Wednesday, June 3, 2015

It's a Dead Man's Party

   “It’s a dead man’s party. Who could ask for more?”
Lyrics from Oingo Boingo’s 1980s hit

   I could ask for more. I could ask that if you’re going to throw a party that is ABOUT ME, I should be invited, and I should be alive.
   People are dying all over the place, but funeral homes, ironically, are having trouble remaining healthy.Their new business model is to turn funerals into festive, high-tech parties. People do seem to be having an awfully good time.
   Do you feel that you ever got to experience your proverbial “15 minutes of fame”? For a lot of us, it just never happened. We’ve been waiting for the paparazzi, ready for our close-ups, all dressed up with no place to go, our sound bites memorized -- all to no avail.
    But a thrilling new business model is evolving that can guarantee you your place in the spotlight. You will have the leading role in a dazzling, dynamic extravaganza in which your virtues, talents, achievements and experiences will unfold in true Hollywood style.
    Unfortunately, step number one is: You die.
    And then -- my dear, mere mortals -- it’s show time!

    Celebrity culture is oozing into every nook and cranny of American life. It was inevitable that it would transform the whole “deadness” issue as well, because we are ready, willing and able to turn “passing away” into a grandiose production that portrays us -- why did it take so long? -- as STARS.
    (If only people would go to all this trouble while we were alive, it would be so much more enjoyable. It would make us feel good, and maybe we’d become better people, trying to live up to all those nice things people said about us. Plus, when we actually die, our families wouldn’t have to “perform” in receiving lines, as party hosts and eulogizers. They could grieve in peace.)
    Several energetic, unnervingly upbeat new firms have devised ways to monetize death by dazzling us with the fascinating, precious, unique wonderfulness that each of us has bestowed upon the world. This is like Narcissism to the Nth degree, and it brings a certain delight to death. No more need for "tear bottles," in which mourners used to collect their tears and bury them with their loved ones.

UPDATE June 23, 2014: Wow -- the latest trend in good-times funerals is to get the corpse all gussied up and displayed in a realistic and relevant tableaux, as if he or she were right there having a blast, along with everyone else. These photos are courtesy of the New York Times:

A New Orleans woman's body is posed at her family's request, at a funeral in May 2014.
A young boxer who was shot to death is displayed in Puerto Rico.
    I realize that in some cultures, death has always been a time of celebration for the person who has “gone to a better place.”
    But when did it happen here, and why?
    If you really do think your loved one has “passed on” to a place of peace, beauty and exaltation, it seems reasonable that you would rejoice.
    And if you are able, as a result of your beliefs, to avoid all those tiresome and heart-wrenching “stages of grief,” I envy you.
    But as funerals increasingly become “celebrations of life” rather than mourning a death, I wonder if we are subconsciously repressing anguish in a way that harms us somehow.
    I don’t know. Maybe it’s a healthy trend. But as for me, I stay home. When someone I love dies, I cry a lot, and I lack the self-control to turn off the tears during a memorial service. A behavior that is very natural to me would kind of wreck the mood of these cheerful gatherings, so I just conduct my own funeral, during which I hug the person’s picture to my chest and sob.
    Now that the theme songs for funerals increasingly seem to be  Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate” and  the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day,” I feel more out of place than ever.
    (For a review of some intriguing, bizarre and enlightened ways of disposing of the body -- bypassing funeral homes altogether -- see the last part of this article.) 
The Circle of Life Celebration
    The evolution toward funeral showmanship and the revival-tent mood of warmth and joy has spawned so many new firms, products and services directed at our “mortuary scientists”  that you could keep Googling until you died and never reach the end of the list.
    These firms are helping funeral homes to employ technology, multimedia and  newly developed psychological marketing concepts that will turn even the most mundane life into a colorful, moving epic that will be “immortal” (thank you, Jesus! Or whoever!).
    One of the most impressive and ambitious of these firms is Life Celebration, Inc.
   James W. Cummings, Chief Experience Officer (is that not a great title?) of  the Pennsylvania-based company, has personally been involved in the creation and staging of more than 1,000 “Life Celebration Experiences.”
    These experiences have been known for quite a long time as funerals, but that is not a very inviting  word -- in fact, it‘s a flat-out bummer. Today’s services are becoming the equivalent of Happy Meals for the Soul.
    As far back as 1963, Jessica Mitford’s landmark book, “The American Way of Death,” began creating a sense of unease in the public mind about the funeral industry. She called the open casket “barbaric and outrageously expensive” and referred to the undertaker as “the stage manager of the fabulous production…with its fantastic array of goods and services, pyramided to dazzle mourners and plunder next of kin.”
    If she could see how far we’ve come since then, she’d be rolling over in her you-know-what.

