identity and karma and ask the buddhas and bodhisattvas to guide them to the pure land. Here is a prayer that is typically recited in Sukhavati ceremonies in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism:

Wonderful Buddha of Limitless Light [Amitabha], to his right the Lord of Great Compassion and to his left the Bodhisattva of Great Power, surrounded by an infinite retinue of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The joy and happiness is limitless and wonderful in this pure land called Dewachen [Sukhavati].
As soon as this life has passed away, without the diversion of other births,
May [name of the deceased] be born there and thus behold the face of Amitabha.
All buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions, please grant your blessing that the wish expressed in this prayer be accomplished without hindrance.

In some versions of this ceremony, a photograph of the deceased is burned at the climax of the ritual so the deceased does not hold on to their former identity. As the photograph becomes ash, the prayers conclude and in the silence, the teacher intones the single syllable HUM, the mantra of great compassion. All pray their loved one will take the excellent opportunity of the bardo state to enter Sukhavati, the paradise that is freedom from karma and suffering.

Taking Refuge in Amida Buddha

The funeral rituals of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, as practiced in the Buddhist Churches of America, remind practitioners that through taking refuge in Amida Buddha, the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism, one can transcend time and space, and join together in the pure land as buddhas before returning to samsara to help others. In this way, death is understood to be a beginning rather than an end, and funeral rites offer comfort, solemnity, and the opportunity to express gratitude to the surviving family and friends.

After a person’s death, the minister is contacted by the family and the Makuragyo (literally “pillow service,” or bedside service) is performed. The home altar is decorated with white cloth and flowers, as is the body. The minister will chant one of the gathas from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, such as Juseige or Sanbutsuge.

Often, relatives live too far away for the body to remain long enough for them to travel to the funeral, so a cremation is done and the funeral takes place with a photo and urn. The funeral service itself begins with the ringing of the calling bell, reminding listeners of the impermanence of all things, an important remembrance in times of death.

Next, the presentation of the Buddhist name occurs. If the dying person has not already received a Buddhist name, the chanting of Kisamboge, by Shan-tao, helps to confirm the person; for those who have already received their name, the chanting is considered a rededication.

Then there is a chanting of Shoshinge, by Shinran, during which guests come up to burn incense, symbolic of the purification of one’s heart and mind to receive the truths of the Buddha. After this, there is an opportunity for eulogies by friends and family, followed by a dharma teaching and the recitation of Rennyo’s “White Ashes” from the minister, which concludes with the line: “By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life, which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else.”

Traditionally, the service ends with some words of acknowledgment and a meal afterward, held at the temple or a nearby restaurant.

Complete Article HERE!

What you should know about a Taoist Funeral Service

Taoists believe in concentrating more on health and longevity than on the afterlife. In Singapore, Taoist funeral services differ according to the language group of the dearly departed. The goal particularly in early Taoism was to achieve eternity, with the practice and cultivation of several tasks classified as Neidan and Waidan. Moreover, the Chinese traditionally avoid talking about death there is very little written about Taoist Funerals. Besides all, Taoist funerals becoming more simplified with each passing generation.

Taoism, for most of Chinese history, co-existed with Buddhism and Confucianism. There is therefore some influence from Buddhism in the Taoist practice of some Singaporean families. For the funeral, both Monks and Taoist Priest performing rites for the deceased during a Taoist Funeral wake.

Taoist Funeral Ceremonies

Preparation of the Body

The first thing that happens for any death in a Taoist family, is the preparation of the body of the departed soul. Family members gathered and clean the body with a wet towel dusted with talcum powder. Afterward, they dress the deceased in their nicest clothing, usually something white, black, brown, or blue. But never use red because it could cause the deceased’s spirit to become a ghost.

After that, a yellow cloth is used to covers the face and a blue cloth covers their body before putting them in the casket. Mirrors must have coverings so no one sees the deceased’s image, as this could cause another death.

A white cloth is then placed over the doorway of the house, and a gong is placed to the left of the door for women and the right for men. A sacred ceremony also takes place before the funeral. Using a sacred lamp signifies the light of wisdom, while two candles express sunlight and moonlight. There’s also tea, rice, and water. Finally, red, yellow, green, white, and black fruit means the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. They arrange the fruit on plates and fragrance burns in the middle.

Taoist Funeral Service

As far as the Funeral Services Singapore is concerned, At a Taoist funeral, smells of perfume and flowers and photos of the deceased surround the area. During the service, a priest chants manuscripts while others play drums, symbols, and woodwind instruments. Then, the priest circles a fire where nine tiles rest to represent the levels of the underworld. Then the priest waves a sword to ward off evil spirits and breaks the tiles to free the deceased from the underworld.

Funeral Feast

After the burial or cremation, there’s a funeral feast with a seat left for the deceased’s spirit. Since the number eight rhymes with the Chinese word meaning good fortune, they serve eight dishes. They eat sugar water dessert first, which is a sweet soup, so it’s a sweet and happy celebration. The other dishes usually contain fish and other meat, but never beef or horsemeat.

Ward off Evil Spirits

To ward off evil spirits, everyone gets a yellow piece of paper to the funeral. The paper has their name, address, and birthday on it. Then after the funeral, they burn it in their doorway and cross over it while it burns. It says that this ritual is done to stops any spirits from chasing them home and bringing bad luck.

Also, during the funeral, everyone needs to be cautious of evil spirits. Whenever the casket is open or people move the body, everyone should turn away or may leave.

A Funeral Gift

Funeral invitees give the deceased’s family a white envelope with money to help with cremation payments. However, the money amount should be odd because an even amount means immense happiness. Along with a money envelope, they also give a funeral gift. However, it should only be one gift because two gifts suggest more than one death. The deceased’s family also gives guests a traditional funeral envelope with a one-dollar coin and fruit candy.

