Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering The SS Eastland Tragedy 100 Years Later

It was a cool Saturday morning as employees from the Western Electric Company began boarding the SS Eastland, anchored in the Chicago River, for a company outing. The day’s itinerary included a trip up the river for a refreshing escape to Michigan City, Indiana and a company picnic in Washington Park. Instead, the day is remembered as the worst nautical disaster to occur on any of the Great Lakes. The date was July 24, 1915.

SS Eastland
The Eastland first set sail as a passenger ship in May of 1903, but appears to have been burdened with troubles from the beginning. During a public reception that spring, the ship began to list uncontrollably from side to side. The reason? Too many people had congregated on the upper decks. The steam ship was divested of passengers and the problem corrected, but many felt that the Eastland had a dangerous design flaw, and that things would only get worse.

Eastland Ready To Board
One year later, with 3,000 people on board, the ship again began to tilt port to starboard. Passengers panicked, but the crew regained control of the Eastland with no harm done. The listing problem resurfaced again in 1906 with 2,500 people on board, and again in 1912 with 2,400 passengers aboard.

Court Proceedings
In March 1915, the federal Seaman’s Act was enacted in order to increase the safety and security of US seamen; it included the caveat that a ship must carry enough lifeboats to hold all passengers and crew. The law came about because of the RSS Titanic disaster, which had occurred three years before.

Listing Ship
The Eastland complied with the ruling, but the added weight of the additional lifeboats made the passenger ship even more top heavy. Many feared that because of this additional weight ships would become ungainly and there would be more problems.

Excitement was in the air that July morning as over 5,000 men, women and children, many Polish and Czech immigrants, boarded five boats that had been chartered for their daylong adventure. Among the ships ready to sail was the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes:” the Eastland. 

On Her Side
Reports indicated that the ship, still tied to the dock, began easing away about 7:10 a.m. with 2,572 passengers on board. It slowly slipped about 40 feet out into the river, listing slightly. Then, at 7:28 it lurched to port (left) and capsized, rolling on it's side and coming to rest in 20 feet of water at 7:30 a.m.

Mayhem ensued as passengers above deck were thrown into the river. Those below were struck by heavy, careening furniture - a piano, bookcases and tables, which slammed into passengers, crushing them amid the rushing waters. Others suffocated when people were thrown on top of one another and they could not regain their footing. (Those desperately fought for life vests and boats were of no use here - there had not been enough warning for passengers and crew to use them.)

A Victim
The river was teaming with people trying to escape. Eyewitnesses said that the screams were what they remembered the most vividly. A total of 844 passengers died, including 22 families that were wiped out; four crew members were also killed in the disaster. Many died from their injuries; many more because they couldn’t swim.

The Morgue
The bodies were taken to several temporary morgues set up around the river. Hundreds of bodies were laid out in the Second Regiment Armory where families lined up to identify their loved ones. Some bodies were never identified; officials said that these may have been more families that all died together with no one was left to claim their remains.

New Memorial
Bohemian National Cemetery
The largest number of the dead; 134 were buried in Bohemian National Cemetery, on Chicago’s northwest side. The stones can be identified by the date: July 24, 1915 and/or the words “obet Eastland” or “Victim of the Eastland.” A granite memorial dedicated to the victims was unveiled here two weeks ago and can be found in section 16. Details concerning the disaster, and information about the gravesites are included on a plaque located next to the memorial

Grand Jury
A grand jury ruled the cause of the disaster to be “conditions of instability” due to “an overloading of passengers, mishandling of water ballasts or construction of the ship.” The ship’s captain and engineer were charged with criminal carelessness, and the ship’s company president and three officers were indicted for manslaughter. The presiding judge then changed the charges to “conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship.

USS Wilmette
In Memory
The ship was raised later that year. It was recommissioned in 1918 and named the USS Wilmette; it served in both world wars. In 1945, the Wilmette was decommissioned, and scrapped out in 1947. The ship's largest loss of life: July 24, 1915 when 844 people lost their lives in the Chicago River ...