    Cummings and his team are training funeral-home directors and their staffs across the country in the “radical reinvention” of the industry’s time-worn approach -- which has been, you know, kind of dark and hushed, glum and whispery, with that gross piped-in organ music. For starters, let’s get some vanilla air freshener in here!
    “Our work is theater,” Cummings explains. His enthusiastic promise is to “passionately guide families to a deeply personal, highly profound – and transforming – Life Celebration Experience.”
    This is achieved through “staging” the memorial service, much as one might stage a Broadway production, using expertly calibrated music, streaming visuals and other technologies to provide a “meaningful and memorable” event.
    “A vital part of the Life Celebration Experience is helping families create personalized tributes that showcase their loved one’s unique personality, talents, interests, passions and relationships,” Cummings says. “It’s all about making people feel happiness and pride.”

    But his real clients are profit-hungry funeral-home directors, whom he promises to teach his “game changing”  and “comprehensive” methods. His clients will be able to “differentiate” themselves from the overcrowded funeral-home field and “enjoy unparalleled distinction in the marketplace, long-term competitive advantage, and proven revenue and market share growth.”
    Well, you knew “competitive advantage” had to be in there somewhere, didn’t you?
    According to Cummings, his company has “successfully transformed 100 percent of the funeral homes who have joined our community.”  His 50 most faithful affiliates have become part of the “Inner Circle, an elite, invitation-only group of leading funeral professional practitioners and thinkers.”
    Is this all sounding a little Masonic?
    As a first step in the transformation, Life Celebration principals sit down with funeral-home executives to conduct a thorough “diagnostic,” Cummings explains. Then, Cummings’ “seasoned Life Celebration facilitators return to present a comprehensive and intensive program conducted in your own funeral home ...Our trainers create an interactive learning environment that is also engaging and fun...Our fully customized curriculum combines hands-on classroom instruction, realistic role play, and step-by-step training.”
    Cummings’ program “gives employees the context and skills to stage stellar experiences” and includes regular “refresher courses.”
    Central to Life Celebration’s approach is its trademarked “Memories Collection,” which is a “tasteful and creative suite of keepsakes that offers a wonderful opportunity to share precious memories with family and friends. Each item in the Memories Collection not only helps tell the story of life’s journey, but becomes a cherished family focal point long after the funeral.”
    This “suite” consists of surprisingly amateurish collages, 18-page life-story booklets, tri-fold tributes, bookmarks, framed photo portraits and a DVD "pictorial presentation" that can be created “in minutes,” thanks to Life Celebration’s “world class technology, printing and production system (which can) scan and upload dozens of family photos, often in less than 20 minutes. Ordering a full complement of customized items from the Memories Collection typically takes less than five minutes of the funeral director‘s time.”

    Frankly, these products look like something that any scrapbooking mom or web-savvy teenager could put together on their own, probably with greater taste and originality.
    Life Celebration’s extensive and detailed web site declines to include prices for any of its products or services and my direct questions about this and other aspects of the business were ignored.
    Anyway, there is yet another upstart firm offering “a competitive advantage and a revenue generator in an increasingly cut-throat funeral-industry environment.”
    Timeless Tributes enables the funeral home to create  “a professional-quality, moving blend of uplifting music, family photos and personal tributes” that can make your funeral audience feel like they’re at the Academy Awards. The package comes with 1,000 songs as well as stock video footage to splice in at artistically opportune moments.
    It’s starting to dawn on everyone, isn’t it, that if you’re going to have the mortician unleash a lavish, poignant  tale that will make the audience laugh and cry, hug and kiss, you’ll want an expertly filmed broadcast of  the whole thing on the Internet, won‘t you? How could you not?
    Live funeral web-casting (“a profitable and customer-centric service“)  from yet another death-industry upstart, Memorial Streams, offers friends and family members access to memorial services regardless of their location or circumstances. It remains available online for 30 days after its initial live screening.
    “Even Grandma, from her hospital bed, or your best friend, doing charity work in Haiti, can celebrate right along with everyone else,” a Memorial Streams client says. “They can see you and everything in the chapel. It’s positively panoramic.”
    One funeral-home proprietor said, "I'd much rather get some high-tech people in here than to hire more graduates from the local funeral college. We're moving further into digital theater all the time. It‘s a total paradigm shift."
Modern Half-Couch Casket Spray

    Yet another facet in the weighty gem of the funeral industry is the proliferation of “goodies” that can be handed out like party favors. There are "dignity care packages," “special” picture frames, leather keepsake presentation boxes, memory books, lockets and charm bracelets, personalized writing pens and a whole bunch of other Made in China trinkets that funeral homes mark up several hundred percent. Here is a $150 cylinder to hold cremated remains.
    Then there is the Tribute Book from another firm, Funeral One - “a register book, photo book, and memories -- all together -- in one. It will be one book your family can’t put down.
    “It is Gorgeous. Simply a masterpiece,” according to Funeral One‘s web site.

