Listen: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust (stereo)

An exploration of the American burial ritual, including conversations with writers, funeral directors, ministers, sociologists, and anthropologists. Topics include problematic dichotomy of funeral industry as a business vs. providing a social service and the ceremonial nature behind burial or cremation.

Documentary includes music and sound elements.


1977 San Francisco State University Broadcast Media Award, Information/Documentary for Non-Commercial Radio category

1977 Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Honorable Mention

1977 National Headliner Award, Outstanding Documentary by a Radio Network category

1978 Ohio State Award, Radio Program category

1977 The Major Armstrong Award, Certificate of Merit


text | pdf |

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER: The following program is made possible in part with funds provided by the Minnesota Humanities Commission.


Minnesota Public Radio presents an exploration of the American burial ritual, Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust.



SPEAKER: Man that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower. He fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death, of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God, most Holy, O Lord most mighty, O Holy and most merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts. Shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer, but spare us, Lord most Holy, O God most mighty. O Holy and merciful Savior, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from thee. Unto almighty God, we commend the soul of our brother departed and we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust ensure--

ROBERT ESBJORNSON: The rituals of religions have lasted a long time. And I began to think, why? They are not just expressing theological teachings for our heads. They're also reaching our emotions because they are actions. They are sometimes nonverbal gestures that become extremely significant if we see them as such.


SPEAKER: Experiencing the death of someone close is one of the most personal and intense feelings we can have. Do the ways we treat death, do the rituals we perform, say something of our lives? There was a time when a death in the family was a family matter. Wood for the casket was hewn by hand, the hand of someone who had once been close. In America today, though, the business of burial is, among other things, business indeed.

SPEAKER: You mentioned you sell inexpensive implements. What is it that you sell? Is it that an ash box? What is that for?

SPEAKER: An ash box is a receptacle for ashes after a person has been cremated. And we sell a plain pine wooden ash box for $24 assembled or $15 in a kit so that you can assemble your own. We sell a shaped coffin that we use for intermediate purposes. It has either wine-rack shelves in it or bookshelves and it can be used as a piece of furniture. The shelves come out.

With shelves, it's $200 made up. Without shelves, it's $185 and that includes shipping. We do not have a kit for that because it's hard to get the pieces together, but we will have blueprints for $2.50.

SPEAKER: We feel that our company offers more than the average company does. We also offer the unconditional guarantee on the best grade of granite, which is guaranteed to the purchaser and the heirs that it will not crack, fade, or discolor. That means that this memorial will be guaranteed forever and it can be passed on to the kids.

Now, this is something that other monument companies do not do. If the customer would like to buy something of a little bit lower-quality granite, we also have three other grades of granite, which are lesser in price. And they also receive a lesser-type lettering and a more commercialized type carving, which we call a flat carving.

SPEAKER: What else do you sell?

SPEAKER: Well, we sell a contemporary coffin, which can be used as a coffee table, or a hope chest, or a blanket box. And we sell that in kit form for $95, assembled for $160.

SPEAKER: You mean somebody would actually use a coffin as a hope chest or a coffee table?

SPEAKER: Oh, yes. There's a family in New Mexico that uses it as a coffee table. And that family has painted it with motifs of the Indians, New Mexican Indians, and it's quite a lively addition to their furniture. One of the members of our board uses it-- has stained his and he uses it as a magazine-holder coffee table. The one that's here on display at the convention is a blanket box, hope chest and works very nicely.

SPEAKER: It's called a design service custom memorialization where we revolve the theme of the person's lifestyle, hobbies, or interests on the monument in granite. In other words, let's say for instance, if the boy loved fishing, the son. And if he spent most of his time fishing in his spare time, it would be very appropriate to put a picture of the boy fishing on the monument because this was his life. He loved to do this. And every time the parents see this, they would be reminded of the boy.

And therefore, there's all kinds of little things, intricate things that the husband and wife know about each other that would be very symbolic in meaning to them in their family. No two situations are ever the same. We'll put deer scenes for hunters, duck scenes, snowmobiles, farming scenes. We will put motorcycles, children's toys. Anything that they would come up with an idea for, we will try to accommodate them.

SPEAKER: Anything else that you sell?

SPEAKER: We also have coffin palls, which are vestments for coffins, that run from pattern, $50 for a pattern to scale to one completely made up with lining at $250.

SPEAKER: Doesn't that seem a little gruesome, people assembling their own burial implements or their own friends' or relatives' coffins or ash boxes?