Funeral Director in a Taoist Funeral Practice

In Taoist practice, there is some form of influence of Buddhism and funeral services are aware of the Taoist practices regarding funerals. There is essentially a funeral director who plays a key role in the funeral service of the Taoists. The Funeral director not only offers supervision services but also has expertise in the practice of Singapore Taoist funeral services as well. Besides that, the director offers family members advice and guidance to ensure the smooth process of the funeral.

Other than just providing the arrangements, a funeral director, experienced in Taoist Funeral practices and customs will be able to provide advice and guidance to the family to ensure their loved ones are properly honored with a meaningful and dignified funeral.

Post-Funeral

Taoist funeral ceremonies last for 3 days, 5 days, or 7 days commonly. After the burial, the ritual states that the family must have a meal for the guests who visited the funeral. Some families prefer to restrict the number of courses in this meal to the lucky number seven. Afterward, guests are offered a red packet filled with money, and everyone must burn the clothes they wore to the funeral. The funeral does not mark the end of the rituals, as families are expected to mourn for 49 days with prayers occurring every seven days.

Taoist Beliefs

In addition to prescribed rituals, Taoism also teaches that several actions are taboo during burial ceremonies and many other activities may have negative consequences. It is prohibited to dress the body in red clothing, as some Taoists believe it will cause the spirit to come back as a ghost. Similarly, Children and grandchildren of the deceased must not cut their hair for 49 days after the funeral. Some believe that people who see the deceased’s coffin reflected in a mirror will soon have a death in their family, and so all mirrors are removed from the house while the coffin is inside.

Summoning of Soul

This is a method done by calling out the deceased’s name, in the hopes of the return of the soul, so that the loved one might be resurrected.

Ritual Cleansing

An act of acquiring water from Earth goddess that is usually done by the elder son, to signify the ‘letting go of earthly attachments, and to clean the deceased’s spirit for the next world to come.

Burning of Paper beside Coffin

This serves as an entry pass to go smoothly to the otherworld, where the paper is to be burnt piece by piece.

Chanting

One of the main rituals includes chanting to break hell, reciting most ofutras, and asking for repentance of sins. The priests will sing songs and to bridge them the deceased to crossover from earth to heaven.

Some other Rituals in Taoism

Encoffin Service

This ritual during funeral service is done by placing items inside the casket such as the incense and joss paper to be used by the deceased on his/her journey to the other world.

Placing of Pearl

The meaning of this activity signifies that the deceased have a rebirth with a better life. In the past, only the Kings or Royals family members was entitled to such practice but now they have opened it to everyone.

Offering of Food

This belief during funeral service implies that whether spirit or human, both are equal beings. For Buddhist funeral service, the food to be offered should be vegetarian-based. For good karma, a part of the grieving process will be to avoid killing innocent animals, nor digesting meat or seafood dishes. After that, red, yellow, green, white, and black fruit symbolize the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. They arrange the fruit on plates and incense burns in the middle.

Wake and Vigil

The children and offspring are to stay awake, pray and hope that the deceased will come back to life.

Red String

For guests, a promising practice during funeral service, wait for it to come off naturally, but must remove it before entering a home.

49 Days Ritual

As per the teachings of Earth Store Bodhisattva, to create merits, generous actions will be done and dedicated to the deceased in the next 49 days, to rescue them from their sufferings.

100th Day Ritual

After a hundred days, the comprehensive departure from this world is ended. This is also the dateline for the completion of the tomb construction. Complete prayers are offered to the divinity overseeing the tomb.

1st/3rd Anniversary

The 1st year consists of 12 months, while the 3rd year is the 24th month of the date of death. Post-funeral ceremonies are observed to symbolize the unity of the deceased with the ancestors.

Conclusion

Taoists believe in focusing more on health and longevity than on the afterlife. The goal especially in early Taoism was to achieve immortality, with the practice and cultivation of various tasks categorized as Neidan and Waidan. There are many different denominations within Taoism, rites, and rituals for the deceased can differ. Taoist Funerals typically last 3, 5, or 7 days.

Complete Article HERE!

From fiction to reality

— Could forests replace cemeteries?

From tree pods and mushroom suits to plain old dirt, death may have a greener future.

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The way humans live impacts the world. So does the way they die.

It isn’t death itself that creates an ecological nightmare, but rather the resource-intensive processes we’ve devised for dealing with the dead. On top of all the land that’s set aside for graveyards, building caskets requires around 30 million board feet of wood and 90,000 tons of steel each year (that’s more steel than you’ll find in the Golden Gate Bridge). Grave vaults guzzle up 1.6 million tons of concrete annually. And 800,000 gallons of toxic chemicals like formaldehyde go into embalming — chemicals that often wind up seeping into the ground. (Oh, and all these stats are for the U.S. alone.)

Cremation, which has edged out burial as the most popular option in the U.S., requires vast amounts of energy to maintain the 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit needed to incinerate a corpse, which can take two hours or more. In the U.S., the process releases about 250,000 tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere annually — the equivalent of burning more than 30 million gallons of gasoline — and a significant amount of mercury from dental fillings.

By now you may be thinking, “There’s got to be a better way.” There is.

We already have several eco-friendlier ways of dealing with the dead, and more than 50 percent of Americans are considering them. These methods can be as simple as wrapping bodies in cloth and lowering them into the ground to decompose, or as cutting-edge as human composting and mushroom suits. There are also culture-specific traditions like the Tibetan sky burial, in which the dead are dismembered and left on mountaintops to be feasted upon by vultures.

