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The Dirt on Funerals with Todd Harra

Ever wonder why funerals look the way they do? Fourth-generation funeral director Todd Harra explains the evolution of the industry in America. Todd shares fascinating and little-known details of everything from the shape of caskets to how Abraham Lincoln created an embalming craze. We dig into why some practices have fallen by the wayside, why others have stuck around and what Todd thinks about the future of funerals.



“Last Rites: The Evolution of the American Funeral”



Transcript:

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page. Today I'm talking with Todd Harra about his latest book Last Rites: the Evolution of the American Funeral. It's a gripping, historical read that traces all of our different funeral practices throughout all of time, even back to Ancient Egypt. I learned so much from talking with Todd, especially because he's not just an author. In his day job, he's a fourth generation funeral director in Delaware. He's also an embalmer, post-mortem reconstructionist and cremationist. He knows what he's talking about. Nice to meet you.

Todd Harra:

Nice to meet you.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Did you grow up hanging out in the funeral home?

Todd Harra:

No, no, no, no, no.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

How did you get to this work?

Todd Harra:

I did not think I was going to do this at all. My dad was a pilot, my mom was a school teacher. I did not grow up at a funeral home, had no idea I would end up in this. But my uncle that owns the funeral home after college, I really had no... I was casting about. I didn't quite know what I wanted to do, so I started working at the funeral home part-time, basically just to earn some money. I tell people, I think the work definitely found me, and I was definitely taken in with what everyone does and how they care for people, and that no two days are alike. What I like about it is I'm out, I'm seeing different people, I'm in different places. It's immensely gratifying. People think it's such sad somber work, and sure, we deal with tragedies. We see some really, really sad things, but it is very gratifying to walk with people on what's perhaps one of the darkest days of their life.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It's always interesting how people are called to this work. Let's get into the book because it's wonderful, very fascinating. You cover so much ground, and I really appreciate that you go way back and all the way to the present. I hope it becomes a textbook.

Todd Harra:

Well, thank you.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Let's start with the Civil War. The history of embalming is really interesting.

Todd Harra:

That's something that just really fascinates me, as to how embalming took off in this country and took root, whereas in other parts of the world, really embalming isn't practice with the same frequency as it is in America. And it came about as a wartime necessity. If you wanted to ship human remains during the Civil War, they had to either be placed in a sealed metallic coffin or embalmed, and there was really only two manufacturers during this time period that were making sealing metallic coffins that actually worked. But think about it. The nation is ramping up wartime production, all the metal is being diverted into making munitions. Precious little metals being diverted into making something as frivolous as a coffin. They were tough to find, and if you could get your hands on one, they're expensive. Really, if you wanted to ship somebody, your only option you were left with was embalming.

And this is where this whole cadre of embalmers cropped up overnight. And they were, mostly, I would say, almost exclusively men with men medical training. And I say men because back then it was only men. And after the war, most of these embalming surgeons did go back to practicing medicine. But the interesting thing was they were in such great demand during the war, they had all these helpers and apprentices, and it's here you see this medical transfer of knowledge going from the medical profession to this new subset of people that had this new skill. They knew how to embalm. And this is when you see the funeral director in, I would say, the modern sense step forward.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

The war ends. Metal isn't as scarce anymore. Why keep embalming?

Todd Harra:

My theory is that President Lincoln's funeral was the catalyst for what caused embalming to stick around. After he was assassinated, Edwin Stanton devised this grand funeral that would take place in 11 cities across the United States. And this funeral tour was almost a facsimile reversal of his inauguration train ride. And in the 11 cities, the coffin was opened at each stop and mourners from these cities were invited, and people were standing in line for hours and hours to give a modern comparison to the Queen's funeral we just had recently, where people were standing in line for 24 hours. Well, people were standing in line for that long to view President Lincoln. And until this time, you as an American, somebody dies in your house, you bathe them, you dress them, you bury them at the local churchyard or maybe on your property.

