A Consumer Guide about the Funeral and Cemetery Business
Funerals are, let’s face it, a big business in today’s modern society in the United States and in many other parts of the globe. (This article focuses on the big business of funerals in America, but the general ideas also apply in Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, Spain, Australia, Brazil, and most other highly developed nations throughout the world.) According to statistics compiled by the National Funeral Directors Association, funerals nationwide accounted for $11.95 billion in 2007 (the latest year for which statistics were available as of this writing), and that number is up from $11.2 billion in 2002. The average cost of funerals in 2007 was $6,560, and that is up a staggering 863 percent since the NFDA first began collecting statistics in 1960 (when the average cost for funerals was just $760). Clearly, funerals are a major economic force in today’s modern world. As with other industries that are such heavy hitters in the market place (gasoline manufacturers, cell phone service providers, broadcasting networks and computer companies), funerals are today largely organized by two or three large, multi-national corporations that provide services for a huge percentage of funerals staged in today’s market. These large companies employ hundreds of thousands of people (the 2007 figure was more than 300,000, and more recent incomplete statistics indicate that the number has grown even larger since then, even during a period in which other industries have been shrinking by millions of employees. Clearly, the recessionary period of 2008 and 2009 has not been a hindrance to funerals) and have established large marketing and lobbying outfits whose job it is to assure that the industry continues growing as it has for the past 50 years, at least. This level of growth appears to be unending at the moment, and that has driven investors to pour ever more money into the large companies in the business of organizing funerals. The old adage that funerals are a good business to be in because, well, everyone needs one sooner or later appears to be much more than humorous folklore. Business leaders across America (and the world) are finding that it has a great deal of fact associated with it.
As funerals have risen to such prominence in the business world since the 1960s, the industry has had its share of critics. Many people argue that funerals, by their nature, are not something that should be a commercial venture – especially such a lucrative one. These critics tend to long for the days when funerals were mostly simple, family affairs, often staged in private living rooms or even family barns, with burial taking place just a few feet away on land that had been owned and maintained for generations by a single family. But, for many, these critics are woefully short sighted. Those who support the evolution of funerals as a modern, highly profitable industry note that today’s funerals do much more to comfort grieving loved ones than the simple, uncomfortable affairs of yesteryear once did. They argue that funerals of today are much healthier than they once were because they tend to focus on themes of hopefulness, dignity, and legacy, all of which have great social value and which tended to be neglected in the rugged funeral of days past. Yes, today’s funerals are more sophisticated and ornate (even the simplest ones) than they tended to be for most of the rest of history, and, yes, such sophistication comes at a price. But that price is well worth it, supporters will always say.
The remainder of this article will look closely at the advantages and disadvantages of society’s apparently unstoppable trend toward allowing funerals to become an ever-increasing economic force in our world today. First the advantages. Funerals have become the focus of large scale business outfits only relatively recently – within the past 60-70 years, which, is but a blip in recorded history. For most of history, funerals were informal affairs, done without any professional help whatsoever. Bodies were routinely prepared for burial by untrained hands on kitchen tables or other facilities that were never intended to be used for such purposes. Funeral services were often hastily planned an publicized, giving far flung friends and relatives little (if any) time to travel to participate. And burial was often done in a haphazard manner by family members ill equipped to build a dignified funeral casket and assure that the grave site would remain well maintained or even properly marked. As with most other services that evolved into modern, organized “professions” throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, funerals of yesteryear tended to take on a nature that modern sensibilities might find appalling. (Even though they were as reasonable and sensible to their contemporary cultures as, say, the old medical practice of using leeches to pull infected blood from a person’s body or the habit of placing a life savings in bank accounts that were uninsured.)
The modern industry that now arranges, plans, and stages most funerals today has made significant improvements that tend to make funerals a much more comforting and helpful for those in attendance. To begin, today’s modern funeral homes — not grieving, untrained family members — now customarily and routinely handle all sorts of unpleasant-but-important details common to all funerals: transporting a deceased’s body from the place of death to the place where the funeral will take place and then, finally, to the grave; preparing the body for dignified presentation at the funeral, keeping a body in good condition for a funeral that can take up to two weeks to organize, and arranging for a comforting gathering place for mourners to meet and console one another properly. Today’s industry that helps with funerals also has established (and continues to refine) well-organized mass communication methods by which nearly everyone with an interest in a particular person’s life can get the timely news of a death and arrange to be present at a memorial service. And funerals can now be fully planned and organized well in advance by the deceased, himself or herself, thereby freeing grieving family and friends from the burden of having to guess how the deceased would like to be remembered during his or her memorial service.
