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Forget Corn Dogs – This Bakersfield Festival Serves Up Death Talk And A Crematorium Tour

Jun 7, 2019

Jim La Mar likes to run and work out, and he’s excited to meet other athletes—like Amanda Duket, who, with broad shoulders and muscular arms, tells him she’s been training as a runner and weightlifter for nearly a decade.

They chitchat about the struggle of staying in shape, but when they begin discussing body weight, the conversation takes an unexpected turn. “So I would cremate really quick, is what you’re saying,” she says, laughing. “Yeah you would go great, we’ve got to break out a prize,” La Mar jokes back.

The event was held at the Southwest Bakersfield location of Greenlawn Funeral Homes and Cemeteries.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

That’s right: They’re talking about cremation. They’re standing outside Greenlawn Funeral Homes and Cemeteries in Southwest Bakersfield at the “Before I Die” festival, a 1-day affair all about end-of-life issues. La Mar is Greenlawn’s president and one of the festival’s hosts, and Duket just finished a tour of the crematorium. “I've always been interested in cremation, and the tour was really cool,” she says. “Just learning about the different times bodies take in there was kind of intriguing I think.”

It turns out the more fat you’ve got, the longer you burn. La Mar, who led the crematorium tour, has an urnful of fun facts like this. “You know the number-one most popular place for scattering cremated remains in the U.S.? Disneyland,” he shouts to an incredulous crowd. “The happiest place on earth!”

Around 150 people have come out today—yes, baby boomers making their own end-of-life plans, but also a few gaggles of 20- and 30-somethings, some with baby carriages, drawn here out of curiosity. The day is anything but stiff, with talks about estate planning and hospice care, an obituary-writing workshop and even a tour of an embalming facility. People need jokes to lighten that one up. “It’s like liposuction!” says the tour guide about a tool called a hydro-aspirator, to nervous laughter.

The "retort," the piece of equipment that cremates bodies, heats up to about 1700 deg. F., says Greenlawn President Jim La Mar while leading a tour outside the crematorium.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

The star of the day, though, is the crematorium tour. Noelia Citialin is fascinated by a photo of a pile of bones. That’s what’s ground up to make cremated remains. “I didn’t really anticipate to see that, cause you imagine the heat’s so high it’s all gone,” she says. “But the fact that they have to deal with remains and all that, it’s just very morbid.”

Later, Citialin points out her car for me in the parking lot. She drives a hearse.

The festival was organized by Gail Rubin, an author and speaker who’s literally a certified death expert or thanatologist. Inspired by Before I Die events elsewhere, she’s now organized three 5-day festivals in her native Albuquerque, and she brings talks and games to other death-related festivals around the country. For the Bakersfield event, she teamed up with La Mar and an ad agency for what she believes is the first of its kind to be jam-packed into one day.

Gail Rubin, left, who calls herself the "Doyenne" (or expert) of death, listens to audience discussion during her so-called "Death Cafe."
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

Kicking off the day, Rubin ushers attendees into a beige conference room filled with little round tables and a few boxes of doughnuts. “We’re playing the Newly-Dead Game!” she shouts, in a collared shirt and cowboy boots embroidered with colorful skulls.

Participants answer multiple choice questions about whether they have a will or burial plan, and whether they’re in writing. But beware: Choose Option D, “I don’t care, I’ll be dead,” and receive zero points—as well as some ribbing from Rubin. Afterward, she gives the volunteers copies of her funeral-planning books.

With the Newly-Dead Game, Rubin hopes to encourage participants to plan earlier for the ends of their lives.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

Next, Rubin moderates an informal discussion, something she calls a “Death Café.” “My main motto is ‘just like talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals and end of life issues won't make you dead,’” she says.

The audience is into it. Hailing from Bakersfield, Shafter, Delano and even Santa Barbara, dozens of strangers share deeply personal stories of spreading ashes, moving through grief, and self-forgiveness—all with laughter. Rubin says tackling these subjects head-on is kind of the point in what she calls a “death-averse” society. “This provides the opportunity for people to get their questions answered,” she says, “to come to a funeral home for something other than a funeral, and to come away laughing, learning and hopefully being better prepared to deal with this inevitability for our lives.”

It worked for Carol Faber, who drove here from Tehachapi with her husband, David. She’s 72, he’s 60, and they thought they knew what they wanted. “Our plan is to get cremated and then we both have spots in the ocean that we want to be spread at,” David says, after Carol jokes that she just wants to be put in a dumpster.

David and Carol Faber of Tehachapi appreciated the Before I Die Festival or different reasons: He found answers to burning questions about death, and she found humor helped her to discuss end-of-life planning more easily.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

But now, they say, they may invest in graves or memorials after all, for the kids to visit. Granted, more customers is exactly what Greenlawn and Jim La Mar want, and part of the reason they hosted this festival.

Still, the event was an opportunity for David to finally ask one of his burning questions: Does anyone ever wake up in the cremator? “I want to make sure I'm dead before I get cremated,” he says. “He's got that in his little letter to the kids, make sure I'm dead,” Carol says, laughing. Funeral directors told him: His body would have been sitting for days. He’d be long dead. “That made me feel a lot better,” he laughs.

So what to do after an event like this: Take a somber ride home, visit a lawyer, maybe call the kids? Not the Fabers. They have something else in mind. “We’re gonna go see Rocketman,” Carol says.

They don’t see the point in being worried to death.