I had the pleasure of interviewing George Frankel who became CEO of Eternal Reefs, Inc. in January of 2000. Prior to that, George was president and CEO of Georgia Emission Testing Company and a VP of Operations for Wachovia. He was honorably discharged as a U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue specialist and is a past Vice President of the Atlanta Whitewater Club.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “back-story”?
I was in another business when a colleague asked for some time off to create a living memorial for their father-in-law as a part of a living reef. In my own family, I was dealing with my mother’s life winding down and my brother had just been diagnosed as terminally ill, so my mind was wide open to the discussion of memorialization. My mother would be the last person in our family cemetery plot in New York. My brother lived in Houston and neither he nor I had any interest in being buried in New York or being buried, period. Both of us had always been active in nature activities and when we considered the idea of becoming part of a reef, it was perfect. If we felt that way, it seemed that others would be interested in turning a person’s passing for good to help preserve, protect and enhance the marine environment for the benefit of future generations.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Yes, I can think of several “interesting” — and I might add ironic moments.
One of the very first memorials we ever did included the remains of a woman’s first husband, her second husband and the remains of her second husband’s first wife. We figured if the family could get behind it, no reason we couldn’t support them, interesting as the situation was.
Once, we were transporting Eternal Reefs with cremated remains already mixed in when we were at a police license and insurance checkpoint. As police do, they asked us if we had any hand grenades, submachine guns or bodies on board. We had to declare eight Eternal Reefs containing the remains of nine people!
We do numerous military honors but one project stands out for the sheer magnitude of honoring at once five WWII combat veterans from four branches of service, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, along with a WWII merchant mariner who lost five ships to enemy action. Those were pretty impactful and humbling.
Can you describe how your firm is making a significant social impact?
Eternal Reefs started with the idea that we could use memorialization as a tool to fund reef building projects that would preserve, protect and enhance the marine environment for the benefit of future generations. As a result, we are a change agent for the funeral and memorialization processes.
Conservation memorialization started in this country in 1998 when two entities were founded: Eternal Reefs for ocean-based memorials, and Memorial Ecosystems — the Ramsey Creek Preserve, a land-based conservation burial site in South Carolina. Together we represent the “surf and turf” of the natural burial movement in the U.S. — what Memorial Ecosystems does to preserve land is very similar to our efforts to preserve the marine environment.
Eternal Reefs and Memorial Ecosystems are interested in making conservation memorialization a mainstream memorial choice because it’s far less expensive than traditional burial and both benefit future generations. As awareness and interest in the idea of using memorialization as a tool for preservation grows and people question traditional burials with expensive caskets and embalming, we are increasingly able to use private donations to develop new reef systems as habitat for fish and other sea life that will benefit future generations.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted this cause?
We did a memorial several years ago for a father who died way to early. He had several children, including one daughter who was about 13 when they worked with us so she was about 11 when her dad passed. When they got to the casting the mother pulled me aside and explained that the daughter had never come to grips with the loss of her father and that she was having a real hard time with everything. In two years of therapy, she was still having real trouble with her loss.
The daughter pretty much sobbed through the whole casting, viewing and placement and dedication processes, including on the boat. On the way back to the dock, we had a school of dolphins on the bow of the boat and everyone was up on the bow watching them except for the girl. She was on the lower deck by herself on the stern. I was on the upper deck looking down so could clearly see her shoulders shaking while she was cried.
As I watched, a dolphin surfaced about 20 feet off the stern and did a tail dance for a long, two to three seconds. I saw her shoulders stop shaking as she watched that dolphin. When it returned to its pod, the daughter ran to her family on the bow with big hugs. I got to watch this girl as she had made peace with her loss.
