Eden Memorial Park CEM7944_1420932474

Big For-Profit Cemetery Owner Settling Suits with Jews Who Say It Dug Up Their Loved Ones’ Bones

By Julie Masis, January 17, 2017

Not long ago, Jean Bergman, an 88-year-old retired manicurist, received a check for $1,000. She deposited it without giving it too much thought.

“I wasn’t told any of the details,” she said.

The check arrived in connection with her husband’s grave at Eden Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles. The cemetery has been sued twice after allegations that gravediggers were instructed to throw human bones interred there into a dump pile to squeeze in more graves and thereby maximize profits.

“They were basically putting in plots too close to one another. As they would dig a grave, it would break the outer burial container, and the bones would spill out,” said Gary Praglin, the attorney who represented Bergman and about 150 other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was settled in 2015. “They didn’t tell anybody until groundskeepers wanted to go public.” The groundskeepers, Praglin said, “did describe it as a bone pile, a big pile, horrible.”

The total amount of the settlement is confidential and could not be disclosed, Praglin said.

Service Corporation International, the for-profit corporation that owns Eden Park Memorial, is the largest cemetery company in the United States. Its officials would not comment on this lawsuit – or on a previous lawsuit involving the same cemetery and identical allegations, which the company settled for $80 million in 2014. The second lawsuit covered those whose loved ones were buried in the cemetery before 1985, when SCI purchased the cemetery, and after 2009, when the first lawsuit was filed. This time period was not included in the original lawsuit. Those who joined the second lawsuit, therefore, were claiming that SCI continued to disturb established graves and to dispose of bones even after the first suit was filed.

The State of California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau inspected Eden Memorial Park and found no evidence of wrongdoing, according to the spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs, Veronica Harms.

SCI also admitted no wrongdoing. Yet the company settled the suit instead of going to trial. And many in the Jewish community are concerned, because SCI has also been sued in connection with similar charges at other Jewish cemeteries in other parts of the country. The company has acquired more Jewish cemeteries in recent years.

“The tradition is that the Jewish community should own our burial sites, not non-Jews,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, a Maryland-based not-for-profit organization that manages the website Jewish-funerals.org. When a corporation owns a cemetery, once all the plots in that cemetery are sold off, the company will no longer take care of the burial ground, Zinner said.

“The Jewish community will have to take care of it. It will be our responsibility regardless,” he said. “Why should we have SCI making money while it’s profitable, and then the burden is back on the Jewish community?”

At the end of 2014, SCI acquired Stewart Enterprises Inc., which was then the second-largest provider of cemetery and funeral services in the country, making SCI a mega-company in the industry. In the process, SCI also came to own many Jewish cemeteries – often leaving the original names of the burial grounds unchanged, according to the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbi Joe Blair, from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Because of this, many people are unaware that the Jewish community no longer owns their local cemetery, the rabbi said.

Blair said he estimates that more than 60% of Jewish cemeteries in the United States are now owned by SCI.

Zinner compared SCI to a predator that is now getting ready to swallow more prey.

“They took a big bite, and now they’re digesting,” he said.

SCI declined repeated requests by the Forward for comment.

Eden Memorial Park in California is not the only case in which SCI has ‘Why should SCI make money while it’s profitable, and then the burden is back on the community?’been sued in connection with Jewish cemeteries.

In May, a Florida court ruled in favor of the company after a Jewish woman sued it because non-Jews, including a Christian pastor, were buried next to her husband in the SCI-owned Menorah Gardens & Funeral Chapels cemetery in Southwest Ranches, Florida. The widow, Orna Mammon, argued that because she bought a grave in a Jewish cemetery, she had a reasonable expectation that non-Jewish people would not be buried just feet away from her husband. But she lost the case. When reached by telephone this week, Mammon would not speak to a reporter, for fear that the company might sue her for lawyers’ fees, she said.

During the trial, Mammon was questioned about where in the Hebrew Bible it says specifically that non-Jewish people cannot be buried next to Jews. The court ruled in favor of SCI because resolving the case “would require courts to determine what constitutes Jewish custom,” according to a Washington Post story.