All of these services related to funerals are so common today that modern society tends to take them for granted (almost as much as we take for granted the universal use of automobiles, or other modern conveniences, such as air conditioning and refrigeration). But they are great conveniences that have evolved, more or less recently, by virtue of the modern funeral industry. But that is just the start of the good things that the funeral industry makes possible today. The profitability of funerals has led to investment in innovations in the industry, and so the future of funerals promises even more great things to help families who have lost their loved ones to cope healthily with their losses. Recent innovations such as green funerals allow those who are concerned about the sustainability of the Earth’s environment to experience all of the healing power of a modern funeral while maintaining the assurance that their experiences are healthy from environmental perspective as well. Likewise, the popularity of cremation has proved to be a creative boon for funerals of today. Investors in the industry that gives us funerals have developed a myriad of products that have become relatively common in today’s modern memorials.
These products range from cremation ash jewelry to customized memorial cremation urns to biodegradable urns to artistic works such as glass works, ceramics and paintings that have cremation ashes mixed into the work itself. All of these innovations would likely not have come about had funerals remained small, simple, very private affairs that, as we explored above, was the case for most of history. Thanks to these innovations, truly, the sky is the limit when it comes to funerals that memorialize loved ones in exactly the right manner. These innovations can be said to have inspired the one of the most famously creative funerals of all time: that of wild-man and author Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s funeral was conducted in his very rural desert canyon property with the use of an elaborate rocket cannon that Thompson had ordered built well before his death. Instructions in his will were carried out precisely: Thompson’s cremation ashes were loaded into the cannon and then fired as high as possible (presumably into outer space, but no one is certain where they ended up). While Hunter Thompson was known for his witty criticism of corporate status-quo – and it’s possible that this funeral request was his one final bit of ironic commentary – it is also true that, where it not for the innovative thinking that had come about as a result of a great expansion in businesses that provide funerals, his very funeral would likely have been as simple and as non-descript as the vast majority of funerals that have occurred over the centuries.
But now, perhaps in honor of Hunter Thompson himself, we must turn this article’s attention to a few words about the negative aspects of funerals having become such a big business in recent decades.
The most important negative aspect may be, simply, the loss of traditions. As any member of a long-lived institution (such as a school or a fraternity or even a family) can testify, traditions are a central part of what makes such institutions a way of life for so many for so long. For centuries before the advent of modern funerals, traditions surrounding the death of a loved one were a big part of life itself. Sure, it can be argued, modern funerals are creating new types of traditions, but that argument belies the fact that these new traditions have, by their very nature, displaced the old ones. Traditions surrounding funerals once held that funerals were to be simple affairs, carried out, not by professionals in fancy “funeral homes” but, rather, by loving members of a family who are not necessarily practiced and skilled in the art of things such as embalming.
This tradition of simpleness for funerals had all-but died in recent decades and, with it, died a rugged spirit that held together entire generations that had managed to meld together to recover and survive such disasters as the American Civil War and The Great Depression and even the Great American Dust Bowl. Sure, it can be argued that the simple funerals were the very products of these very disasters, which caused poverty and despair across our land and therefore left families with no resources by which to accommodate more expensive burials and funerals for their loved ones. But a traditionalist will see things differently. A traditionalist will see the simple funerals of yesteryear as something to be eternally emulated as a tribute to the strength and spirit of a people who survived and persevered against all odds. Simple funerals, then, are a way of paying homage to the great human strength and integrity that characterized much of the past and from which all future generations have much to learn in the areas of perseverance and discipline.
The good news here is that, even modern funeral directors can help with these simple funerals of days gone by. Funerals today can take on just about any theme or style that a family or deceased person desires and, certainly, just about any modern funeral home is able to accommodate requests to help arrange a simple funeral – one done in a home, say. And, in fact, a number of recent news articles have pointed out that a growing number of families are, indeed, making such requests for their family funerals. Simple, old-style, funerals can benefit from the use of modern professionals in a number of ways that will not detract from the traditions. For example, a funeral director can be hired to help place obituary notices in the best places so as to assure maximum turn-out. This sort of thing does not deter from the simple nature of a funeral but, rather, helps assure that the simple funeral’s traditional place in a family’s history remains solid. So, while we began this article with the premise of discussing both the pros and the cons of funerals rising as an industry in the world of modern business, it now seems possible that, well, there is no down side to this trend.
For anyone else who prefers to take advantage all of the options available to give their loved one a befitting – not to mention unforgettable – final farewell, the vareity of options available for memorial products now in days helps us do just that. Whether the funeral is precedding a burial or cremation, the vast options for caskets, cremation urns, and other memorobilia will certainly help create a comforting final remembrance in honor of the dearly departed.