Recently, I called up a Methodist minister I've known for some years. I was in his area for a few weeks, and I hoped to find a time when he and I could squeeze in lunch. "Tuesday's out," he said. "I have a funeral. And on Wednesday I have two funerals; Thursday I am booked with counseling; and on Friday I have to attend an unveiling at the Jewish ceremony. Saturday?"
A lot of death, I thought, and when we met at a coffee bar on Saturday, I asked him how he got through a week where he was bombarded with so much bereavement and loss. "Well, I've been doing this for 20 years," he said, "and it comes and goes in cycles. I may go through the next three or four weeks and not have a single funeral."
We got to talking about what a funeral entailed from the minister's perspective. Did he go with the family to pick out the casket? I asked. Did he hang around the funeral parlor during the viewing of the body? "I do usually go with them to pick the casket out," he told me. "I guess I've been down to Bob's funeral parlor three times in the last week. That's where I always send people, of course; Bob and I worked out an agreement a long time ago that he'd give me a little cut of whatever profit he made selling caskets to the folks I sent his way. Like at summer camp, you know, where your kids get 10 percent off their tuition if they manage to sell some other family on the same camp."
Call me daft, but I failed to see the parallel between a camp's offering a financial incentive to satisfied families who might pass along the camp's brochure to another family, and a minister who directed his parishioners to a particular funeral parlor because he got a percentage of the profits. It seemed at the very least like a conflict of interest, but I figured that if my friend saw it that way, he wouldn't have been so cavalier about mentioning it to me over chai latte and biscotti. And when it turned out that he had two funerals the next week, I dug out a navy dress and heels and slipped in discreetly to the funeral of an elderly lady who had died in her sleep. I was not surprised to notice that the casket was one of the most gussied-up monstrosities I'd ever seen—all pastel and shiny, satiny, and lacquered looking. It looked like a giant Easter egg had met the interior of a luxury automobile. "I bet that cost a mint," I thought. I couldn't help wondering if my friend were knocking off his parishioners: maybe he, Bob, and the local arsenic dealer had a three-way deal.
The American Way of Death Revisited,
by Jessica Mitford, Alfred A. Knopf,
296 pp.; $25.
In Roughing It, Mark Twain tells the story of Jacops the coffin maker, who "used to go roosting around where people was sick, waiting for 'em," towing with him a coffin that he imagined would "fit the can'idate." Robbins, an elderly man, took sick and for almost a month, "in frosty weather," Jacops loitered around the Robbins place, coffin in hand, waiting for the old man to kick off. Much to Jacops's disappointment, Robbins got well; the next time he got sick, Jacops gave the old man a bargain. "He bought the coffin for ten dollars and Jacops was to pay it back with twenty-five more besides if Robbins didn't like the coffin after he'd tried it." During the funeral, Robbins, who hadn't been dead after all, climbed out of the coffin and collected his $35.
When Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, her muckraking expose of the American funeral industry in 1963, she revealed that twentieth-century coffin makers—and undertakers, vault manufacturers, florists, and monument makers (she's pretty nice to clergy)—had no more scruples than their nineteenth-century predecessor Jacops. The American Way of Death, which was a bestseller for months, portrayed an industry of bloodsuckers who were out to squeeze every possible penny from grieving families. Before her death in 1996, Mitford had all but put the finishing touches on an updated account of the funeral industry, which has now been published. The original version sent shock waves through the professional funeral community in the 1960s—the author became known as "the notorious Jessica Mitford," and Mortuary Management began referring to her simply as Jessica, a la Jackie or Malcolm. But has her book had any lasting impact? Has the funeral industry been forced to shape up in response to the outrage elicited by Mitford's book?
In The American Way of Death Revisited, Mitford suggests that those dying at the end of the twentieth century will be no better off than those who died 40 years before. Prices have continued to skyrocket. Undertakers continue to charge outrageous amounts for applying cosmetics to the corpse, embalming, the use of a hearse, flowers, the casket. To sell expensive procedures and goods, undertakers have taken to outright lying, telling customers, for example, that embalming is required by law. In 1961, the average cost for a casket and "services" was $750. It is now—and this according to the presumably conservative figures of the industry itself—a whopping $4,700, "to which must be added the cost of a burial vault, flowers, clothing, clergy and musician's honorarium, and cemetery charges. When these costs are added to the undertaker's bill, the total average cost for an adult's funeral today is $7,800."
