Tag Archives: Baby Boomers

“The American Way …”

dscn0522 There was a joke back in the 70s that went like this:

Q: When will we know that the Baby Boomers are getting old?

A: When “New York” magazine runs a cover story on “The Hottest New Funeral Homes.”

I think we’re there. I’ve done my last will and advance directive documents. I’m an organ donor. But I haven’t gotten around to making arrangements for disposal of my remains when the inevitable happens.

One reason for my hesitance may be that I read and never forgot Jessica Mitford’s brilliant expose of the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death (1963), and her updated revision, The American Way of Death Revisited (1998). In both volumes Mitford addresses the ways in which the funeral industry exploits the grief and shock of the bereaved to charge jacked-up prices for often unnecessary services. The 1998 update asserts that things have gotten even worse with the conglomerates swallowing up the local mom and pop operations which once dominated the industry.

It’s like this: The corrupt and sadistic medical insurance industry plays games with our mental and physical health and then, at the end, the funeral industry delivers the final punch in the face.

This comes to mind because I’ve had to think about death and dying more than usual this year. And, as I commented to my mother recently, I’ve spent more hours in cemeteries this year than I ever imagined spending in my entire life. My mother visits my father’s grave every day and when I’m in town I go over there with her.

My parents have four plots in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. Dad is there and Mother will be beside him but the two extra plots haven’t been claimed. Mother’s hints that she wants me to take one of the remaining plots have become gradually more frequent and more insistent.

Elmwood is a beautiful cemetery, one of Birmingham’s oldest and one of the largest in the country. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place and its inhabitants are a composite of the social, cultural, political, artistic, medical, academic, industrial, and sports history of the city. The Elmwood staff was lovely to my family as we made arrangements for Dad’s memorial and burial there earlier this year.

If I decide to be buried, I would be perfectly happy to be buried at Elmwood if they allowed natural burials. There is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what kind of burial is “natural.” It’s ironic, really, since most Americans had some form of natural burial before modern times and modern laws and the emergence of a very powerful funeral lobby.

There is a history of embalming throughout civilization, of course, but modern funeral practices and preservation really took hold in the United States during the Civil War when embalming became a way of preserving soldiers’ bodies so they might be returned to their families. “Morticians” around that time re-classified themselves as “Funeral Directors” and the modern death mega-industry was born.

Here’s what I mean when I say I want a natural burial: I want my physical remains and the vessel that contains them to go back to the earth as naturally as possible. My preference is to be buried in a pine coffin without any sort of preservative and let nature take its course and reclaim my remains. That means no embalming or preservation of any kind, a coffin that is biodegradable, and no burial vault.

As I’ve researched natural burial, I have found that the tree-huggers can be just as rigid in their own way as the funeral conglomerates. For example, many natural burial sites do not allow tombstones or markers, or they mandate burial in shrouds. I’d personally like an upright stone marker at my grave and I wouldn’t mind being buried wearing clothes.

I would always prefer gentle and natural burial to harsh cremation (who among us really wants to be burned to a crisp in a fire?) but the restrictions imposed by the industry do not necessarily support my preferences. The only reason I might consider cremation is if I am unable to be guaranteed the kind of natural burial I desire. The options of cemeteries that allow natural burials are still few and far between and I have found only one in Alabama and it’s too far from home. Having my ashes cremated and scattered is the closest thing I can conjure to natural decaying as a way of returning to the land if I can’t be buried according to my wishes.

I realize that I will not be around when all of this comes about and that, at that point, it really doesn’t matter what becomes of my remains. Even so, I want my end-of-life rituals to be based on personal and spiritual decisions – not corporate ones. I have always liked the concept of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

I know that thinking too much about such things may seem (and is) morbid, but after a year of the deaths of several loved ones and friends, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

As a friend of Dad’s said (with a nod to Hemingway) many years ago, reacting to the unexpected death of a mutual acquaintance – “It seems like people are dying these days that have never died before!”

5th of July


Fallout Shelter Logo  One of my credit cards was compromised online recently by an Uber patron, it seems. The problem was addressed and headed off fairly quickly but when I told my mother about it in a telephone conversation she began to lament all of the crime and evil that are taking place around us and that thread inevitably lead to concern over our politicians, gun laws, and the hopeless impending election. I thought about that for a while and finally I said, “Well, yeah, but at least we don’t have to worry about the stagecoach getting held up by a bunch of armed bandits.”

We’re always living in scary times, I guess.

I was too young to fully participate in the 1960s. But I was there and aware and curious as a young boy – reading the daily newspaper from an early age and never missing the national news that aired each evening at 5:30. I knew (kind of) what was going on in the world around me.