In an older lawsuit against SCI in Florida, the company was sued after bones were discovered in a dump pile. SCI originally claimed that these were animal bones, according to a 2002 Associated Press story. But DNA tests confirmed that the bones belonged to some of the people who should have been buried in the cemetery. The cemetery manager, Peter Hartmann, committed suicide when the story broke. The lawsuit, which covered two Menorah Gardens cemeteries, in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, respectively, was settled in 2003 for $100 million.

At one point, local rabbis held meetings to discuss taking over the Menorah Gardens cemetery in West Palm Beach, said Rabbi Leonard Zucker, chairman of the Cemetery and Funeral Practices Committee of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis. But that never came to be, because “we couldn’t afford it,” Zucker said.

Still, Zucker, who is a Conservative rabbi, is not convinced that any wrongdoing took place. He said the mix-up may have been the fault of the company that owned the cemetery prior to SCI purchasing it.

“I had a number of people in my congregation who said, ‘I’m going to sue SCI.’ ‘What for?’ ‘Because everybody is suing them.’ That’s the sort of thing that was happening,” Zucker said. “SCI has deep pockets – so people have the tendency to sue the people with the deepest pockets. That’s why SCI gets sued so much.”

This statement doesn’t sit well with Sheldon Cohen, an Ohio dentist whose father’s bones were found in a dump pile at SCI’s Menorah Gardens cemetery in West Palm Beach. DNA tests confirmed that the bones belonged to his father, Hymen Cohen, an air force veteran who passed away in 1983.

“It was awful. A pretty horrifying thing,” Sheldon Cohen said. Cohen was compensated in the lawsuit, but he said the money does not come close to rectifying what happened.

“It was just too painful to keep proceeding with it,” he said.

Ellen Kleinert, whose husband is buried in SCI’s Fort Lauderdale cemetery, is also dissatisfied. Kleinert was not compensated, and this was because she refused to allow SCI’s staff to disinter her husband’s grave to conduct a DNA test. Disturbing the dead is against Judaism, she explained.

“The way we see it is, we lost my husband, the father of my children, twice. We don’t know where his body is,” she said.

She is working on a documentary film to expose what happened in the cemetery. But back in California, Bergman, whose prepaid grave is waiting for her under a tree next to her husband in Eden Memorial Park, doesn’t know about the DNA tests in Florida. As far as she is concerned, her husband, an architect who died at the age of 83 from Alzheimer’s disease, is still resting in peace on the same spot where he was laid to rest.

Though she joined the lawsuit and accepted the settlement payout, she told the Forward: “Truthfully, I’m not convinced the cemetery did something wrong. Personally I just don’t see it.”

Source: Forward.com


‘Today We Are His Family’: Teen Volunteers Mourn Those Who Died Alone

On the drive to Fairview Cemetery in the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park, six seniors from Roxbury Latin boys’ school sit in silent reflection. Mike Pojman, the school’s assistant headmaster and senior adviser, says the trip is a massive contrast to the rest of their school day, and to their lives as a whole right now.

Today the teens have volunteered to be pallbearers for a man who died alone in September, and for whom no next of kin was found. He’s being buried in a grave with no tombstone, in a city cemetery.

“To reflect on the fact that there are people, like this gentleman, who probably knew hundreds or thousands of people through his life, and at the end of it there’s nobody there — I think that gets to all of them,” Pojman says. “Some have said, ‘I just gotta make sure that never happens to me.’ “

The students, dressed in jackets and ties, carry the plain wooden coffin, and take part in a short memorial. They read together, as a group:

“Dear Lord, thank you for opening our hearts and minds to this corporal work of mercy. We are here to bear witness to the life and passing of Nicholas Miller.

“He died alone with no family to comfort him.

“But today we are his family, we are here as his sons

“We are honored to stand together before him now, to commemorate his life, and to remember him in death, as we commend his soul to his eternal rest.”

Each of the young men in turn read a poem, verse of scripture, or passage about death. Emmett Dalton, 18, reads “A Reflection On An Autumn Day,” which ends “death can take away what we have, but it cannot rob us of who we are.”