SPEAKER: Oh, I don't think it's gruesome. I think it's really returning to what people did for hundreds and hundreds of years when you buried your own. You took care of your family as it died-- as members died and you had this.

It's only recently that people have turned the dealing with death over to an entrepreneur, the funeral industry. And we don't blame the funeral industry for taking the ball and running with it. Society has given them that role.


SPEAKER: Perhaps you can give us an idea of what the consumer is up against today in trying to make arrangements and deal with the disposition of a deceased loved one.

JESSICA MITFORD: Well, you see, one of the things I tried to point out is that the funeral transaction is totally different from any other. Obviously, we know that we all get robbed every time we walk into a used-car lot, let's say, or even into a supermarket. You're probably overcharged for most of the food you eat.

However, if you're in a used-car lot, you can always say, no thanks, I'm coming back tomorrow. Now, if somebody has died in the family, in the first place, you're not in a mood to bargain. On the second, you're really hamstrung because the body is already there in the funeral home. So what are you going to do? Thus, the funeral director has built in advantage over you.

SPEAKER: Jessica Mitford, author of the American Way of Death. First published in 1963, the book offers sharp criticism of the American funeral industry. She and others have charged that abuses within the industry are widespread. The list of grievances is lengthy. All however center on overcommercialization.

JESSICA MITFORD: When a man dies, say, the breadwinner of a family leaving a widow, the widow may be a working-- I mean he's a worker, let's say, a union member-- suddenly finds herself in possession of more cash, actual cash money than she's ever had in her life, because she probably buys everything on time the way most people do. Their television set, the vacuum cleaner, the house, and so on is all on time payments. But because of the death, she's got the insurance money, she's got Social Security money. If he was a veteran, she has a certain amount from the VA.

If he's a union member, she has the union death benefit fund at her disposal. Well, the undertaker knows that some of these things better than most of us would be able to add up our daily grocery bill. And so he just simply fixes the funeral, what he thinks the traffic is going to bear, and she ends up paying most, if not all, of this cash to the funeral director.

BECKY COHEN: It's a strange situation. A funeral director is both a businessman and somebody who engages in services to the public. So he plays a dual role, which puts the customer of funeral services in an awkward position. Because on the one hand, they're relying on somebody to be a counselor and advisor, and this same individual is also trying to sell them merchandise because he's a profit-making businessman. And the industry tends to-- well, promotes a certain kind of funeral, which has varied in its name over the years. They used to call it the complete funeral, but it's not complete.

SPEAKER: Becky Cohen is the executive director of the Continental Association of Funeral and Memorial Societies headquartered in Washington DC. Noting findings that the average funeral costs approximately $2,000, Cohen, like Mitford, says funeral directors tend to coerce people into spending more money than necessary in making funeral arrangements.

BECKY COHEN: --or cremated.

SPEAKER: Can you give us an idea of what that experience is like? Say I'm going in to visit a funeral director, what am I going to be presented with? What are the choices that I'm going to be presented with by a funeral director both generally and in terms of specifics, such as caskets and the different options that would be available to me?

BECKY COHEN: Most funeral homes price their funerals in a package price, which means that what would happen is that when you walk into the funeral home, you would be shown around the casket display room. And the casket that you select determines the total cost of the funeral. The price of the casket includes the price of all the other services that the funeral director is going to provide, which would typically be the kinds of funeral-- the kinds of services that go along with this traditional funeral, picking up the body, bringing it to the funeral home, embalming the body, and preparing it for viewing, and all the various other services that the funeral director performs.

JESSICA MITFORD: I'm not really interested in the criminal fringe, the people who resell coffins or make particular kinds of nefarious deals. I'm far more interested in what the average family has to deal with in terms of the average ethical American funeral director. And so that's why I went into the whole business of what a code of ethics is.

In fact, it is, in the case of funeral directors, a code which is exclusionary of people who want to charge less for funerals. This happens in all the state board licensing procedures, excluding such things as price advertising, frowning upon itemization of prices, which after all as a consumer, you're really entitled to and whatever. If you go out to dinner, you'd expect to know what the potato salad costs and how much the state costs and choose as you want.

So in other words, I feel that it's the ethical funeral directors who are very largely prisoners of their own wall-to-wall carpeting. They've constructed these immensely expensive palaces of death with slumber rooms and lord knows what. And they feel that if for each death they don't recoup a certain amount of their overhead, they're done in financially, which perhaps they will be. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that you or I, as putative corpses, have got to pay for that overhead. Do you get the point?




