To die the Boomer death

FairwaylrgOpenI tend to be rather harsh when it comes to judging the religion coverage in my local newspaper, which is the Baltimore Sun.

However, I have to say that I have rarely met another person who still takes the Sun, other than some of the people on my commuter train. In other words, no one at my Orthodox parish still takes the local newspaper, and that includes many people who are big-league readers, people who can quote poems on the bottom of inside pages from month-old issues of The New Yorker. This makes me sad, as a newspaper lover and as a journalism professor. I also wish that some of my friends still took the Sun, so I could have someone to talk to about its laugh-to-keep-from-crying religion coverage (when there is some).

But that is not why I am writing this post. I come today to (belatedly) praise a feature story by Sun reporter Linell Smith that ran with the headline “The Middle Ages — Boomers refuse to be buried like everyone else.”

Anyone who reads newspapers knows that America’s 78 million Baby Boomers are the center of the universe, the first generation to think, to doubt, to love, to have children, to ask the eternal questions, to bravely go where no generation has gone before. Now the Boomers are facing that last big party — their own funerals. It is no surprise that they (I should say “we”) are once again refusing to follow the rules.

I briefly peeked into this topic a few years ago in a Scripps Howard column about people seeking “brand names” for their souls. Check this out:

Anyone strolling through last year’s National Funeral Directors Association convention could catch glimpses of Baby Boomer heaven. The Baltimore exhibits included “fairway to heaven” caskets for those especially devout golfers and NASCAR models for true fans that have seen their last race, at least in this life. The goal, said a convention spokesman, is to offer dying consumers the same kinds of choices that they demanded in life.

What’s next? Allowing people to defray some funeral expenses via product-endorsement logos, like the ones on golf caps and racing cars? If there is a Harley-Davidson casket — yes, there is one — can a Lexus model be far behind? Could a user re-boot his Microsoft casket?

Smith found some other interesting variations on the quest for the meaningful countercultural funeral, many of which have to do with interesting ways to dispose of the ashes of one’s beloved. For example:

Dave and Melissa O’Ferrall savored their trips to Ocean City, often walking the boardwalk all the way south to the inlet. From there, they could see Assateague Island and admire the fishing and pleasure boats.

Now that view comes with a 21st century twist: Three miles off the coast, 100 feet below the waves, is a “living” memorial to Melissa, who died three years ago. A concrete ball containing her ashes has become part of an artificial reef designed to nurture fish and other marine life.

… As aging baby boomers begin pondering their legacies, they are also planning their final expressions. Some are veering far from the traditional funeral and burial path, choosing to send a loved one’s cremated remains to be made into diamond jewelry, for instance, or to be shot off with fireworks, or added to the paint used for a tribute portrait.

When it comes to religion, the article’s thesis statement does not come until the very end, in the context of an anecdote about Beth Knox, who refused to give a funeral parlor control of the body of her 7-year-old daughter. Instead, she brought Alison’s body home for a brief period of mourning before burial.

And here is the irony that the story missed. When it comes to simple, meaningful rites of mourning and burial, many of these “rebels” are actually exploring — whether they know it or not — some ancient religious traditions about what it means to die “the good death.”

Of course if something is an old, holy tradition, then it must be bad. It is going to be hard for Boomers to rebel against both the funeral industry and the centuries of simple religious ritual that this industry replaced.

But we will die trying. Listen to the “I did it my way” individualism voiced at the end of this article.

As a baby boomer, Knox says she was not satisfied to “do something simply because someone else told us that’s the way it’s supposed to be done. …

“We question authority. We question life habits,” she says. “We changed childbirth and wedding vows and education and church services, and this is one more ritual. We’ve been working our way through the life cycle, and now we’re coming to the end.”

Does that sound brave, or tragic? A yearning for community, or a defiant shout of radical individualism?

Photo: A golf casket

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Tragic. I was born in 1964, and I hate being lumped in with Boomers, a generation that staunchly refuses to learn anything as it ages. Self-centered and clueless to the end. Go team!

  • Peter

    Another religious angle to this story would be the uniquely American “funeral industry” and how it, as a capitalistic endeavor, has formed the modern religious rite of death and burial in the USA. Other countries and continents with established and deeply religious customs cannot even fathom our American funeral industry.

    The sad part of this is that the funeral industry has defied religious norms and lobbied for state legislation that is entirely unnecessary such as embalming. There is no medical requirement for this practice in most cases, but it is nonetheless not-optional in many places. This is especially sad since traditional Hinduism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity forbid or discourage the practice.

    I recently planned my father’s funeral, and before his death he insisted on “inexpensive and simple” for his funeral. When the rental of expensive funeral home cars, chapels and utilization of “extra services” offered by the funeral home were not options, we were able to plan and have a much more meaningful (from a religious standpoint) service.

    Visitation/calling hours and the memorial service were held in my father’s church (with hundreds of prominent members of the community in attendance), an inexpensive casket (e.g. $500) was used (most people assumed it cost thousands of dollars) and the family transported the body for burial to a remote, but peaceful plot donated by a monastery.

    The tone of the entire experience was tremendously more tasteful, religious and meaningful than a “$25,000.00 package” would have been. Further, I found out that very few funeral homes were willing to help us plan for my father’s burial in this way – when the paradigm changes, and the public sees that there are alternatives to the fare typically offered by funeral homes, then the funeral industry feels threatened. I was told by one funeral home that my requests were illegal and not possible to arrange.

    Fortunately there are non-profit organizations devoted to exposing the myths of the new end-of-life-religion called the funeral industry – .

    I would love to see a deeper exploration of this from a religious standpoint.

