I’d be the first to admit that when it comes to career moves, mine could be categorized as unique. The story of how I went from a skateboard magazine publisher to a funeral director’s assistant weaves together a number of ideas that include memory, legacy and what it means to be human. It is my sincere hope that this piece sparks some new conversations around death and dying.
From Skateboarding to Funeral Service, My Spiritual Wave
I am by no means an expert in skateboarding, but I enjoy it immensely. I’ve been joyfully riding since 1975 and pride myself on riding all types of terrain with all types of boards. My journey writing about skateboarding began with this article on dansworld.com.
This website was the catalyst to start my own website (with the help of my brother, Andrew). I called it the SkateGeezer Homepage and it hit the web in 1995. From here, I wound up getting a publishing contract to write the history of skateboarding. My book, The Concrete Wave, was published in 1999 and went on to sell 42,000 copies. The book also spawned two feature films, and a 52-part TV series.
While it can be risky to skateboard, I feel that the greater risk is not living a fulfilling, joyful life.
The book also turned my hobby into a full-time job when I decided to launch my own magazine called Concrete Wave. I am proud to say that for over two decades I have provided skateboarders with a very different perspective than what was found in traditional skate media in the late 1990’s.
Learning About Life and Death
In my 58 years of living and 47 years of riding a skateboard, I have learned that sometimes, you have to jump right in, despite the difficulty or risk. Built into the DNA of skateboarding is risk and I know for a fact that it has changed the way I look at death and dying. While it can be risky to skateboard, I feel that the greater risk is not living a fulfilling, joyful life.
The countless hours spent with friends skateboarding created a unique bond. Sure, there are times skateboarders compete, but mostly the ride is the reward. That first push can lead to a lifetime of freedom and exploration. For me, skateboarding was a catalyst to lead me to people, music, art, and ideas that I normally wouldn’t have discovered. The more you commit, the greater the reward.
Skateboarders know all about quality time – especially if you’re living in a climate that is not sunny all the time. We cherish the opportunity to ride with friends. But most importantly, we value the time put into riding a skateboard. We know that at any moment, a pebble, a car, or a crack in the pavement could stop us in our tracks. Similarly, working in the funeral industry and being surrounded by death gives you an incredible perspective on life.
You have a 100% chance of dying. The question is what are you going to do about it?
When I attend a funeral, I can tell almost immediately what kind of eulogies I will hear. If the family is tight knit and supportive of one another, the eulogies will often be about the time the person put into people. While hearing about a person’s business or academic accomplishments can be impressive, it is the anecdotes about the time spent with family and friends that really leave an impression on me. I have never once heard “I wish my father would have spent less time with us,” or “I wish my mom would have spent more time at the office.”
Ultimately, life is about balance. If you are obsessed with skateboarding to the point that it leaves you penniless, you’ve gone too far. Conversely, there are so many millions of people afraid to take that first push or to “drop in.” They firmly believe that life is scary and meant to be cautiously navigated. Their fears can lead to frustration, anger, and depression. It makes for a joyless life. Skateboarding has a magical way of creating a sense of freedom in your mind. Once your mind is free, anything is possible. Afterall, you have a 100% chance of dying. The question is what are you going to do about it? Skateboarding has been my guiding force for almost 50 years, and I have no intention of stopping.
The Endless Wave
When it came to writing this article, I originally planned on sharing a few stories from the book I co-wrote last year called The Endless Wave (Skateboarding, Death and Spirituality). But something happened right in the middle of writing this piece that changed my plans. I found out that a skateboard photographer by the name of Scott Starr just died. Scott was not only an amazing photographer, he was also a truly generous person. Scott was the only photographer who helped me with my first book. One of his photos actually wound up on the cover.
If you’ve been inspired or have your life enriched by someone who has died, honoring their memory is one the most gratifying things you can do.
My last memory of Scott is when we met up in Santa Barbara just by chance. As my son and I were checking into a hotel, the front desk clerk spotted the words “concrete wave” on my jacket. He asked if I knew about a book with the same name because the person who shot the cover was his godfather. Talk about a coincidence! Within 45 minutes, Scott joined us, and we spent a few hours talking about the past and his future plans.
