Death rites and rituals are hardly ever static. Change is the constant in both life in death. And so it is that change is here for the funeral business in the United States. We sit in liminality.
The “traditional funeral” (aka embalming and burial [as defined by the FTC]) in the US is becoming outdated for many reasons. It’s being replaced by cremation and (hopefully) a more natural orientation.
Yet, some (many?) funeral directors here in the United States and elsewhere are still preaching the Gospel that the presentation of an embalmed body is the foundation of the funeral business.
If embalming is the foundation of our practice, it’s a very shaky foundation. Here are ten reasons funeral directors shouldn’t deify embalming.
One. Embalming Will Slowly Die
Cremation is on the rise. Arizona has a 60% cremation rate. And the projections are that the rest of the country will eventually catch up.
Embalming and burial is “the traditional funeral” for a generation that is dying. And we should serve that generation and their needs. But, when that generation is dead, most will eventually opt for cremation. Embalming is more so a trend than a religion; and that’s an important distinction.
Two. Value Vs. Cost
There’s a difference between value and cost. People will pay for things that they see as valuable. And people are increasingly NOT seeing value in the traditional funeral to justify the cost of embalming, casket, vault and burial plots. Increasingly, people don’t have enough money for life, yet alone death. The lack of funds combined with a perceived lack of value is creating a smaller and smaller market for the “traditional funeral.”
With the increasing rise of Botox, people are already embalmed and will look just as good in death. Donatella Versace? Pete Burns? I’m just kidding. Botox has nothing to do with this conversation. Okay, bad attempt at humor. Moving on to the thesis of this post.
Four. The Gospel Isn’t True
I used to believe the Gospel of the “Traditional Funeral”. I was taught to believe the Gospel. That if you saw the body of the deceased you could repent of your death denial and place your faith in death acceptance.
Don’t get me wrong, I do see value in the traditional funeral. There is value in restoring the symbol of death. And, in many ways, the traditional funeral is a microcosm of the grief process. But the psychological value and sociological rites that come with embalming can be had from other types of disposition, especially when there’s more involvement from the friends and family of the deceased.
Five. Cremation Can be Converted
In funeral school, we were taught to fear this transition. We were taught that cremation and other alternative burial forms were THE ENEMY. They were the enemy to our bottom line (if people cremate, they wouldn’t need embalming, they won’t need a casket and they probably won’t need a vault). The ENEMY to our way of life.
AND, cremation and natural burial are the heresy to the Gospel. With cremation you just can’t repent and have faith. BUT, even cremation can be redeemed. We – at our funeral home – always give the family (and often encourage the family) the option to have a small private viewing before cremation. Allowing them the viewing helps their grief process AND allows them a more inexpensive funeral option.
Six. The Zombie Apocolypse
And there’s always THAT to worry about.
Seven. There’s Probably Better Psychological Benefits in Natural Burial
It just makes more sense that those who took care of the deceased in life should also do so in death. And when we (the so called funeral “professionals) are cut out, it may (probably) be a better aid in grief work to do it yourself.
Embalming helps confront death denial. But natural burial does it better because it often allows the true professionals to play their part.
Eight. Urbanization Creates Expensive Cemetery Space
One practical reason we can still bury casket, vault and body in the US is because we still have land. Where land is scarcer and urbanization is more of a reality, cremation is the pragmatic choice. As we become increasingly urbanized, and local cemetery space becomes more sparse, we will – by necessity – opt for cremation. For instance, in large towns in Europe the cremation rate is between 70 to 90% while a full burial is only reserved for the wealthy aristocracy who can afford grave plots.
Nine. We Live and Die in Transience
In times past, generation after generation lived and died in the same area, if not the same small town. Today our jobs, dreams and wanderlust have pulled our families and communities all through the US and the world.
In the past, you wanted to be buried with your people. And you see this in old cemeteries. Generation after generation of Suchandsuch family are all buried within a couple caskets lengths of each other. We live in transience and our desire to be buried with out people isn’t so easy anymore because our people are buried all … over … the country. And so we don’t bury with our people, we spread the ashes in an area that best represents the deceased.
Full burial just doesn’t have the same communal appeal that it did for older generations.
Ten. We Are Selling Ourselves Short
If we think embalming is the very best we have to offer the grieving masses, we’re missing out on our true potential. I think the value that funeral directors have to offer is much less “services provided” focused and much more rites and rituals focused, where we’re able to translate our experience with death and death rites into meaningful ritual. AND, if those meaningful rituals include embalming, then great.
In fact, I envision future funeral schools becoming much more focused on bereavement studies with the recognition that funeral directors are on the front line of the grief process. Our value, I believe, shouldn’t be solely in our ability to embalm (I still love you Jack Adams), but in our ability to help you through healthy rituals and aid in celebrating the life and death of your loved one.