But you're well aware of the sights sounds and smells associated with death, how quickly decomposition sets in. Americans were very close to their dead at this point in our history. And some of the later stops, the President has been dead for two weeks at this point, and people are viewing him and his appearance. The newspapers are just absolutely applauding how well he looks. It's almost like people thought they were seeing something almost magical, seeing the President before them been dead two weeks. And a lot of the comments were, "He looks like he's sleeping." And the thought became, "If it's good enough for the president, it's good enough for me." And that's I think the nudge that caused this culture shift in the way we buried our dead. And it wasn't just embalming. There were so many things that moved the needle on this swing of funeral practices, pre-civil war to post civil war. But embalming, I would say would be the biggest shift.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Another big shift, as you mentioned in the book, was cremation and sanitation reform.

Todd Harra:

Early cremation was sanitation reform. Very shortly post-civil war, the first crematorium in America was built in 1876, and it was a eccentric Pennsylvania doctor who built the crematorium because he was worried that the graveyards in the communities were essentially poisoning the drinking water. Early on, cremation was aligned with these alternate religions. And it's not that it was anti-Christian, but people drew that conclusion. And I think that's why cremation took so long to catch on, because it was associated with not only alternate religions, but these were people that a lot of people viewed as out there, if you will.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You also mentioned that burning at the stake and the fire was used for punishment as well.

Todd Harra:

You're right, Sarah. Cremation was almost seen as associated with hell fire. Cremation limps along, limps along, and in 1963, the cremation rate in America is only 3.7%. But two things happened that year that definitely shifted the American attitude towards cremation. First was Jessica Milford's book, The American Way of Death, in which she absolutely excoriates the funeral profession as greedy, money grubbing and calling cremation the simpler way. And the other is the Holy Office issues this very dense document basically saying it's okay for Catholics to be cremated. And in the sixties, we start to see this proliferation of cremation societies that are pushing cremation as it. Direct disposition, no service, touted as beings, simple. There's all these forces that come together. And from there, you see cremation then start to creep up, and now it's almost 60% of Americans choose cremation.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

This is all so fascinating, and I like how you talk about the history behind some of the terms we still use today, like the wake and the casket. Let's talk about that first. What is the difference between a coffin and a casket?

Todd Harra:

It has to do with the number of sides. A coffin has six sides, plus the top and bottom, and a casket has four sides, plus the top and bottom. And we see this shift from coffin to casket happening around the 1880s. During the Victorian era, there was this softening of death, as you will. Victorians would say, "People have gone to their sleep." They would not say somebody has died. And so, you have this less anthromorphic vessel that people are going in. Instead of this harsh sounding coffin that looks humanoid in shape, people are being placed into a nice sounding casket. And again, the name shift was partially marketing and it fed into the Victorian sense of this softening of death.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

So interesting. And the term, the wake?

Todd Harra:

Really up until 150 years ago, the only way people could really know somebody was dead was when decomposition set in. And this is where the term wake came from. People would literally sit bedside vigil and wait for somebody to either wake up from their trance or their catalectic state, or the family would see one of the five signs of decomposition and know it is safe to bury this person. Because people were terrified, terrified of premature burial. The early Americans sitting and waking their loved one. There are sights, sounds and smells associated with a dead body that Americans were just not equipped to deal with that. We've distanced ourselves so far away from it that-

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It's unfamiliar.

Todd Harra:

Right. And I hear about these death doulas coaching families into what they will be seen and experiencing, and it's because we're just not educated on it. Way back when, your mother and your grandmother and your father and your grandfather had done it and experienced it, so you would sit with the family and learn through osmosis. You had experienced it, so by the time you became an adult, you had probably been through several weeks at your house in your lifetime, and you knew exactly what to expect. Whereas now people, they're just not educated.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I know people who have never seen a dead body.

Todd Harra:

And that's not a bad thing. I don't think that's necessarily a failing of our society. It's just the way it is. And thank goodness for people like you who are out there trying to spread the word and say, "Hey, let's reconnect with our dead and dying. It's natural."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love that. Let's reconnect. You talk about the Spanish flu and you talk about the fact that people were unable to be with their dead. And it's another reason I feel like we're missing grieving in community these days, because of COVID. Could you maybe draw a line from the Spanish flu to what's happening today?

Todd Harra:

2020, 2021, at first there was so much that was unknown. How is this thing spread? Can we contract it? Can we contract it from other mourners? Can we contract it from the dead? And just trying to get a handle on how can we safely handle these remains. And then of course, we had all the state and the local rules put in place. At one point, we could only have 10 mourners in the building at one time. And it definitely took a toll on the mourners as far as the funeral is a time for the public to come out and show support. And when you take that away from people, I think the pandemic has caused an immense amount of complicated grief. We had people saying, "We'll do something later. We'll do something later." But you look back six months, a year, and I understand, it's got to be so tough to pick at that scab and reopen that old wound. And that grief wound probably will never heal properly because they didn't have the chance, the opportunity to give the sendoff they wanted and start down the path to healthy grieving.

