The difficulty with death, Baylor University professor Candi K. Cann says, is that it is disruptive. Even when we have done everything we can do to prepare for it, it often comes when we least expect it. We mourn the absence of those we love in our lives, and many of our mourning rituals make the pain of passing worse.
Modern society denies the dead in any place. Bodies of the dead are placed in cemeteries, or the ashes of the dead are kept in urns. Our language contains phrases like “moving on,” “passing away,” and “gone to a better place.”. But there aren’t many solutions for how we remember those that we have lost.
But an Austin, Texas company called Eterneva has developed a unique technological process to give lasting comfort for those who are still grieving. Through their partnership with Baylor University, they have also conducted some truly groundbreaking research into grief and what helps people get through the loss of a loved one.
Mourners don’t just “move on.”
For much of the twentieth century, millions of mourners were advised to “just move on.”
Prominent influencers of psychological thought, such as Sigmund Freud, had put great weight on emotional disengagement from the deceased as a necessary final step in healthy bereavement. Their theories percolated through society and encouraged the practice of making new attachments to new people, forgetting the deceased’s role in day-to-day life.
Well-intended friends and relatives employed euphemisms for death to minimize loss. The result was that children, parents, spouses, siblings, and friends often doubted their coping skills, still feeling an attachment to the deceased and dissonance over internalized messages about “letting go.”
But about 25 years ago, psychologists realized that Freud’s prescription for emotional health didn’t work.
Fading Affect Bias
The reality is that it’s just not so easy to get over the loss of a loved one. Memories of the deceased are preserved intact. People do not conveniently forget their experiences with the people closest to them, like flipping a light switch. Even if it were healthy for them, mourners do not file away all their memories of those that they’ve lost.
The process of healing grief, a more modern cadre of psychologists theorized, was that memories of the dead take on a different emotional impact with the process of grieving. Healthy grieving introduces a bias not in the memory of facts but in how one feels about them.
This kind of bias isn’t bad.
Fading Affect Bias refers to the tendency of time to have a stronger emotional reaction to happy memories than to unhappy memories. It just means that, in healthy mourning, unpleasant memories fade faster than pleasant memories.
Healthy mourning doesn’t wipe away the facts of life with the deceased, good, bad, ugly, or beautiful. Healthy mourning dampens the emotional “affect” of unhappy memories and heightens the emotional potency of happy memories.
Fading Affect Bias makes it easier to interact with others while mourning. “Social rehearsal” allows someone to continue to feel their grief while still interacting with others appropriately.
Fading Affect Bias reduces anxiety. It’s natural to wonder if coping is possible after someone you love dies. Recounting happy memories of them makes that coping easier and increases confidence in dealing with the challenges of life.
When Fading Affect Bias is not achieved after a loss, the effects of loss show up in negative ways. People who are unable to mourn develop problems in their jobs. They may overeat or drink too much or gamble. They may not embrace the ongoing opportunities in their lives to connect with people, to pursue their dreams, and to feel happy. A team of research psychologists described bitterness over the loss, preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, and yearning for the deceased can lead to rumination (continuously thinking and talking about the same thing), global cognitive deficits, preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, and an impossible yearning for the deceased. These psychologists tell us that achieving this healthy bias in the brain can be harder or easier.
What makes mourning difficult?
Modern psychological research finds that the process of fading affect bias requires accepting death. It is not possible to get over a death that is not accepted as real.
The ways that mourners deny the death of people they love aren’t necessarily their fault.
Religious beliefs can be profoundly helpful or profoundly unhelpful. Many churches teach a theology of damnation, redemption, and not knowing the departed’s eternal destiny. Interpreting death as a punishment from God is not helpful in recovering from mourning.
Spiritual beliefs that the departed is still present, observing the living or acting as a guardian to the living, are similarly maladaptive for the healing process. None of this is to say that religious teachings or spiritual beliefs are not true. Determining eternal verities is not in the realm of the psychological process. Psychology simply finds that people get better when they have tangible reminders of the deceased that they can only have after the death of that person in their lives.
What kinds of tokens of the dead help with the grieving process?
Harvard-trained Dr. Candi Cann documented various tangible methods of coping with death in her book Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century.
After most deaths, the process of grief involves a funeral, and most funerals require a casket, an urn, or a body in the room. A funeral with a body doesn’t have the same emotional impact. A “celebration of life” without visual proof of death just doesn’t connect in the same way as a service with the body of the deceased in attendance. When the dead body has gone missing from the ceremony, bereavement is denied.
Dr. Cann also regards embalming and cremation as, in their own ways, a denial of death. In embalming, the body must be drained, transfused, sewn up, and made presentable for viewing at the funeral. Embalming does not bring us closer to the reality of our loved one’s death. It estranges us from the process.
That isn’t to say that embalming is not comforting in some situations. But it is not an acceptance of death.
Funeral homes and many (but far from all) local laws promote the burial of bodies in caskets. Funeral homes advise that the casket will be “hermetically sealed.” The casket may be buried in a vault to protect it from the elements. Caskets may be injected with nitrogen gas to slow down decay. None of these methods, of course, prevent decay forever.
Caskets are placed in cemeteries, which are not socially accepted in American culture as places for daily life (although Latin American cultures have a very different view of the dead’s visitability in cemeteries). Cemeteries are another way of putting a gap between the living and the dead.
