A Need For Memory
Angela Campbell doesn’t look like your typical chaplain. Her collar is orange, not black. She has close-cropped hair and diamond studs. She wears wire-framed glasses and a warm smile that makes you feel at home immediately. Speaking with her is comforting and familiar.
Nevertheless, it’s awkward for two people to talk about death when you don’t know where each of you stands on the subject of God and the afterlife. But Campbell does a good job of tiptoeing around the subject until she finally asks, “Do you believe in God?” I reply that I’m a recovering Southern Baptist, being from Texas and all. A knowing smile crosses her face.
She originally comes from a small town in Tennessee, where her childhood laid the groundwork for her current vocation. “There was cancer in my family, and suicides. I’ve always been around death,” she says. She began work as a chaplain eight years ago, the result of a direct calling from God. “I argued with Him for about three months because this is something I never dreamed of doing. However, when I look back over my life, all the stuff about death that scared me…was a preparation for this calling.”
Demand for hospice chaplains has risen sharply since 2000–nearly 72 percent of hospice patients accept visits from chaplains, according to a 2008 study by the CDC. The medical world acknowledges that spiritual care comforts terminal patients, and not just the religious either. In fact, rather than serving a particular faith, chaplains delve into a range of spiritual needs, based on the personal outlook of the patient or survivor under care. People talk about regrets, unfinished business, mysteries of life and unanswered questions. “In my opinion, as people get close to their departure, there is a veil that is lifted,” says Campbell. “I don’t think that dying is in an instant. I think it’s a process. And as someone starts the dying process, they start seeing the ‘now’ clearly. This life and what’s to come.”
Campbell believes in heaven as a place, and she brings a deep commitment to helping people prepare for their final days. She doesn’t dwell on the part of the afterlife that she learned to fear in the pews of her grandfather’s church in Jefferson City, Tennessee. “Growing up in the church was so hurtful, but something made me stay. I learned a lot about the Bible, [and] now I know I was learning because I was going to be helping people who had been damaged just like me, but their path in life didn’t bring them to the place of grace that I had found.”
Her work also extends to family and friends left behind at death. “Many people feel like they can’t go on, but they really can. And when they realize they have more strength than they ever dreamed, that’s rewarding.” But Campbell noticed that for those who chose cremation, the process tended to leave families feeling a bit lost. With no memorial to attend, no funeral to go to, and no final resting place to visit, survivors of the cremated sometimes felt a lack of permanence that a cemetery plot and granite headstone once provided.
Because of the need to have something—anything—to hold on to after cremation, an entire industry has risen up. Hourglasses, records, pencils, shotgun shells, fireworks, genetically modified trees, tattoo ink, paint; if you can dream it up, someone can put your loved one’s ashes in it, for a price. “Funeral homes are getting rich with fingerprint jewelry, diamonds made of ashes—all of that is very expensive,” says Campbell. Yet with hospice patients, a family’s resources have often been exhausted to support life, with little to nothing left to spend after death. In the pursuit of helping families deal with this problem, Campbell connected with William “BT” Hathaway via the social media website LinkedIn. “There was this message asking me to [view] a website. I never do that sort of thing. But I believe everything happens for a reason.”
The message pointed to MemryStone.com, the homepage for a start-up Hathaway founded to address the limitations he saw in modern cremation practice. The hand- molded ceramic markers made by him and his staff allow survivors to inscribe a permanent message that will travel through cremation with the deceased. The MemryStones return intact to provide a very personal form of identity confirmation for the final remains. They also offer a lasting sense of connection and participation without the excessive costs and lengthy wait of many keepsakes.
Hathaway started his project with a New England-based ceramics artist, but soon discovered that MemryStones required an entirely different approach to meet his expectations. “I set up a workshop in the basement of our funeral home and taught myself how to design and produce exactly what families needed,” says Hathaway, who had never fired a kiln before early last year.
“In time, funeral homes and crematories may decide to offer MemryStones to the families they serve,” says Hathaway. “But I have chosen to provide them through the Internet first, so that no family has to wait for a funeral provider to participate.” Orders received online ship directly to survivors, who then inscribe the MemryStones themselves and bring them to the funeral home or cremation provider for placement with the person they want to remember.
Campbell instantly knew this would be of use to her patients and their families, around 80 percent of whom choose cremation instead of burial. She initially purchased four MemryStones with her own money to give to a few hospice patients. “I knew immediately to whom I would give two of them,” she says. The first one she gave to a little boy whose father was about to pass away. He drew a picture of them riding in a car together on the stone.
She gave another to a woman who was going into death “eyes wide open,” as she puts it. Angela told her about the stone first, and the patient wanted one to leave as a legacy for her daughter. “She wanted her ashes scattered—she didn’t want them to sit on a mantel or in a closet somewhere, so she liked the idea of something her daughter could keep instead.” The woman practiced what to write several times, and then decided on the inscription: “I’ll be with you always.” She asked Angela to keep the MemryStone until her death and make sure it came to her daughter with the ashes after everything is over. “It’s going to be so meaningful to her. It will have gone through the fire, [with] her mom’s words still there on the stone.”
Campbell says for her and the patients she serves, this little ceramic piece inscribed with a message is more than just another funeral home product. “Something like this is a foundational document of our legacy…the imprint someone leaves on your soul or heart. Having something permanent helps us to know some things never end.”
Written by: Erin Burt, burtcreative.com
MemryLane is an outreach of MemryStone, makers of ceramic markers which survivors inscribe with a message and send through the cremation process with someone who has died. The MemryStones return intact as a more personal form of identity confirmation and as a lasting touch-stone for memory. Online purchase options available for family and survivor groups across the country.