Reflections on Creative Mornings Fargo: Alex Rydell
It’s not often that one starts the day thinking about death and what it can teach us. But that is precisely what Team Tellwell had the privilege of doing at Creative Mornings Fargo on Friday, July 26. Gathered in the sunlit fortress of Drekker’s Brewhalla, a whole host of community members came together to drink coffee, eat muffins, and hear from Alex Rydell, Funeral Director at Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home.
In keeping with July’s Creative Mornings theme of “End,” Alex shared with us about the transformative power of funerals, how he stays creative in the funeral industry, and what being a funeral director has taught him about life and death.
You know, casual Friday morning stuff.
One of the main takeaways, that we’ll just say right now, is that funeral directors are badass. I mean, think about it. They are the people we rely on at one of the most crucial points of the human experience; experiencing a death. It is, as Alex duly noted, one of the most transformative moments in a person’s life. The funeral director’s duty is immense; to care for the dead, to grieve with the grief-stricken, and to create a beautiful experience that helps make saying goodbye a bit easier. It’s no wonder there is a private Facebook group for the National Funeral Directors Association to meet and share ideas on how to better offer that care. Even that alone sounds so cool. I picture them all in black suits and wire-rimmed glasses, meeting around a giant mahogany table and discussing important deathly matters.
In all seriousness, the focus on death is something I appreciated most about Alex’s talk. It put death—something many of us fear, or at best ignore, despite it being inevitable—in the spotlight. Every single person will die at some point. And yet rarely do we face this fact head-on, much less talk about it on a sunny Friday morning over coffee.
And here is a man who must talk about it, who must face death and conversations about death, every day.
We asked the question, how do you manage the weight of grief regularly? How do you combat the burnout from that?
“Music helps,” Alex responded. He plays fiddle for the band Poitin, which plays lovely Irish songs and happy tunes at local pubs. “And my son Brady, who is one of the most joyful things in my life.”
But it is difficult, he said, especially in a smaller community where he often knows the person who has died. In the hardest moments, he reminds himself that what he does is a service to others and to the community.
“It is a privilege to do what I do, to walk alongside those who are grieving,” he said.
Part of how Alex does this is by infusing creativity into the funeral process, he shared. Whereas funerals in the past were cookie-cutter services that you selected from a template, today, he and other funeral directors across the nation are seeking to create more personalized experiences. Using technology to live stream ceremonies and create videos allows loved ones to take part in the ceremony, even if they cannot attend in person. And learning more about the person who has died gives Alex an opportunity to help the family grieve by including personal details; golf clubs for a grandpa who golfs, or quilts for grandma who quilts.
While the funeral experience continues to evolve, at the heart remains the very human experience of grieving death. Since ancient times, people have sought ways to grieve and honor their loved ones as they pass on from this life — even dating back to 60,000 BC when Neanderthals supposedly placed flowers with the bodies of those who died. One thing that continues to aid in that human experience are ceremonies; rituals and structures that guide us in our process of grieving and moving forward.
Alex shared a quote from Alan D. Wolfelt, PH.D, on the topic:
“When everyday words and actions are inadequate, the ritual of ceremony provides a needed structure of what to say and do.”
This, Alex continued, is his role; to create a ceremony that is healing for the loved ones who are saying goodbye, honors the person who has died, and celebrates the life that was lived. It’s why he often begins a funeral ceremony with music, a moment that allows for pause and reflection. Sometimes it’s Alex himself, playing Ashokan Farewell on the violin.
What is most important is that we lean into the grief rather than run from it, and allow the ceremony to provide structure to our healing, Alex said. He calls it the “transformative power of funerals.”
Talking about death is often uncomfortable. Alex acknowledged this. Yet he challenged the Create Mornings guests to embrace that discomfort. He challenged us to talk about death, to accept the vulnerability that comes with that, and to allow it to teach us.
During the question and answer session, Alex was asked how people can ‘prepare’ for death, particularly when it’s unexpected. For one, Alex said, it’s a good idea for everyone to think about and write down what they would want for a funeral if they died. Because it never hurts to be prepared.
But on a deeper level, he posed a question in response:
“It’s about asking yourself, what is my life about?” he said. “Which is a loaded question. Yet it’s so important to have a grasp of that, and to talk about it with our families. The more we talk, the more our families understand things, I think we’re in a better place. And we can have confidence in knowing that if something were to happen today, my family understands. They know who I am.”
So…. what is your life about?
Thank you Creative Mornings for organizing an insightful morning, and thank you, Alex, for prompting great questions and conversation with your perspective!