     The many like-minded firms that are springing up almost daily confirm the notion that the industry is facing a perfect storm, forcing a whole new mindset among our ever-compassionate morticians.
    The death industry isn’t exactly terminally ill, but its weakness and emaciation have become chronic and progressive for years. Among the factors impacting funeral homes are accelerating cremation rates, which were up to more than 30 percent in 2002 (in California, it was 50 percent). The sale of caskets has, of course, been the linchpin of funeral-home profits from day one, so cremation has become a major threat to the “revenue stream.”
    A survey conducted in 2005 by the research firm Worthlin Worldwide found that 46 percent of Americans would make cremation their personal choice. When listing their reasons for choosing cremation, most, by far, cited cost. (Cremation rates soar during recession:
    So a high percentage of funeral homes has begun offering cremation services, and owners are wracking their brains about how to maintain their profitability, despite the dramatic decline in casket sales.
    For those who think that cremation seems pretty darned uncomfortable, there is a newer technology that claims essentially to rinse you into a blissful nothingness.
    The BioResponse web site makes the method sound quite relaxing, even referring to the receptacle as a “spa.”

    “The alkaline hydrolysis process is essentially an accelerated form of the process which takes place in the natural cycle of life,” it says. “A combination of gentle water flow, temperature, and alkalinity is used to accelerate the natural course of breakdown accomplished by our ecosystem. At the end of the process the body has been returned to its natural form, dissolved in the water. Similar to cremation, the only solid remains are the mineral ash of the bones, which are returned to the family in an urn. Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as resomation, offers families the opportunity to contribute to a gentle, greener process.”  Resomation is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than cremation. It is currently legal in Florida, Maine and Oregon. 

    You have to leave BioResponse’s web site and look elsewhere to discover that what they basically do to you in these metal cylinders is to BOIL YOU IN LYE. So much for a relaxing splash into eternity.
    The installation of the first commercially sold system for multiple cadaver dispositions was in 1995, for the State of Florida. In 2005, BioResponse  designed, sold, and installed the first single-cadaver alkaline hydrolysis system and placed it at the Mayo Clinic, where it is still used to dispose of the remains of bodies donated to science.
    The public overwhelming prefers alkali dispositions to cremation, according to Jeff Edwards, an Ohio funeral director who offered both for two months, until state officials told him that alkaline hydrolysis "is not an authorized form of disposition of a dead human body," although it is widely used by veterinarians. Edwards plans to appeal.
    Its advocates say alkaline hydrolysis, which costs about $700 and -- unlike cremation, doesn’t produce air or water pollution -- is putting the first nail in cremation’s coffin.
    Cremation, of course, put the first nail in the coffin’s coffin.
    The newest new thing is Promession, which is purportedly an ecologically sensitive method for disposing of human remains by freeze drying. It was invented and patented in 1999 by a Swedish biologist.
    The three-step method consists of first submerging the body in liquid nitrogen, making the remains so brittle that they shatter into a powder, using only slight vibrations. The powder is then dried, reducing its weight by 70 percent. Metals within the remains -- such as those from dental fillings or joint replacements -- are removed and recycled. The remains are then shallow-buried so oxygen can reach and compost them in the natural, aerobic fashion.
    The first facilities for Promession-based funerals, known as Promatoria, are due to be ready this year. They will be located in Sweden, Great Britain & South Korea. So we need to get going -- we’re not getting any younger!
    Another enlightened trend that imperils the conventional death industry is the growing interest in “green burials,” in which the body is interred in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition, enabling it  to “recycle” naturally.
    This approach ensures that the burial site remains as natural as possible. Unembalmed bodies are placed in a  biodegradable casket, shroud, or a favorite blanket and covered with two feet or less of soil to enable composting to occur.
    A green burial  “takes place in a natural environment where native flora and wildlife flourish. A green cemetery provides habitat for endemic birds and animals, returning lands to their native grasses, flowers and shrubs,” according to
     Currently, there are only  22 cemeteries with natural burial grounds certified by the Green Burial Council, up from one in 2006, according to a 2010 Newsweek article. But that number is likely to rise. Industry analysts predict there will be a major uptick in green burials in the next decade as the baby boomers, who are more concerned about the environment than previous generations, begin to plan their funerals.
    Cremation, alkaline hydrolysis, “green” burials and Promession are just four of the many threats to the conventional funeral home. They also face  encroachment from nontraditional competitors, including hotels and event planners, to host memorial services.
    Increasing numbers of families are turning to informal, do-it-yourself memorial services -- in the backyard, at the city park, down by the riverside -- that don’t involve funeral homes at all. Embalming rates continue to decline. In some states, "death midwives" are out there quietly informing people that they have the legal option to care for their dead loved ones in the home -- sensitively and lovingly -- without pouring money into the pockets of the local mortuaries. This site encourages the bathing, anointing and dressing of the body by the family and enclosure into a simple cardboard or wooden box:
  That is what I would choose. The thought of turning my mother’s body over to strangers horrifies me. My sisters and I can prepare her body ourselves, preserving the dignity and modesty that she never relinquished in life.