From left to right, funeral director Rob Lawler; Roxbury Latin students Emmett Dalton, Noah Piou and Chris Rota; Roxbury Latin assistant headmaster Mike Pojman, and Roxbury Latin students Brendan McInerney, Liam McDonough and Esteban Enrique conduct a graveside prayer service for Nicholas Miller on Friday at the Fairview Cemetery. |Kayana Szymczak for NPR|

After the ceremony, the seniors share their thoughts about an experience— in the middle of a school day — that has hit them hard.

“I know I’m going back, and I’m going to go to school and take another quiz,” says 18-year-old Brendan McInerney, “but all that work, you can get caught up in it. … When you kind of get out of that bubble that you can kind of stuck in, you get perspective on what’s really important in life.”

Mike Pojman was inspired to start bringing students to these funerals by a similar program at his alma mater, St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. He turned to local funeral home Lawler and Crosby — which, by coincidence, is one of the very few funeral homes in the state that steps in to help with these kind of burials.

“It’s the right thing to do,” says funeral director Robert Lawler. “You know, you can’t leave these poor people lying there forever.”

Funeral director Bob Lawler sits alone in a visitation room with the casket of Nicholas Miller as he waits for students from Roxbury Latin school to arrive and act as pallbearers for the burial. |Kayana Szymczak for NPR|

When there are no family members or volunteers available, it’s just Lawler by himself, saying a prayer at graveside. After doing this for 42 years, he appreciates the effect it has on people like 17-year-old Roxbury Latin senior Noah Piou. Today’s ceremony for Nicholas Miller was the first funeral he’s attended.

“That’s my first real moment presented with some form of death before me, and I was kind of at a loss for words at the time,” he says. “I’ve never met Mr. Miller before, but even within that I kind of had a connection with him, and I could feel that.”

After the brief ceremony the students laid flowers. Then they piled back into the van, driving back to school in time for their next lesson.

Heard on Morning Edition, Jan. 25, 2016 courtesy of Arun Rath and NPR.

Cemetery, Vermont, USA

Know Your Options: Burials

A burial is defined as an act or ceremony of burying a dead person or object in a grave, often synonymous with “interment,” the placing of human remains in an underground enclosure. In the funeral industry, a burial is a means of final disposition that ends with burial in the ground or in a crypt in a mausoleum.

Erik Jan Leunsink }Unsplash|

Erik Jan Leunsink }Unsplash|

Once the most prevalent type of funeral arrangement in the U.S., now only 50% of the population elects for burial. Adding to this trend are changing religious views as some religions have begun loosening their view on cremation vs. burial. Others are looking for simpler means of final disposition.

Burial Options

Deciding on burial as a means of disposition is just the start of decisions. As consumer funeral preferences change, so has the rise of more diverse burial options being offered. There are a plethora of choices you can make – from an in-ground or above ground funeral to a green and natural burial or home burial.

Ground Burial

In-ground burials typically involve a plot for which to inter the deceased, a casket, and vault or grave-liner (as required by the cemetery). Often a plot is marked by a memorial tribute such as a headstone or grave-marker of some sort.

Above Ground Burial

Types of Mausoleums |Everplans|

Types of Mausoleums |Everplans|

A burial that occurs above ground involves the use of a crypt in a mausoleum which can be either communal or private. A public, or community mausoleum is a building that provides space for the interment of multiple individuals and families. A crypt may house one person or two, similar to an in-ground grave.

Private mausoleums are the ultimate above ground interment option. Often built to resemble a small house, it ensures maximum privacy, prestige and personalization as well as the ability to be laid to rest alongside your family and loved ones.

Green or Natural Burial

A Handmade Pine Coffin from DBCWW on Amazon is considered a green/natural burial casket and is quite affordable.

Hand made pine coffins are biodegradable, affordable and available for purchase on Amazon.com

Green burials are burials carried out in a way that creates the least negative impact to our environment. This includes using a biodegradable casket or shroud, foregoing embalming, and finding space that does not require the use of vaults or grave liners. All of these choices allow a more natural decomposition of the interred body.

