Monday, December 28, 2009

Size and Service

fat death
It's no surprise that many of us are getting bigger than our forebears. Even if we don't notice it on the street or in the mirror, we've all seen the news segments where the camera shows footage of overweight people from the neck down, citing a new study on obesity.

Some airlines have been under fire lately for charging people more if they are over a certain weight, and while this may be horrible customer service, we all know that the larger we are, the more jet fuel is required to lift us off the runway.

Expanding waistlines have an effect on funeral service options as well.

The labor and equipment required to care for the dead is pretty much the same whether a person is 25 lbs or 300. Removal from a hospital requires only one director and a standard cot, removal from a home setting requires two directors, and while the amount of embalming chemicals, or time in a crematory will vary a bit, the amount of labor and the type of equipment required does not vary depending upon the size of the deceased. At a certain point, say 350 lbs, the amount of labor, the capacity of equipment, and the range of merchandise changes dramatically. Removal from the place of death can require six directors. If cremation is chosen, freezing may be necessary. The deceased may not fit on a standard embalming table or inside a standard crematory retort. Traditionally, however, costs to consumers have stayed the same no matter their size.

fat death

Exceptions to this rule have been children, and merchandise. Traditionally, full service funeral homes have provided their services to children for nothing, or for almost nothing. Merchandise such as caskets, vaults and urns are things that the funeral homes must pay for themselves, and thus those costs are passed on to consumers, but removal, planning, paperwork, embalming, services, vehicles, staff and cremation are traditionally provided to the families of infants and children for free. The merchandise selected for people who do not fit in a standard casket or vault, and the cost of an additional grave space, if necessary, can be more expensive because of the size and strength required.

Is this fair? Well, I don't think anyone would argue that two graves should cost the same as one, or that a casket should cost the same no matter how big it is. As far as infants and children go, this is a donation of service in a very tragic situation, and few would argue that the waiving of a fees for babies and children is unfair to the rest of us.
fat death
The hard economic reality though, is that funeral homes have expenses that must be met. Mortgages must be paid, staff retained, benefits provided, equipment must be purchased and maintained. All the income from the services a funeral home provides must contribute to paying these costs, so if the services for babies are provided for free, the rest of the families each pay a little more than they otherwise would have to, to make this possible.

Similarly, when the cost of the labor and equipment required to care for the over 350 crowd is higher, but their cost stays the same, then ultimately, everyone else is paying more so that they can pay the same.

This is the way funeral homes have operated for years, and there is nothing unusual or deceptive about it. At some point every business averages their costs out over a range of consumers. Some do not pay their bills, and the rest of us must make up the difference. Some customers need more care, and take up more service and labor from staff. Some menu items cost the restaurant less, but are marked up more to cover the cost of labor and facilities across all patrons.

And so, we might assume that as people get bigger, the average casket gets bigger, the average embalming table gets bigger, the average crematory is built with greater capacity, and it all evens out again. We all pay just a little more so that babies are buried for free and big people aren't singled out for higher prices. This is part of the traditional full service funeral home model. Another part of the model is that, despite a dramatic increase in labor costs for large services, for making removals at night or on holidays, and for preparing the deceased following tissue donations or autopsies, the price for services remains the same.

However, the model is changing, and more and more families are choosing discount funeral homes that offer limited services and lower prices. Does this sound familiar? Let's go back to the airlines. Many people choose their airline based on price alone. They shop around for the lowest fare, and in turn, airlines offer less and less. If you want a meal on the plane now, you have to pay for it outright. If you want to take another piece of luggage, there is a fee.

Full service funeral homes are not at this point yet. However, market forces are driving them in this direction.

Our funeral home recently served a family who had originally engaged the services of a discount funeral home to care for their very overweight loved one. The discount funeral home lacked the proper equipment to transport the deceased from the place of death, even from a hospital type bed in a medical facility. Because we had equipment that could handle the weight in a dignified and safe manner, our services were engaged for the removal. Still, the family continued to work with the discounter until they were told that there would be a surcharge amounting to 100 percent for transport and cremation services because of the extra work and equipment involved. At our full service funeral home, cremation for adults costs the same, no matter what their size is.

So should people to pay more for services if they happened to die on Christmas, or have a large extended family, require an autopsy, or weigh 400 lbs.? I don't think so, but ultimately, the market will decide. I do know, though, that the day we determine the cost of services by the weight of the deceased, the world will be a colder place; a place where the dead are disposed of, not laid to rest.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Speech and Cemeteries: What is appropriate?

cemetery memorial
Union Brings Rat to Cemetery from NBC NYC

What type of behavior and speech is appropriate in a cemetery?

Out of respect and reverence, should we only allow the quiet prayers of the grieving punctuated by the reassuring whir of the weed-whacker and the cautionary beeping of excavators backing up? Should we allow picnics and dog walkers? Do joggers or smokers disrupt the peace of those who have shuffled off their mortal coils?

