I'm Oliver Webber, here with my research assistant, Kaydence Ribetnauer. You may not be able to see us because we're tucked in between these blades of grass, waiting for our next meal to fly in and land on one of them. To nourish our bodies and souls, we ponder leaves. We encourage contemplation... especially in regard to issues that will have to be handled when we become worm grub. We hope to motivate others to thoughtfully cultivate preferences and decisions while still vigorously leaping around. We recommend croaking... using voices to broadcast wishes before it's too late to have a voice in this matter. Other than a sumptuous supply of insects, this is assuredly the most "toad-ally" considerate gift we could leave for our life companions! Don't you agree? We invite you to get your feet wet by joining our pond of pondering pre-planners. Let's make croaking meaningful!

Friday, December 4, 2015



Is quality of life possible during the physical decline of a terminal condition?  That’s a question that has surfaced recently, possibly driven in large part by the baby boomer generation of alternative thinkers.  The answer seems to be trending toward an affirmative stance.  Yes, even people who are dying can infuse their lives with meaningful moments… possibly more so if they are detached from institutions where they could easily become tube-entangled in the mechanical ministrations that represent the bastion of the medical model.  

Though multiple surveys have indicated that a large proportion of people choose not to die in a hospital, among the majority of the population that is actually the place where lives end. Recognizing this reality, the literature these days is rife with rationales for eschewing a hospital environment during one’s final weeks or days.  Activists are reacting negatively to the scenarios that are borne of scientific advancements, yet are potentially aversive to patients and their families.  

Perhaps of particular note is that medical doctors don’t want to die in hospitals, either.  Though they are fully aware of all the mechanical and pharmacological means of bodily support, many say “no thank you” to the prospect for themselves.  One of them, Atul Gawande, has become a maverick of sorts in spreading the word about the contrasts between hearth or hospice and conventional hospital care.

In an article for the New Yorker Magazine, he referenced a study done as part of a Coping With Cancer Project.  “… terminally ill cancer patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator, given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions.  And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression. Spending one’s final days in an I.C.U. because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie on a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium and permanently beyond realizing that you will never leave this borrowed, fluorescent place.”  Furthermore, he notes, “as for last words, they hardly seem to exist anymore. Technology sustains our organs until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence.” 

Caring professionals in hospital environments humanely deliver treatments with utmost compassion. They respond empathetically to family members who are unable to acknowledge finality and let their loved ones go.  Medical personnel are geared toward saving lives and attempting to extend them by employing all possible means, such as surgeries or potent chemotherapies (that invariably cause debilitating side effects).  At the hands of their zealous efforts, though, often the patients feel worse.  Devices, feeding tubes, dialysis catheters, tracheotomies, and the like can virtually imprison the person who is tethered to tubes and pumps, drifting in and out of consciousness.  The last days or weeks of life may be exponentially arduous for afflicted individuals, while families can become overwhelmingly distraught by the ramifications of intrusive treatments.  A waning life may be tainted by drug-induced oblivion coupled with the procedures and equipment that render a zombie-like existence, in spite of the fact that there is no hope for reversal or arrest of the disease process.  The soaring cost of care for the terminally ill is yet another consideration compounding the hardship of such situations.

Through interviews and experiences with patients, Doctor Gawande has accumulated evidence that dying individuals have needs beyond just extending the number of days they continue to exist.  Surveys of folks with terminal illnesses have identified their priorities, which include prevention of suffering, time with family members, physical touching of others, mental acuity and awareness, and avoidance of being a burden.  

Pain relief and other palliative measures can be provided in hospice or home settings, without the complexities of counterproductive paraphernalia geared toward prolonging a life destined for an imminent ending.  Comfort care rather than curative treatments may include massages and other hands-on interactions that involve touch.  Soothing music may be part of the picture.  The familiar atmosphere of one’s home in itself may contribute to alleviation of distress.  If food is still able to be eaten, choices can be customized according to appetite and tolerance.  Contacts with friends and family members are more natural and unimpeded, in a place that’s conducive to supporting one another.  Once death has occurred, there is no rush to remove the body from the premises, allowing time for continued contact and spontaneous expressions that might not be possible in an institution.  

In his popular book, Being Mortal, Doctor Gawande elucidates what matters most to people who are dying.  His own father proclaimed that he wanted to continue his social life rather than have aggressive treatments that would deprive him of being social.  Another man said he would be okay as long as he could eat chocolate ice cream and watch football.  These declarations, then, served as guidelines for their final stages of life.  Everyone was aware of the objectives and the need to avoid an institutionalized experience.  