In her short story The Tree in the Back Yard, a finalist in Fix’s Imagine 2200 climate-fiction contest, author Michelle Yoon envisions a future in which green burial practices have become commonplace. In the opening scene, the main character, Mariska, chooses a tree that her father’s remains will nourish via a receptacle called an Eternity Pod. Later, when she goes to visit his final resting place, Mariska sees “Trees of all types, all ages. Trees as far as her eyes could see,” each one marking a natural burial site.

How close are we to the future Yoon imagines?

The modern green burial movement

Generally speaking, a green burial is one that encourages the natural process of decomposition. That means no embalming, fancy caskets, or headstones. In the most straightforward application, remains are placed in a simple box or cloth, and interred at a depth of about 3½ feet — roughly half the proverbial 6 feet under — where there’s more microbial activity in the soil.

The modern movement emerged about 30 years ago as some sought to reclaim the intimacy and filial responsibility that is lost when a third party takes ownership of the dead, says Hannah Rumble, a social anthropologist at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society in England. “It was almost kind of a re-enchantment — this idea that our dead were a fertile source for new life, if we put them in sensitive ways back in the environment,” she says. “Rather than seeing a corpse as yucky and icky and something that needs to be sanitized and hidden away, actually the corpse, in its very decomposition, could be quite useful.”

Much like other eco-conscious movements — local food, right-to-repair, and living off the grid, for example — green burial, at its heart, is about reclaiming and re-familiarizing ourselves with a process. In this case, death.

In some cultures, elements of these practices are the norm already. Traditional Jewish burial involves family members washing and preparing the body, dressing it in a shroud, and burying it in a simple pine coffin, or no coffin at all. Although this practice is based on ancient Jewish law, it aligns with much of the green burial ethos. “It emphasizes simplicity, equality in death, and return of the body to the earth,” says Rabbi Seth Goldstein.

Muslim tradition similarly involves ritual bathing of a corpse, wrapping it in a cloth, and burying it without a casket, facing Mecca. In both customs, the funeral happens as quickly as possible after the person has died — which respects religious teachings about honoring the dead but also makes sense biologically. Without embalming or other forms of preservation, bodies must be interred ASAP, for obvious reasons.

Much like other eco-conscious movements, green burial is about reclaiming and re-familiarizing ourselves with a process. In this case, death. 

Although straightforward burial can be made more sustainable, an increasing number of  alternative methods that promise to make death not only sustainable but beneficial to the earth have captured the imaginations of entrepreneurs and designers — and some have become legit options. Human composting (or, as proponents prefer, “natural organic reduction”) made headlines earlier this year when Recompose, the first fully operational human composting facility, opened its doors in Kent, Washington. Colorado legalized the process this year, and Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont are considering it.

Then there’s the mushroom suit, which actor Luke Perry was famously buried in. The sleek, black “infinity burial suit” is made of organic cotton and specially cultivated fungi, which the company claims help detoxify the corpse and deliver its nutrients to the soil.

What’s shown in The Tree in the Back Yard is a form of tree burial — the burial of human remains (cremated or otherwise) in a biodegradable “pod,” from which a tree will grow, letting the remains nourish its roots. Italian company Capsula Mundi (or “the world’s capsule”) has designed egg-shaped urns intended to feed saplings planted above them. So far, the only product it has on the market is an urn for ashes, but the company intends to pilot a larger pod that could hold a human body.

Legal and cultural barriers, and the future

The largest obstacle to something like Yoon’s vision of a full graveyard of trees growing from burial pods is not the technology, but the stigmas and laws it needs to overcome.

Death is a deeply emotional, ritualistic affair in most parts of the world, and customs (or outright rules) around dealing with the dead can be stringent. “Unless you’ve got a country whose population follows one particular cultural or religious tradition, I think it’s kind of impossible to say that you’ll have a wholly burial culture or a wholly cremation culture in a country,” says Rumble. Some religions necessitate cremation, like Hinduism, while other teachings support burial in specific ways. According to Rumble, that means there will always be a need for multiple options.

But that doesn’t mean newfangled approaches like tree burial and human composting can’t be compatible with religious teaching and rituals. For Goldstein, who lives and practices in Washington, human composting has become a real option for members of his community. And although it isn’t traditional, Goldstein finds that the practice can uphold Jewish teachings and values and shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as non-Jewish.

“I can’t declare pork to be kosher all of a sudden,” he says. “But other things have more fluidity, in terms of the intersection between spiritual values and tradition and new technologies.” Goldstein puts the onus on himself and other religious leaders to find opportunities to make meaning out of these new approaches, rather than saying no to what people of faith want for themselves or their loved ones. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Is this OK?’ And I think that really what they’re asking is, ‘How do we make this Jewish?’”

As for simpler green burials replacing the chemical- and resource-intensive methods, other barriers must be overcome. In the Western world, the sanitized approach to handling dead bodies doesn’t just reflect our culture — it has also made its way into our laws. Some states require embalming or refrigeration of bodies that have been dead for more than 24 hours. If families haven’t planned ahead, that doesn’t leave much time to make arrangements at a natural burial ground.

“Some jurisdictions [also] mandate the use of concrete liners,” Goldstein says, which wouldn’t traditionally be used in Jewish burial and aren’t compatible with the green approach, either. In 2008, a county in Georgia passed an ordinance requiring leak-proof containers for corpses, due to a complaint about a proposed green burial site. Most states allow home burial on private property, but some also require special permits to do so and a handful of states mandate that a funeral director be on hand.

Even if it’s not law, each cemetery sets its own policies and requirements. According to the Green Burial Council, only 335 cemeteries across the U.S. and Canada offer green or conservation burial options (there are more than 144,000 total cemeteries in the U.S.). A majority of those are hybrid cemeteries, and some are also Jewish or otherwise affiliated.

