Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Selecting a coffin for my father, I noticed that the salesman, solicitous at first, turned cool when I asked for the cheapest box. This was hidden in a closet. (I’ve since learned that in some funeral parlors the coffin showroom is bugged, so the salesman can eavesdrop on the bereaved family. This makes it easier to close the sale.)
As I recall, the most expensive model was $1,800, all mahogany and velvet, and though I scoffed then, I admit now there may be more to this than meets the jaundiced eye. There is little elegance in our private, or public, lives. Edwardian railway coaches may not fairly be compared with our modern American derivative of factory-air with four-on-the-floor, but no comparisons are fair; who can say, justly, whether a Hardee Burger, or a Big Mac, is more exemplary of the American taste? If we choose to celebrate the dead with coffins more luxurious than all the public restrooms in New York City rolled into one, perhaps that is less a measure of how readily America spreads itself for coin than it is a triumph of art over pragmatism, fashion over ugliness, the grand gesture over the mean.
“As part of the literature of funerals it’s like a living rosebud in a bouquet of plastic flowers,” is the way one reviewer described A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial by Ernest Morgan.
Simply and intelligently written, this 64-page manual treats death as a normal and necessary part of life, not as a taboo subject. It suggests how to surround the act of passage with appropriate rites of passage, by discussing simple burial and cremation, death education as preparation for living, memorial societies, and how the dead can help the living with body, organ, and tissue donation.
The manual is published by the Celo Press, which is associated with the Celo Community in the mountains of Western North Carolina, one of the oldest non-sectarian intentional communities in America. Single copies are $1.50, postpaid, from the Celo Press, Route 5, Burnsville, North Carolina, 28714.
The funeral director (don’t call him an undertaker) has been the object of much unkind criticism because of his tendency to encourage ostentatious and extravagant funerals.
The fault, as a rule, lies not so much with the individual funeral director as with the unique situation of the funeral industry itself.
There are nearly 2,000,000 deaths each year in the United States. Divide these between 20,000 morticians and you have only two funerals per week. However, the majority of funerals are handled by a tiny fraction of the 20,000 morticians, leaving nearly half the morticians of the country with less than one funeral per week. The situation in Canada is much the same.
An official of the National Selected Morticians (a leading trade association of the funeral industry) remarked that 2,000 firms could handle all the funeral business in America. Even trebling his figure there are four times too many. A community which is adequately served by one bank, one printshop, and one lumber yard will commonly have several fully equipped mortuaries, all of them standing idle most of the time. A printer whose plant stands idle even half the time can hardly survive in free competition. His prices will have to be too high. How do the thousands of morticians manage whose plants are idle over 80% of the time?
They manage because they can and do charge the overhead of days or weeks of living expense and idle plant to a single funeral. This is possible because competition does not exist in their business in the same way it does in other businesses.
Mark Twain puts it neatly, with an “undertaker” saying: “There’s one thing in this world which a person don’t say — ‘I’ll look around a little and if I can’t do better I’ll come back and take it.’ That’s a coffin. And take your poor man, and if you work him right he’ll bust himself on a single layout. Or especially a woman.”
High prices call for elaboration of service. Things like metal burial vaults, and caskets with innerspring mattresses make about as much sense as a fur-lined bathtub, but they help wonderfully in running up the bill! As in the case of tailfins for autos, however, it is at least as much public taste which is at fault as it is the businessman.
It is important that we not judge funeral directors in general by the occasional shady operator who is to be found among them, and that we understand their problems and appreciate the services they perform. It is to be hoped that in the long run the memorial societies and related organizations, functioning in our free American society, will simplify burial practices and contribute to the health of the funeral business.
There are many ways in which socially concerned people can arrange while they are living to serve the needs of their fellow men after they have died. Many lives can be saved, and health and sight can be restored to thousands through the intelligent salvaging of organs and tissues from persons who have died. . . .
Alas, the work of collecting these anatomical materials is seriously fragmented. One organization collects kidneys, another eyes, a third pituitary glands, and so on. . . .
The answer to this problem is two-fold. First, and basic to the other, is the “Universal Donor” principle as practiced in some of the more advanced countries of Western Europe. Anyone who dies anywhere in the country is available as a donor if needed, unless he or she, or the family involved, has specified to the contrary . . .
The other part of the answer is in regional tissue banks like the Northern California Transplant Bank. These coordinate the procurement, processing, storage and distribution of tissues for transplant and therapy, on a regional basis. Ideally such tissue banks will, in the future accept bequeathal of the entire body and dispose of the remains without expense to the family . . .
. . . A donor to such an institution can be assured of maximum ‘recycling’ . . .