~ Joy

Friday, July 10, 2015

Funeral Webcasts: Virtual Funerals Allow Closure

Today, it seems that our lives are so scheduled there is little leeway for an abrupt need for time away. That’s why online funerals are becoming more popular, and more accepted.

While we might desire to attend a service in person, many times that isn’t an option, but attending virtually permits others a chance to participate and mourn.

Attending a service via a private webcast allows family and friends from far away the ability to see and hear the service in the privacy of their own homes. An online funeral also lets the elderly, those in hospitals, or serving in the military, an opportunity to still be a part of the remembrance service.

So how does it work? A tiny unobtrusive camera mounted at the rear of the chapel films the funeral service. The camera is linked to a computer with software that allows the video to be streamed live. Those attending virtually sign in with a password to attend the services. Memorial programs are available online, and a printed version can be made later. When mourners arrive at the cemetery, GPS can locate the gravesite, and others who wish to visit can use these coordinates later.

One caveat to a virtual funeral is that the service can be viewed at the attendee’s convenience, not necessarily when it is actually being held. In fact, research indicates that family and friends who physically attended the service also view it online, many watching numerous times. Death is a distracting and numbing event, but by recording the service, family members can revisit it, giving them a chance to remember happenings they might have missed. Funeral homes may archive the service and make it accessible for viewing for up to six months.

Most people who have utilized webcast funerals expressed satisfaction at being able to have those far away join the family at the funerals - making it a true family experience. 

But does this sound the death keel for funeral homes and traditional services? Most funeral directors think not. After all, a funeral service is for remembering and sharing. It is about the human experience, remembering the deceased and supporting the loved ones left behind.

A virtual funeral just opens up another way for those who could not have attended in person to also have closure, allowing “the sorrows of one to become the sorrows of many.”

~ Joy

Friday, June 19, 2015

Modern Death

You’ve probably heard the cliques’: what goes around comes around; everything old is new again …  While these sayings may have more than a bit of truth about them, it “ain’t necessarily so” in the funeral industry where non-traditional is catching on.

Baby Boomers are the catalyst to this change, thanks to “thinking outside the box” and wanting a service that is unique to their lives. Themed funerals are starting to take off, and services are becoming memorial events.


In Texas, one funeral home director decided to offers some options to the traditional funeral home. Funeral Director Jeff Freidman operates Distinctive Life Funeral Home, (yes, a traditional funeral home) in Plano, but he has also set up a storefront in Richardson Texas where you can shop for grandma’s casket in a nicely lit, comfortable showroom with real music playing. Distinctive Life also has several vans equipped with a selection of urns, many unique and creative (A floating urn anyone?) along with a computer on which you can view and select the casket you’d like without leaving home.

At Adams Funeral Home in Los Angeles, mourners simply pull up to a bank teller-like window and push a button. A curtain raises, music plays and you have a few minutes to say your good-byes to the deceased.

Wade Funeral Home in St Louis has become known for their themed viewing rooms, offering a familiar setting like “Big Momma’s Kitchen” where family and friends can gather in a homey 1950s style kitchen as a platter of fresh fried chicken waits on the stove.

Hodges Funeral Home in Naples Memorial Gardens offers family and friends the opportunity to sit and reminisce over a glass of wine in their wine bar providing a more relaxed and calm way to mourn and remember. Amid comfortable chairs, high top tables, and racks of wine, this modern wine cellar provides a more laid-back, tranquil vibe than your average funeral home viewing room.

The Neptune Society, the largest cremation-only provider in the U.S., takes cremated remains and mixes them with cement before placing them in a mold. Once the mold is formed, the shaped piece is then taken down to the world’s first underwater “cemetery”, actually a cremation memorial park, and placed on the Atlantis Memorial Reef with a memorial plaque.  There, the molds become a permanent part of the ever-changing man-made reef.

