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Cookies and corpses: Inside the world’s biggest death convention

Updated September 16, 2023 - 8:08 am

It’s just past noon, and we’re learning how we can keep a dead relative in our pocket.

“The average person is about 40-80 stones,” notes Justin Crowe, the slim, mustachioed founder and CEO of Parting Stone, a company that turns the remains of the deceased into rock-like formations of various shapes and sizes that you can hold in your hands without getting ashes on your fingertips, or maybe skip the dearly departed across their favorite lake some day.

But a few feet away, Garrett Ozar details how his business turns human remains into gemstones.

“What we do is we get a small amount of remains or hair from a family,” begins Ozar, co-founder and co-CEO of Eterneva, which creates memorial diamonds. “We extract carbon from that inside of a machine that emulates the Earth’s crust — it’s like 600,000 pounds of pressure, 3,000 degrees in temperature — and the carbon atoms literally bond together in a real diamond.”

Over the P.A. system, a woman’s voice booms.

“Welcome to Las Vegas, baby!” she announces. “And the NFDA Convention.”

Those initials are short for the National Funeral Directors Association, and we’re at the world’s largest funeral services gathering — now in its 141st year since launching in Rochester, New York in 1882 — with 380 vendors and 5,000 attendees clustered in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall for three days early last week.

It’s a maze of urns shaped like bowling balls and motorcycle gas tanks, of high-end hearses polished to a reflective sheen and jewelry adorned with the fingerprints of the dead.

This being Vegas, of course, there’s a skeleton dressed like Elvis hawking embalming chemicals and such.

The subject matter here is dark, but the mood is light: Turns out the end of life can be the start of a good time — in the proper setting, for those who trade in grief for a living, who deal with all the ugly stuff that the rest of us pass on to folks like these to handle.

“It’s fun to be around a bunch of people who understand the death-care experience,” Crowe says. “You’re at dinner, and somebody’s at the next table talking about their funeral home and being with families, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I know that stuff.’ I mean, it’s hard to find that anywhere else.”

Then he poses the very question that we’re here to answer.

“How is it for you being at a death conference?”

Cookies and corpses

“Everybody has a gimmick.”

So says Jimmy Olson, the nattily-attired funeral director of the Olson Funeral Home & Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, who sports a red-and-grey bowtie and seemingly knows everyone here on a first-name basis.

He’s attended the convention for 20 years now, where he doubles as an NFDA spokesperson.

We’ve just passed a booth from a health insurance company offering free glasses of champagne to lure in passersby, hence Olson’s observation.

On one level, this convention functions like pretty much all conventions: The goal here is to generate as much foot traffic as possible to your booth in order to best sell whatever it is you’re trying to sell, whether it be funeral streaming platforms or recycling services for all the gold teeth and titanium hips left over from cremation.

Of course, you attract more flies with honey than vinegar, hence the gratis Bloody Marys at the association’s Advocacy Division booth, pooch-adorned tubes of lip balm at the Ultimate Canine therapy dog station — which featured a trio of excitable pups to pet — and photo ops with a trio of women dressed as giant flowers, complete with petal-headdresses, to garner attention for a funeral insurance company.

We spotted not one, but two putting greens — and yes, naturally, there was a cookie baking station.

What didn’t we see?

Many caskets, surprisingly.

As Olson notes, the majority of Americans — 65 percent nationally — now favor cremation instead of your standard burial, the former surpassing the latter in 2013.

That number varies across the country, though.

“You’ve got states like California, Oregon, Washington that are almost 100 percent cremation,” he explains. “In Florida, Arizona — retirement communities — and the Midwest, the Bible Belt, with more religion and church traditions, traditional burial is still very prevalent.

“Most people bury them or scatter them; take them home and put them on a mantel,” he continues of cremation remains. “But there’s some new ideas.”

‘A never-ending adventure for the deceased’

A beer-bottle burial at sea, that was his father’s dying request.

When Matt Greene’s dad passed away two years ago, he intended to do as his father wished, putting his cremated remains in some empty Corona bottles.

“I did like everybody else, had his ashes, set them on my gun safe for six months, nine months, and I’m like, ‘I need to do something,’” he recalls through a Southern accent underscoring his North Carolina roots. “So I came up with this new concept.”

Greene went out and bought a small Plano dry box to contain his father’s remnants, affixed a GPS tracker to it, tossed the thing into the ocean, and then chronicled its journey on Facebook.

“I had such a following of people who wanted to see this,” he says, “and were just infatuated with what was going on and how the ocean worked, how this was transpiring. It kind of clicked a light bulb for us: ‘Maybe this will be something for the general public, that they might do.’”

And so Greene created The Voyager, a metal buoy that houses the remains of the deceased, equipped with technology that allows its location to be tracked as it travels through the ocean.

The Voyager, which won the Innovation Award for Greene’s company, Bluewater Voyage, at the convention this year, can be sunk anywhere on command via satellite if it ends up at a location the customer chooses to be its final resting spot.

Otherwise it automatically sinks itself after a year.

“We never know what’s gonna happen,” Greene says. “It’s a never-ending adventure for the deceased.”

One trend in the funeral industry on prominent display at the convention is the proliferation of more novel ways of dispersing cremated remains.

“I think 25 years ago the model was, we’ll keep the remains or inter them in a cemetery,” says Darren Crouch, president and CEO of Passages, a company that specializes in eco-friendly funeral products. “But what people are doing now is mostly going out and scattering.”

This includes — but is certainly not limited to — turning the dead into crabapple trees.

To wit, we stop at The Living Urn booth, whose BioUrn uses human remains as fertilizer to grow a tree of your choice.

“What is the cremated remains? It’s bone; it’s carbon; calcium phosphate,” Olson explains. “Trees, plants, love phosphate. So it leeches the phosphate out of the pulverized bone, and then you actually nourish and become the tree.”

“It’s just the idea of, you know, life after life,” elaborates Mike Walas, a spokesman for The Living Urn.

Outside these walls, the funeral industry is largely associated with solemnity and loss, a respectful quietude for the recently deceased.

And there are more sobering aspects of the convention: a booth for the National Alliance for Children’s Grief; the Fallen Heroes Memorial made of dog tags from deceased members of the armed forces; the staging of a military funeral service complete with flag-folding ceremony and “Taps” played on an automated bugle.

But there’s also a palpable sense of camaraderie here, a lot of life amid so much death, with strangers cheerfully greeting strangers in a manner you’re unlikely to ever hear anywhere else.

“Y’all have a crematory?” a woman with tattooed forearms asks a pair of ladies approaching her booth by way of introduction.

Of course they answered in the affirmative.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram

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