The casket, of course, is where the undertaker will really stick you. The Reverend Laurence Cross, of the Berkeley Community Church, described casket sales to Mitford like this:
First, you come to a magnificent casket—it's like a pink show window. You'd think it had the Queen's jewels on display. The inside is made of beautiful satin and it's set out on a thick white carpet. You walk along and come to the next one. There's another beauty, maybe in a different pastel shade. You see a few more, and then you come to the absolute end. There aren't any more. Those you have seen are priced very high.
Most people, the Reverend Mr. Cross explained, say to themselves,
"I hadn't planned to spend that much, but since these are my only options, I guess I'll have to get one." Only the very bold tell the undertaker that his goods are outside their price range and that they'll have to go somewhere else. For those few bold bereaved, however, the funeral director opens a door you never knew existed. You go into another room where there are maybe half a dozen caskets—in less attractive colors than the other beauties—and at somewhat lower prices. That's where the psychology comes in. The average person who has managed to avoid the more expensive caskets now feels that at least he has saved several hundred dollars. But if you're mean as the devil, you may still insist that the caskets you've seen are more than you were prepared to pay. So you go through the same procedure. The funeral director opens yet another door you never knew existed, and here are some for even less. If you are still so mean that you won't spend that much, you are led into the last room. Here the funeral director … shows you an ugly casket, maybe purple in color. The cheap ones are purposely made up in hideous colors, and they have no handles, no lining. If you still won't buy that, you are taken from there through a concrete alleyway as dark as Egypt. You come to a garage where all the funeral cars are parked. Then he pulls out a box. It's just six pieces of redwood nailed together. … He'll charge anything he can get out of you for it.
Those looking to avoid the high cost and the fuss of funerals have often turned to cremation as an alternative. Mitford has bad news for those of us who, like me, envision cremation as a simple and frugal way to dispose of our remains. I am not alone in thinking cremation is the way to go. In 1961, only 3.75 percent of the American dead were cremated; in 1995, that figure was up to 21 percent, and it's still on the rise.
For cremation done right, go to England. There, 72 percent of the dead are cremated, usually for around $280, which includes the use of a chapel (an amenity not often provided in American cremations). Every effort is made by English crematoria to facilitate the scattering—or "strewing" as English clerics call it—of the ashes, and when families do opt to preserve the ashes in an urn, then a simple but tasteful container is provided.
American crematoria are a different story. As Mitford tells it, "cremation has become just another way of making a buck, principally through the sale of the niche and urn, plus 'perpetual care,' for the ashes. Cemetery men are most reluctant to relinquish the ashes for any form of private disposition; as one told me rather plaintively, 'If everyone wanted to take the ashes away and scatter them or bury them privately, we'd soon be out of business.' "
Cemetery lobbyists pushed a bill through the California legislature that made the scattering of ashes in any public or private area illegal—and, not surprisingly, undertakers rarely acknowledge to families that it is legal simply to take the ashes home with you and stick them on your mantel or in your closet. Increasingly, the cremation urn is becoming akin to the casket—funeral directors push the fanciest, most expensive urns upon customers, often exploitatively.
In 1993, Ron Hast, editor of Mortuary Management, described a scene where several siblings turned up to purchase several urns to hold a portion of their mother's ashes. "There was something of a power struggle to see who would purchase the nicest urn." It is not unusual for a fancy urn to cost over $1,500. During a 1997 "Keys to Cremation Success" symposium sponsored by the Funeral Service Insider, one presentation was called "How to add $1,400 or More to Each Cremation Call." The presenter told his audience that "Seeing Mom in a cardboard box sometimes prompts a family member to ask if we don't have something a little nicer." A similar suggestion was put forward by the Funeral Service Insider: "When families don't buy an urn, require them to purchase a temporary container to hold the cremains. But make sure you label (or stamp) that box with the words 'temporary container' on all four sides. … That makes families most likely to upgrade beyond the temporary container."
In 1975, it looked like things had improved a little for the general public vis-a-vis funerals. The Federal Trade Commission, after a two-year study, put forward a "trade rule" that required that the consumer would have a right to choose or refuse services such as embalming or grief counseling, with an appropriate reduction in cost for those customers who refused such services; that prices must be quoted over the telephone; that undertakers had to inform customers that embalming was not required by law; that the cheapest casket must be displayed with the others; and that funeral providers would be prohibited from telling the customer that the "eternal sealer" casket will preserve the embalmed corpse for a long or indefinite time.