But the list has been steadily growing. In 2018, 54 percent of Americans said they were considering a green burial, and 72 percent of cemeteries reported increased demand for eco-friendly options. There are all kinds of reasons for the shift, beyond the desire to live (er, die) more lightly on the planet. Natural burial options may be cheaper than ones involving ornate caskets, concrete vaults, and granite headstones. When a grave site is incorporated into the landscape, there’s no need to maintain or decorate it, which removes the fear of placing a burden on family members — or becoming the sad spectacle of an unloved grave.

And the desire to return to the earth, which has echoes in many religious teachings, appeals to many on a spiritual level. “Whether through the lenses of personal faith or secular society or science, we all recognize that circular notion of life and death,” Rumble says. Natural burial speaks directly to that, whether it’s in a simple cotton shroud or a mushroom suit. “The fact that, perhaps, you exist in some other form because your body’s gone back to the soil, that offers great solace to people,” she says.

And in fact, that very mindset shift may turn out to be more important than the emissions saved or the trees planted. As various forms of green burial begin to take root, they reinforce the idea that we humans are part of the natural world, and we have a responsibility to nurture it — in life as well as in death.

Complete Article HERE!

Seattle startup Lalo is latest ‘death tech’ innovator, with an app to share and collect stories and more

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Juan Medina first considered the idea for his new startup back in 2003, after the death of his father, when his wife asked him to tell a story about his dad and Medina realized he hadn’t known him all that well. Stories, jokes, recipes and more were either lost or scattered across various friends and family, Medina said.

The idea resurfaced in the last couple years as Medina’s own daughter, now 9, said she never really met her grandparents. Medina decided to launch his startup Lalo — also his dad’s nickname — with the mission of giving people a private, digital space to connect, share stories and hold on to precious memories.

Currently operating as a small, private beta, Lalo is an app that facilitates the collection of digital content such as images, video, voice, text and more. Away from the noise and common pitfalls of traditional social media platforms, groups are intentionally kept small to foster increased trust and privacy. Imagine family members gathering to collect the best recipes in one space or share images that might have been lost to an unseen photo album.

“It’s a space to capture those more important family memories, the Sunday phone call from the grandkids to the grandparents where they can say, ‘Grandpa, tell me about a time … ,’  Medina said.

Lalo plans to make money by charging $25 a year for a subscription to the ad-free app, with multiple people being able to have access to a space for that price. Medina said the idea is optimized for smaller groups of 10 to 15 people and over-biased on privacy.

“You’re not going to get pinged by your middle-school friend, like, ‘Hey, join my account,’” he said.

Medina is also working on securing the permanence of the data, potentially with a blockchain solution or other ways to archive the material for the long, digital haul. He views his competitors as traditional social media such as Facebook where people are trading images and stories today, or more story-focused offerings such StoryCorps on NPR, or StoryWorth.

The idea brushes up against the wave of innovation falling into the “death tech” category, where startups are reimagining everything around traditional end-of-life and funeral industry practices with ideas involving body composting, cremation services and casket purchases.

Lalo users don’t have to focus on a recent or impending loss of a loved one, but Medina does believe the app can be a helpful tool in the grieving process.

Before trying his hand at his own startup, Medina spent a little over eight years at Amazon working on assorted tech, building things from scratch and understanding how to build things quickly. The decision to leave and start Lalo came with some apprehension.

“I’m married, I have a daughter, we have a mortgage. Walking away from that steady income that I’ve had my whole life was scary,” Medina said. “But it’s been amazing. I’ve loved it. It’s been great doing what I love, something I’m passionate about.”

And interest from different angel investors as well as funding from Lalo’s first institutional investor has eased some concerns about the long-term viability of the idea. Columbus, Ohio-based VC firm Overlooked Ventures announced earlier this month that Lalo was its first investment, and founding partner Janine Sickmeyer wrote of the startup, “No amount of technology can ease the pain of losing someone you love, but having better ways to grieve can help people cope and stay connected to mourn the loss together.”

Medina didn’t share how much money Lalo raised in pre-seed funding. The company incorporated at the end of 2020 and got moving in March after Medina left Amazon.

Lalo currently employs eight people and was among 30 startups selected for Washington Technology Industry Association’s sixth Founder Cohort Program, announced in August. The plan is to come out of beta in early 2022.

Complete Article HERE!

Planning your funeral doesn’t have to be scary

— Says the author of ‘It’s Your Funeral: Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime Before it’s Too Late’

‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin, Quirk Books, 176 pages, $14.40.
‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin

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The pandemic has forced many to rethink and readjust their present with their future. Some have left jobs that provided steady paychecks and a predictable complacency for unknown, yet meaningful passion projects. Others are are taking more control of their destinies as they see fit. Unwilling to settle in life anymore. So why would you settle in death?

That’s the question Kathy Benjamin, author of “It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late,” asks. Amid the book’s 176 pages, Benjamin exposes readers to death in a light, humorous, and practical way, akin to a soothing bath, rather than a brisk cold shower.

The Austin-based writer’s niche is death (her last book centered on bizarre funeral traditions and practices). Having panic attacks as a teen, Benjamin said enduring them felt like she was dying. It was then that she started wrestling with the idea of death.

“I feel like I’m actually dying all the time, so maybe I should learn about the history of death and all that,” she said. “If I’m going to be so scared of it, I should learn about it because then I’d kind of have some control over it.”

