An article in Newsweek brings this oddity, some people are taking the green movement to a point few of us might wish to go – at home funerals, without the aid of standard accoutrements like embalming.
James Green is dead. He’s lying on a classroom table—eyes closed, hands across his chest—while Donna Belk, who lectures on do-it-yourself funerals, explains how to wash a corpse at home. “In my experience, bodies leak a negligible amount of fluid, but you may want to put a plastic sheet down, just in case.” She turns to Green: “You don’t have to do any leaking.” The ersatz corpse cracks a smile and the dozen students in the room shout, “He’s alive! He’s alive!”
‘Bad joke’, declare many, and I’d be inclined to agree, but after some reflection it becomes clear that for thousands of years the funeral was a very private and simple thing. (no jokes about Polish funerals!)
The playacting is part of the annual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a watchdog group for the death-care industry that advocates simple, personalized and environmentally sound alternatives to the typical American burial.
Americans spend between $11 billion and $15 billion on funerals each year, and four major corporations account for 11 percent of the 20,000 funeral homes in the United States, tending to cluster in individual communities. The “big four”—Services Corporation International, Stewart Enterprises, Carriage and Stonemor—own just a quarter of the funeral homes in Seattle, for example, but own 80 percent of the funeral homes in Yakima, a few hours east.
I knew I wasn’t wasting my time watching ‘6 Feet Under’ – the big guys really are trying to take over, in this line of work, as everywhere else.
The FCA members from across the country gathered in Seattle in last June to attend seminars on home funerals; “green burial,” including caskets made from recycled paper; and, most important, educating the public on how to navigate what many members consider a corrupt and ossified industry.
“The funeral corporations use predatory sales tactics and aggressive marketing to get people—who are in shock—to spend more than they can afford on services they don’t want or need,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the FCA.
The laws surrounding funerals, burials, cremations and anything else have been so regulated and organized that it is almost too expensive to die. Truly this is maddening, as I have read stories of people trying to keep up appearances of life for their long dead loved ones, as the money for a ‘proper funeral’ was not available.
The lobbyists for the death-care industry, Slocum claims, have pernicious influence over state legislatures. In 2006, he got a call from a Native American couple whose 3-year-old died in a hospital while they were visiting Salt Lake City. The parents wanted to take the body home to Idaho for a traditional funeral. Hospital staff refused, telling the parents that according to a Utah law passed that year, the death certificate could only be signed by a licensed funeral director, which would have meant that the body would likely have had to be given temporarily into the custody of a funeral home. Luckily, with the help of an alternative burial group, the couple was able to take custody of their child’s body, but the case indicates the power the traditional funeral industry can have, Slocum argues.
“I want people to be shocked,” Slocum says, “that in some states, the body belongs to the mortuary by state law. And once a funeral director has got a body in the door, it’s over. They’ll charge you from $1,200 to $4,000 for their ‘basic services’ fee. They’ve got possession of your dead and your wallet with the blessing of the state.”
So much for the idea of respecting final wishes, or the wishes of a parent. Why should it be so hard for rights, to which every person should be entitled – especially in the ‘land of the free, and home of the brave’ – to be asserted?
Between wanting to handle things in their own manner (part of religious freedom) and avoiding the extreme exploitation of the funerary establishment, it is no wonder that people are trying to be green about funerals. The ecology is getting a back seat on this one.