Mild and straightforward as these measures may seem, the funeral industry declared an all-out war upon the trade rule, which one member of the industry publicly described as "a Soviet-style piece staged by the FTC." Within three years, two components of the rule had been omitted—the section that required undertakers to display their cheapest caskets with the other caskets, and the section that prohibited the undertaker from trying to influence the customer's choice of goods and services. When the public hearings about the final adoption of the rule finally occurred in 1984, consumer advocates had concluded that only a minimal protection for funeral shoppers had been left in place.
But as Mitford shows, even that protection has proved, in the intervening decade and a half, merely nominal. The FTC, which "makes no effort to ascertain whether funeral establishments are complying with the rule," declared in 1990 that "the Rule has not contributed to a general reduction in the price of funerals." In 1994, Lisa Carlson, author of Caring for Your Own Dead, conducted a survey of Vermont's 70 funeral homes and determined that none were in full compliance with the FTC's rule. In 1996, the FTC and the National Funeral Directors Association struck a new deal. "Under the new plan," Mitford tells us, "no longer will funeral homes be subject to a fine for violating the rule." In addition, as the Funeral Monitor's discussion of the new plan tells us, "The FTC will no longer publicize the names of funeral homes accused of violating the rule. Funeral homes that violate the rule will be able to avoid a complaint filed in federal court, as well as an injunction against the funeral home and owner. And to top it off, violators will receive an emblem telling consumers that the establishment is a program participant and has voluntarily agreed to comply with the provisions of the Funeral Rule." So much for progress.
I have only had a few moments in life where I have been deathly conscious of being a white person. The first time I can remember having that sensation was when I went to Howard University to do research, and the only other white person I saw was the archivist. But here I am having it again. I have spent the day at a black funeral parlor in Virginia—one that, I am told, has been owned by the same family "forever." The American Way of Death Revisited inspired me to take a short tour of those funeral parlors Mitford ignores: African-American funeral homes.
Mitford tells the reader at the beginning that she is treating only the mainstream of American funeral practices. "I have not included atypical funerals: quaint death customs still practiced by certain Indian tribes, the rites accorded the Gypsy kings and queens, the New Orleans jazz funerals. … I have regretfully avoided these byways, intriguing though they are, for the main highway—the 'average,' 'typical' American funerary practices." Disappointingly, though, her "typical" funeral parlors seem to be exclusively white, as do her "average" dead and bereaved. A portrait of African-American funeral parlors and undertakers would present a different picture of the funeral industry.
Not that black undertakers never indulge in the underhanded and mercenary tactics that Mitford describes. I visited half a dozen black funeral parlors in the South, and in the offices of every one I saw on display the industry magazines that teach funeral directors how to jack up cremation prices and rip off casket customers.
That having been said, historically the funeral parlor has played a much different role in African-American communities than in white America. The undertaker has held the same privileged role in black communities as ministers and teachers. "You know, blacks built up these funeral parlors during Reconstruction, just as soon as we had the churches and schools built. Took a lot of doing for people just out of slavery who were working for pitiful wages, but we built them. Like Hawthorne said," a black funeral director, who had The Scarlet Letter squeezed into his overflowing bookshelf between copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Winesburg, Ohio, told me, "a community's got to build itself a graveyard. You're all going to die sometime, and you've got to take care of your own." That the modern-day funeral parlor didn't exist in the 1870s is of little consequence; that an African-American undertaker would link black-owned funeral homes to the schools and churches built in Reconstruction is itself a testimony to the importance of undertakers and funeral parlors in African-American communities.
For white folks, funeral parlors are rather peripheral; you go there when someone has died, and then you leave once the burial is taken care of. For black Americans—in particular, black Southerners—funeral parlors have often been a locus of black community life second only to the church. During the Civil Rights movement, for example, small groups of black leadership would sometimes meet in the funeral parlors, and black undertakers contributed critical financial support to black grassroots organizations. In the same county in Maryland where my friend is getting rich off the families of his deceased congregants, there is a playground in an African-American neighborhood that was built largely through the contributions of the black funeral parlor. If there are black undertakers out to gouge their customers, there are also black funeral workers who view their work as being not about private gain but about contributing to the community.