And this is exactly what happened during the Spanish flu. Death care profession was just overloaded by all the deaths that the flu was causing. And there's stories of near where I live in Philadelphia, the seminary, they sent all these students out to help dig graves, and fireman and policemen were being called upon to put together coffins, and mortuaries were overloaded, and the entire system was just overloaded, and people were doing the best they can, but the communities were essentially just getting people buried as quickly as they could for sanitary reasons, to help stop the spread, so there weren't a bunch of human remains sitting around. But people then didn't have the proper opportunity to say goodbye either. It's a very, very similar situation what happened during Spanish flu, and then 100 years later, we see almost exactly the same thing happening.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I'm just really curious about what accommodations and adjustments you had to make. Other than reducing the number of people that came to mourn, were there other things you had to do, other than wearing maybe a mask?

Todd Harra:

As far as the public facing aspect of things, we did the best we could. Funeral directors are very good at adapting. Very quickly we swung to, "Hey, anyone that wants to do their funeral arrangements via Zoom, we'll certainly accommodate you that way." Adopting DocuSign documents. We completely amped up our wifi infrastructure so we could start live-streaming. Before the pandemic, people maybe would request a live stream funeral, couple times a quarter. It wasn't really a thing.

And during and after the pandemic, now a family comes in and they expect you to offer them the livestream as a standard offering, and just revamping the traffic flow for viewings. We were still doing viewings, but we let people come in one side of the building, pay the respects, and then they'd go out in opposite door. And then from across the building, we'd let... We would never be having more than the 10 people in the building at once. The family, if they were even there at all, were comfortable being around people, there wouldn't be a lot of contact the normal hug, hugging handshaking that would take place in a pre-pandemic funeral, but it still means something if somebody comes in and says, "Hey, Mrs. Jones, I'm sorry for your loss. I'm here for you." Yeah, you can't embrace, and that's definitely missing a piece of the funeral puzzle, but that's the best we could do at the time.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah, I'm so curious about that. The fact that we couldn't hug each other, was the grief muted? Did it feel like more of a viewing versus a grieving?

Todd Harra:

Absolutely. And I still feel that trickle-down effect. I'm still unsure if people even want to shake hands.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Do you think there'll be lasting changes to your business from this experience with COVID?

Todd Harra:

Absolutely. I don't think all of them are bad. We're starting to get back to funerals the way they were before, meaning we're starting to see people show up for viewings and funerals back in the numbers that were pre-pandemic. It's not quite there, but it seems to be getting there. The changes that I'm talking about that I don't think are bad, and are, in fact, a good thing, is one, having the livestream viewing option. The technological changes that funeral homes were forced to do and add, I think in a lot of ways a benefit for the families. And not just speaking of our funeral home, but worldwide, funeral homes and funeral professionals really stepped up to try to fill this need and slideshow on the person's obit, things like that. It's good that we can now offer them on a more consistent basis to the families we serve.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You mentioned several times throughout the book that humans have this innate need to care for our dead. What do you make of that?

Todd Harra:

As a species, we care for each other, and that, I think, it certainly extends to death. I have people that they want to come in and they want to do their mom's hair or they want to do her makeup or they want to assist with the dressing. And I think all that's great. The more that people want to participate in the process, it helps them own the process. And I know it helps them process the grief. It gets them started on that grief journey. And some things, I look at people and I say, "Oh my gosh, I don't know how they summon the strength to get up and give a eulogy about their father, their mother." And I think, "Could I do that for my mother or father?" There's all these acts of ,as I see them, emotional courage that happen that I see on a daily basis that I'm just simply in awe by.

But these are all acts of people certainly owning their grief, and there's no way around grief. You've got to go through it, you've got to experience it. And if you can be part of that funeral process, definitely do it. You won't regret it.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love that. And I love the term emotional courage. I am in awe of my siblings who actually spoke at my mother's funeral, and I could not. I love that term.