Scott died at the age of 61 (one day after his birthday). This is young and thankfully of the hundreds of funerals I’ve attended, very few are for people in their 40’s, 50’s or 60’s. I’ll never forget Scott’s kindness and his significant contribution to capturing the soul of skateboarding.
If you’ve been inspired or have your life enriched by someone who has died, honoring their memory is one the most gratifying things you can do. It doesn’t matter how well you know them – afterall, I only met Scott a few times – it’s the importance of keeping their name alive. There are countless ways you can do this. I decided to post my Scott Starr story to Reddit. It felt cathartic and deeply meaningful to share his work with fellow skaters.
From Skateboarding to Funeral Service
Some of you may be wondering what exactly my job as a funeral director’s assistant consists of. The best way to answer this is to say I do many different things, but I don’t make the actual arrangements for the funeral service. I am there to help during a funeral and at the cemetery to make sure things run smoothly. I also do transfers of people who have died in hospitals, homes and hospices.
Perhaps the most unique part of my job is the interaction I have with families when a death has occurred in a home, hospice, or hospital. This is something that very few people have an opportunity to witness and that includes most of the funeral directors or managers at my funeral home. In these moments, I find that people don’t really know what to say to those who are grieving. Sometimes, I hear things like “she’s in a better place” or “I understand how you feel.” These platitudes don’t offer much support or comfort. What I’ve tried to make a habit of doing is to think about a special memory you have of a person and lead with that.
This community was international and we all spoke the language of pure stoke for skateboarding.
In Concrete Wave, we published a number of stories about skaters who died. I strived to capture the essence of the person and focus on what made them special. I find great solace in keeping the memories of the many skateboarders who I had the opportunity to know and work with.
When I was publishing my magazine, I would always say that Concrete Wave was about three things: the people, the people, and the people. I was always focused on telling stories about skaters and skate companies. As a publisher, I relished documenting the stories were all part of our community. This community was international and we all spoke the language of pure stoke for skateboarding. It was also truly magical when I helped out the smaller companies trying to find their footing in the industry. Watching them start out and find success was truly a rewarding experience. It was all about supporting people – skaters, our readers and the industry.
Perhaps this is why my move to working in funeral services isn’t as odd as you might think. As a funeral director’s assistant, I am there to help the family and friends in any way I can. If I can help reassure someone who is both grieving and worried about what happens next at a funeral, then I feel I am really being a supportive human being.
I’d like to end this piece with a partial excerpt from The Endless Wave. This story weaves together so many different elements. The joy of meeting people we truly connect with, the pain of a sudden and unexplained tragedy, and the power of memory.
The Endless Wave BOOK EXCERPT
I’ll never forget the first time I met Noel Korman. It was March 11, 2011 and I was at Bustin Boards new longboard shop in New York City. The shop was about to open and it made for the perfect venue to host the world’s first longboard expo. We had close to 60 different skate companies show up and it was quite the experience.
It was total pandemonium getting this expo set up. Around 10 o’clock in the morning, in strolled a guy who I’d never seen before. He put out his hand and said in a big, booming voice, “I’m Noel Korman with the Schralper’s Union. If you need anything, just let me know.” I was floored. Noel had a presence that absolutely lit up the room.
Little did I know what an auspicious moment this would turn out to be. The Schralper’s Union was Noel’s club for those who did stance sports – skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing. It was all about “spreading high fives and positive vibes.” The Union also followed something Noel had developed called “The “Code of the Shralper.” It included tenets like, “A Shralper does the right thing because it is the right thing.” and “Be prepared to sling stoke in whatever you do, however you do it.”
Noel was the kind of person that wouldn’t just give you the shirt off his back but a spare bearing, some food and drink and anything you needed. The truth was that Noel didn’t have much in this world. Some would say he was generous to a fault. To say he had a larger than life personality is a complete understatement.