SPEAKER: I don't know whether I'd get into any libel problems. Maybe if I don't identify anybody, I won't. But I had the good fortune and the misfortune both to work for the man who, I think, would generally be regarded as the worst shyster in the industry in Minneapolis.

He was a man who was unscrupulous not only in his business affairs, but in his private affairs he was notorious. He drove his employees to drink and distraction. And he owns one of the big cemeteries in town too. And he's a big operator in the Billy Graham organization, all that kind of thing so he's a distinguished man.

And he had developed the high art of preying on the public, which was defenseless. One could make from his operations, I think, a fairly complete list of all the ways in which you can cheat people. Substituting a casket, which looks the same for one that's actually quite a bit cheaper; persuading the members of the family that you really ought to take care of the clothing, have it dry cleaned, and all that sort of thing, and then not having it dry cleaned; offering to take care of the flowers and selling $50 bouquets and then calling the florist and ordering $25 bouquets and charging them out; putting advertisements in the newspaper announcing the funeral and tacking on 20% over the bill the newspaper charged; agreeing to hire the clergyman and take care of his honorarium and agreeing that he'll get $50--

SPEAKER: What is your impression of the way the funeral industry handles itself and arrangements for people?

SPEAKER: I have had-- I have worked with several funeral homes and personally. And at one point, I was involved with doing the arrangements for a very close relative who had indicated that she wanted a very simple thing, the simplest casket, no reviewal as they call it, and a very simple service. And I was made to feel when I selected the casket as sort of a pauper.

They said, well, in the back, we have this. We have one or two and I'm sure you wouldn't be interested in that. And I said, well, I'm sure we are.

And this kind of thing, making you feel maybe somewhat guilty-- all of us do I think when someone dies-- that you probably feel I could have done this, or I should have done that, or I should not have said this and so on. And so I suppose you rationalize in a way by thinking, well, we'll do the very best that we can. And I think often it's far more than one should do. It's just too expensive. But they just do not make you feel very comfortable when you want an inexpensive thing.

And another time, I played for a funeral for a great aunt. And I had asked particularly that they would not be charged because I was doing the music. The statement came and there was a fee for the music.

And the person who was handling it said, were you paid? And I said, certainly not. I was glad that I was able to play for this particular service, that I was available. And so that person called the funeral director and he merely said, oh, well, that was a clerical error. But there was a $35 charge for music even though I played and asked specifically not to.

SPEAKER: Well, one thing I wanted to mention, I know many people who've looked at the funeral industry have mentioned that is the process by which the body in a funeral home is used as a kind of hostage, a kind of psychological weapon against the people who come to purchase services. And when recently, we made funeral arrangements for my mother, I was offended deeply to find this technique used against me. The situation was that the funeral arrangements were being made by a man I have known my entire life. And he's a man who's also aware that I once worked in the funeral home so I know how these things work.

But on the day that we show up to make funeral arrangements for our mother, he comes in very deferentially and does the whole bit, and then says now, before we make any arrangements, we really would like you to see your mother. We know that this is important. He's got this little patter. We understand that the hour of bereavement, it's sometimes difficult to accept the actual fact of death, and this will be helpful and consoling to you.

My mother had died of starvation technically and there was no way that this could not be an extremely traumatic moment for us. And we didn't want it and we refused to go through with this charade. And he pressed us incessantly. He was determined that we must go in and look at the body.

Well, finally, we had our way. We just got nasty about it and we said we would have no part of it. And we knew all the time and it was the thing that was offensive to me that all that crap about accepting death is not the reason why funeral directors want you to go in and look at the body.

It's a very good psychological sales technique. You go in and look at the body, you're reminded all over again of your bereavement. You've probably spent some hours getting yourself composed and ready to go in and deal with this ordeal of having to make the arrangements at all and then they'll break you down.

BECKY COHEN: But the reason that the funeral industry wants bodies to put on display, or at least they explain that it's supposed to be of therapeutic value to the bereaved family. That by seeing the body there, they recognize the fact that a death has occurred. Now, I think that that's questionable. And people who join memorial societies and the organizers of memorial societies tend to think that, in fact, that's a distraction and that it's an unnecessary amount of money spent to put the body on display. And that what really ought to be happening at the ceremony that accompanies somebody's death is for people to be sharing their grief, and sharing memories of the individual who's died, and reaffirming their values about life, and having a spiritual experience rather than focusing on a dead body, and floral arrangements, and fancy casket, and that sort of thing.