It was pretty interesting. And pretty scary at times.

In October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening, I was nearing the end of my second month of second grade. I wasn’t sure what was going on but was aware of the gravity in the voices of the newscasters and the hushed tones of my parents as they discussed the news of the day. The teachers at school would huddle together outside the classroom, whispering and looking anxiously back at their charges.

In the television in the den the grim voices were reporting on foreboding things that I didn’t quite comprehend. We usually watched Huntley and Brinkley in those days.  I remember going out into the back yard and looking up at the skies at the dark clouds gathering. Or is that just my imagination playing tricks with my memory?

I didn’t understand what was happening but I was aware when the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis was past and there was a palpable sigh of relief among the grown-ups.

Radio Free Europe was an agency that was broadcasting news and programming from the west into the communist bloc behind the “Iron Curtain.” In the ‘60s, regular television public service announcements would raise awareness about Radio Free Europe. Those PSAs would feature a European deejay behind the controls at a radio station introducing the American song “On Broadway” by The Drifters.

1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign ads featured the image of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev warning the west that “We will bury you!” For many Baby Boomers, I suspect that Khrushchev’s was the face of the boogeyman.

In addition to the usual attractions and agricultural exhibitions of a state fair, I remember a trip to the state fair at the old fairgrounds on 3rd Avenue West in Birmingham in the 60s that also featured fallout shelters for the home back yard. Climbing into the tight quarters, there was information on how many supplies would be needed to survive nuclear fallout. Civil defense signs indicating the locations of fallout shelters were still scattered around when I was grown.

During the time that I was discovering the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and Motown, I was also living in Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Anticipation about the Cold War was augmented by consciousness of the various social movements afoot stateside.

Back then “Breaking News” reports on the television were really breaking news and we would stop and wait to see what had happened. The PTA at Green Acres School had just finished its drive to supply a television for every classroom (largely by collecting S&H Green Stamps) so my third grade class was able to watch live as the announcement was made that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

Schools had regular bomb drills and “duck and cover” was a mantra promoted in instructional films by a helmeted “Bert the Turtle.” Green Acres was a neighborhood school and most of its students lived within easy walking distance. I lived a block from the school and even had permission to go home for lunch.

So I wasn’t concerned when we got a note to take to our parents saying that on a selected day all city school students would be dismissed promptly at 3:00 and were to walk, not run, to their home. This applied to the children who were picked up at school as well as the majority of us who walked. The directive said that somebody should be at the student’s home to record precisely what time the student arrived. For the majority of us in my neighborhood in the ‘60s that person would have been our mothers.

The next day we were instructed to return the filled out time sheet to our teachers. The result of this exercise was that those of us who could walk home within a certain amount of minutes would be released to our homes in the event of an impending air attack. The rest would remain at the school with their teacher to “duck and cover” I guess.

I was a young and naïve schoolboy but I was pretty sure even then that the duck and cover routine wasn’t going to be any kind of protection if the Soviets started bombing us. There was solace in the fact that I would at least get to be home when it happened.

The 1960s continued and in October 1969 I was in junior high in Nashville. On the day of the Vietnam Peace Moratorium I got to school and heard whispering all around. Some of the students were organizing a massive school walk-out at 1:00 p.m. to protest the war. It was hard to concentrate in class with the tension and anticipation. Between classes, in classes, and during lunch people kept asking, “Are you walking out?”

I kept saying, “I don’t know. Let’s wait and see what happens.” But deep down I knew I probably wouldn’t. I’d get in trouble with Dad and Mother if I left school without permission.

At 12:55 the nervous energy was bubbling throughout the school. I had overheard some of the teachers talking together and trying to decide the best course of action when the walk-out occurred.

Suddenly the static-filled school PA system came on and an assistant principal made an announcement that the entire school would go outside at 1:00 p.m. and stand in silence for ten minutes to honor the soldiers who were serving or who had been killed in Vietnam and that regular classes would resume at 1:15.

There were grumbles among the student organizers that their thunder had been stolen by the administration. For me and probably most of my classmates there was relief that we would not have to make a decision about civil disobedience that afternoon. When our ten minutes were up the majority of us went back to class; a few walked down the street and away …

The 1960s was a combustible and scary time – albeit one with a fabulous soundtrack and lots of style.  Looking back from the perspective of a much more complicated world half a century later, the struggles of the 1960s seem better defined, much less confusing, and – frankly – much less threatening than the world we are dealing with in today’s 24-hour never-ending news cycle.

Back then, we could more easily put a face with the threat and the moral boundaries seemed more clear. Nowadays, not so much. The fireworks and celebrations of Independence Day are always followed by the realities of July 5.