I see a future where funeral directors — more than now — can stop serving our religion and start serving families. Because our religion is — and always should be — helping You.
One. No such thing as DIY.
In many counties in the US, it’s difficult to get a permit to burn leaves, yet alone a human body. There are DIY funerals and green burials (which have a large degree of family and friend involvement), but when it comes to cremation you’ll need to use a cremation provider.
Many cremation providers will allow you to witness the cremation (the retort isn’t made of glass, so you won’t see anything nightmarish). Some cremation providers will even allow you to activate the retort and start the cremation.
In some European countries, it’s the custom to wait at the crematory until the cremation is finished; once complete, you take the cremated remains home with you while they’re still warm.
Two. Crestone, Colorado is the place to go …
… if you want to (legally) cremate outdoors on a pyre. The body is surrounded by juniper logs and branches and set aflame. It’s the only outdoor funeral pyre in the US and can only be used by local residents. It’s offered by Crestone End of Life Project, which asks for a $425 donation for each cremation. Per US-Funerals.com, “It takes about four to five hours for a body to burn completely, and as there is no way to separate the human ashes from the wood ash, the family receive about five gallons of ashes.”
Three. Price Standards
One of my major gripes with the funeral industry is the utter lack of price standardization. You can go to a funeral home and pay $15,000 for a funeral; and you can drive down the street to another funeral home and get the very same funeral for half the cost.
The nice thing with cremation is that there is some degree of price standardization; enough that you should be able to distinguish between a legitimately fair priced cremation and a total rip-off. If you JUST want a cremation (what funeral directors call a “direct cremation with no funeral service”), you should be able to do so for under $3,000. In some places, you can have a direct cremation for under $1,000.
Four. Pacemakers Explode
They will explode when cremated and can cause upwards of $10,000 of damage to the retort. So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.
Five. The Body Doesn’t Need to be Embalmed
As a way to pad their pockets, bad funeral directors want to make you think that embalming is ALWAYS required. It isn’t. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission’s “Funeral Rule” states explicitly that funeral directors need to disclose that embalming is your choice. And if you want cremation, there’s absolutely no reason for embalming. But, be aware, that if you use a funeral home and want a public viewing, you’ll likely need your loved one embalmed.
Six. But you Can Have Embalming, a Public Viewing and then Cremation
This option has gained some popularity because it allows for a public viewing and is less expensive than a traditional burial. With this option, you don’t need to purchase a casket (most funeral homes have rental caskets), you don’t need to purchase a grave lot (although you still can if you wish), you don’t need to purchase a vault and you don’t need to pay for the opening and closing of the grave. In Rob Lowe “Parks and Rec” voice: It can literally save you thousands .
Seven. Super Obese Persons May Cost More
“Super obesity” is the class above “morbid obesity”. Super obesity is the sad state where the victim can barely move or function. These types of obesity cases can rarely be cremated in a regular retort and will often have to be cremated in a larger, more specialized retort … which can (and often does) cost more.
Eight. You Don’t Need to Buy a Cremation Casket
Crematories (all?) require that the body is placed in some protective container before it is cremated. Our funeral home simply uses a body bag (a body bag that comes at no charge to the family). In fact, funeral directors are breaking the “Funeral Rule” if they tell you that state and/or local law require a casket for cremation.
Nine. Bodies are not cremated together.
There isn’t a two for one special. One at a time.
Ten. This is a bad idea:
The North American leap from a culture of healthy death acceptance to a culture of death denial has been no leap at all. It’s been a journey of small steps. And this journey has, in part, been enabled by both the professionalization of death and the funeral industry. In this talk, I explore options that help us pursue death acceptance by taking back death care responsibilities.
In the United States, the average cost of a funeral is roughly $7,000. If you’re like me, you’re always looking for ways to save. Here are ten ways you can save money when you die:
One. Don’t die.
But that won’t happen. Unless you become a vampire.
Two. Find a green cemetery.
Most cemeteries require a vault. Vaults hold both a practical value (they keep the ground from sinking when the body/coffin decompose) and a psychological value (they keep things away from the body). Vaults generally cost anywhere from $700 on up. Most cemeteries charge for opening of the grave and closing of the grave. That too generally costs $500 on up.
But if you’re okay with the ground sinking over a grave and don’t mind the elements touching the deceased, then you can consider doing away with the vault.
Green cemeteries usually forbid vaults and many allow you to open and close the grave yourself, saving you anywhere from $1,200 or more. Unfortunately, there’s only 93 green cemeteries in the United States.
Although they are rare, there are traditional cemeteries that DON’T require a vault. There’s two in a thirty mile radius of our funeral home. But, they’ll still charge you for opening and closing of the grave.
But remember, vaults act as prisons to would be zombies. So, if you’re a firm believer in the zombie apocalypse, it may be worth spending the extra cash in order to save humanity.
Three. Get cremated.