SPEAKER: Then there's a lot of consoling talk in the conference room and up you go to the casket display room. No matter how many times you've seen a casket room, when you come upon one for the first time, it's a shock. And I think it's designed to be that way, all packed full of things.

And then you'll notice that those rooms are designed very carefully. All of those caskets are displayed in rather rigid order. And there's a conscious attempt in all of these display rooms to place inexpensive merchandise, for example, before the very expensive stuff. You'll find $1,000 casket always situated not next to another $1,000 casket, but next to one that costs $10,000 or $8,000.

And immediately, because that's your state of mind, and they want you to be that way, you begin to feel the social pressures. And these are subtly suggested to you. You would want to do something that was right for your mother. We know how much you loved your mother and respected her.

And let's choose something that's appropriate here. And you look at that cheap, cloth-covered thing and then you look at the gorgeous oak casket sitting next to it. And you think, well, did I think of my mother as cheap cloth or his gorgeous oak? It must be gorgeous oak and the pressures start to set in.


BECKY COHEN: There's a book on funeral practice that's put out by the National Funeral Directors Association in which there's a chapter about how does one conduct the arrangements interview with a customer. This book is for funeral directors. And they are advised that if somebody wants something like a simple funeral or an immediate disposition, they're advised to discourage these people and tell them, now I think you may be making a mistake. And that kind of thing can be very unnerving when you're weak, weak in the knees anyway.

SPEAKER: One of the things I did on the last day that I was in the funeral home was to unscrupulously rifle the files of the place seeking information because by that time I'd come to hate the place. And I came across a pamphlet put out by the National Funeral Directors Association, which discussed the matter of pricing of caskets. And they were counseling their members. The National Funeral Directors Association was counseling its members that it was a psychological service to the bereaved to charge large sums of money because it made people feel better toward this tragedy of death to have shelled out a lot of money for it.

And the line, which sticks indelibly in my memory-- I swear that it was there-- was a line, which said something to the effect of, in fact, it would be a good idea for you right now-- taking on a commanding tone to these member directors-- it would be a good idea for you right now to go into your display room and raise all of your prices by 15%.


(SPEAKING) Funeral directors of America, I am very deeply honored standing here receiving this token of your esteem, the Funeral Director of the Year. Now, I've been asked by all the delegates and members of the board to tell you of the funeral that won me this award. It was handled with taste and dignity, that much I can say for it. And I'm sure it will take the family 20 years to pay for it.

(SINGING) It was a helluva funeral It was a helluva funeral The finest funeral ever booked I had some high school juniors who passed around petunias and lilies everywhere you look It was a helluva funeral I say one helluva funeral Oh, how I wish that you were there I had 10 drum majorettes doubling on the castanets It really was a lively affair It really was a lively affair

It was a helluva funeral It was a helluva funeral The National Guards showed up for me And during the oration, they went into formation and formed the letters R, I, P It was a helluva funeral I say one helluva funeral I gave it all my love and care The band was on its toes playin' "Mexicali Rose" It really was a lively affair It really was a lively affair

A tisket, a tasket, tell us about the casket I'll tell you about the casket, my good friends It would make your poor eyes pop It was sterling silver all around with a real formica top Formica top It had a formica top

Well, I'll tell you about the widow, my good friends The widow was in navy blue with a gown designed by Balenciaga I supplied that too He sold the widow widow weeds too

I ran the first funereal raffle though I don't much like to boast And I gave away a Chevrolet to the person who cried the most He gave away a brand new Chevrolet I won it myself

There were 18 jugglers by the grave to demonstrate their art And when they was done, I fired a gun to let the hootenanny start He fired a gun and hootenanny begun

I was serving beer and pretzels till the hot pastrami came And I sold some souvenir hankies with a dear departed's name He was sellin' hankies with the dear departed's name

As a fitting finale we had the Rockettes from New York's Music Hall As you can see, my very good friends, all in all, all in all all in all, all in all in all

It was a helluva of a funeral I say one helluva funeral No other burial could compare it was all done up deluxe and I made 40,000 bucks It really was a lively affair It really was a swingin' affair

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: To the people of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States has been taken from us by an act which outrages decent men everywhere. Now, therefore, I, Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States of America, do appoint Monday next, November 25, the day of the funeral service of President Kennedy, to be a national day of mourning throughout the United States. I earnestly recommend the people to assemble on that day in their respective places of divine worship, there to bow down in submission to the will of almighty God and to pay their homage of love and reverence to the memory of a great and good man. I invite the people of the world who share our grief--

SPEAKER: --as many have gathered here in final testimony and tribute.