It’s situations like this where we get to see people get younger in front of our eyes as they mixed their loved one’s remains into the concrete. For all of our families, they leave the Eternal Reefs program with a real sense of personal accomplishment, knowing they have made a meaningful contribution to a better, healthier ocean for future generations. Many tell us our process is as healing for families as for the sea.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are three components of what we do that can be helped by some level of activism;
1] From a community standpoint, awareness is a critical need for the idea of conservation memorialization to grow. The use of social media has helped tremendously and it supports our word of mouth effort. With more than 20,000 Facebook fans we are in the top 2% of all Facebook pages and the more exposure we can gain through word of mouth the easier it is to affect social change.
2] The key to what we do is the permitting process. Everything Eternal Reefs does is heavily regulated. We are in favor of the artificial reef programs being heavily regulated because, for years with no or limited regulation, humans used the ocean as a dumping ground. Now there are strict requirements, however each permit goes through the same process and it can take years, no exaggeration, to get one issued. We need a streamlined permitting process for replicating permits with the same criteria. From a political standpoint, simplifying the use of the submerged lands will allow us to expand our offerings of location to serve more areas and communities.
3] Society is going through major social changes on many fronts. The idea of moving away from what is ‘traditional burial/memorialization’ to meaningful memorials that create a benefit for future generations is a difficult adjustment for many individuals and families. Once the first person in a family has changed from a traditional memorial to a memorial with an environmental contribution it becomes incrementally easier for the other family members to choose a memorial outside of the current mainstream processes.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Eternal Reefs would be considered a ‘threat’ to the funeral industry. The funeral industry is the gatekeeper to families dealing with loss. With cremation rates moving into the 40+% range in the late 1990’s we thought we would be adopted by the funeral industry as a long lost rich relative. We used a push strategy with the funeral industry, trying to get them to introduce our program to the at-need consumers. Instead there was a perception that the concept of Eternal Reefs would help to drive more people to cremation than traditional burial and hurt their profitability. Recently I had a conversation with a funeral director who told me that they had made a mistake in not taking cremation seriously when it started to gain acceptance in the early 80’s. He followed that comment by saying the whole idea of green burial was going to be a flash in the pan as in a ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ concept. Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
2. That we would be responsible for a complete shift of social conventions regarding memorialization at the consumer level. This was the hardest concept to grasp. It seemed so obvious to all of us what the ‘value’ of a green memorial was versus traditional burial with an expensive casket that would be seen for a couple of hours and then disappear forever. With the funeral industry not being on board with us we were forced to go directly to the consumer with a pull marketing strategy and rely on consumers to ask the funeral industry for an Eternal Reef. It is this strategy that allowed us to survive and now to thrive.
3. We had committed a significant portion of our investment capital to trying to penetrate the funeral industry. Our mistaken belief was that the rising cremation rates would force the funeral industry to look for and adopt new, profitable, cremation memorials. We thought our timing would be spot on and for the first three years we largely focused on reaching the industry.
4. We learned the hard way that the funeral industry is, for the most part, an old industry typically universally resistant to change. Since funeral professionals are gate keepers to families dealing with loss, it seemed to everyone especially us, that marketing through the industry would be the way to introduce the Eternal Reefs concept and gain traction. Even while watching the cremation rate accelerating each year toward 50+%, most of the industry still resisted adopting cremation as a profitable, competitive service.
5. Eternal Reefs has always been positioned as part of the reef building industry much more than a part of the funeral industry. Regardless of positioning, the permitting process for artificial reef sites is an incredibly long and difficult backroom process that is hard to work through. Depending upon the specifics, as many as 27 different federal, state and local agencies involved in issuing the necessary permits. In some cases, permits can take two or more years to get issued. Additionally, permits expire and as a result we cannot guarantee specific locations beyond a defined period of time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The Key To Success Is Honesty, If you can fake that, you’ve got it licked.” George Burns.
People come to us at one of the most raw, emotional moments of their lives on an incredibly personal issue. Honestly and authenticity is paramount for us. Our program is complicated with many moving parts and making sure that our families are aware, and knowledgeable about what we are doing is critical and all the while we are real with our clients whom we count as family.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂
Jon Stewart, because he is Jon Stewart.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
We are very active on Facebook and have an Instagram presence. Find both using Eternal Reefs.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!