According to the Cremation Association of North America some 42 percent of Americans are now getting cremated, might this mark the beginning of the downfall of civilization?
Jason Engler says cremation is similar to a religion for him. He has been working in a funeral home since he was 12. Engler, now 33, is a practicing funeral director in Arkansas, official historian at the Cremation Association of North America and author of the blog Urns & Outs and a book about the Missouri Crematory. Engler recently spoke with Digital Dying about hot spots for a summer crematory road trip, the perils of scattering ashes and the downfall of civilization.
Some 42 percent of Americans are now getting cremated, why are you so worried about the present state of the cremation movement?
In my opinion people are further from the process now than they have ever been. There has become a movement of detachment from the body and that detachment of the body has gotten so extreme that in some cases people cremate automatically and scatter ashes to the wind. We are destroying this connection to the people of our past. Scattering remains doesn’t always fulfill the need of creating a stepping stone to next generations. And destroying those stepping stones is a detriment to society.
Give us a quick primer on the history of crematories in the U.S.?
The first crematories were mostly utilitarian. The whole process of death was seen as nasty and people wanted to purify that. As embalming practices evolved some of those things were rethought. People ventured away from the concern of sanitation and realized the process needed the same sentiment as a burial. They began building prettier chapels. As time went on they just got more and more extravagant. It was about memorialization. People created a ritual around cremation, they said, let’s not just dispose of bodies let’s do something with them. Instead of going to the grave, where it’s dark and rainy and wet they came inside where it’s nice and cool. During the 1980s and early 1990s cremation became all about simplification and making prices lower. Crematories basically moved from beautiful chapels to garages and warehouses.
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What does the way in which we care for our dead say about our civilization in general?
We are losing the idea that there must be a resting place for the dead. We are losing the idea of a permanent marker. Paper crumples, memories go away, computers crash, what do we have left? We have these stones from the 1700s that are still completely intact and we have the Egyptian pyramids and we have the Taj Mahal and we have all of these things that have been built over the centuries, windows into the way things were. There is something to be said about walking through a cemetery and seeing the name of that person engraved in stone, or seeing that name on an urn that will last forever. I don’t feel like we are bringing on the end of our civilization, I do feel like we are failing to leave lasting signs of what our civilization is and has been. I believe that the way we care for our dead is a direct reflection of our society and how we value life.
There’s a quote from William Gladstone, a British statesman that is overused in the funeral profession but still good: “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”
“We are losing the idea of a permanent marker. Paper crumples, memories go away, computers crash, what do we have left?”
Are you against the practice of scattering ashes?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone choosing to scatter, however I believe that decision needs to be considered carefully. I mean, there’s this idea that when the memorial service is over you run out to the lake and scatter dad. But when mom wakes up a few days later and wants to remember dad she has nowhere to go except the lake, and she can’t see anything there. There is no place for the dead to be remembered, and that’s a detriment to a lot of things in my opinion.
What are the best spots to visit on a Summer Crematory Road Trip?
The number one busiest crematory of all time is now known as Chapel of the Chimes, in Oakland, California. It was built in 1909 by Julia Morgan, the first woman architect licensed in California, and is probably the largest columbarium in the country. The architecture is gothic and absolutely magnificent. But I would say the Midwest has many of the crematories in the most original condition. St Louis actually has three, then there’s the Davenport Crematorium in Davenport, Iowa, built in 1893 and in Chicago the Bohemian National Crematorium, built in 1913 and Oak Woods Crematorium, built in 1909. In Detroit there’s the Woodmere Crematory which is in near original condition and on the more creepy side.
Do you have any cremation heroes?
My hero is Dr. Hugo Erichsen, the guy who began the Cremation Association of North America. I had an opportunity when I was in Detroit in May to go to his resting place. Walking to his niche and seeing his name engraved in marble and running my hand across his name was an amazing feeling. It was like I finally met my friend, even though I wasn’t meeting him in person. I have been face to face with the mortal remains of someone I feel respect for, and that’s what the whole idea of a memorial is, paying respect to the people who have stirred emotion in you.
What about this trend toward “personalization” in the cremation industry, is it good or gimmicky?
I don’t feel like there is anything wrong with personal keepsakes and mementos and that sort of thing but I don’t agree with the gimmicks, like shooting your loved one in bottle rockets or shotgun shells or whatever. To me, that sort of things detracts from the overall idea, and is disrespectful to the deceased. I would shudder to think of my grandfather or grandmother being blown out of a bottle rocket. What it comes down to in my opinion is people are going to do whatever it is they want to do. I just think they should think through their decisions, because they are going to have to live with them.
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What’s your own house like, I hear you live with a bunch of urns?
My house looks like a columbarium. I collect antique cremation urns. They are hard to find because most of the time if they are old they are used. The oldest urn I have is from 1905, it’s a brass box that was custom made for the Missouri Crematory in St Louis. It was in storage and got damaged so they couldn’t use it and someone asked me if I wanted it and I was like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ I don’t mean to sound spooky or creepy because it’s not the only thing I do, I like to spend time with the living too.
I understand you’ve been working in a funeral home since you were a kid?
In the early 1990s I was a huge fan of professional wrestling and there was a guy named the Undertaker and his manager was Paul Bearer. He carried an urn and seeing that urn and the whole gimmick just made me think cremation was cool. Also my great grandfather was cremated and it amazed me that his whole body fit in a ceramic jar. When I was 15 I went to a crematory for the first time and have been an ardent cremationist ever since. At about age 12 I started going to one of the local funeral homes and just hanging out. Sometimes on Friday night I would sit there with the old ladies and work visitation and put flowers around. In high school I would do my homework at funeral homes. I went to mortuary school at San Antonio College and got my license. Since age 12 I have spent a total of 6 to 7 months of my life working in funeral homes.
Do you already have an urn picked out for yourself?
I have my niche already in place at the Missouri Crematory in St. Louis, which is now called Valhalla’s Hillcrest Abbey. I actually have five niches at five historic crematoriums. Three are in St. Louis, one is in Cincinnati and one is in Tacoma, Washington. Of those five I have the same urn in each one. When I die I will be put in one of the urns, but I’m not telling anyone which one. The point is, wherever I have friends they can go and visit, and they will focus not on the mortal remains but on me.