Until recently, physicians in general had assumed a skittish posture relative to enlightening their patients about the reality of their ominous circumstances.  No one, perhaps especially these providers, wants to admit defeat.  No one wants to alert folks to the fact that they have reached a dead end on their road of life.  Everyone likely feels the excruciating pangs of destiny.  

Increasingly, however, initiatives to discuss end-of-life wishes are emerging.  Within the medical profession, practitioners are being trained and encouraged to have such discussions with terminally ill patients.  There is a drive to reject knee-jerk treatment methodology in favor of finding out from each individual what matters most to that particular person.  

The “Gawande approach” entails posing five questions as elements of routine end-of-life discussions:  1. What is your understanding of where you are and of your illness?  2. What are your fears or worries about the future?  3. What are your goals and priorities?  4. What outcomes are unacceptable to you?  What are you willing to sacrifice or not to sacrifice?  
5. Upon reaching your final phase, what would a good day look like?  

So the question seemingly boils down to whether someone would opt for a dying experience that is primarily “medicalized” or humanized.  Maybe the pendulum is swinging toward a better way to go gently into the good night.

Monday, October 26, 2015


JOURNEY JOURNAL... West Point, New York


The pastoral burial property is located in the Hudson Valley Highlands within the gates of the United States Military Academy.  

Photo Source: Wikipedia.org

Sheltered by trees, the West Point Cemetery, America’s oldest military cemetery and a national historic landmark, has served as quarters for men and women deployed to heaven from the time of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) to the present.  Though not officially designated as a military cemetery until 1817, this promontory that was originally known as the “German Flats” had been utilized for interments of soldiers and local residents for several decades before that time.  After its formal classification as a cemetery, remains from several small gravesites scattered elsewhere on the post were moved here, along with others found during excavations for new construction projects.   

With a nod to the significance of this 8,000-strong underground detachment, the spirits of comrades, classmates, and others are mired in the hearts and minds of patriots still engaged in life’s operations.  Besides the military academy’s superintendents, past and present members of the Corps of Cadets, as well as its faculty and staff, leaders of every American war have been buried here.  Their physical remains and that of their families have been joined also by those of acclaimed engineers, athletes, and clergy… the old as well as the young:  

The Medal of Honor distinguishes twenty-four of the decedents.  

The number of West Point superintendents tallies twenty-five, including Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer, Class of 1808, who was afforded the title, “Father of West Point.”  Major General Winfield Scott was dubbed the “Grand Old Man of the Army.”  Names that tend to surface in elementary school history reviews include the Civil War cavalry commander, Colonel Custer, Class of 1861, and Major Anderson, Class of 1825, commander of Fort Sumter at the onset of the Civil War.  

Of more recent recognition might be Lieutenant Colonel Edward White from the Class of 1952, who was the first American to walk in space and subsequently died aboard Apollo One.  Interment of William Westmoreland, Class of 1936, who had been an extolled commander of various military operations, took place in 2005.  The cremated remains of Persian Gulf War commander and Class of 1956 graduate, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, were buried amid majestic military pomp in February, 2013, next to the plot of his father (Class of 1917), who was the founder of the New Jersey Police.      

Women are part of the encampment here as well.  A Revolutionary War heroine, Margaret “Molly” Corbin, engaged in battle as a surrogate for her mortally wounded husband and became the first female to be awarded privileges as a disabled veteran.  Second Lieutenant Emily Perez, Class of 2005, was the first female minority graduate, killed in 2006 by a bomb while leading a convoy; she was the first female African-American officer from West Point to die in combat, specifically, during the Iraq War.

So many individuals represented here had garnered plaudits for their accomplishments, while others were destined to the compound because of familial attachments.  The remains of some of the country’s most notable figures may be stationed next to those of people unknown to the masses; long-established gravesites and headstones are within range of newly excavated earth. 

Lying within a plain of dirt in close proximity to one another, this mosaic-like squad of the famous and those relatively undistinguished according to societal standards attests to an oft-quoted reality:  Death is the great leveler and all earthly glories vanish in death.  

“In the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal. 
There is neither rank nor station nor prerogative in the republic of the grave.”

