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From affordable options to see-through caskets, funeral directors gather in Baltimore to browse, buy and build up their profession

Amid 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 discussing developments, products and trends in the industry.

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For much of the populace, talk of death can be morbid, grim or unsettling. But those at the convention view “death care” as a business, a passion and a necessary, noble profession.

“You have to have a calling for it,” said Dorota Marshall, who owns Maryland Cremation Services. “It’s not a job. It’s a vocation.”

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During the four-day convention that ended Wednesday, 5,500 attendees could visit 375 vendors. Many offered traditional products: There were several hearses inside the convention hall, varied types of caskets and burial vaults, as well as urns and memorial keepsakes.

But some services were more modern.

Sam Sieber of Bio-Response Solutions in Danville, Indiana, describes its  water-based cremation process at the Baltimore Convention Center.

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 cremated 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 remains without a flame. A cremation retort — or chamber — can reach temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees, while aquamation requires just 200 or 300 degrees of heat in the container. Through a process that accelerates decomposition, water rushes over the body.

“Instead of 50 years of this happening in the ground,” Sieber said, “we’re doing it in six hours.”

Once someone is cremated, some relatives don’t know what to do with the “cremains” — an industry term for cremated remains. Parting Stone, a New Mexico company, offers to turn ashes into small stones.

“Each person yields between 40 and 60 stones,” said Alexandra Jo, Parting Stone’s director of outreach and education.

Such talk was common and casual at the convention. On the same floor as typical convention exhibits — people dressed in flower costumes promoting a tech company, a social media group advertising with splashy colors — there were examples of cremated remains and animal bones.

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Alexandra Jo of Parting Stone in Santa Fe, New Mexico, handles solidified ashes that are marketed as an alternative form of remains.

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 definitely got razzed by some of my classmates, especially younger people,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s really morbid. You’re gonna do that? You’re gonna drive a hearse?’”

Mitchell is now the funeral directors association’s president and a funeral director at 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 experience it, what it is to be a funeral director, there aren’t many professions that exist where you’re helping people more than you are when you’re helping them through the death of a loved one,” said Mitchell, who is a sixth-generation funeral director.

One challenge for funeral directors is what Mitchell described as “compassion fatigue.” Each day, they comfort people who are grieving. He said it’s essential to find balance; if you’re too invested, you’ll burn out, but if you’re too removed, you’re not providing the requisite compassion and support.

“The most important thing is to be in an emotional middle ground,” he said.

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Another vendor at the convention, Passages, offered eco-friendly products, including bamboo caskets and the ability to geotag the location where ashes are scattered. Darren Crouch, the company’s president, said the problem historically with scattering a loved one’s ashes is that there was nowhere for a family to return to, like there is for a burial. The geotagging product seeks to provide a solution to that as cremation becomes more commonplace.

“Unusual as it sounds, cremated remains are almost, you could say, more versatile than human remains,” Mitchell said of some of the trends in the industry.

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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,” explained owner Sean Marshall.

Others, like Clear View Caskets, offered high-end products. Its see-through, acrylic caskets retail between $4,800 and $8,000. The Miami-based company became more popular during the coronavirus pandemic, when open-casket funerals were banned in some places and a clear casket became the only way to have a “viewing.”

Another exhibitor, Eterneva, appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and received funding for its service, which turns ashes into diamonds.

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There were also vendors advertising urns with seedlings that grow into a plant, 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 putting together videos or an online memorial. CEO Joey Joachim was once called “the Willy Wonka of funeral service” by “American Funeral Director” magazine.

“Everything we do is trying to say, ‘How can we make this less painful?’” Joachim said. “We already know we’re not gonna make it perfect. You lost somebody. It sucks. But if we can make the experience that much better, then we won.”


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