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What are Urns for? A Personal & Historical View

What are Urns for? A Personal & Historical View

In the latter part of 2017 I had the opportunity to share the story of the history of cremation with the Metropolitan Cemeteries Association conference in Yonkers, New York. It was my first time in that part of the city, and only my second visit to the Big Apple. After my presentation and some fantastic conversation with cemeterians in attendance, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon at the magnificent Ferncliff Mausoleum. I lurked around those halls for hours, literally until the lights were being turned off, admiring the halls and halls of beautiful architecture. To be able to witness the stunning urn memorials was truly an honor. There are some truly stunning spaces in which cremated remains are honored in the Ferncliff Mausoleum.

Admiring ancient Greek vases & Roman urns

That evening, I took a rather nauseating ride in a New York Taxi (if you know, you know) from Yonkers down to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. After sitting on the steps of the museum and catching my breath, and letting my queasiness settle, I went in with one agenda: to visit the Greek and Roman antiquities department. One of the most magnificent collections of Greek vases and Roman burial urns rest in the holdings of the Met, and I was bound and determined to spend some time taking in their beauty. You have no doubt seen Greek vases, they are so distinct with their bright red-orange and black hues. One of my favorite experiences at the Met was the small but mighty collection of Roman cremation urns. I was in awe to be standing in the presence of artifacts that had commemorated lives for thousands of years.

When I returned to my hotel that night, I had a realization: I had spent the day at two landmarks, essentially doing the same thing at both. At Ferncliff I had spent hours admiring the urn memorials, the urn engravings behind glass in niches, the names etched on niche and crypt covers, each marking the existence of and briefly sharing the story of a human life. Then I spent hours at the Met doing the same thing – seeing stories told on the Greek vases and experiencing urn memorials that were thousands of years old. Both places were telling a story of life and death and history and the Beyond. What a humbling experience and realization.

A history of my interest in urns

For me, it all started with an urn. I first became interested in funeral service when I was about 12 years old, but my interest in cremation urns made its appearance a few years earlier when I was about 9 years old. In 1989, my step-great grandfather died, and his remains were cremated and placed in a ceramic urn to be buried in his family plot in rural east Texas. I remember hearing the story of the burial of his urn, and the fact that his urn was destroyed (on purpose) in symbolism of setting his spirit free. I think back and consider the sadness I felt that such a treasure as his urn would be destroyed.

My real, traceable fascination (or obsession, depending which therapist you ask) in cremation urns came along with a different interest altogether – professional wrestling. It was very soon after my interest in funeral service that I discovered professional wrestling, and more specifically, the wrestler known as the Undertaker and his spooky mortician manager, Paul Bearer.

After hearing of the “duo from the dark side” at school one day, I went to the wrestling section in the local video store (remember those?!) and found a tape of a WWF event called “The Survivor Series” from 1992. One of the matches was the Undertaker versus Kamala in a coffin match. Paul Bearer was the Undertaker’s manager. He pushed the coffin down to ringside, his urn riding on top, and prepared the Undertaker for his match. During the match, the commentators talked about “the power of the urn” and at one point Paul Bearer tried to get closer to the Undertaker to transfer that supernatural power – but was knocked over by Kamala’s manager. The urn fell in the ring and the Undertaker picked it up and used it to knock out his opponent. Oh, the theatrics! I was hooked.

I have always been interested in the supernatural – secrets of the universe, unsolved mysteries, ghost stories, folklore – and here was something supernatural and mystical attached to my new fascination with the funeral profession: Paul Bearer’s mystical bronze urn. I set out to find one like it.

In the process of looking for that urn model (which I would not discover until 15 years later), I began absorbing information about cremation urns, calling urn companies to request catalogs, and I even got an urn for Christmas when I was 14. An obsession was born, and a path was set before me.

The unique use of urns

Urns are fascinating. Apart from a few examples, there are no other deathcare related items designed to hold the remains of the dead that can be set out to be displayed and admired. For me as a historian, the hundreds of thousands of urn memorials I have experienced are the identities of the souls who have traversed the path of death and were purified by fire. To be able to experience these memorials and these identities is a privilege and honor.

In my own story and journey, it all started with an urn. For families, too, the first step on a path of creating a meaningful memorial experience starts with an urn. Urns help tell a loved one’s story. Their presence at memorial services and their purpose as containers made to safely hold a loved one’s remains lends an air of respect and dignity to their very existence.

Through my journey, I have become a firm believer in the power of the urn as an important part of the grieving process for families choosing cremation and the significant way that urns help to tell the story and identity of the dead. To help families tell their loved one’s story, it all starts with an urn.

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