  • Eli

    Great post, tmatt. It’s endlessly amazing to me how the MSM continues to revere the primacy of the individual over that of that of the community seemingly ignoring that individuals are nothing without communities. Also, really enjoyed your articles on the “good death” and truth & faith. Thought provoking work. Thanks.

  • Jerry

    I’ve long thought that someone’s death is a real test of faith for the living and a real test of selflessness. It’s quite natural to feel sad that a loved one has been separated for a while. And you might mourn the loss of watching a child grow up – and that is a real loss. But if you really believe your loved one has gone to heaven, shouldn’t you really be celebrating the completion of her work in the world and entering a better life? Shouldn’t the sadness of the temporary separation be mixed with happiness for his new happiness?

    If you have other beliefs, such as reincarnation, then your reaction might be different depending on how you see an ‘astral past life’ review.

    Personally, I like the Bruderhof approach. It makes a lot of sense to me and helps with closure. We had my father-in-law with us until he died. My wife and her father were able to say everything that was on their minds and get as close to closure as possible. His last words were “I’m ready now”. I found it was a real privilege to be with him at the end. And that is, God willing, I’ll go when it’s my time.

  • Jill C.

    Chris, I’m with you. I read the article and thought, “not me,” and I’m five years older than you are. But if I retort “those aging hippies don’t speak for me!” then someone might accuse me of being too much an individualist, and therefore being just like them. I guess I kind of resent being lumped in with those born in the late 40s who are starting to think about funeral plans when I often find I have more in common with people born in the late 60s. Some of us fall through the demographic cracks, maybe?

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Interesting article, to say the least. This evening I drove past a Catholic church and parked outside was a hearse–with flames trailing the wheel wells. Hmmm, an indication of the deceased’s destination? About two weeks ago he local paper (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) featured a local funeral home’s new hearse–a three-wheeled Harley with a caisson behind it.

    RememberMy Name is Earl and the “lifestyle wakes” in the episode that was, ironically, aired as a re-run this past Thursday?

    I remember reading about turning the ashes of a loved one into a diamond. I thought, would it be gauche, romantic, or nostaligic to press your late wife’s ashes into a diamond–and use that diamond in the engagement ring for a new love? Well, as long as she went in style on a Harley and is feeding the fishes, per her last request.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Actually, I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum this last Sunday. There were several crypts from civilizations past. There was usually some artwork–a painting, or the coffin carved out of marble, etc., that could be seen as equivalent of the modern American funeral industry. Much of the art celebrated the life of the deceased.

    I just wonder if I would want to be at a museum with mummies in it when the Judgment comes….

  • David Lynch

    We take time to think about and plan for births, graduations, office parties, mastectomies, elections, vacations abroad, weddings, landscaping, shuttle launches, retirement, remodeling projects… the list goes on and on. So why not plan for death? Like anything in this life, death has a host of important considerations including financial, emotional, environmental, spiritual and other elements. And like anything of importance, we should take a moment to plan ahead for the one event that will happen to all of us. Guaranteed.

    As a funeral director, it has been an honor to be asked to lead families through many of the hoops and hurdles after a death has occurred. We know not the moment nor manner of our last minutes, but some are better prepared than others. Some people have made their wishes known, and some have even purchased funeral plans in advance. However, I continue to be amazed at the number of people who haven’t given death (or at least questions about how to memorialize) much thought at all.

    Don’t get me wrong. This is not an advertisement for pre-paid funerals. It is, however, a plea to my fellow man to quit walking blindly through life and to at least put some thought and effort into the events following your inevitable demise. And if you don’t at least discuss it with your loved ones, don’t blame the funeral home, the priest or the coroner when the grim reaper knocks (or the Lord calls you home, or you cross over, or whatever).

    Are there products and services out there to assist with memoralization? Sure. Are there caskets and urns with angels, golf scenes and baseball logos? Yes. Is someone making money? You bet they are! But so are Sony, 1-800-GOTJUNK, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Motel 6, Exxon, and Johnson & Johnson.

    The consumer can chose to buy the 6000 square foot house, or the Ford F-350, or the deluxe roto-tiller, or pet grooming services, or the DKNY sunglasses, or an entire furniture set for baby’s new room. And the beauty of the global marketplace is that the consumer can make an informed decision about which products and services they wish to purchase (or not)! But here’s the catch: you have to ask questions. Inquire about pricing, options, circumstances, and laws. And ask questions of yourself: what do I want, what do my survivor’s need, and what is important to me?

    I don’t blame Ford or Big Oil for the money I put in my truck’s gas tank. I don’t blame the garden shop for the cost of my landscaping. I don’t blame my college for my student loans or my local outdoor shop for the cost of my sleeping bag. These are choices that I made based on information I sought out. Death planning is no different. And while some people argue that death is not an option like a truck or outdoor gear or landscaping, that seems all the more reason to be informed!

    My challenge to my fellow American consumer: call on the funeral industry. Call on your neighbor. Call your local green burial organization. Call your priest, pastor or rabbi. Call funeral consumer groups! Just call somebody! But quit avoiding discussions on death and then maligning someone else’s decision. If a person wants a NASCAR casket, and another wants to be shot into space, and another wants cremation with no services or obituary, so be it. Free markets, consumer choice, individuality and diversity are beautiful things. And at least they made their wishes known.

  • Chris Bolinger

    And now back to our regularly scheduled program of how the press reports on religion, already in progress…

  • Kris

    If I remember correctly, the Washington Post had a really good article about “green” funerals and people wanting to take care of their own dead. Wish I could remember when it was, but it was part info and examination of laws, part interviews, and part how-to. Possibly someone at The Sun had read it.