Some of the funeral parlors I visited were historically black institutions and are still owned by black families, but they now do "equal business with whites and blacks," as one black undertaker told me. "See that stack of Jewish calendars over there? We have hundreds of those printed up every year, and you know we aren't distributing those to black folks." But the funeral home in Virginia still serves mainly black folks, and as I sit conspicuously in a corner, I see black women float in and out all day. It is clear that most of them have not come about a burial. One woman tells me she is there to organize a meeting for getting out the vote in the forthcoming election. The Clinton scandal has permeated even this sanctum sanctorum: "All the commentators are saying Democrats are going to stay home, that it's a mid term election, and people are fed up with Clinton," Vivian tells me as she bustles back out of the funeral parlor. "But black Democrats are not going to stay home." Another woman comes to talk to the undertaker about donating something to a church auction. What will he donate? I wonder. Free embalming? An extra Bible verse engraved in your headstone gratis? But the undertaker is disappointingly prosaic—he donates a gourmet dinner cooked at the highest bidder's home. One woman does come in to look at caskets—the inexpensive ones, I note, are displayed next to the pricier models.
If you don't know of any black funeral parlors to patronize, you could move to Milford, Michigan, where the poet Thomas Lynch is the undertaker. I was unable to make it up to Michigan on my tour, so I had to settle for dipping into Lynch's 1997 book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, which should be required reading for anyone who reads The American Way of Death Revisited.
In the first page of his lyrical account of deaths and burials, Lynch lets you know about money: "In a good year the gross is close to a million, five percent of which we hope to call profit. I am the only undertaker in this town. I have a corner on the market." After that, Lynch leaves aside the business of selling to talk instead about the business of assisting people grieve.
As he describes the calling of an undertaker, it seems to be less about hustling and more about midwifery, "less to do with what was done to the dead and more to do with what the living did about the fact that people died." It is hard to grasp that Lynch is a member of the same profession that Mitford describes. "[T]his is the central fact of my business," Lynch writes, "that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or about you that will do you any good or harm."
If your parents live in Milford, rest assured that when you go to bury them, the local undertaker will not try to sell you an overpriced coffin by explaining that your mother will spend eternity in sublime comfort if only you swathe her in lime-green satin.
There are, of course, alternatives to funeral homes. Although Mitford devotes only three pages in her book to the practice of handling a burial yourself, sans undertaker, it is a growing practice, and advocates of self-directed funerals speak passionately on the benefits of skipping the funeral parlor altogether.
June, a 30-year-old public school teacher, handled her father's burial herself, without involving an undertaker. When her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a friend of June's gave her a well-read copy of Carlson's Caring for Your Own Dead, which is to self-directed funerals what The Moosewood Cookbook is to vegetarian cuisine. When her husband committed suicide, Carlson decided to skip dealing with funeral parlors and undertakers because she was broke, but, as she argues eloquently in her book, there were unexpected therapeutic benefits to handling things herself. "I felt a strong need to express my love and caring for John even in death," she wrote.
June was sold on the idea and was able to talk to her father about it before he died. "I wouldn't have done it any other way," she told me when I called her at her home in upstate New York. "But," she added laughing, "I am also a devotee of Diet for a Small Planet and all of Helen and Scott Nearing's books. I know there may be some people who would think that having to deal with all the details of the burial or cremation would be a burden, not a blessing." Those details—from transporting the body to building a casket or removing a pacemaker (a prerequisite for cremation, and, Carlson assures us, really quite simple to do)—can seem daunting, but those who have gone through it themselves say that dealing with those details helped them get through the grieving process.
"I've had friends who have said to me that the only thing that kept them together after their parents died was that they had to get on the phone and call a bunch of relatives, that they had to cut up a brunch of cucumber sandwiches to feed people after the funeral, that they had to select a casket and track down a minister," said June. "Handling my father's burial myself was like that, only more so. I was really involved. There was no intermediary, trying to explain to me the benefits of satin lining for motives that I'm sure had to do with something other than my own best interest, and my father's best interest."
I went to a funeral the day after Labor Day. The minister made much of the timing in his eulogy. My friend's father, who had died of leukemia, had been a construction worker. His wife was a waitress. My friend was thinking about taking a year off from her doctoral program so that she could work and give some money to her mother.
"The medical costs while he was sick just got really high," she explained to me, "even with insurance. The insurance didn't cover the hospice. I think my mother's in some real debt now. I don't know what else to do."
Throughout the funeral, I couldn't help wondering how much deeper in debt this funeral had put Mrs. North. As I was walking back to my car, I heard a little boy say to his father, "What happens to you after you die?" It was a relief to realize that he was asking about something that transcended casket choices and the rising cost of cremation.
Lauren F. Winner is Kellett Scholar at Cambridge University. This summer she will join the staffs of Christianity Today and BOOKS & CULTURE in a writing residency made possible by a grant from the Lilly Foundation.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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