It’s that control that Benjamin wants to give to readers of this book. She introduces readers to concepts and steps one should contemplate now, in order to make sure the last big gathering centered on you is as memorable as you and your loved ones wish. Poring over the book, one finds interesting final resting options such as body donation that goes beyond being a medical cadaver, “infinity burial suits” that lets one look like a ninja at burial, but also helps nourish plants as decomposition begins; and quirky clubs and businesses that allow one to make death unique (as in hiring mourners to fill out your grieving space and time, and designing your own coffin).

Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she's determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn't have to be.
Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she’s determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn’t have to be.

Now before you think this is all a bit macabre, Benjamin’s book also serves as a personal log so you can start planning your big event. Amid the pages, she offers prompts and pages where you can jot down thoughts and ideas on fashioning your own funeral. If you want to have a theme? Put it down in the book. You want to start working on your eulogy/obituary/epitaph, will, or your “final” playlist? Benjamin gives you space in her book to do so. It’s like a demise workbook where you can place your best photos to be used for the funeral and your passwords to your digital life, for your loved ones to have access to that space once you’re gone. If all the details are in the book, a loved one just has to pick it up and use it as a reference to make sure your day of mourning is one you envisioned.

As Benjamin writes: “Think about death in a manner that will motivate you to live the best, most fulfilling life possible. By preparing for death in a spiritual and physical way, you are ensuring that you will succeed right to the end.”

“Everyone’s going to die, if you’re willing to be OK with thinking about that, and in a fun way, then the book is for you,” she said.

We talked with Benjamin to learn more about the details of death and thinking “outside the coffin” for posterity’s sake. The following interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: How much time did it take you to find all this data about death? You share what was in the late Tony Curtis’ casket.

Kathy Benjamin: I have shelves of books that range from textbooks to pop culture books about death, and it’s something that a lot more people than you think are interested in so when you start doing online research you might just find a list of, here’s what people have in their coffin and then from there, you’re like: ‘OK, let’s check if this is true.’ Let’s go back and check newspaper articles and more legitimate websites and things and those details are out there. People want to know. I think of it as when you see someone post on Facebook — somebody in my family died. I know for me, and based on what people reply, the first thing is: What did they die of? We want these details around death. It’s just something people are really interested in. The information is out there and if you go looking for it, you can find it.

Q: Was the timing for the release of the book on point or a little off, given the pandemic?

KB: That was unbelievable timing, either good or bad, how you want to look at it. I ended up researching and writing during that whole early wave in the summer (2020) and into the second wave, and it was very weird. It was very weird to wake up, and the first thing I would do every morning for months was check how many people were dead and where the hot spots were, and then write … just a lot of compartmentalization. My idea was because people who were confronting death so much, maybe it would open up a lot of people’s minds who wouldn’t normally be open to reading this kind of book, they’d be like: ‘OK, I’ve faced my mortality in the past year. So actually, maybe, I should think about it.’

Q: Is there anything considered too “out there” or taboo for a funeral?

KB: I always think that funerals really are for the people who are still alive to deal with their grief, so I wouldn’t do anything that’s going to offend loved ones. I can’t think of what it might be, but if there’s a real disagreement on what is OK, then maybe take the people who are going to be crying and keep them in mind. But really, it’s your party. Plan what you want. There are so many options out there. Some people, they still think cremation isn’t acceptable. Because death is so personal, there’s always going to be people who think something is too far, even things that seem normal for your culture or for your generation.

Q: You mention some interesting mourning/funeral businesses, but many seem to be in other countries. Do we have anything cool in the U.S. as far as death goes that maybe other places don’t have?

KB: One thing we have more than anywhere in the world is body farms. We have a couple and just one or two in the entire rest of the world. The biggest in the world is at the University of Tennessee. For people who don’t know, body farms are where you can donate your body as if you would to science, but instead of doing organ transplants or whatever with it, they put you in the trunk of a car or they put you in a pond or they just lay you out and then they see what happens to you as you decompose. Law enforcement recruits come in and study you to learn how to solve crimes based on what happens to bodies that are left in different situations. I think they get about 100 bodies a year. I always tell people about body farms because if you’re into “true crime” and don’t care what happens to you and you’re not grossed out by it, then do it because it’s really cool and it’s helpful.

Q: You mention mummification and traditional Viking send offs, what about the burning of a shrouded body on a pyre? Have you heard about that? It was the way hunters were sent into the afterlife on the TV series “Supernatural.”

KB: I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in America but obviously that’s a big pop culture thing. For Hindus, that’s the way it happens in India … you go to the Ganges, and they have places specifically where you pay for the wood and they make a pyre and that’s how people go out. I doubt there’s a cemetery or a park that would allow you to do it in the U.S., but on private land, you’re pretty much allowed to do whatever. I would definitely check on regulations. You would have to get the pyre quite hot to burn the body to ash, like hotter than you think to make sure you don’t get a barbecued grandpa.

Q: In your research, have you come across anything that completely surprised you because it’s so unheard of?

KB: There’s been things like funerary cannibalism, which is where you eat loved ones after they’ve died. But once you’ve read the reasons why different tribes around the world have done it, you’re like ‘OK, I can see why that meant something, why it was meant to be emotional and beautiful.’ Things like sky burial in Tibet, they have a Buddhist monk chop up the body and lay it out for the vultures to come get. Part of it ties back to Buddhist tradition but also it’s Tibet, you can’t dig holes there in the mountains. So, there’s a logical reason for it. When you look at these things that originally seem gross or weird, once you learn the reasons behind them it all comes back in the end to trying to do something respectful for the dead, and trying to give the living that closure.

Q: What are your plans for your funeral?