    "Having your loved one’s body at home after he or she has have died is legal in all states. Some states require that a funeral director be involved at some point (to sign the death certification, for example. Embalming is not required in any state (except in a very, very few limited situations), nor does it take a licensed mortician to transport a body in most states. A casket for burial is also not required by law. A family can choose to do some part of the after-death care, and pay for the services of a funeral home to do the rest." This excellent site provides many helpful resources, articles and advice for handling your loved one's body and final disposition yourself. It also provides links to individuals and organizations in every state that can advise you

     Consumers are also aware more than ever of the huge markups (between 400 percent and 1.000 percent on caskets) and costly “extras” associated with funeral planning. They are gradually choosing to bypass the conventional channels. When Costco (2004) and WalMart (2009) began selling caskets and cremation urns online, it was shocking and funny for a few minutes, and then it started making a lot of sense. Funeral homes typically charge $5,000 to $12,000 for a casket. The discount retailers offer models at $1,000 to $2,000, with a $100 shipping fee. Federal law requires funeral homes to accept third-party caskets. Here is Michael Jackson's  solid bronze, gold-plated $25,000 casket:

    Consumer advocates say a sub-$800 funeral is possible in most places. It requires “direct cremation,” which simply means that the deceased is promptly cremated, without a prior funeral service or viewing. Direct cremation usually includes transport of the body, cremation and a cardboard or plastic container for the ashes.
    If you are not comfortable with cremation, you can purchase a simple, well-crafted pine casket at five percent of the cost of the most opulent polished bronze coffin. You can make one yourself for a fraction of that. And artist Joe Scanlan is selling a book for $27.50 that tells you how to make your own coffin from IKEA parts for less than $400:

   These trends are leaving funeral homes scrambling to survive. “Superior profits can be generated only by selling services, not merchandise,” the funeral directors’ journal ICFM Magazine emphasizes. “You’ve got to become an ‘event venue‘."
    And now there’s an iPhone app for that -- the first and only one ever created for funeral directors!
     Another new firm, Social Network, has arisen to advise funeral homes on how to establish an eye-catching “online presence,” now that Web-savvy Boomers are old enough to start planning for their “final exit.”
    “Make friends with this generation -- it will be your salvation,” the site declares.
    A Royal Caribbean cruise recently became the “venue” for morticians who combined sunbathing and Margaritas with a series of workshops provided by the company FrontRunner Professional on “WebSuite 4.0,” which encompasses the funeral profession's “most advanced website / kiosk / marketing center, personalization software, and DVD engine all integrated into a one data-entry solution.”
    That calls for another Margarita! Por favor! Baby, take a bow!
    Now that consumers have directed their bargain-hunting skills to funeral services, another industry -- consisting of high-paid consultants and high-cost DVDs -- has sprung up to teach funeral professionals “how to handle price shoppers.” Sounds a bit ominous.
    So let’s all be sure we know how to handle THEM.


  For those who enjoyed nothing more than an afternoon on the greens,  a new cemetery golf course has been created especially to provide a lovely  and scenic repose for your ashes.

   Men (and Sarah Palin) who got their rocks off by blowing away beautiful animals can now have their own cremated ashes put into bullets, so that their heirs can rip open yet another creature and let Daddy (or Sarah) take part, despite being "de-parted." A new company, Holy Smoke, takes your loved one's ashes and turns them into ammunition.
    "My son is a dove hunter, and he loves the outdoors, as I do. I want to have my ashes placed into shotgun shells with dove and quail load," co-owner Thad Holmes says. "If I have 250 shotgun shells, which is a case of shells or 10 boxes of shells, each year for 10 years, he can start off a dove season by grabbing one of my boxes with my ashes in them and go out to a dove hunt and say, 'Dad, this one's for you.'"

    In my next post, I will revisit the issue of obituaries, which I discussed in my very first blog post on February 22. The whole obituary mindset has been vastly transformed by yet another band of innovative and visionary profit-seekers. Their venue is The Planet, and their target audience is Mankind.

    THE MEMORY BANK describes the battle over which online company will get fabulously wealthy exploiting the anguish of those left behind, by selling them colorful, compelling interactive obituaries that portray the grand and beautiful lives that their loved ones lived. It is a cynical, bizarre and yet oddly touching enterprise.