SPEAKER: It isn't difficult to find critics of the contemporary American funeral. It's even easier to find criticism of its purveyors. But for all its expense and opulence, the ornate caskets, somber music, and solemn processions, many, if not most of us, will probably be buried in much the same way. Some grandly at any expense, some more simply.

But however simple or grand each funeral, each burial ritual will be a statement, a reflection of our lives or the lives of those we love. What need does it fill? How can it best be expressed? And what is it we want to say?


JIM DIAMOND: The American funeral is an import from thousands of years ago. You really have to go back and talk about what were the people doing in Babylonia, and what were they doing in Egypt, and how much of that are we still trying to do today? And that's really tied into the world's great religions and what their belief is about afterlife.

Do you have to preserve the body in its entirety along with a number of objects that it will need in the next life as the Egyptians did or does the soul leave the body and is the body simply to be disposed of? This is very tied into one's theological perceptions.

SPEAKER: The Reverend Jim Diamond, Episcopal campus minister at the University of Minnesota.

JIM DIAMOND: The American funeral began as a very simple process. If you talk about what is American is what is Puritan as opposed to what is Native American or all the other cultures that come in to this, are New England part or sector of our culture? Talked about a soul leaving the body that the body was simply an empty receptacle to be buried.

And the cabinetmakers built a pine box. And there was a time, I think, when people were more involved in this. There was a very important scene in, I think, it was The Immigrants when the man went out, and he built his wife's coffin, and he dug the grave, and he really participated in her death. And that's part of the problem we have today not just with the funeral industry itself, but with our whole culture is that we don't get involved in it.

SPEAKER: I mean, we had-- a counselor was there and we sat down, and had coffee, and we talked a little bit. Everything was very straightforward and honest. And I thought it would be a lot more than what we did pay. It was very fair.

Everything was taken care of. You didn't have to do anything. No running around, no last minute things. We didn't have to worry about a darn thing.

SPEAKER: And by the way, over one fourth of Forest Lawn customers spend less than $600 for mortuary services and even less for cemetery. Documentation of the preceding interview--

JIM DIAMOND: And when possible, I think it's nice, especially if we do a burial of ashes, I try to have the people dig at least that little hole, but I think there's a great therapeutic value. Also, it speaks of something cosmic happening. Something has gone on and I'm going to participate in this. I'm going to-- I am going to return the body of my wife, or my child, or my friend to the earth because it will go back to ashes and dust. And I want to acknowledge this and participate in it.

SPEAKER: You speak of palaces of death. I wonder what kind of distinction you might make between the typical American funeral and what other people are suggesting may be a more dignified funeral, funeral, for example, involving cremation. Is there an important distinction in your mind as to the different ways we bury our dead?

JESSICA MITFORD: My feeling is that freedom of choice should prevail.

SPEAKER: But do you have a personal feeling? Do you make a personal distinction as to which way may be more dignified?

JESSICA MITFORD: Oh, well, me. I mean, I'd probably want to go the whole hog, why not? I might like to have six black horses with white plumes and plow some of the profits from my book back into the industry maybe. I mean, who knows? I haven't really decided, but that's one option I've been thinking about. But anyway, I'm not quite sure. I think, actually, I'll go with the funeral society and have a simple cremation.

SPEAKER: Cremation takes approximately, depending upon the crematorium, anywhere from a hour to an hour and a half.

SPEAKER: By what process is the body cremated?

CHARLES DENNING JR.: There are two types of process. One is direct flame and the other is calcination, which is indirect flame. But basically, it's heat. It's over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, I believe.

SPEAKER: Dr. Charles Denning Jr. the chairman of the board of the Neptune Society, a California and Florida-based organization offering cremation services.

CHARLES DENNING JR.: 21% of our members are Jewish, 20% are Catholic, and the remaining are made up of a little bit of everybody. We like to feel that it's a thinking man and woman today that is utilizing Neptune's services rather than, well, what we call the barbaric Egyptian pharaoh type of tin box and the corpse covered with cosmetics, and fancy clothes, and a gigantic entourage with cymbals beating or a motorcycle escort to a tomb, which is nothing but a hole on the ground overlooking the freeway. We think that's barbaric.