Green and natural burials seek to cause the least damage as possible by aiding in the conservation of natural resources, reducing carbon emissions that may be released with cremation, protection of worker health from embalming toxins, and the restoration and preservation of natural habitats.

Home Burial

The burial of a deceased individual on private property is referred to as a home burial. Most common in rural areas, home burials offer a more economical, convenient and intimate alternative to a traditional burial. It is legal to bury your loved ones on private property in rural and semi-rural areas in nearly every state. Municipality approval, legal mandates and re-sale value of the property are some aspects of home burial that may need to be considered. For more information regarding your specific state, see our state by state end of life guides.

Burial Services

After you have decided the sort of burial you want, you may have to decide what sort of services you’d like to have. Below you can find some of your service options.

Home Funeral

Home funerals, or family-led funerals, encourage a family to take control of the funeral process and care for their own loved one in the hours and days following their death.

A home funeral may consist of a few hours to a few days of keeping the body home to care for your loved one, prepare them for burial (or cremation), and allow friends and family to stop in and say one last goodbye. It may also involve transporting the body to the cemetery in the family van or truck bed or hearse.

Home funerals may include engaging professionals, clergy and funeral directors among them, or more commonly be handled exclusively by family, friends, neighbors.”

Immediate Burial

The simplest form of burial, an Immediate Burial is the most cost-effective choice. It involves no service, no embalming, and the body is buried shortly after death and in a simple, untreated container. No viewing or visitation is involved though a memorial service may be held at the grave-site or anywhere else a family wishes.

Burial with Graveside Service

Graveside services can follow a traditional funeral or immediate burial, preceed a memorial service, or be a stand-alone event held at a grave-site, mausoleum or crypt. Common among some religious groups, such as with Judaism or Islam, burial with a graveside service is, in it’s simplest form, is an immediate burial where the family and friends may be present for the interment.

Some funeral homes may allow family to be present as part of the cost of an immediate burial and others may allow a family to add a graveside service to the cost of a burial. As such, this type of service may be slightly more expensive than an immediate burial. Also keep in mind grave-site preparation fees for things like opening & closing the grave, officiant fees for a committal service (if desired), and perpetual fees for landscaping and keeping up the cemetery grounds.

Burial with Funeral Service

Held at a church, funeral home, or elsewhere, a funeral service memorializes the deceased with their body present. Without a viewing, embalming is not necessary, which can save you from additional fees, though the use of a funeral home may raise the costs.

Full Service Funeral

Often referred to as a “traditional” burial, full service burials include the works; a viewing the night before or day of, a funeral service, procession to the cemetery, and often a short graveside or committal service before a ground burial or placement in a crypt. If a public viewing is had, funeral homes may require a body to be embalmed and dressed. This, in addition to hearse rental, funeral service, plot, casket and committal makes it the most expensive funeral and burial option.

Burial and Funeral Terms to Know

Committal Service

A committal service is the final portion of the funeral process when the casket is lowered into the ground as final words, prayers and wishes are spoken.


A designated section of land, a plot is a space within a cemetery for rights of interment which can be purchased. Above and below ground burials often have the choice of single or double plots, also known as companion plots. Companion plots are burial ground with space for the remains of two individuals and are sold either side-by-side or stacked. Family plots are another option in which a designated area can be purchased for use by members of a family.

Click here for a full Glossary for Funeral & Cemetery Terms.

Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter's square.

Vatican issues guidelines on cremation, says no to scattering ashes

According to new guidelines from the Vatican’s doctrinal office, cremated remains should be kept in a “sacred place” such as a church cemetery. Ashes should not be divided up between family members, “nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.”

The church has allowed cremation for decades, but the guidelines make clear that the Vatican is concerned that the practice often involves “erroneous ideas about death.” Those ideas run the gauntlet from deeply nihilistic to New Age-y, the Vatican says, from the belief that death is the definitive end of life to the notion that our bodies fuse with nature or enter another cycle of rebirth.

So, in a sense, the Vatican’s new guidelines on cremation aren’t really about cremation. The church’s true targets are modern societies’ increasingly secular notions about the afterlife and the trivialization of dead bodies, making the departed into mementos for the living instead of temples made in the image and likeness of God.

Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter's square.


As cremation has become more popular — nearly half of Americans said they were at least “somewhat likely” to choose cremation upon their death — the Vatican, like other religious institutions, has struggled to keep pace with the trend.

In 1963, the Vatican said burial of deceased bodies should be the norm, but cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion.” Catholic funeral rites should not be denied to those who had asked to be cremated, the church said.

But in recent years, “new ideas” contrary to the Catholic faith have become widespread, the Vatican said. The new statement names pantheism (the worship of nature), naturalism (the idea that all truths are derived from nature, not religion) and nihilism (a deep skepticism about all received truths) as particularly problematic. If cremation is chosen for any of those reasons, the deceased should not receive a Catholic burial, the new guidelines say.

In the United States, cremations have taken on a highly personalized and commercial aspect. Companies offer to load cremains into shotgun shells so that family members can take them on turkey hunts. Nature lovers ask that their ashes be scattered under a favorite tree or inserted into coral reefs. Cremains can be shot into space, or refashioned as diamonds.

A pilgrim holding a crucifix attends the Pope's Angelus Sunday prayer in St. Peter's square.


Such practices are sacrilegious, the Vatican’s new guidelines say.

Catholicism teaches that all people will be resurrected — both body and soul — at the end of days. Cremation does not “prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life,” the Vatican says, but it does raise the possibility that the deceased’s body, which the church believes is sacred, will not be properly respected by ancestors and relatives.

“By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity,” the new guidelines state.

The Vatican makes clear, however, that there are valid sanitary, economic and social reasons for cremation. But burial, the church says, is the best way to demonstrate “esteem” for the deceased, and cremains can only be kept at home with special permission from a bishop.

Preparing for Cremation

About 50% of the US population now opts for cremation as the final means of disposition. Though it is a straight-forward process, you should be prepared to make some decisions before the cremation takes place.

Remove Valuables Prior to Cremation

Cremation uses intense heat to break down the body to ashes and bone fragment. A typical flame-based cremation retort reaches temperatures between 1400-1800 degrees F. With that in mind, any clothing, jewelry, or valuables left on the deceased will be destroyed by the heat, so you should decide ahead of time whether you will want to remove those items for safe-keeping prior to cremation.

Body Preparation

If you are not having a public viewing, it is not necessary to have the body embalmed or further prepared with hair and makeup. The funeral director may require this if you choose to have a public viewing before the cremation takes place. Keep in mind that embalming and other body preparation will come at an additional cost.

You should also take care to notify the funeral director or crematory of any implanted medical devices, such pacemakers, or prosthetics. Pacemakers will need to be removed prior to cremation to avoid exploding and possibly damaging the retort.

Viewing Before Cremation

If a viewing or service is held prior to cremation, your funeral home may offer you the option to purchase a “rental casket” that has removable one-time use insert. Only the insert will go into retort with the body. Some crematories offer families the ability to attend, witness, or participate in the cremation, such as pushing the button to open the and start the retort.

ID Viewing

To prevent misidentification, a representative of the family may be asked to identify the deceased prior to the cremation taking place. This is often referred to as an “ID Viewing” by funeral directors. This is also the time that you can remove any valuables that you would like to keep. After the identification has taken place, the cremation container will be closed and prepared for cremation. Once this happens, the crematorium will not allow the opening of the container again, so be sure that all valuable you want removed have been and you’ve had enough time to say goodbye.

Cremation Containers

A funeral home or cremation provider will provide you with a price list outlining the cost of Direct Cremation with a container brought by the purchaser as well as with a basic one that they can provide for cremation.

Alternative Cremation Container

An example of an alternative container made of cardboard

You will need to decide if you will furnish your own cremation container such as a cardboard casket, another type of casket or coffin made of natural materials, or a shroud. If not, you can purchase the “alternative container” or another casket that the funeral home or cremation provider offers. The type and cost of alternative containers containers vary widely amongst providers from basic cardboard to basic  untreated wood. Be sure you inquire on the type and cost of the containers available before committing to use one provider or the next.