Noel had spent a number of years selling skateboards and snowboards at one of New York City’s best known sporting goods stores. His goal was to create a fraternity of board sports enthusiasts in locals across the world. In the three years I knew him, we probably only met up half a dozen times. But on every occasion, Noel made such an incredible impression on me and I have such fond memories of the times we spent together.
In the summer of 2012, I found myself at Uncle Funky’s skate shop in Greenwich Village. As I walked down the stairs, I could hear Noel’s booming voice. He was there with his father, Ray. Curiously enough, I happened to be there with my youngest son, Ethan. For the next two days we spent a huge amount of time hanging out and skating.
I have never met anyone quite like him and I doubt I ever will. Noel was truly one in a million. I could go and on about what a truly remarkable person was, but I think you get the idea.
In 2014, Noel was trying urgently to make the Schralper’s Union successful. He was furiously producing t-shirts, stickers and spreading the stoke at every event he could attend. As most skaters know, it can be extremely difficult to motivate people into action. But Noel was relentless in trying to establish something of value.
On December 6th of that year, Noel was with his girlfriend, Alice Parks in a New Jersey warehouse. They were working together when the boiler in the building started to malfunction. Tragically, it started to leak carbon monoxide. At the time in the state of New Jersey, carbon monoxide detectors were only mandatory in houses and apartments. The poison leaking from the boiler eventually wound its way to Noel and Alice and they died. What is most horrendous about their deaths is the fact they were entirely preventable.
News of Noel’s and Alice’s death spread through social media. Ray called me and left one of the most gut wrenching voice mails I have ever received: “Michael, it’s Ray Korman. Noel is dead.”
The sudden death of Noel and Alice shocked the East Coast skate community. It was such an unbelievable event and to this day I still find it incomprehensible that Noel and Alice lost their lives this way. Fortunately, as a funeral director’s assistant, I have only encountered a handful of deaths that have been sudden. One guy was a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and he got killed by car. Another died while canoeing on a lake – he was hit by a jetski.
In the months following Noel’s passing, I became more active in trying to keep his memory alive. I became very close with Ray and tried to support him any way I could. One of the key things that Ray wanted to see happen was a law that would mandate that all commercial buildings in New Jersey had carbon monoxide detectors. At the time, only houses and apartments needed detectors.
The proposed law was a way to prevent future tragedies. You’d think this law was something of a “no brainer” but somehow, politics got in the way. The Parks/Korman bill was something that Ray was adamant about getting passed in the New Jersey legislature and he worked tirelessly to make it happen. Initially, Ray received a tremendous amount of support and worked with local politicians and media. But things seemed to get bogged down in the actual passing of the bill.
In the fall of 2015, almost a year after the tragedy, I distinctly recall asking Ray what was happening. I had assumed the bill had passed. It turned out that the New Jersey legislature had indeed signed off on it. But there was one person who was holding things up. The culprit turned out to be Chris Christie – the governor of New Jersey at the time. He was so busy running around trying to get nominated for President that he had yet to sign off on the legislation.
I decided to do something about this situation. I set up an online petition demanding the governor sign off on the bill. I contacted a reporter at a local New Jersey newspaper to drum up some publicity. Almost 1,000 people signed the petition. I think that Chris Christie (or someone in his office) also must have seen what was happening and in November, he eventually signed off on the bill.
The Parks/Korman bill was a key piece of legislation, but it was born from a tragedy. Tragically, adding more grief to this ordeal is the fact that in the months that Chris Christie sat on the bill, an additional 49 people died in New Jersey from carbon monoxide poisoning in buildings that didn’t have detectors. These were senseless and completely preventable deaths.
There are no easy answers when it comes to how to deal with a sudden death. It’s been almost 7 years since Noel died and there is not a week that goes by that I don’t think about him. The only thing that comforts me is knowing that the Parks/Korman law will help prevent thousands of more deaths in the decades to come.
POSTSCRIPT: I learned in September of 2021 that Ray Korman passed away in 2019. Both will be missed.
Here’s a classic clip of Noel Korman Discussing Broadway Bomb 2013. News Coverage On NYC Ch 5 News – Sunday, October 20, 2013