Cremation, Dr. Cann points out, destroys the body altogether. The “cremains,” the ashes resulting from cremation, can be a way of keeping loved ones in closer contact with their loved ones after death. But recent research by Dr. Cann sponsored by Eterneva has found that funeral urns that are first displayed on a mantel or in some other prominent position in the home are usually relegated to storage after a few years.
Dr. Cann notes other, creative ways of staying connected to the dead.
Tattoos. In some cultures, including some groups in the United States, mourners mark the passing of people they love with a tattoo. The tattoo may include the name, birth date, and death date of the deceased, along with a symbol of love or faith. A highly visible tattoo makes private bereavement publicly known. To accept the person with the tattoo is to accept their grief.
Dr. Cann visited a number of tattoo artists in Hawaii in researching her book. She found that all of them had experience inking memorial tattoos, but only very rarely would the deceased’s ashes be mixed into the ink to make a truly mobile memorial.
Although about 40 percent of Americans Millennials and adult members of Generation Z are tattooed, tattoos are not for everyone.
Wearing Tokens of Loved Ones Lost
In ancient times, mourners wore sackcloth and ashes. Until the first quarter of the twentieth century, mourners wore black for a year or more after the death of someone close to them.
In modern times, mourners may wear commemorative T-shirts or have bumper stickers and decals made so their cars can “wear” the dead.
Other memorials to the Deceased
The dead are remembered with crosses, stars of David, crescents, and atomic symbols. Trees and flower gardens are planted in memory of the dead. Grieving families may buy park benches and bricks to place in sidewalks or walls. An organization called GhostBike encourages the decoration of bicycles with a memorial plaque and flowers to remember the lives of people killed in bicycle accidents.
Tangible, physical reminders of the dead keep death real. They encourage healthy adaptation to new life realities by giving greater weight to happy memories than to sad memories.
But each of these memorials has its limitations. Eterneva has a new technology for creating a beautiful presence of the dead that can go with mourners everywhere, every day.
Memorial Diamonds From Eterneva Emerge
As grief wellness startup Eterneva co-founder Adelle Archer tells the story, in 2015, her lab mentor Tracey was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told she had just three months to live. At age 47, Tracey felt she was just getting started. She felt she was not leaving a legacy.
Adelle knew that Tracey had already made a mark on the world. As news of Tracey’s illness spread, people started sending her testimonials of her importance in her field, in their careers, and to their lives. Tracey died knowing she had left a legacy behind.
Adelle became the guardian of Tracey’s ashes. She searched for a fitting memorial to her mentor and friend. That’s how Adelle made a partnership with Garrett Ozar to create Eterneva.
Eterneva assists families experiencing profound grief. They know that the loss of a loved one is beyond words. They do not offer platitudes. An essential part of their service is to meet and talk with grieving parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, and other family members to remember the loved one they lost.
In the course of getting to know mourners, Eterneva seeks to create an atmosphere of peace and security. Only when the relationship is established does the company provide customers with a way to send in the ashes of the deceased for transformation into a diamond.
Eterneva extracts carbon from cremains for the raw materials for making a diamond. It takes about seven months for the carbon from a cup of ashes — or hair — to be transformed into a diamond of the color, carats, and cut of the customer’s choice.
Cremains become a thing of beauty. Equally important, they become a mobile memorial.
At its most basic level, Dr. Cann explains, grief is the experience of absence. A diamond can be fashioned into jewelry that will be constantly present in the wearer’s life. The creation of a diamond from the deceased’s ashes stabilizes the sense of presence that allows joyful memories to move front and center whenever the wearer remembers the dead.
Eterneva has found that the months of interaction leading up to the creation of the diamond can be a healing experience for their customers. They have collected testimonials of the relief and joy diamonds create for people who had been dealing with crippling grief.
But Eterneva is not content to rely on anecdotes. Eterneva worked with Dr. Cann to conduct research to confirm the value of their process in recovery from grief. As Eterneva’s co-founders Adelle Archer and Ozar put it, Eterneva is not a diamond maker. They are a grief wellness company.
What to expect from Dr. Cann’s research
Dr. Cann’s research study is ongoing. The full results of her study will not be available until 2021. However, she has been able to release some preliminary findings.
One of her quantitative findings has been that storing a loved one’s ashes in an urn as a memorial is portable but not palatable.
Funeral urns serve no purpose other than to remind those who see them that the person whose ashes are inside was once alive but is alive no longer. For this reason, urns with ashes tend to “migrate” over the years as they are kept.
A funeral urn that sits on an altar or a mantel has a way of being relegated to a closet — and then what does the owner do? To scatter the ashes years after death and loss are to admit that death is final and the relationship is over. The benefits of scattering ashes as “something the deceased wanted” are progressively lost the longer the urn is stored.
But of greater interest will be her two qualitative studies to be released in 2021. Dr. Cann will present an examination of the ways material objects serve as continuing bonds to the dead. Dr. Cann will examine Eterneva’s customer base to point out ways the process of creating a diamond serves as a legacy project and inspires memorials of social service that uplift communities.
Dr. Cann’s research aims to offer academic validation of Eterneva’s process of grief wellness. As the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Baylor University puts it:
“Eterneva is a consumer technology company and grief wellness brand that celebrates lives by making diamonds from ashes. Eterneva designed an intricate eight-month process to create these soulful remembrances, which is a journey that is as special as the diamond and the person behind it. Customers personalize diamonds’ size, color, cut, and inscriptions, so they serve as meaningful connections to the loved ones behind it. From interactive video packaging to hand-written letters, to a courier service that hand-delivers the diamond in a homecoming service, customers experience a level of thoughtfulness they’ve never seen before.”