Once the cremation has taken place and the remains have cooled, they will be raked out into a container to be sifted to remove any remaining metals. The organic matter will then be placed in a pulverizor to grind the remaining bone fragments into a more consistent ash. The cremated remains are then placed into a “temporary” container such as a plastic bag, cardboard box, a tin, or a basic plastic urn at no extra cost. If you have an urn or other preferred vessel, you can provide it to the funeral home or cremation provider to use instead.

For more information on Paying for a Funeral, funeral planning and resources to guide you through planning a funeral, visit the I’m Sorry to Hear article library, download a Funeral Planning Checklist, review the Casket Guide, see your State by State Guide on End of Life issues, get information on How to Pay for a Funeral, view Funeral Planning Tips, and access Funeral Consumer Advocacy links all from our Resources area.


The Women Who Love Death

Young women are more paranoid about their own demise than ever before. Enter “death positivity,” a new female-driven trend aimed at turning that fear on its head.

About a dozen people are gathered at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York for its monthly death café, an event designed to prompt discussions about, as you may have guessed, death. We’re sitting in the library at a dark wood table topped with two emerald green banker’s lamps. What I see when I look around: specimen jars, wax figurines, anatomy prints, preserved butterflies, books, religious artwork, and a set of human teeth displayed in a black case like a pair of earrings at Claire’s. For two hours, we chat about our own experiences with death, learn about alternative funerals and “green” burials, and nod at phrases like “closure is a myth” and “to talk about death is to appreciate life” while eating shortbread cookies.


“It’s refreshing,” Gianina Galatro, a 26-year-old media planner, says of attending her fourth death café today. “Bring up death in a random room, and it’s like, ‘Wow, way to bring down the mood.’ But whenever I leave a death café, I feel so happy.”

The leading women in death: Sarah Troop (left), Megan Rosenbloom (middle), Caitlin Doughty (right) photo: Scott Troyan

That’s the thing about “death positivity”—it’s not about wanting to die, looking forward to dying, or fantasizing when and where and how it’ll happen. It’s about feeling better about death in order to feel better about living. It’s about, in a way, alleviating the I’m-sure-something-horrible-is-going-to-happen-to-me paranoia that grips so many young women these days.

In fact, the “death positivity” movement is being led by women—female morticians, writers, academics, and artists—as an answer. Their cause has evolved over the last few years from online communities to annual events to, now, an entire museum.

Caitlin Doughty, 32, was there at the beginning. In fact, she’s pretty much the mother of the whole thing. (The New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, she’s credited with coining the term “death positivity” and for spurring the phenomenon of more open conversations about dying with her popular YouTube series Ask a Mortician.) “It’s not, ‘Oh, your dad died? Just be positive about it. It’s okay!'” she explains of the movement’s goal. “It’s realizing the fact that we’re all going to die is our greatest cultural force. It affects our desire to achieve, have children, get married. It affects everything we do.”

Not that Millennials need reminding that death looms large around every possible corner.

Maybe it’s all the apps and fitness trackers that tell us exactly how alive we are at any given moment. Or the constant stream of new studies revealing that everything we love will give us cancer. Or the collective mourning on social media that immediately follows a celebrity death. Or the incessant mass shootings and Reddit threads that follow them. Or the chilling headlines about young women being raped and murdered while out on a jog, while leaving the office, while on vacation.

For all these reasons and then some, young women are experiencing death anxiety more than ever. In data pulled for Marie Claire by OkCupid.com earlier this spring, only 28 percent of male users answered yes to the question: “Have you created a ‘Things To Do Before I Die’ list?” That’s nearly half the percentage of female users who answered the question the same way (52.6 percent). Part of it, perhaps, is timing. According to a study published in 2007 by a group of University of North Florida, Jacksonville researchers, death anxiety peaks for men and women in their 20s, but for women, there’s a “secondary spike” during their 50s, which men don’t experience.

DJ Andi Harriman spinning at the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s fundraising gala after-party photo: Eric Ogden

There’s also this: Today we don’t engage with death in the way we might if we time-traveled back to a period before vaccines and the marvels of modern medicine. Before you could pick up protein at Whole Foods without raising and slaughtering it yourself. Before you visited dying loved ones at a sterile hospital rather than tending to them at home.