                                                                                                         ~ John James Ingalls

Visitors may come to attention here, prompted by realization of a deviation from other military burial grounds.  In contrast to the Academy's campus milieu otherwise manifesting strictly defined formations and obligatory precision, the appearance of its cemetery might be unexpected.  Instead of the familiar sea of white tablets lined up repetitively in equidistant rows at other countrywide sites, there is a heterogeneous mix of stone memorials placed irregularly.  Rather than uniformity there is diversity.

Personally acquired stone memorials of various sorts are situated among the standard military versions.  

Some of the older ones are especially eye-catching because of their distinctions.  The headstone commemorating an eminent Army football coach, Earl “Red” Blaik, is in the shape of a football positioned for kick-off.  The body of a Civil War veteran, Egbert Viele, was interred in a two-story pyramid under the guardianship of two stone sphinxes.   

Photo Source:  ForUsAll Campaign for West Point, Cemetery Marketing

One- and two-hour bus tours are operated to enlighten people about the lives of historical figures and afford them an opportunity to absorb the surroundings.  Visitors are welcome all year round, throughout the week from sunrise to sunset, free to explore the grounds on foot.  There has been no master plan for plot arrangements and assignments.  Caretakers have made an effort to place the remains of classmates and friends close to one another.  Those that are casualties from the major wars may be in clustered sections.  

The caretaker’s cottage, erected in 1872, stands appropriately in guardianship adjacent to gravesites.
Photo Source: Wikipedia West Point media file

Originally, the Old Cadet Chapel was located across from the post’s clock tower at Bartlett Hall.  In 1910 when demolition was its proposed fate, a cadre of cadets who wanted it saved for posterity prompted its relocation to the cemetery.  
           Photo Source: Wikipedia West Point media file               

Contemporary columbarium walls follow the circular pattern of the cemetery’s layout.  

Photo Source:  ForUsAll Campaign for West Point, Cemetery Marketing

These burial grounds so rife with historical relevance are also filled to the gill with underground occupants.  After two centuries of open enrollment, so to speak, the capacity of this twelve-acre parcel is dwindling.  At the current rate of occupancy – one hundred forty to two hundred remains per year – it had been predicted that options for full bodily burials would evaporate within a decade.  Fortunately, that prospect has been addressed by the Academy and its graduates who have taken steps for expansion of the grounds as well as the construction of columbaria.  A development project was boosted by a monetary gift from the Class of 2011.  Plans include an embellishment of the modern age – a smartphone app that will enable visitors to identify sites.  

As a member of the association of graduates, Lieutenant Colonel Freed Lowrey, Class of 1967 and a Vietnam War veteran, has been active in raising funds for the project.  He aspires to be buried here in the company of classmates and comrades who died in the warfare they experienced together.  

“I want to be among soldiers.  I want to be among people of my own kind who have served and done so much for the nation and have sacrificed so much.  
I could be in Arlington, I could be in any national cemetery, but this is – and I’m not a religious person – I mean, West Point’s almost my soul.”  
                                                                                                    ~ Freed Lowrey

Noted in a mission statement, the intent of the West Point Cemetery is to deliver a final salute to those who have served the country.  Through commemorative actions and memorial tributes, may it be said, “Well done; be thou at peace.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015


JOURNEY JOURNAL… Point Loma (San Diego), California


San Diego bespeaks a lively military presence, with all sorts of US Navy ships docked in the harbor and naval base facilities fully operational, including the Naval Special Operations Unit where SEAL training is conducted at the Coronado Island Naval Amphibious Base.  About ten miles west of the central hub, tucked away toward the end of the Point Loma peninsula, a national cemetery administered by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs occupies about seventy-seven acres that formerly constituted the site of an Army coastal artillery station.  

Bisected by Catalina Boulevard, it abuts two sides of this main road that takes tourists to the historic Cabrillo National Monument and Old Point Loma’s Lighthouse, a national park’s attractions a mile away at the end of the peninsula. 

Travelers in cars might not pay attention to the communal treasure through which they pass to reach the tourist attractions… after all, it’s “just” a cemetery.  But if they divert from the beaten track, get out of their confined spaces and look around, they are apt to be enthralled by what they see.  

Whether overlooking a sweeping panorama of animated city and aquatic activities on the San Diego Bay side of the grounds or the infinite waters of the Pacific Ocean on the other side, an essence of peace pervades the atmosphere.  