JIM DIAMOND: Some people talk about these horror stories of how awful cremation is. It's simply speeding up the natural process. And sometimes, I've been involved in very meaningful ceremonies where people have known exactly how they want to scatter the ashes.

In most states, cremation is the final disposition of the body. The state takes no more interest in it after that and you may scatter the ashes where you will.

SPEAKER: We give you just a little something that happens on a New Orleans funeral, playing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."


ROBERT FULTON: We take the idea of immortality and the funeral, orients, and behavior around the preparation of the body, the laying out of the body, the burial of the body in a safe place. The idea of physical resurrection, which is associated with the idea of immortality means that the body, in some fashion or other, should be preserved in some way, that it should at least remain undisturbed. It shouldn't be violated in any way. It shouldn't be, let's say, cremated or various body parts shouldn't be subdivided or redistributed.

SPEAKER: Robert Fulton, a director of the Center for Death Education at the University of Minnesota.

ROBERT FULTON: The Egyptian idea of the inviolate character of the human body, embalmed, and prepared, and secured against the time when the soul would return after its journey of 3,000 years in part is reflected in contemporary American practices of earth burial. Earth burial, according to some anthropologists, in and of itself, is a rebirth ritual. That the manner in which we bury the dead, either in terms of the winding clothes comparable to the swaddling clothes in the baby's crib and so on. And many of the rituals associated with the funeral have to do with the idea of ultimate rebirth.

And the funeral has historically been seen as a rite of incorporation. That most of the rituals associated with the funeral historically have been attempts to address themselves to the dead human being, and to see to it that his body is secured in such a way, and that accompanying him to the next world are artifacts and resources that would allow him to live as he lived on Earth. So the thrust has been on immortality, and resurrection, and so on.

BECKY COHEN: Some caskets, they have a special device that they call a sealer so that the lid can be hermetically sealed supposedly. And they are meant-- they're said to be-- they're said to last longer. But when a body is buried, depending upon the regulations of the local cemetery, the casket will also be protected by some kind of outer container.

SPEAKER: A vault?

BECKY COHEN: A vault. Well, a vault is a complete enclosure for the casket. Cemeteries also often require a less complete enclosure, a concrete grave liner, which tends to be much less expensive and may not completely enclose the casket.

SPEAKER: Is all this legitimate? Do you think we're overly concerned with preserving dead people?

BECKY COHEN: Well, I think we are because it in fact doesn't happen. If you seal the body inside a casket, there are still anaerobic bacteria that go to work and preservation is just not going to be.

SPEAKER: I spent the first part of my life in a fairly small southwestern Minnesota town, growing up in a family that was very church oriented because I had a grandfather and two uncles who were involved in the church as pastors. Both my mother and my grandmother had been church organists. And I think from the time I was very young, one of my ambitions was to be a church organist. My mother was a piano teacher.

And I had planned to do that so I actually played my first service when I was 13. I don't like to remember it because it went very badly. I was very frightened. And I shouldn't have been, but I was.

But in that town when there was a funeral, of course, the townspeople went. It was just considered that one did as supporting the family or maybe it was just that kind of thing. And the funerals were always held in the church. And I remembered that after the services, the families and friends would return perhaps to the church basement or to the home and have a meal, things that the ladies of the community had brought in. And I just grew up with this.

And as I got older and went off to school, I began to think this was terribly barbaric because after all funerals were sad and a time of mourning. And at the dinners, or the lunches, or whatever, people would laugh and seem to be having a good time, and it offended me. I just thought, this is too much.

And I became very rebellious and remember at one point, upset my mother quite a good deal. And now I'm sorry for it. I should have done it. A funeral for a relative-- shirttail sort of relative, I simply refused to come home from college and attend because I just felt it would be too much. I couldn't take it.

But then as I grew somewhat older, I had a sister who was a great deal younger than I was. And she died at age 10, had been very close to my parents and died very, very suddenly. And it was a great blow to them, of course. And it was to all of us.

We were then living in Saint Paul, but the funeral was held in the little town. And my parents had not lived there for five or six years and had not seen some of their friends or some of the relatives during that time. Well, they had the traditional lunch and I was prepared to, again, think, well, now this is too much. But I changed my mind-- not completely, but I've changed it since then completely. Because I saw how much it meant to my parents to meet and to me too, of course-- I didn't think it would, but it did-- to meet people we had not seen for a while and to not forget. But I think the idea being that these get-togethers, lunches, or whatever have a certain therapeutic value.