Todd Harra:

I'm sure you sat there and thought, "How are they doing this?"

Sarah Cavanaugh:

How are they doing that? Yeah.

Todd Harra:

I don't know if it takes a special person or just a lot of mental fortitude. It doesn't have to be something that grand. Give the gifts that you can give. Let's say you're good at arranging flowers. Well, maybe you want to put together the flower arrangements for your mom or dad's or spouses service. And that's something you can do quietly at home. You can process your grief as you're arranging the flowers, and you bring them to the place where the viewing or the service is going to be. And your grief process happened while you were doing the arranging. You're doing the grief work and you don't have to get up and do it in a big, public way.

But also understand one of the big, big benefits of the funeral service is that it's a safe place for grief. People expect you to cry. They expect you to break down. It's okay. If your siblings had gotten up there, Sarah, and they had broken down halfway through the eulogy, no one's going to hold it against them. In fact, that would be natural, that would be normal. You would expect that. And you, like me, are just in awe that they were able to deliver it probably flawlessly.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Totally. I know why I like this book, but why is it important for people to know where some of our customs and cultural practices come from?

Todd Harra:

My hope was that somebody that read this book would then feel comfortable going to a funeral, planning a funeral. They would feel armed with the facts to say, "Hey, this isn't something that's scary." But a funeral, the modern American funeral is the culmination of thousands of years of ritual and tradition, and this is where we are at this point. If you go into that funeral arrangement conference armed with the facts, sure, is it going to be an emotional conference because a loved one has died? Absolutely. But having a foundation of knowing what the ritual looks like, you might have a little bit more courage to go into that conference or step into that viewing room to greet a community member who's just lost a loved one.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah, that's great. With peaceful acts that we talk about cultural and spiritual practices. Were there different ceremonies that you've experienced in your funeral home that you've made accommodations for? And I'm thinking of in the book, you talk about how you build these living rooms. They start building living rooms that are nicer than people's own living rooms, so they want to come to the funeral home. And so, I'm thinking they're probably going to want to replicate what was happening in their living room, which was in line with their faith, in your living room or your funeral home. Does that happen or do you lay out how things work in terms of the viewing?

Todd Harra:

We make suggestions to people based on what we found works best in whatever they're looking to do. But that being said, this is your funeral, not yours specifically, but you're planning this funeral for a loved one, a family member, a friend, whoever it is. This is your event. You're coming to us to pay for our professional guidance, but at the end of the day, we want this to feel like you own it. I have seen people that honestly bring in half their house, knickknacks and stuff that are meaningful, and I think that's wonderful because I'll see the wife or the son or the daughter back there holding out the fishing rod that was dad's and having a story. And these items can connect to different people in the decedent's life that maybe didn't go fishing with them, but they played basketball with them, so they'll move on to the basketball.

These different personal mementos and artifacts are certainly meaningful, but it's not just the physical things. We were talking a little bit about eulogies earlier. I have heard some absolutely just beautiful stories and remembrances shared from family members and the community. People will come and they'll offer their gift of music during a viewing or a service. And we even, jumping back to the mementos and in the living room, we even had somebody bring in their motorcycle and park it next to the casket one time. Whatever the family needs to do to make this a special event, absolutely. Let's make it happen.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I have a friend who's a death midwife, and there's death doulas. She talks about this is a reemergence of women in death care. And it was always a common practice, and I think you say this in the book of catching babies and taking care of our dead, was in many cultures is a women's calling. But then they got pushed aside a little bit when embalming came around and it became a business and now it feels like it's coming into balance. Does that feel accurate?

Todd Harra:

It does. I read that statistic that over 75% of everyone graduating from mortuary school is now a female. It's rapidly becoming a female dominated space. And I'll share this with you, my family's been doing this for a long, long time. My great great-great-grandfather was a tradesman undertaker, and his son Isaac, fought in the Civil War, and he's the one that brought embalming into the family business. And Isaac was a carpenter by trade, and his wife was a milliner. She was a woman that was ahead of her time. She owned her own business in town, but being a milliner, she knew how to sew, so she would sew the interiors to the coffin. It was very much a husband and wife business, but they had one child who was a daughter. And Isaac told her, he said, "This business is no place for a woman." She was not allowed to go into the family business. Now, this is 100 years ago, but it's almost laughable now to think that that was the attitude back then, that this is, "No place for a woman," when this is now rapidly becoming a female dominated profession.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, the last chapter in your books all about the future of death rites and practices and green burials. And you say simply a funeral is the product of its time and place. And all the research you've done, it shows that that's the way it's been all along. Talk a little bit about what's emerging.