Without a regular face-to-face relationship with death, we’ve developed an aversion to the subject entirely.

But, it turns out, death can be sort of fun.

At the after-party for the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s annual fundraising gala this past April, guests—older artistic types who look like cooler versions of your parents, and hipster-y 20-to-30 somethings with beards and bangs and lots of black—chatted with each other between trips to the bar about near-death experiences and how they’d like to die. There were tarot card readings. An insect petting zoo. And even a palm reader, who held her iPhone over my two palms in the dimly lit space to tell me I’ll find true love later in life, not when I’m old-old but when I’m middle aged. Bad news for my boyfriend, who pays for the reading when I learn she’s cash-only. The good news, though, is that I’ll avoid certain death for at least another two decades. “It’s the funnest place I’ve ever been,” says Tonya Hurley, 45, New York Times bestselling author behind the ghostgirl fiction series and founding board member of the museum, “being surrounded by all this death!”

For the rest of us who may not have warmed up to the topic quite yet, part of our uneasiness, says Bri Barton, a 27-year-old artist in Philadelphia, is based on certain societal values. “Our culture is youth- and growth-focused,” she says. “Anything that reminds of us of decay or mortality terrifies us.” Last November, Barton self-published an all-ages coloring book titled Everything Dies! A Coloring Book About Life!, the first 1,000 printing of which sold out in four months. The project began as a way of coping with a “string of sudden deaths” when Barton lost six loved ones in an eight-month period. “All of these people are dying around me and all I wanted to do was talk about it,” she says. “But every time I mentioned ‘this person died,’ everyone froze and no one knew what to say next. And it was just like, dude, there’s one thing that happens to all of us. We have to be able to talk about it.”

People do talk about it in small (but growing) circles of similar-minded people. Take Death Salon, the discussions, panels, performances, even parties that make up the events arm of Doughty’s non-profit Order of the Good Death. The group’s first-ever event took place in October 2013 at L.A. rock venue Bootleg Theater—and the turnout shocked organizers. “No one knew our name, and we didn’t do a ton of promotion, but when we showed up it was sold out,” says Megan Rosenbloom, 34, co-founder and director of Death Salon and a medical librarian at the University of Southern California. “We didn’t have any seats because it’s a rock club, but people sat on the floor because they wanted to watch everything to the end. We were like, Wow, okay, something is happening here.” There have been five events since (in London, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, and another in L.A., at the Getty Villa).


Rosenbloom thinks about death every day—which, to her, is a good thing. “There are a lot of studies that say people who think about death more are actually happier because humans are wired to value things that are perceived as finite,” she says. And she’s gained a sense of preparedness for the inevitable losses to come. Earlier this year, her experience at Death Salons helped Rosenbloom cope with an unexpected death in her family, from making funeral arrangements (pro tip: you don’t need to embalm a body before it’s cremated, something funeral directors often fail to explain before charging you for the unnecessary expense) to what not to say to grieving family members (“she’s in a better place” and “everything happens for a reason” = particular pain points). Sometimes you have to get comfortable with the idea of a crisis before it’s staring you in the face.


The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, N.Y. photo: Eric Ogden

Like on a recent Saturday afternoon inside the basement of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, where everyone—11 women and one man seemingly plucked from the pages of an Urban Outfitters catalog—is hunched over their plates in concentration. Somewhere else, this could be brunch. But there are no mimosas here. Just tiny dead white mice being skinned.

Divya Anantharaman, 32, stands in the center of the room encouraging the attendees to dive in, her purple ombre hued hair in a messy bun. For the former Pratt Institute design student, taxidermy was a hobby until three years ago when she quit her freelance fashion work and turned the practice into her full-time job; now she teaches an increasingly popular sustainably-sourced taxidermy workshop in Brooklyn.


Fellow taxidermist Katie Innamorato, 26, who has the long wavy brunette locks and casual pitch-black style of an off-duty metal-band frontwoman, theorizes about the surging interest in their artform: “It’s another way for people to relate back to nature and to death.” Both women teach regularly sold-out classes, which cost between $100 and $450, in cities like L.A., Portland, Detroit, and Atlanta, with women, mostly in the 20s through 40s, making up the majority of their students. This month, Anantharaman and Innamorato released a part how-to, part history book on the subject, Stuffed Animals.