It seems to me that they make the families or help them realize that one must get back to the business of living again. That the person that you have put in the cemetery or so is gone, but there are people who are alive and one must go on. And as I've gotten older and become involved with other funerals as a professional organist, I've seen this in many of the churches that I've played. And it seems to me there is some value in that.

SPEAKER: When we question, the values of funerals here for you and for me as survivors or ask ourselves, what are we doing when we bury so-and-so or arrange for the funeral of so-and-so in this way or that way, we still must remember. And I think it's important for us to keep in mind the significant funerals for Dr. Martin Luther King, or for President Kennedy, or for Robert Kennedy, for President Eisenhower, and so on, how they've allowed us to focus our attentions as citizens of a community or of a society, and to see in that funeral a political or social rite of integration

If the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King had not permitted whites to attend his funeral after he had been assassinated by a white man, that we would have had, as we did, but I mean more extensively and more prolonged, we would have had serious racial conflict in our society, far more extensive and far more profound than we know at present. And the same with President Kennedy's funeral. I mean it allowed people to not only deal with his death, and the suddenness of it, and the shocking character of it, but also reassured people that this society was not flying apart as a consequence of his death.


SPEAKER: This is the Air Force Bagpipe Band, "Mist on the Mountains." Cardinal Cushing walking up the path as the bagpipe band crosses, marches in slow, slow, parade cadence.

ROBERT ESBJORNSON: Perhaps I could concentrate on the rituals that are associated with death and dying and deal with them for a moment.

SPEAKER: Robert Esbjornson, theology professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter Minnesota.

ROBERT ESBJORNSON: The day before my mother died was a very significant day for Johnny and me. I can't speak for my brother, but he was there too. Mother wanted us to come to the hospital room-- in tuberculosis, one is conscious until death-- and to share in a brief ritual.

And I remember the pastor, Pastor Swann, and my father, and my grandmother, and probably the others who were there I don't remember. And I remember saying the Lord's Prayer with my mother and with the others. Now, that's a ritual. The Lord's Prayer is a ritual.

Most of us say it mechanically how many times during our life if we go to church? And yet here it was, a familiar tie with previous experience and with the rest of my life thereafter. So that every time I say the Lord's Prayer, that memory is available to enrich the saying of that prayer.

And that's a very simple ritual. And taking a simple traditional ritual that for many people has become empty until they associate it with a life crisis and then the only words that really help are the traditional words, are the words rich with association, and with memory that include not only our generation, past generations. So there's a tie-in you see with the ages, with generation after generation.

SPEAKER: Overhead are the 30 Air Force, 20 Navy fighter planes. And in the last wedge of three, one is missing.

JOHN BRANTNER: I don't think we have enough diversity, partly because we have a standardized situation for one thing. We don't have the diversity that I'd like to see.

SPEAKER: Dr. John Brantner professor of psychology and consultant to the Center for Deaf Education at the University of Minnesota.

JOHN BRANTNER: I'd like to see in funerals much more-- well almost an extraordinary diversity. I would like to see those whose needs are met by unobtrusive and unmarked disposal of their dead bodies, able to dispose of the dead bodies they have to deal with that way. At the other end, I also want to see rich state funerals, splendid funerals that express a nation's grief, Churchill's funeral for instance, Kennedy's funeral. I think that we should have these in which an entire nation participates opulently-- as to use your word opulently-- in the funeral.

SPEAKER: President Roosevelt is taking his last trip through Washington now.


From my position here on top of the roof of the Riggs Bank building at the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue, northwest. I've just held the microphone out over the roof so that you could hear the music the Marine band was playing as it rounded this corner coming north on 15th Street and turning left.

JOHN BRANTNER: We keep forgetting the parade aspects of funerals. I feel very strongly that funerals, by and large, should intrude on the community more than they do. We find it all too easy to evade the awareness of death in our community. And more intrusive funerals, if I can put it that way, might be a good thing for the health of the community.

SPEAKER: It just gave us a time to, I don't know, maybe catch up with ourselves.

SPEAKER: Some people suggest that perhaps it's an opportunity for the survivors to feel that they're not really alone and that their loss isn't theirs alone.