You can even light up the sky when the Celebrate Life Program mixes your ashes with phosphorous to create a private fireworks display for family and friends.One things for sure, Boomers do not intend to go “quietly into that good night” – at least not without some serious shake up of the traditional, and a touch of individualized flair on the way out.
~ Joy

Friday, June 5, 2015

Death Under Glass

Death at Home
The Victorians were obsessed with death – in a nice way. There was a code of etiquette for both the living, and the deceased. The reasons for their "undying" interest were numerous; death was an every-day occurrence, it happened at home, and mourning was a way of life - a mourning period could last over two years.  A few of the main death fears held by Victorians included being buried alive, being dug up by body snatchers, and the horrible decay that the body went through.

Fisk's Patent
Almond Dunbar Fisk patented a product in 1848 to alley all three fears with his “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal.” With a Fisk Iron Coffin, the deceased was visible for viewing (and making sure they didn’t move.) The remains would be well preserved, continuing to look exactly as they did when they died, and iron coffins were almost impossible to break into.

The Fisk Metallic Burial Case was shown at the New York State Agricultural Society Fair in 1849, along with the American Institute Exhibition in New York City later that year. Orders were taken and production began.

The coffin was form fitting, resembling an Egyptian sarcophagus with the face and feet higher than the body. A small glass window was fit above the face for viewing.

Robbing the Grave
There were several benefits to using an iron coffin including the smell of decay was trapped in the iron case much better than a wooden coffin. Resurrectionists were not able to “bash and grab,” (Bust open a wooden coffin and pull the deceased out by their neck for the purpose of selling bodies to anatomy schools.) and they looked secure.

John C. Calhoun
But security was not cheap; the price of a Fisk coffin was between $50 and $100. (A wooden casket cost $2.) Former U.S. Vice-President and Secretary of State John C. Calhoun was buried in a Fisk coffin in April 1850, and after that, demand grew.

But Almond Fisk was not doing well; he had become ill while fighting a fire that destroyed his foundry in 1849 and had never recovered. In October of 1850, Fisk died. His investors, John G. Forbes and Horace White continued on with the company.

An 1851 ad for the Fisk’s Metallic Burial Case touted how “they preserve the forms we love, in something more like a pulseless slumber than a dread decay, they have the appearance of rich and heavy folds of drapery, thrown over the form, adapted to the shape, and realizing the line of “Thanatopsis.”

Soon after Crane, Breed and Company of Cincinnati obtained a license to produce Fisk coffins and several modified versions were introduced to the public. W.M. Raymond and Company of New York also produced several different versions of Fisk’s original iron coffin.

The form fitting shape gave way to sleeker, more box-like shape with a window over the face and another over the hands of the deceased. The size of the windows increased and soon the top was all glass except for a dividing bar across the middle.

Vladimir Lenin
Glass coffins became very popular in the late 1800s in Germany, especially when used for royalty and revered leaders. Vladimir Lenin is one of the most famous leaders who lies in state in a glass coffin in Red Square in Moscow. Others who rest eternally in a glass casket include Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, China's Mao Zedong, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, and North Korea's founding leader, Kim Il Sung.

Casket with Glass Cover
While all-glass coffins are favored for viewing, they are not usable as a burial case because they are too fragile to have earth heaped on top of them and maintain their form.

Today, glass caskets are still available, although not in the form you might expect. A glass casket is now a glass top that is placed over the deceased to deter mourners from touching the corpse. This also helps deter mourners from clipping hair, or pieces of clothing from the deceased to keep or sell as a memento.

Fisk Coffin at Berry Funeral Home
To view one of these “insightful” coffins, visit the Berry Funeral Home in Knoxville, Tennessee; Herr Funeral Home in Collinsville, Illinois; and the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

~ Joy

Friday, May 29, 2015

Traveling Along the Historic National Road

The 824 mile long Historic National Road begins in Cumberland, Maryland and ends in Vandalia, Illinois encompassing the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Over time, the road took on several names: Cumberland Road, National Pike,The Road That Built the Nation,” but in many communities it has simply been called Main Street, eventually earning the appropriate nickname "The Main Street of America." 