Many cemeteries are private property, most others belong to the city, state or nation, and they all have rules. In national cemeteries, jogging and picnics are not allowed. In many cemeteries, dogs and evening visitors are prohibited. However, these rules are seldom an issue because in most cemeteries, most days of the year, the cemetery is a very quiet place. And for many, that's just the way the cemetery should be, quiet and peaceful.

Certainly a cemetery needs to be a safe, peaceful and attractive place that allows mourners to commune with their loved ones. A cemetery is different from any other place, it demands respectful behavior on the level of a house of worship, and many times cemeteries are indeed hallowed ground.

At the same time, in order to remain a relevant part of the community and the life of it's citizens, a cemetery must be more than just a place for the dead. The living must also have an interest in the cemetery. It is through the interest and involvement of the community that the value of the cemetery is realized. If the living are not there to enjoy the gardens, to picnic and jog, to fill the place with purpose and meaning, cemeteries come to be viewed as a waste of land, and an unwanted impediment to progress and real estate values.

But how far should the involvement of the living go within the sanctuary of the cemetery?

Should the freedom of speech be regulated in a cemetery? Should political speech such as war protesters be allowed to disrupt a funeral? Should unions be allowed to picket cemeteries for unfair labor practices?

In the news today, Union protesters in Long Island picketed and installed a giant inflatable rat outside Holy Rood Cemetery. Perhaps the protest would not have generated much notice, but falling as is did, during the Christmas season, when many people visit and decorate the graves of their loved ones, the protest drew some strong reactions. Here is an excerpt from the NBC NYC article, and accompanying video:

Protesters waved signs, passersby honked their horns in support, and a huge inflatable "rat" stood by, signaling that this was a union demonstration. All pretty standard, except for one thing -- this protest was being staged outside the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, Long Island. "I don't think the way we are handling this is inappropriate," said laborers' local 66 organizer John O'Brien. For much of the past week, O'Brien and his men have picketed the cemetery, claiming it is using non-union workers for the installation of pre-fabricated crypts. -NBC NYC

View more news videos at:

I don't like to see this kind of thing in a cemetery. I hate to think of a grieving family confronted with shouting and a giant rat at a very delicate and emotional time. I really can't stand the idea of protesters harassing the grieving families of fallen soldiers. What's more, I'm not convinced that workers have been exploited at this cemetery. I wonder though, if there really was an injustice, would the exploitation or the giant rat be more of an affront to the repose of the dead?

The problem with the freedom of speech is that it only counts when the speech makes us uncomfortable. No one needs protection to say something everyone agrees with; it is the controversial and unpopular message that our freedom of speech was created to protect. Protecting our freedom of speech, in turn, protects us all by allowing the voices of dissent to be heard and considered.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sanctuary: Part 2, Moving In

In a previous post, 'Sanctuary: Living in the Cemetery', I looked at a situation in Africa, where governmental forces moved to evict impoverished people who were compelled to make their homes in the cemeteries there. The idea of people living among the dead may certainly seem disrespectful and unhealthy to many of us. In fact, there is an ancient and widespread taboo shared by many cultures that prohibits the dead from resting in the same space as the living, and vice versa. In the Christian tradition, however, church yards and cemeteries also have a history of functioning as sanctuaries and places of last resort for people without other options.

cemetery memorial ritual

As these photos show, people throughout the world, including the Philippines, are compelled by economic and social circumstances to make their home among the dead, seeking sanctuary in the hallowed ground of cemeteries. They work, sleep, eat and play there; and while a cemetery may not be the most appealing place to live, there are certainly worse places.

cemetery memorial ritual

Are these photos disturbing because we find the less than sacred activities of life disrespectful among the dead, or is it because we find it unhealthy or degrading for the living to be compelled to live among the dead? Are we concerned about the effect of the living on the dead, or the effect of the dead on the living? In any case, we realize that for many reasons, from sanitation, to our ideas of the nature of life and death, this taboo is still a powerful one for us.

cemetery memorial ritual

Is this so different than keeping an urn with the cremated remains of our loved one at home with us though? Is it different from burying our loved ones on the family farm or scattering their ashes at the cottage? Some religious leaders would argue that it is not, and that for their own good, the dead must rest together in a community of saints until the resurrection.

cemetery memorial ritual

This religious prohibition is no longer followed by as many people today. More and more, in a very mobile society, people choose to keep the ashes of infant children or parents with them because they may very well move across the country several times before dying themselves. They want their dead to move with them. Green burialists and others increasingly advocate for permission to bury outside traditional cemeteries. The dead are interred on farms and forests that may or may not be used for other purposes. The ashes of golfers and football fans are secretly scattered on the fairway and in the stadium.

As the wishes grieving families run afoul of religious and legal guidelines, those guidelines may adapt, they may turn back the tide, or they may be ignored. In any case, it is clear that our concepts of life and death, as well as the proper relationship between the two, are changing. Instead of the living moving into the cemetery though, it is the dead who are moving in with us.
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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.