People have referred to the cemetery’s ambience using words like “solitude,” “tranquility,” “solace,” and “beauty.”  “Breathtaking” is a commonly expressed descriptive adjective.  One visitor noted that words can’t describe the depth of the beautiful views, dubbing the environment here absolutely unbelievable.  A local resident considers it the best and most amazing cemetery she has ever seen, adding that it brings tears to her eyes every time she visits.  Someone felt transformed while there, recognizing a changed perspective and an appreciation for that which individuals sacrificed to keep our country free and the peacekeeper of the world.  Yet another person opined that it is the best location on earth for a final resting place. 

So what is it that instills such riveting admiration among visitors?  Perhaps the ardor can be attributed, yet again, to nature’s splendor that accents man’s strategic intervention.  

There’s something about an expanse of water that summons the soul and frees the spirit.  At this site, the body of water below the spread of elevated terrain bearing bodily remains underscores that sense.  In a burial milieu, one naturally thinks about souls… here, amid a dynamic mural of awe-inspiring marvel, perhaps especially so.  Above the cacophony of distant life, in the heights of this landmark resting place a visitor is apt to feel an ethereal aura magnified by a spiritually uplifting tenor.  One can easily fathom sequestered souls communing with readily accessible heavenly hosts.

“… hear from heaven our sailor's cry, 
     And grant eternal life on high!”
                                                                                          (an alternate verse adapted to the Navy Hymn, author unknown)

Is this state of transfixed reverence due to the gently buffeting ocean breeze or the shimmering sapphire waters of the bay or ocean below?  Are the sweeping views so mesmerizing that one succumbs to endorphin-induced bliss?  

Or might it be the conspicuous white marble crosses on this property that command the attention of rapture?  Could it be the vastness of graves amid the stillness, the sheer numbers of venerated veterans whose lives were cut short in missions of valor?  

Decedents of different eras have been interred here over the course of a century and a half.  They include veterans of the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam battles, the Gulf Wars, and other military operations, along with qualified family members.  Ground burials and columbaria inurnments amount to over 112,000, including twenty-three Medal of Honor recipients.  

The cemetery’s name stems from its location on the grounds of the former Fort Rosecrans.  It became a national cemetery in October of 1934 based on a need for more space due to changes in legislation increasing the number of people who would be eligible for burial in a national cemetery.  

In recent years long walls of columbaria were added to accommodate the cremated remains of thousands of additional World War II veterans.  The extensive lineation of structures replaced old chain-link fencing.  

Additionally, "Columbarium Court" was designed with rows of niche structures lined up in military-style precision.

Visitors to this section overlooking the Point Loma Naval Base can capture views of downtown San Diego and the bay.  

Memorial tablets and grave markers bear an individual’s name, lifespan dates, rank, places served, emblems, and sometimes a few succinctly relevant words.  

A number of monuments and memorials serve as tributes to groups of individuals who died under varying circumstances.  One is specific, such as the seventy-five-foot-tall granite obelisk that recognizes the deaths of sixty-two sailors who died in a boiler explosion aboard the USS Bennington in the San Diego harbor on July 21, 1905.  Others are composites with listings of soldiers from different missions, such as this one dedicated in 1995 to men who died in particular battles while aboard the identified ships.  

A committal service shelter blends into the environment unobtrusively, away from administrative, maintenance, and burial operations as well as the actual gravesite.  
Brief commemorative services are conducted here, highlighted by the customary military honors protocol conducted by military honors or volunteer honor guard teams.

The roofed, open-air pavilion provides seating for the immediate family and friends, accommodating ten to twenty people.  An uncovered paved area affords room for approximately fifty additional guests.  

Cones can be utilized for placement of flowers in the gravel strip alongside the columbarium.  Potted plants are permitted for a short time during holiday periods.  Floral pieces are removed by maintenance crews when they wilt or become unsightly.  Artificial flowers are permitted, but are removed on the last Friday of each month to facilitate maintenance measures.  Flowers or memorabilia directly on top of the columbarium or attached to niche fronts are strictly forbidden.  

A visitor from Houston, Texas summed up his impressions by declaring that this is one of the nicest military cemeteries you’d ever visit, ranking it on a par with Arlington Cemetery.  He encourages people to soak in the beauty and peacefulness while honoring the spirits of the bodily remains reposing here.

A final destination in this five-star cemetery with its clean and well-maintained grounds has been an aspiration of many eligible veterans who are currently alive and well.  Unfortunately, they must find alternative sites because the cemetery has run out of room, having filled the last remaining unclaimed niche spaces in May of 2014.  The columbaria had been the only available option, as most casket burials had been terminated in 1966.  Accommodations nowadays are limited to veterans who already have a niche or burial site because of a spouse already interred there.    