KB: I definitely want to be cremated. I don’t know if I want people to necessarily come together for a funeral for me but like I have a playlist, and even before the book I had a whole document on the computer of what I wanted. I want all the people to know about the playlist and then they can kind of sit and think about how awesome I am while the sad songs play, and then there’s different places that I would want my ashes scattered.

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How COVID has transformed the death care industry for ‘last responders’

by Kat Eschner

More than 3.35 million people died last year in the United States—far more than the death trade was easily able to handle. Over 70% of those deaths were attributable to COVID-19, a recent analysis found. Others were related to the disruption of the pandemic and some to simple chance. In hotspots around the country, funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoria were under unprecedented stress as a system designed to accommodate a predictable number of deaths (around 2.8 million in a more normal year like 2019) confronted the challenges of caring for many more.

In New York, an early hotspot, “the adjectives that come to mind were ‘overwhelming’ and ‘intense,’” said Mike Lanotte, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association. In more normal times, Lanotte said, New York State sees about 400 deaths per day. That’s the number that the funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries in the state are set up to handle. Occasionally, something like an unusually bad flu season causes a local spike in the number of deaths, but the system in New York State and elsewhere has proved fairly resilient over time.

During those first months in New York and New Jersey, that wasn’t the case. Lanotte said his members—and their colleagues in the neighboring state—were snowed under by demand. “It probably lasted through the early part of summer 2020 before it really started to come down to a point where the system could really catch up,” he said.

New York’s outbreak, with its refrigeration trucks to store bodies, became the face of the early pandemic for many Americans and conjured up memories of 9/11, the last time local death care infrastructure was so overwhelmed by a disaster. But deaths spiked in spots all over the country throughout 2020, pushing death care professionals to their limits.

People who work with the dead aren’t often discussed. “You need their help when you need it,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, “but my funeral and cemetery director and crematory owner [members] are never listed in any of the ‘Thank you, first responders’ things that are out there.” People in the business understand their role, she said, but the last year on the front lines has been a difficult one.

COVID-19 cases are spiking again across the country now, with a more dangerous new variant and low vaccination rates wreaking havoc. The pandemic is far from over for America. But better knowledge of how to treat and contain the disease, combined with vaccination, means those in the death trade aren’t facing anything like the nationwide deluge of last year. As they begin to take stock, industry leaders and advocates say their profession has been irrevocably changed by the pandemic.

Fast technological change, an increase in cremations, and just the sheer scale of death they had to handle have all contributed to an epidemic of burnout and many people leaving the business. At the same time, revenues last year—usually driven by funerals of the kind that weren’t possible under COVID-19 restrictions—were down, said Steve Spann, president of John A. Gupton College, which serves the mortuary business. “All funeral homes, I think, will determine that they took a pretty decent hit financially,” he said, pegging that impact in the 20% to 30% reduction range.

In the short term, that means there just aren’t enough people in the business. In the medium term, that might mean further consolidation in the already highly consolidated death business, and the loss of funeral homes that serve specific communities, such as the Black community. In the long term, it’s hard to say. But one thing is for certain: The death business will never return to the way it was in 2019.

‘Last responders’

Alabama funeral director Randy Anderson got his first call to pick up the body of someone who had died from COVID-19—a “decedent” in funeral argot—on or around March 27, 2020. That person died in a nursing home, one of the early locations where the disease spread like wildfire.

“That began the multitude of deaths that we would have, about 25% of the deaths that we handled in 2020,” he said. In total, the two funeral homes he owns, Radney Funeral Home and Langley Funeral Home, handled more than 100 COVID-19 deaths in 2020, representing an increase of 60 to 70 calls to pick up bodies over 2019, he said.

That same recent analysis of excess death—the term for numbers of the dead that go beyond the expected—showed extra deaths occurring all over the country, although the impact was distributed in time and space. Writing in the scientific journal JAMA Network, the study authors identify Alabama as the state that endured the fifth-highest number of per capita excess deaths in 2020, after Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Arizona.

After the H1N1 pandemic, Anderson followed CDC instructions and continuously maintained a high enough level of supplies to embalm 100 bodies, along with PPE. When COVID-19 hit, he was in a position to share supplies with local health care providers and protect his own team.

But all the supplies in the world couldn’t prepare him and his staff for what they would face. “That veterans’ nursing home, we were there probably five or six times a week during the heat of the crisis,” Anderson said. They also made numerous trips to the morgues of local hospitals and to people’s homes.

“We were working 12- to 14-hour days from about April to about October, November,” he said. The toll of all that work was physical, but—as for others on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic—it was also psychological.

Those in death care have a twinned role, said Lanotte. They are public health practitioners who ensure that when patients leave the medical system as a dead body, they are put to rest. In that role, they work with local health officials. But they are also the first point of care for people grieving the loss of a loved one.

Last year, when daily deaths surged, the public health role had to take the front seat, he said. But their other role remained. While coping with the demands of the pandemic and learning, along with the rest of us, about social distancing and other measures, funeral directors and other death care professionals sought to include grieving families in their loved ones’ final disposition.

That took innovation. Kemmis lost her grandmother last year. She and her mother couldn’t travel to the graveside service because of the pandemic, but they were still able to participate thanks to one funeral director. “She was standing at the graveside, holding up her cell phone,” Kemmis said. She and her mother watched on Facebook Live.

To Kemmis, that’s a sign of how far “last responders” will go for those left behind. “She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t charge us to do that. And I didn’t even know to ask for that.”

Rushing to catch up

Kemmis’s experience is one example of a broader trend of death care professionals trying new techniques to connect loved ones with the deceased. While Zoom funerals and Facebook memorials were new for many consumers, they represent an even bigger change in the slow-moving, traditional funeral industry.

