Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Death as an Industry

Death is a rite of passage that touches each of our lives, either through the death of a loved one or our own eventual demise. No one escapes. For that reason alone, we should talk about it more, but we don’t. We don’t value our emotional bodies in this society. Grieving is dirty and uncomfortable for everyone, and we have come to expect that it will happen behind closed doors. We prefer to leave it at the funeral home, as if we are pretending that death doesn’t happen to us all. That we don’t all grieve at some point in our lives.
We let the professionals handle death and it becomes something that happens to us, with little involvement from us but our grieving. Outside assistance with death will always be helpful, but the industry we’ve built around funerals allows for people to stay in denial. It allows for us as individuals to let our grief overwhelm and paralyze us, when the challenge is to claw our way through it. What closure can be found in viewing a corpse we have tried to make appear as lifelike as possible? How does that reinforce the reality of the death of the human body to our rational minds?
Why has it become its own industry? When did we allow outside parties to tell us how to handle the passing of our dead? I’m not dogging funeral home directors or morticians. I want to make that distinction clear. I have met some who were simply stepping into their family business and the legacy of caring for the dead. It is sacred to them. And others have felt a calling and a pull towards helping be in service in that way. We all try to find the place in this world where we best fit in. That’s not the concern for me. What I’m interested in is the way turning death into a third-party industry has affected the way we process it as a culture.

“Americans have lost the desire to be active participants in
funerals so we have very little exposure to the dead. I think that
if we were to witness the peaceful death of a loved one and play
a larger role in their funeral proceedings, Americans would be
less afraid of death and more at peace with themselves.”
 ~Loretta M. Alirangues,
“Funerary Practices in Early and Modern America”

In Judaism and Muslim deaths, when a body dies, it is buried as soon as possible. At death, the family stops to care for the dead before resuming their lives again. There is no need for embalming or refrigeration. They allow the clock of their worlds to stop. The way our culture works, we don’t allow for people to stop their lives at the death of a loved one. We are all part of a larger machine that we have given over power to and it infiltrates every aspect of our lives. When my Grandma died, I did not get bereavement time. I took it but I took the time off of work without pay. I informed my boss that I would be out for a week while I grieved with my family. It could have cost me my job if my boss had decided to be cruel. But I knew then that it was important to be part of it, to be there with my family through the transition. Our entire way of being a family shifted when she died. I knew that it would be a moment I could never reclaim. I chose my family first. We need to get back to putting people first.
I am not a fan of viewings. I do not appreciate the embalming process. I do not enjoy the lifelike tint of the corpse. When my Grandma died, I went to the funeral home to have some alone time with her because I had not gotten home in time to say goodbye. It actually threw me that she did not appear dead. The fact that she appeared to be sleeping made it harder for me to grasp. There was no death pallor, only an orange glow and too-much rouge.
It was putting my hands on her that brought reality home to me. It was feeling the cold of her body that made me understand. I touched her skin and I could not feel her vibrant energy. I could not feel the familiarity of her hugs. Whatever made her who she was, was gone. My Grandma was dead. I had to go to the funeral home to have that moment. I had to go to where her body was, in a strange place.
There are currently about 15,000 funeral homes in operation in the US. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral in 2006 was $6,200, up twenty percent from $5,180 in 2000. I don’t know what costs are covered in their average, but it fits the prices people I know have been quoting me. For a minimal cremation, no frills, including obituaries, it cost a friend $1,600 in 2011. For a funeral with cemetery burial, as cheap as possible, it cost another friend $5,000 in 2012.
You know that death became in industry when they passed the Federal Rule of 1984. It was put in place by the Federal Trade Commission to require all funeral homes to provide consumers with price information over the phone, and, upon request, a written itemized list of their fees. This was done to insure that no funeral home could gouge the mourners in their time of grief. And with this rule came a way for people to learn how to navigate the industry that taking care of the dying had become.
For instance, funeral homes cannot embalm the deceased for a fee without permission from the family unless required by law. In history, homes would do an embalming and then pad the bill with the expense. Some funeral homes have a policy that if you want to hold a viewing, you have to embalm the body, but embalming isn’t legally required. That is the specific funeral home, and many directors and morticians have bought into the belief that embalming bodies saves the living from disease. If you need to delay, refrigeration is another option, where dry ice is used for the viewing. The trouble then may come in finding a place that has the ability to refrigerate.
Funeral homes cannot require you to purchase a casket for cremation. A cardboard box is all that is needed for the body to set in. Some crematoriums do not even require that much. And just because a funeral home doesn’t have any of its catalog’s cheaper caskets on hand does not mean they cannot get you one within 24 hours. You actually don’t have to buy a casket from the funeral home. You can acquire one on your own, and under the Federal Rule of 1984, the home is not allowed to charge you a handling fee for accepting one from an outside source.
Don’t be afraid to shop around and compare prices. Even better, do it now, before you need to. Obviously prices will increase, but you’ll get the feel for who you’d want to give your business to. Better still, not all states require the use of a funeral director or funeral homes for viewings. Unfortunately (for me) New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Louisiana, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan are some of the ones that do. In other states, it’s legal to plan and organize your own funeral. Right now you’re thinking, why would I want to? But maybe death is supposed to be hard. Maybe preparing the way for others is the spiritual-yet-not-religious thing missing from our lives that would naturally help us greet our own end more peacefully.
Standard funeral costs are made up of the services of the funeral director, the use of the funeral home facilities, embalming, the casket including linings and pillows, burial vault, obituaries, the disposition of the body including the cost of the grave site, the opening and closing of the grave, the cremation, transportation of the body, flowers, clergy, grave markers or plaques, and various other incidentals. Often in our grief we worry about being seen as cheap, as if the amount of money we spend displays how we felt about them. That myth is a by-product of our death services becoming its own industry, like how Hallmark Cards make a mint off of perpetuating Hallmark as the brand that says you care the most.
In this current economy, it is foolish to fall into that trap. We should do for our dead to the best of our abilities, but the dead would not want the living to bankrupt themselves on memorialization. When a person dies, their spirit moves on and only the body remains. Do for that body, as it was the sacred vessel of your loved one, but remember them in your actions. Speak their names to the winds and tell their stories. Truly the best way to honor the loss is to remember them by living.


  1. Good read regarding death care services. This is well written and I learned a lot from it.

  2. Thank you so much! I did a lot of research leading up to this piece.


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