You should be able find a funeral home that will perform what we call a “direct cremation” for around or under $2,000. A “direct cremation” is usually defined as just a cremation with no funeral service.
You can have the funeral service on your own without the help of a funeral home and it will save you some cash.
Four. Have a viewing THEN get cremated
If you want embalming, and you want a public viewing and you want to save money, try having a viewing and then get cremated. Usually, cremation costs less than having to buy a vault and paying for the opening and closing of the grave. And most funeral homes have some sort of inexpensive options for caskets. If you choose this option, can might be able to save upwards of $2,000.
Five. Cut the extras
Flowers. Belly dancers. Elton John personally performing, “The Circle of Life”. All extras. Don’t need ‘em.
Six. Buy an inexpensive casket
Why do we buy such beautiful pieces of casket work and then promptly bury them? Confusing. Spend that money on something worthwhile like Netflix or pizza.
Seven. Direct Burial
For the most part, you don’t need embalming if you chose a direct burial. If you want a service, you can have a graveside service. You could possibly save a couple hundred to nearly a $1000 if you choose a direct burial.
Eight. Have a home funeral
Home funerals are still on the fringe of public consciousness regarding death care; but, they need to be on the forefront.
In most states, YOUR FAMILY CAN PERFORM THE ENTIRE FUNERAL ON THEIR OWN. No embalming needed. No funeral director needed. If you have a home funeral and a green burial, you’re talking about saving a whole lot of money. I’m a huge supporter of home funerals not only for financial reasons, but mainly because I think it’s healthier for families to practice death care on their own.
If you want to choose the home funeral option, you need to start thinking about it now. It’s probably not something you can pull off last minute (I’ll be writing more about this in the future).
Nine. Do Like the Amish
The Amish hire a funeral director to embalm the body and perform the legal paperwork, and then the Amish do the rest. They dress the body, casket the body, have a home viewing and perform the logistical work of the funeral. This option will probably save you a couple grand, but – like the home funeral option – it’s something that you’d have to prepare for before the actual dying happens.
Ten. Donate Your Body to Science
This isn’t something you can just do. You have to pay some time in research. First, NOT ALL BODIES ARE ACCEPTED BY SCIENCE. Yes, unlike Jesus, Science doesn’t love everyone. Secondly, find a program in your area. Start off by searching, “willed body program” and your city or state. And then go from there. You may still have to pay some money for transportation, etc., but it should be very minimal.
If you are accepted by Science, you should make yourself a t-shirt that says, “Science loves me for my body.” Because you deserve that t-shirt.
PREFACE: These predictions are simply conclusions based on fringe ideas I see being developed today. These “predictions” aren’t necessarily my “preferences”.
By 2024, embalming will no longer be the majority choice, while cremation and alternate burial options (green burials, etc) will not only count for the majority of dispositions, but will continue to rise in popularity.
Pet burials and maybe even pet funerals will continue to gain momentum.
In 2008, the cremation rate for England was at 72.4%. In 2034, America will have reached the same rate. The remaining 17.6% will probably be either direct burial (with no embalming) or some other type of sustainable full burial option. Embalming will only be performed on those who suffered tragic deaths; or on bodies that need some type of shipment.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Alkaline Hydrolysis (or something similar) has a major foothold in the disposition of the deceased. It’s possible that Alkaline Hydrolysis takes over cremation due to the fact that it’s a more sustainable option.
The euthanasia topic will be a settled issue at this point. Even today, in 2014, seven out of ten Americans are in favor of physician assisted euthanasia. By 2054, the question won’t be “is it legal” but “how do we adapt to the large number who request it?”
With the ability for a death date to be determined via euthanasia, it’s possible that a person’s life is celebrated through ritual BEFORE their death, instead of after it. This changes the whole landscape for the funeral industry.
Throughout the next 60 years, end-of-life discussions be a hot topic. Whether it be insurance concerns, euthanasia ethics or various other topics that arise, we will all have an opinion. In 2075 the conversation starts to shift, as people begin living very long and healthy lives through advanced technology, medicine and various synthetic forms of longevity aid.
It’s possible that death becomes a welcome friend, instead of a hated foe … that when people reach the age of 150 they simply want to die. It’s possible that we will be able to sustain life much farther than we sustain health. It’s possible, at this point, the euthanasia become the dominate cause of death. Instead of funeral homes, there’s now “Celebration Centers”.
At this point, technology allows us to be anything we want to be. And we’ll all choose to be Batman … the rich kid who has all of his needs fulfilled so he decides to test his fate by pushing limits. And we’ll all die stupid narcissistic heroic deaths from rock climbing or space explorations or deep sea diving. At this point, humanity will kill itself off via stupidity and dogs will rule the world. You heard it here first: Planet of the Dogs starts in 100 years.
With everybody dying from tragic acts of stupidity, most bodies aren’t recovered and the funeral industry dies. : )