Among vendors offering caskets, urns and other tools of the trade at the Baltimore Convention Center, Sam Sieber enthusiastically described how, through a scientific process, heated water can rapidly decompose a human body.
Sieber, vice president of research at Bio-Response Solutions, was one of many people this week at the National Funeral Directors Association convention to discuss industry developments, products and trends.
For a large segment of the population, talking about death can be morbid, dark or unsettling. But convention attendees view “death care” as a necessary and noble business, passion, and profession.
“You have to have a calling for it,” said Dorota Marshall, owner of Maryland Cremation Services. “It’s not a job. It is a vocation.
During the four-day convention that ended on Wednesday, 5,500 attendees were able to visit 375 vendors. Many offered traditional wares: There were several hearses inside the convention hall, various types of coffins and burial vaults, as well as urns and memorial keepsakes.
But some services were more modern.
Cremation, as an alternative to burial, has become more popular in recent decades. Indiana-based Bio-Response Solutions offers “aquamation,” which it describes as “an eco-friendly alternative to flame cremation.” Sieber explained how, using alkaline hydrolysis technology, a body can essentially be incinerated using water.
Aquamation, which gained traction after Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa requested it as part of his burial before he died last year, turns a body into a flameless remains. A cremation retort – or chamber – can reach temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees, while aquamation requires only 200 or 300 degrees of heat in the vessel. Through a process that accelerates decomposition, water rushes over the body.
“Instead of 50 years of it happening in the ground,” Sieber said, “we do it in six hours.”
Once someone is cremated, some loved ones don’t know what to do with the “creams” – an industry term for cremated remains. Parting Stone, a New Mexico company, offers to turn the ashes into small stones.
“Each person produces between 40 and 60 stones,” said Alexandra Jo, Director of Outreach and Education for Parting Stone.
Such talk was common and casual at the convention. On the same floor as the typical convention exhibits – people in flower costumes promoting a tech company, a social media group advertising in vibrant colors – were examples of cremated remains and animal bones.
For the average person, the idea of death and what happens after is uninviting at best. That’s how Jack Mitchell’s friends felt when he was a high school student in the Baltimore area in the late 1980s.
“I was definitely blown away by some of my classmates, especially the younger ones,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this is really morbid. Are you going to do this? Are you going to drive a hearse?’
Mitchell is now president of the funeral directors association and funeral director at the Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home in Towson, which won a Pursuit of Excellence award at the convention. Like many funeral directors, he grew up in the business.
“Once you’ve experienced what it’s like to be a funeral director, there aren’t many professions out there where you help people more than you are when you help them through the death of a loved one,” Mitchell said. , who is a sixth-generation funeral director.
One of the challenges for funeral directors is what Mitchell described as “compassion fatigue.” Every day they comfort the bereaved. He said it is essential to find a balance; if you are too invested, you will burn out, but if you are too distant, you do not provide the necessary compassion and support.
“The most important thing is to be in an emotional middle ground,” he said.
Another convention supplier, Passages, offered eco-friendly products, including bamboo coffins and the ability to geotag where ashes are scattered. Darren Crouch, president of the society, said the historical problem with the scattering of a loved one’s ashes is that there was nowhere a family could return, as there is for a funeral. The geolocation product seeks to provide a solution to this as cremation becomes increasingly common.
“As unusual as it may seem, cremated remains are almost, you might say, more versatile than human remains,” Mitchell said of some of the industry trends.
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Some companies at the convention focused on affordable options. Maryland Cremation Services in Millersville offers an all-inclusive cremation package for $875.
“You’re trying to say goodbye to your loved ones, not your wallet,” owner Sean Marshall explained.
Others, like Clear View Caskets, offered high-end products. His transparent acrylic caskets sell for between $4,800 and $8,000. The Miami-based company has become more popular during the coronavirus pandemic, when open-casket funerals were banned in some locations and a transparent casket became the only way to have a “vision.”
Another exhibitor, Etereva, appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and received funding for her service, which turns ashes into diamonds.
There were also vendors advertising urns with seedlings that grow into plants, therapy dogs and “pre-need” services, which involve a person planning and paying for a funeral before they die.
FuneralOne, a technology company, works with thousands of funeral homes, streamlining the process of quickly planning a quality funeral and editing videos or an online memorial. CEO Joey Joachim was once called “the Willy Wonka of the funeral service” by “American Funeral Director” magazine.
“All we’re doing is trying to say, ‘How can we make this less painful?’ “said Joachim. “We already know that we’re not going to make it perfect. You have lost someone. It sucks. But if we can make the experience even better, then we’ve won.