SPEAKER: Exactly. Because I think at that time, friends will ask and with genuine sympathy, for instance, if it's a very sudden death, which this was, how did it happen? And I think some of us, in recounting the thing, it becomes a real thing.

I think when death occurs, many of us just become very numb and we don't really like to think that it actually has happened. But when you have to keep repeating it or when friends ask, I think you begin to realize that it's actually happened, the person has actually gone. And it seems to me this is one of the things that many of us do not accept when death occurs.

SPEAKER: Would it be fair to say then that somehow the experience, experiencing the funeral ritual, the funeral rites somehow intensifies our recognition of life, somehow validifies it?

JOHN BRANTNER: It should indeed. It should indeed. The focus entirely is on-- should be entirely on life and the meaning of life. What does it mean that it ends and how does this speak to my own organization of my own life at the present time?

And it also speaks to community, to solidarity in so many societies. As I'm sure you know, the funeral is a time of drawing together of-- an expression and a deepening of family solidarity, of community solidarity. And very often in our society, it's just the opposite.

ROBERT ESBJORNSON: Same one could say about 23rd Psalm, which is a song. It's not it's-- it's a piece of poetry and poetry is evocative. It's expressive. It's not didactic primarily. We don't think of the Lord as an actual shepherd. It's the image of caring that is connected with that piece of ritual that becomes meaningful.

SPEAKER: What would you say is the one thing, if there is one thing, that funeral rites have in common, that they attempt to do fundamentally?

JOHN BRANTNER: I think fundamentally, all of them are, if I can generalize very grossly, the recognition that the fabric of society has been torn. That the social groupings, in [INAUDIBLE] idea, are going to have to be reconstructed. That there has been a wound, a significant social wound, a wound to the whole of society, as John Donne said, and a wound to the family, a wound to the household, wounds to the world of work and office, wounds to the neighborhood, and so on.

That there has been a significant wound, a significant rupture of the wholeness of that fabric. And that in the presence of this, we have to initiate, I suppose, the healing process. And we have to recognize the-- more than recognize, we have to express and practice solidarity in the face of this, the drawing together of a wounded community.

SPEAKER: God give me strength to do this. These horses-- now here's the caisson on beneath us now. And there is the flag-draped coffin resting on this black caisson in a dull black-- the horses with black blankets under their saddles. The horses on the right side unmounted. The riders on the left.

You'll see this in the pictorial news pictures in the Movietone News I hope. And it's moving ever so slowly, ever so slowly as the crowd stands. The waves and wax and men in uniform along the streets that salute.

And most generally, folks haven't as tough a time as I am trying to see it. And behind us, behind us is the car bearing the successor to the late President Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman, the man on whose shoulders now falls the terrific burdens and responsibilities that were handled so well by the man to whose body we're paying our last respects now. God bless him, President Truman. We return you now to the studios.


ROBERT ESBJORNSON: There are so many things that we can't express in words.

SPEAKER: Two limousines and the caisson is now coming into view.

JIM DIAMOND: The question, why a funeral is that it gives people a chance publicly to express their grief.

SPEAKER: Departed Christian soul upon your way in the name of God the Father who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ who died for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit who assured you of life eternal. Amen.

BECKY COHEN: There's always some kind of ceremony that accompanies the death in any culture. Now, it's a question of what kind of ceremony it's going to be.

SPEAKER: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on Earth as in heaven.

BECKY COHEN: I think the important point is that it needn't be expensive in order to satisfy the emotional and spiritual needs of the people who are involved.

SPEAKER: Would it be fair to say then that burial rituals are not about death, but have to do with life?

ROBERT ESBJORNSON: I don't think there's any question about that.

JOHN BRANTNER: Funerals should be a time of great closeness, of drawing together, of hugging, of embracing, physical closeness and psychological closeness. And yet very often, we tend to stand apart feeling uncomfortable with our own tears, our own direct expression of sorrow, and not knowing what to say to others.


SPEAKER: From Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust has been a presentation of the news and Public Affairs department of Minnesota Public Radio. The program was produced and directed by Greg Barron and Debbie Gage, technical supervision and audio mixing by David [? Carlton ?] [? Phelan, ?] field recordings by [? Dennis ?] [? Hamilton, ?] [? Rachel ?] [? Kranz, ?] and [? Lynn ?] [? Cruz. ?]


The preceding program was made possible in part with funds provided by the Minnesota Humanities Commission. This is MPR, Minnesota Public Radio.


Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>