“Death care is an old profession. They have a lot of old practices,” said Poul Lemasters, a former embalmer who is now general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association. “I know a lot of people who even still have fax machines.”

When the pandemic began, he said, death care practitioners found themselves navigating everything from regulatory issues around digital correspondence to dramatic technology shifts in their own workplaces. That embracing of technology “advanced funeral service by a decade or more,” said Kemmis.

Mortuary education is rushing to catch up. While in-person funeral attendance around the country is more possible now than it was a year ago, said Spann, “a good portion [of families] still want livestreaming.” John A. Gupton College was beginning to offer digital marketing instruction, he said, but COVID-19 has accelerated that part of the curriculum.

In the past, “almost everything that a consumer would do with the funeral director would be done face-to-face in the funeral home,” said Lanotte. In some parts of the country, that state of affairs was entrenched in law, further complicating the transition to a new way of doing things.

In New York State, for instance, cemeteries, crematoria, and funeral homes were legally not allowed to accept digital signatures on their documents. That meant grieving families had to provide a physical signature and send the documents by FedEx or other means—a process further complicated if they were quarantined by COVID-19 themselves, writes Joe Mahoney of CNHI. This particular law was recently changed. But it’s part of a larger dynamic in the death care industry whose fading has been hastened by the pandemic.

There was a time when funeral homes and artfully embalmed and displayed bodies were at the center of death care for nearly all Americans. That’s not true anymore, said Tanya Marsh, a professor of law at Wake Forest University who studies the funeral and cemetery trades. Cultural attitudes toward death and final disposition are slowly but surely shifting, she said, a trend exemplified by the increased adoption of cremation.

For the past few decades, the national cremation rate has grown by 1% to 2% per year. In 2016, that rate rose above 50% for the first time. “Cremation has been a game changer,” said Marsh. It allows for different approaches to final disposition and mourning because cremated remains don’t require a specialist to handle them, as an embalmed body does.

Although many predicted a spike in cremations during the pandemic, the national cremation rate went up only by a predictable 1.5% in 2020, according to numbers from the Cremation Association of North America. In some areas, however, the cremation rate increased far more. In the first six months of 2020, for instance, the cremation rate in New Jersey went up by more than 3%. These regional increases may endure, Marsh noted. “The question is going to be, Do people associate [cremation] with COVID?”

If they do, that could negatively impact the increase of cremation rates. But Marsh isn’t sure. “There’s a really strong social normalizing aspect of funeral practices,” she said. If people had a loved one cremated for the first time out of necessity but found it to be a positive experience, she added, it’s likely they will seek out cremation for future final dispositions.

The practice has a lot going for it. It’s generally less expensive than a full burial, for one thing, and it gives families time to gather and say goodbye in their own way. It allows for very different options than the big funeral many of us see on television. But for funeral homes, it represents generally lower revenues and a changing role. “They have to change their identity from being embalmers to event planners,” said Kemmis. “That’s what the trends are pointing to. And that’s hard.”

Tomorrow’s death care

A changing role, combined with the other stresses and changes of the pandemic, is having a huge impact on the death trade. Some are leaving it, while those who remain are dealing with the trauma of being on the front lines. After things settled down in his area, Anderson brought in a PTSD counselor to meet with his staff. “We view what we do a little differently now,” he said.

Like many in the profession, Anderson himself caught COVID-19. He was out of work for three months and hospitalized for a week. Seeing the ravages of the disease firsthand made the prospect of his own illness more alarming. “I had buried people that died with [COVID-19],” he said.

Kris Busini, who was an executive assistant for two funeral home owners in Connecticut through the worst of the pandemic, also caught COVID-19, along with almost everyone else at his funeral home. “We were terrified,” he said. The only one on his team who didn’t catch COVID-19 was their embalmer, a young man who worked long days in the funeral home’s morgue, away from other staff.

Busini was drawn to the death care industry because of the care involved, for both those grieving and the deceased. “There’s a tenderness to it that I really appreciated,” he said. He left, in part, because of the stresses of the pandemic.

The exodus from the death care profession will likely drive further consolidation, Kemmis said. After the past year, some members of the profession who were contemplating retirement or leaving their practice are choosing to sell to conglomerates, she noted.

Lemasters handles some of those transactions as part of his consulting firm and has seen a spike in the past few months. “This has pushed a lot of people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” he noted.

But the trend may be slow and unpredictable. Death on the scale of what has happened during this pandemic altered the future value of the death trade, because in some places, the boomer generation whose death peak was anticipated to be more than a decade from now happened early.

“Between now and 2025-ish, we might actually see a decline in deaths in some areas,” Kemmis said. That short-term decrease may change the valuation of funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries—at least for now. But it may also create time to train up new embalmers, crematorium operators, funeral directors, and others in a vast profession, Kemmis said. The death professionals of tomorrow will graduate into an industry that’s been fundamentally altered by the pandemic, in a country only beginning to grapple with its implications.

Marsh expects to see further early retirements and industry exoduses over the next three to five years. “There’s a ton of burnout,” she said.

Some seeds of what’s coming next are beginning to unfurl. The professional associations that death care professionals rely on are starting to host in-person meetings and conferences, the first since before the pandemic. For those who have stayed in the profession, it’s an opportunity to regroup and examine the recent past. During a recent gathering of about 180 members of the death trade hosted by his organization, Lemasters said, “there was absolutely a sharing of stories.” There’s a new feeling of comradery, he said.

As death care professionals reckon with the past year and a half, the industry is also trying to plan for the future. “That’s a full death care industry conversation,” said Lenotte. Part of that conversation is preparing for the next pandemic. Anderson recently presented on that topic at a state convention. “The first thing is just take care of your staff,” he said.