Todd Harra:

When people want to talk about the future of funerals, typically what they want to talk about or what they're thinking is disposition options. For the first couple centuries in America, your disposition choice was burial, burial, or burial. And then cremation comes on the scene right after the Civil War. It takes 100 years to really gain any traction, but at this point in our history, year 2023, almost 60% of Americans are choosing cremation. If you die now, your choice is burial or cremation. Well, there's some other choices that are coming to market, if you will. Alkaline hydrolysis, which is sometimes called water cremation, is legal in 22 states in America. The resulting product from that looks just like flame cremation. You're going to get essentially bone fragments that are pulverized. They look just like cremated remain ash, if you will. You are going to get about 20% more because there's not that desiccation from the flames that's happening. But the end product is very much the same.

And then just very recently, NOR, or natural organic reduction, also that's basically human composting, was first legalized in Washington state and now a bunch of other states are legalizing or there's pending legislation, including here in Delaware. And that is basically an accelerated form of green burial, and green burial being person in a biodegradable casket or shroud being buried directly into the earth with no outer burial container. NOR is going to accelerate that from however long mother nature takes, let's say a period of years condensed down into a 60-day period. The family is getting back a cubic yard of sterile soil. And the facilities, they do test this so the family is getting something back that is sterile and they can do what they want with it in the same way they can do what they want with cremated remains. They can spread it, they can plant a tree, they can bury it. And if they don't want the entire cubic yard, then a lot of these facilities have an agreement with some natural space where they will then go spread the soil there.

I do mention in the book something that's theoretical at this point, but I could see gaining some traction down the road [inaudible 00:29:27], essentially freeze drying of the remains. And the final product would be very similar to the final product in NOR. A sterile soil, almost. I found that very interesting. Again, it's all theoretical at this point. I don't even know that anyone's actively testing it in America right now. But what I think is more exciting is not the disposition choices, but the funeralization choices. And the pandemic certainly spurred these on, or probably accelerated these at a more rapid pace than might have otherwise happened, but I think certainly by the end of my lifetime, we'll be seen VR funerals as maybe not normal or the thing, but certainly as a standard offering. Sarah, you could be sitting on your couch wearing a pair of VR goggles and I could be sitting on my couch with a pair of VR goggles, but we could end up, I don't know, on Mount Rainier greeting Mrs. Smith saying, "I'm sorry that your husband..." The option to have a virtual viewing anywhere-

Sarah Cavanaugh:

That's wild.

Todd Harra:

... provides almost limitless opportunities and possibilities. And again, along that same line is holograms. I don't know if you saw it in the news, they did a hologram of Rob Kardashian for Kim Kardashian's 40th birthday using old footage. I could definitely see this becoming part of the funeral where the decedent themselves stands up and offers a song, or recites a poem, or has a message for the audience, or you scan a QR code on a headstone and the hologram pops up. I definitely think technology is going to change the funeral space down the road. Looking into the metaverse, I wonder, and I don't know the answer to this, but I often wonder if people are going to get away from the old stone monuments in cemeteries, and we're going to move our monument creation into the metaverse.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

That's a whole new vision. We're going virtual.

Todd Harra:

We're going virtual. Yeah. There's a lot of going on, and like I said, funeral's a product of its time and place. And who knows what the American funeral's going to look like in 50 years? But I can promise you this, it's not going to look like the funeral of today.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

What does a peaceful exit look like to you?

Todd Harra:

I think being surrounded by certainly the people you love and in a comfortable, hopefully known setting, at home. I definitely think the home hospice movement is absolutely wonderful. And just having the things that comforted you in life, so the people, the music, the sights, the smells, the sounds to help ease that transition into the great unknown. That would be a peaceful exit for me.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you so much.

Todd Harra:

Oh, you're welcome. It was a pleasure. And thank you for doing this podcast and spreading the word. Death education, I think, is absolutely vital.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. You can learn more about this podcast and my online course at my website, peacefulexit.net. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This episode was produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. More of his music can be found on Bandcamp. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit.

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