Sacred Bones

Not only is death sometimes painful, frequently inconvenient, and only seldom desired, it's expensive. From nursing homes to fancy hospitals, the process of leaving the planet is enormously costly, yet enormously profitable for those who usher us out. Not the least of our beneficiaries in death is the undertaker. And today, the price of a funeral, never a bargain basement deal, is exorbitant.Our "remains," as the mortician prefers to call a cadaver, are a valued commodity for a prosperous $16 billion-a-year industry tending to some 2 1/2 million deaths a year. And just like the other industries that supply the food, the medicine, and all the other goods and services on which we depend, the funeral industry is becoming increasingly corporatized. Says Karen Leonard, researcher for the revision of the late muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford's best-selling expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, "You know the song lyric, 'My soul belongs to the company store'? Well your body belongs to Wall Street."And, she laughs heartily, "It's become nothing more than a commerce of corpses."The corporatization of the funeral industry has spurred Leonard to revise Mitford's book. Careful to conceal their ownership of established, no longer independently owned mortuaries, three large corporations have been taking over the U.S. industry during the past 10 years, performing one out of every five funerals nationwide. The corporatization of the industry means that we have less control over our own dead bodies. The most well-known cremation outfit, the Neptune Society, is owned by Stewart Enterprises, the third largest international conglomerate. Texas-based Service Corporation International, the Loewen Group, and Stewart have jacked up their profit margin by consolidating such services as embalming and funeral transportation to accommodate several mortuaries at one time, creating highly lucrative economies of scale. But the profits have not been passed on to the consumer. Chain mortuaries usually raise prices -- sometimes as much as 100 percent -- after acquiring an established independent home. With funeral prices increasing three times faster than the cost of living, final arrangements are now the third largest expense families face."It's a cornered market," Leonard is quick to point out. "Everybody dies."For the most part, survivors, too busy and often too distraught, are not inclined to shop around. The average full funeral in America is now $4,850, according to the National Funeral Directors' Association. Add another four grand for the average cemetery charges, and an American death costs as much as most folks in this country spend for the down payment on a house.Leonard, 45, began researching the funeral industry 10 years ago, when she became a partner in a highly unusual enterprise: the Funerary Art Gallery in San Francisco. It all started one day when Leonard was talking with a couple of old friends about their careers. A student of gerontology at Sonoma State University, Leonard was very disappointed when she figured out that the only way she could make a living in that field was in administration. Her friends had similar frustrations. Leonard's best friend of 27 years told the group she had recently received a news clipping from her mother depicting a woman selling caskets. Her mother's scribbled comment read, "Maybe this is what you and Karen should be doing.""We thought of artists and craftspeople making caskets. Overnight we were hearing from artists all over the world," Leonard says. "A lot of them were very famous artists and had incredibly uniquely wonderful stuff. Artists had always paid a role in memorialization until the American funeral industry set up and now everything was mass manufactured." People who came to the gallery looking for a reasonably priced casket later returned, saying funeral directors wouldn't take their caskets "because the bottom might fall out!" Sometimes mortuaries even damaged the caskets, then claimed they were of inferior quality. Disturbed, Leonard went undercover to search for an honest funeral director.At one of the biggest mortuaries in San Francisco, she and her partners were met at the door by two funeral directors. "It was plush city, and we were nervous, because we're retailers, we were the enemy," Leonard says. They were shown a film in which two types of casket were displayed, the protected and the unprotected. "I asked the funeral director what were they protected from," Leonard says. "He leaned forward, put his hands on the desk and said, 'Aliens and foreign objects reaching the body of your loved one.'" The metal and mahogany boxes sealed with a tight rubber gasket create an anaerobic environment in which bacteria thrive, reducing the body in a matter of months to a noxious putrefaction and releasing gases that are capable of exploding the container. Indeed, when the casket is headed for a mausoleum, the savvy mortician will pop the seal on the way to the cemetery, just to let in some healthy fresh air, to avoid possible damage to the crypt walls if the lid blows. Leonard had just finished reading Mitford's The American Way of Death. "I loved it! I thought it was the best book I had ever read," she says. Entering the casket room, Leonard was amazed to discover that the selections were arranged exactly as Mitford had described 20 years earlier, with the lower-priced items arranged in the "Aisle of Resistance" and the better models in the "Aisle of Prosperity," a sales design created many years ago by the infamous W. M. Krieger to seduce the consumer into buying the "better" -- fancier, cushier, longer-lasting -- casket. Leonard visited lots of funeral homes. Then one day she found what she was looking for -- she met funeral director Frank Rivera."While I was in the office, he was on the phone," Leonard recalls, "telling a customer, 'You don't have to do embalming to view the body.' That's when I knew I had found an honest funeral director."Leonard calls embalming "the heart and soul of the American way of death. It's what makes funerals necessary," she says, making it very clear that she's not just in this for the fun of it.Preparing the body, transporting it, and arranging the memorial service do not require special training or professional certificates; these tasks can be performed by the families. But embalming is a technical procedure that must be learned, and, involving as it does the removal of essential bodily fluids, it is highly regulated. Hence it is embalming alone that endows the funeral director with the professional status -- and inflated income -- he or she craves. Though most people assume that embalming is required for reasons of public health and that it preserves the body. Neither is true.If anything, embalming is the hazard. Blood-borne pathogens removed from the corpse are a biohazard, and the toxic chemicals used in the process are pollutants. Nor does an embalmed body last longer than a refrigerated stiff. Why, then, are bodies embalmed? Funeral directors speak about the importance of the "memory picture" of the beloved that retains the appearance he had in life. Such a picture is essential for grief therapy, funeral directors murmur. For many families, it's an unforgettable image of debt. Frank Rivera offered the consumer a choice. His prices were reasonable; the casket sold for twice, not five times, the wholesale price. But it would not have been appropriate for Leonard to advertise her favorite mortuary at the gallery. Instead, she began posting price lists of all the mortuaries so that her customers could be informed. The law requires that a price list be offered at the outset, but many mortuaries skip this step, or offer 10-page brochures that the bereaved do not read. Leonard began consulting with customers, informing them of their rights. It's free choice that Karen Leonard is after, and the right to our sacred bones. "We have to take apart laws that amount to restraint of trade... " she says. "The funeral industry doesn't tell us how to deal with our deaths. We decide what we want." How a society cares for its dead reflects the values it holds dear; for Leonard, the reign of the modern-day mortuary shows that we are still confusing monetary worth with human worth, still believing that spending a lot of money can prove or else compensate for the love we felt but couldn't share."We have to change the way we deal with our dead," Leonard says. "We have to take a look, as a culture, at the soundness of our minds."

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