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An increasingly popular way to be buried

— Become part of an artificial reef

Family members watch as a concrete “reef ball” — made in part with the cremated remains of their loved one — is lowered into the water off the coast of Ocean City, Md. The memorials help replenish reefs.

By Kathryn Fink

When Rob Shepherd’s wife, Beth, died of brain cancer at age 66, he knew she had wanted to be cremated. He didn’t know that six years later, he’d be waving goodbye to her remains from a boat in the Atlantic Ocean. Her ashes, now mixed in a concrete ball, were headed to the ocean floor to help form a reef.

Rob, a 69-year-old retiree in St. Louis, had been storing Beth’s cremated remains in their original plastic bag on a living room bookshelf; an urn, to him, felt too permanent. He had been planning to return her to Maryland, her childhood home — and he says it was “a gift from heaven” when he discovered a nonprofit called Eternal Reefs. Since its founding in 1998, Eternal Reefs has worked with families to create concrete “reef balls” that incorporate cremated remains, or “cremains,” and small personal items. Part memorial, part conservation method, they’re deposited to the ocean floor to replenish reef systems. The balls weigh between 600 and 4,000 pounds, and require a crane to be transported.

“I put in our two wedding rings and her favorite pair of earrings, because I know she wouldn’t want to be without her earrings,” Shepherd said in Ocean City, Md., in May, on the day Beth’s remains were placed into the sea. Her reef memorial cost $3,995 — not including the price of cremation, which is $350 on average. The median cost of a funeral with a viewing and cremation was $5,150 in 2019, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

To avoid dealing with the Transportation Security Administration — which requires specific types of containers for traveling with cremains in carry-on luggage and can prohibit their entry onto planes — Shepherd had driven Beth’s remains from St. Louis. Later that day, he watched a crane lower her memorial ball into the Atlantic — permanently becoming a part of Russell’s Reef, an artificial reef site off the coast of Ocean City. He and the other families memorializing loved ones aboard the boat clapped.

Eternal Reefs grew out of the intersection of “deathcare” — an array of products and services related to death and memorialization — and the environmental movement. Now, against the backdrop of the pandemic, the green burial industry is proliferating. A 2021 survey conducted by the trade magazine American Funeral Director found that 51 percent of respondents have attended a green burial, and 84 percent would consider one for themselves. The green approach aims to reduce the environmental impact of burial and, in some cases, uses remains to repair the destruction humans have inflicted on the earth. These options can take many forms, including coffins made of mushrooms, water-based cremation (in which water and chemicals break down the body) and biodegradable pods that use remains to grow a sapling.

Like the rest of the funeral industry, green burial is regulated. A final disposition — the legal term for what happens to your body after death — is a complicated issue. Many emerging technologies require state legalization, including a new green burial approach of composting human remains. In December, a funeral home outside Seattle became the first to legally perform the process, known as “natural organic reduction.” Several other states are currently weighing its legality.

Since Eternal Reefs’ inception, it has deployed more than 2,500 reef memorials in 30 permitted locations, including off the coasts of Florida, New Jersey and Texas. CEO George Frankel says the demand for reef memorials has grown steadily — but in the past year, information requests and advance burial plans have skyrocketed. He attributes that uptick to the pandemic. “One of the problems we’ve always had as a culture in this country is that we don’t talk about death very easily or very comfortably,” he told me. “The covid virus has forced everybody to look at their own mortality in a whole different way.”

Still, plenty of people decided to pursue this option long before the pandemic. Linda Froncak, who was memorialized in her home of Ocean City the same weekend as Beth Shepherd, made preparations for her burial in the early years of Eternal Reefs. Originally from Minnesota, Froncak died of a heart attack two years ago at age 64, which is how 22 Minnesotans ended up flying halfway across the country to the coast of Maryland, sporting custom T-shirts in her honor that said “Reefer Madness” on them.

The funeral industry, which has long hinged on tradition, is seemingly at odds with the advent of green burial. However, funeral homes vary widely in their willingness to embrace new options. Crystal van Orsdel Marchant, a fourth-generation family employee at Van Orsdel Funeral & Cremation Services in Florida, told me that her fellow millennials are all for facilitating green burial, but the industry has always been resistant to change. She points to the 1970s as an illustration: Her family’s funeral home, like most others, held out on offering cremation services even as interest grew. They eventually bought a crematory after her father told his father repeatedly that they needed one.

Five decades later, cremation has surpassed the casketed burial rate in the United States, according to the National Funeral Directors Association — and Van Orsdel Funeral & Cremation Services now offers eco-friendly burial options, including willow caskets and biodegradable urns. Van Orsdel Marchant says the funeral home may also eventually replace its fleet of hearses with electric vehicles.

Some funeral home owners told me they’ve seen only the occasional request for green burial options. Whether low interest is a symptom or a cause, though, depends on whom you ask. “Funeral homes are reluctant to change because they’re saying, well, nobody’s asking for this,” says Darren Crouch, co-founder and president of green funeral goods supplier Passages International, whose products include biodegradable urns. “If Toyota came out with a Prius 20 years ago and they didn’t put it in the front of their lot, Prius would probably not be a thing right now. We’re trying to educate funeral directors that there is significant demand.”

As for Rob Shepherd, memorializing his wife via reef ball was more than an environmental decision, and more than an homage to her love of Ocean City. It was an unusual, yet heartening, way to process loss — especially for his grandchildren in attendance, who were too young to get to know Beth when she was alive. “We all took turns stirring,” Shepherd said of the process of mixing her ashes with concrete. “We decorated around the top with some of the trinkets and flowers. And we drew pictures with sidewalk chalk on the side — hearts, and goodbyes, and ‘Miss you.’ ”

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