The National Road was the first federally funded road in U.S. history, and in many states is known today as Route 40. The road was built between 1811 and 1834 so that pioneers would have a good trail to follow through the Appalachians in order to reach the western settlements.

In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson authorized the building of a national byway that would connect Cumberland, Maryland to the Ohio River. It took five years before the first 10 miles of roadway were built, but by 1818 the road reached to Wheeling, West Virginia.
Settlers weren’t the only ones using the road, mail coaches, drovers and stagecoaches found it to be an easy way to connect with the frontier towns out west.

By 1825, the road had become famous and was being lauded in song, stories and legend. Small settlements began to pop up along the route, then communities and small towns were established as many pioneers decided to settle down at some spot along the way.

Inns, taverns, and stores selling staples and supplies were built, and these “pike town” began to thrive. Conestoga wagons traveled the National Road loaded with coffee and sugar for "out west," returning with produce and grain grown on the newly settled frontier. Life was prosperous along the National Road for many years - until the 1860s.

It was during that time that the railroads began to change the way people traveled the country, and enthusiasm for traveling on the National Road began to wane.

Building The Road
But, in 1885, the first automobile and the first bicycle were invented, and interest in road travel was renewed again.

The National Road became US 40 in 1926 when a national road system went into effect, but by the 1960s construction was completed on Interstate 70, and Route 40, with its meandering roadways, was left in the dust.

Today you can still travel the National Road and explore over 200 years of history. Old motels, classic diners, and century-old inns still line the byway. Each state highlights special sections along the route, but be sure to keep an eye out for cemeteries, too. Here are just a few to check out along the Historical National Road:

Key Monument 1898 and Today
Maryland is home to 170 miles of the National Road, traveling through urban Baltimore and across acres of rolling countryside. Mount Olivet Cemetery, located in Fredrick, has been called Maryland’s “Cemetery Beautiful” and is home to the burial monument for Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner.

Braddock's Grave
The Keystone State offers two great stops for tombstone tourists as soon as you cross the state line. Fort Necessity near Farmington is the site where the opening battle of the French and Indian War was fought. Check out the interpretive center here and get a feel for what life was like in the 18th century. Then it’s on to Braddock’s grave, a lone monument placed at the site of his demise "In remembrance of Major General Edward Braddock", who led the campaign to oust the French from American soil.

West Virginia
Mount Wood Cemetery
Overlooking the Ohio River is Mount Wood Cemetery, a Hebrew and Jewish Orthodox cemetery in Wheeling. Funerary art abounds on this rolling hill, from stones and monuments of the Victorian-era, to those more modern mid-twentieth century markers.

Camp Chase
The Buckeye State has numerous stops along the old National Road; for cemetery buffs, take time to visit Columbus, the state's capital, and tour the Old Governor’s Mansion and the Ohio Statehouse before heading to an old neighborhood known as “The Hilltop” for a poignant visit to Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery.

The Hoosier State boasts a beautiful lawn-style cemetery on this route: Crown Hill Cemetery, in Indianapolis, is a “Who’s Who” of famous and infamous residents: Indiana governors, senators, congressmen, and military officers are buried here along with U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, poet James Whitcomb Riley, and notorious bank robber, John Dillinger.

Franciscan Monastery Museum
The Land of Lincoln is the ending point of the National Road. Visit the Franciscan Monastery Museum in Teutopolis, the only one of its kind in the Midwest, and roam through over 30 rooms of artifacts relating to the Franciscans and early Illinois pioneers. St. Francis of Assisi Parish is home to the cemetery and mausoleum where the first Franciscan pastor is buried.

If you take to the road this summer, try a back route and see what adventures await …

~ Joy