John Biewen reports that many people are turning away from traditional rituals of death in favor of more personal expressions designed to reflect the individuality of the deceased.
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BOB EDWARDS, HOST: This is MORNING EDITION. I'm Bob Edwards. Until recently, most Americans ritualized the deaths of their loved ones in fairly similar ways. Clergymen officiated using traditional prayers and music, and a funeral home embalmed the body, placed it in a coffin, and buried it in the ground. That's changing as more families create personal rituals designed to reflect the individuality of the deceased. Some in the funeral industry are trying to adapt, saying if they don't they risk becoming irrelevant.
NPR's John Biewen has the latest report in a series on the end of life.
JOHN BIEWEN, NPR REPORTER: Sue Parsons (ph) doesn't plan to die any time soon. She's a 47-year-old piano teacher who lives in Salt Lake City. But when she does go, she does not want her body left to decay underground, nor does she want it cremated.
Parsons believes in reincarnation. She wants to give her soul time to adjust before having to vacate the body to avoid making rash decisions and repeating old mistakes in the next life. So, she intends to have her body mummified.
SUE PARSONS, 47-YEAR-OLD TEACHER WHO PLANS TO HAVE HER BODY MUMMIFIED UPON HER DEATH: As yet, I don't have certain things worked out yet -- the mummiform (ph) and then where the mausoleum space will be.
BIEWEN: Parsons is one of about 150 people who've signed up to be mummified by a Salt Lake City new age spiritual group called Some Mum (ph). The nonprofit group has been offering the service since the mid-1980s. The cost: $35,000 and up. Some Mum hasn't done any human mummifications yet, because all of its customers are still alive. But the group's resident funeral director Ron Tamu (ph) says he has mummified hundreds of pets.
RON TAMU, FUNERAL DIRECTOR, SOME MUM: This is a cat by the name of Lou (ph). We did this a couple of -- about three or four months ago.
BIEWEN: Tamu shows off what looks like a bronze sculpture of a sitting feline. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, who dehydrated the body, Tamu gives it a long soak in embalming fluid, then encases it in gauze and polyurethane.
TAMU: And we put quite a few coats on that until it turns really, really tough, and it completely seals the cat.
BIEWEN: He then pumps resin into the bronze shell, or mummiform, before welding it shut.
TAMU: You could unwrap the body in a hundred years from now and have a viewing and the person would look exactly the way they did when they passed away. Or they could do that a hundred thousand years from now.
BIEWEN: Sue Parsons says her funeral will be a quiet affair, with a few friends praying and helping to guide her spirit. There will be no role for a mainstream church or mortuary. She says her parents, who live in Kentucky, think her plans for her death are odd, but they respect her choices, as she respects their plans to be cremated.
PARSONS: Religion and dying and death are such personal things, I -- you know, I really fell like everyone should be able to decide what they want to do without anyone else interfering.
BIEWEN: That sentiment -- it's my death, I'll do it my way -- is increasingly widespread. Experts say when tradition-bending baby boomers like Sue Parsons start dying in big numbers in 20 or 30 years, it might be hard to find a funeral that follows a traditional script.
Some observers say the funeral industry is doing a poor job of responding to the demand for nontraditional services, and some predict that as large chains buy up independent mortuaries, the industry may get less flexible, not more. But, some funeral homes are changing.
SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC
A year ago, a small chain of mortuaries in St. Paul and Minneapolis dropped "funeral home" from the signs in front of its buildings and replaced those words with a slogan.
JIM BRADSHAW (PH), CO-OWNER, BRADSHAW FUNERAL AND CREMATION SERVICES: "Creating meaningful events that celebrate life."
BIEWEN: Jim Bradshaw is co-owner of Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services. He says for years his funeral homes, like many others, tried to maximize profits by selling the most expensive caskets and vaults. Most funerals followed what he calls the cookbook provided by the family's religious denomination.
But about 10 years ago, Bradshaw and his staff started changing their approach. Now, he says, they encourage families to think of unique and personal ways to remember their dead loved ones.
BRADSHAW: That's why arrangements have moved from one hour to probably three hours and many times longer than that.
BIEWEN: Bradshaw tells proudly of unorthodox funerals arranged by his staff. There was the widow who drove the hearse at her husband's funeral, because in life he had always insisted that she drive. The family of a teenager who died recreated the boy's bedroom in the funeral home, complete with black lights, and replaced "Rock of Ages" with rock by the loud band Nine Inch Nails. Experts say the growing individuality in death rituals comes in part from the influence of baby-boomers, who tend to turn every institution into a form of personal expression. But a sociologist and author on death and bereavement, George Dickinson (ph) of the College of Charleston in South Carolina, points to another factor. He says events of recent decades, from the birth of nuclear weapons through modern diseases and terrorism, have forced Americans to confront death more intimately.
GEORGE DICKINSON, SOCIOLOGIST AND AUTHOR ON DEATH AND BEREAVEMENT, COLLEGE OF CHARLESTON: So, we now live in a time period where destruction such as the Oklahoma City disaster, something like that can happen very quickly, and scores of people, if not hundreds, can be killed. So, it's back to a time period of resurrection of death, where death is very much a part of life and not so much put it out of sight, out of mind, as we did in that time period up until about 1945.
ONE VOICE MIXED CHORUS, SINGERS, SINGING: (Unintelligible) I am not there I do not see
BIEWEN: A choir of gay men and lesbians, the One Voice Mixed Chorus, rehearses a requiem in the basement of a small church in south Minneapolis. In recent years, few groups have faced death more often than gay men, or more creatively. Theo Park (ph) is a baritone in the choir and an Episcopal priest. He's also active in the Radical Fairies, a gay group that rejects traditional notions of gender and practices a form of pagan spirituality. Park has presided over the funerals of several Radical Fairies.
THEO PARK, EPISCOPAL PRIEST, MEMBER, RADICAL FAIRIES AND ONE VOICE MIXED CHORUS: In sort of gold-meshed tights, a white kind of Suzy Wong (ph) short-sleeved dress, and then this big gold and purple lame turban on top of that.
BIEWEN: Park describes a memorial service held in 1995 at a Zen garden, for friend Hank Jones (ph) who died of AIDS. Park and the 200 guests offered prayers to the four directions in the manner of some American Indian religions, then shared remarks about Jones and sang Radical Fairy songs.
PARK: One has been used a lot at funerals, or gatherings, goes...
PARK, SINGING: Dear friends Queer friends Let me tell you How I am feeling...
BIEWEN: The family of Hank Jones gave Park free rein in designing the ceremony. Park says it's still all too rare for gays and lesbians to have their deaths ritualized appropriately.
PARK: To says, oops, sorry, you've lived that whole life, but when you die, no, we're gonna package it up very neatly in some other way, is denying them who they've been. So, I feel deeply about being privileged enough to have been asked to be part of an expression in death that is consonant with who that person was in life.
BIEWEN: Funeral home operator Jim Bradshaw says his industry's survival will depend on its willingness to adapt. He says as more and more people stray from mainline religions and choose cremation over caskets and burial plots, the job of the funeral director will be to listen carefully to families and to help them create death rituals all their own. John Biewen, NPR News.
EDWARDS: That report's part of a series, "The End of Life: Exploring Death in America," which continues on MORNING EDITION and other NPR News programs. For more information, visit the website www.npr.org.
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