But the fact that this saturated state of affairs signaling maximum capacity has been reached does not affect anyone who merely wants to visit the property.  By adding it to a travel agenda, a new dimension in the military realm may be experienced and appreciated.  Here in a cemetery, history can come alive in a spirit of enlightenment.  In this particular one, a purview of glorious literal and spiritual horizons can be relished, as atop a hilly ridge one peers at the convergence of land and sea, basking in a heavenly haven.  

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


JOURNEY JOURNAL... Sorrento Valley (San Diego), California


Many things are aggregates composed of elements, parts grouped together to form wholes.  Separately, the individual components might not be so functional, aesthetically appealing, or impressive, but integrated with others to form a composite they may become strategic aspects of a magnificent ensemble, possibly even a masterpiece. For instance, think of a bouquet or handmade quilt!

“It's the sum of the parts that make up the whole, so in my opinion excellence comes from how one undertakes to do something. 
It all begins with the thought process - which is creative and exalted to produce something out of the ordinary.”
                                                                                                                  ~ Pankaj Patel 

Indeed, “out of the ordinary” characterizes the Narro-Niche columbarium permutation conceived and designed by the Conrad Pickel Studio.  The slim, yet full-capacity bronze urns that comprise the inclusive composition are box-like in shape and covered by a three-quarter-inch slab of solid marble or granite.  A mosaic design, dubbed a “Mosaicfront” by the originators, may be applied as an exterior embellishment.  The design on the front of niche unit is a cardinal element of the larger depiction.

Besides aesthetic appreciation, practicality underlies the conceptual rationale for this, as indoor or outdoor walls and corridors ordinarily unsuitable for niche installations can be utilized, requiring only five and a half inches of depth.  A joined assemblage of niche compartments can be applied directly against an established surface without the need to forge a recessed indentation.    

Beyond utility, though, is the potential for a vividly captivating illustration created by visionary artists.  That is, by nature of a coordinate frontal design, a single niche is like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a necessary component that’s pivotal to the larger image layout.  Without it, the picture on the wall would not be complete.  It is an essential part of the whole. Crafters use Venetian glass smalti to create the decorative wall panels.  The mosaic fronts are framed in bronze using conventional mounting systems.    

The El Camino Memorial Park in the San Diego area draws visitors aiming to see the gravesites of notable individuals, such as Jonas Salk (founder of the polio vaccine and the Salk Institute) and Ray Kroc (founding partner of McDonalds and owner of the Padres baseball team).  But straying from the usual tourist pathways can lead a visitor to the site of a Narro-Niche installation.  

Here, the structure and its mosaic portrait stand out against a blank mausoleum wall.

The site is embellished with plants, cenotaphs, and other stone structures.

Nameplates are positioned above individual niches. 

From the vantage of a side view, an unknowing observer might not realize that a collection of urns is behind the decorative panorama.

The only building in this image appears on the frontal facade of a single urn.  

This creation is but one of many stained and faceted glass windows, mosaics, and sculptures for religious and secular buildings that are produced by the Pickel Studio artists. Niche and crypt facades are only part of their focus. The enterprise was founded by the late Conrad Pickel, a world-renowned stained glass artisan as well as a sculptor and painter.  Since his death the company has been managed by his son, Paul.  

Professional artists on staff specialize in various aspects of design and installation while developing new techniques and applications.  

Photo Source:  Pickel Studios

Their work is featured in churches, cathedrals, and cemeteries around the country.  Among their showpieces are the faceted glass windows at Michigan Memorial Park’s Shrine of Remembrance Mausoleum (photos via link below).

At the Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, Illinois (Chicago area), two stories of magnificent glasswork enclosing a mausoleum purportedly form the largest stained glass window in the world.  Huge stained glass depictions of Bible narratives and more can be viewed by walking clockwise around the second and third floors of the building.

Photo Source:  Flicker by Robert Powers 
(more photos in blog reference)

The company’s Narro-Niche innovation, though of diminished proportions in contrast to their other productions, affords a balm of soothing representations, nonetheless.  “Good things come in small packages,” or in the case of cremated remains, go in small packages… and, at the hands of Pickel Studio creators, sometimes in narrow ones.  The packaging here invariably amounts to inspirational works of art.  Whether the projects are undersized or massive, their resplendent renderings reflect the words of an exemplary figure with an artistic eye who said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together” 
                                                                                                              (Vincent Van Gogh)