Katrina Spade, founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project in Seattle photo: Rania Spade

The fact that women are both driving and consuming the death positivity trend is not exactly coincidental. The women in death movement is actually a resurgence. “Typically death care [tending to the dying, making arrangements for funerals and wakes, preparing the body for burial] was considered feminine work,” says Sarah Troop, 41, curator at the Lindsey Museum Gallery in central California and executive director of the Order of the Good Death. “That was taken out of our hands and professionalized by men who said, ‘This is not something you can do, there’s science here, it’s a business, this is not a place for you.’

“Not today, and not anymore. Just look at mortuary science schools, Troop says, where classes are now “overwhelmingly comprised of female students.” (More than 60 percent of mortuary school students are female, according to National Funeral Directors Association.) Or outside the classroom where entrepreneurial women like Katrina Spade, the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project in Seattle, W.A., are finding ways to decompose dead bodies at a faster-than-normal pace to turn them into soil for use in green spaces.

Ask any woman in the movement and she’ll tell you that constantly thinking about death is one of the best things that ever happened to her. Being reminded that we’re “mortal creatures,” as Doughty puts it, forces a sort of clarity about not sweating the small stuff. “It makes you focus on and appreciate the moments you have,” Spade says.

A sense of humor helps, too. “I’ve always been a little afraid of dying,” Spade admits, “but now when I get on a plane, I’m like, I can’t die. I’m going to a meeting about the Urban Death Project. It’d be too ironic.

Originally published by  Oct 31, 2016 in Marie Claire.


The Cremation Process

What is cremation?

Cremation is a means of final body disposition that uses intense heat to break down the body to bone fragments which are often pulverized along with the other organic matter to an ash-like substance.

The Cremation Process

Cremation is performed by placing the deceased in a cremation container of your choice, then placing the container into a cremation chamber, referred to in the industry as a “retort”, where the cremation container and the remains are subject to intense heat and flame. Through the use of a suitable fuel, incineration of the container and contents is accomplished by raising the temperature to approximately 1600 degrees F. All substances are consumed except bone fragments (calcium components) and metal (including dental gold, silver and other non-human material), as the temperature is not sufficient to consume them.

Due to the nature of the cremation process any personal possessions or valuable materials, such as dental gold or jewelry, as well as any body prostheses or dental bridgework, that are left with the decedent and not removed from the casket or container prior to cremation will be destroyed or will otherwise not be recoverable. As the casket or container will not be opened by the crematory, to remove valuables, to allow for a final viewing or for any other reason, the Authorizing Agent understands that arrangements must be made with the funeral home to remove any such possessions or valuables prior to the time the decedent is transported to the crematory.

Following the cooling period, the cremated remains are then swept or raked from the cremation chamber. The crematory makes a reasonable effort to remove all of the remains, but some dust and other residue from the process are always left behind. In addition, while every effort will be made to avoid commingling, inadvertent or incidental commingling of minute particles of cremated remains from the residue of previous cremations is a possibility, and the Authorized Agent understands and accepts this fact.

After the cremated remains are removed from the cremation chamber, all noncombustible materials, insofar as possible such as bridgework, and materials from the casket or container, such as hinges, latches, nails, etc., to which some bone particles or other human residue may be affixed. They will then be separated and removed from the human bone fragments by visible or magnetic selection and will be disposed of by the crematory with similar materials from other cremations in a non-recoverable manner, so that only human bone fragments will remain.

When the cremated remains are removed from the cremation chamber, the skeletal remains often contain recognizable bone fragments. Unless otherwise specified, after the bone fragments have been separated from the other material, they will then be mechanically processed, also called “pulverized,” which includes crushing or grinding an incidental commingling of the remains with the residue from the processing of previously cremated remains, into granulated particles of unidentifiable dimensions, virtually unrecognizable as human remains, prior to placement into a designated container.

A special thank you to Romero Funeral Home for sharing this educational article with us.